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News Article

The New York Times
August 1, 1999


On Line, Relief for Essay Angst

The "personal statement" has become standard issue for college applications, and composing and polishing such essays can be agonizing. But a nascent on-line industry is dedicating itself to the proposition that anyone can write a better admissions essay, with help.

A recent visit to the Web search engine Yahoo found 10 companies offering essay hand-holding. Their editors -- often Ivy League graduates with college admissions experience -- assess essays with an eye for the specific (inappropriate buzz phrases, careless grammar) as well as the big picture (misguided topics, sentiments more suitable for a therapist). ( sells do-it-yourself essay-writing kits as well as critiques. "No matter how an essay question is worded," the site advises, "it ultimately asks, what is really important to you, who are you, and how did you arrive where you are." To prime that self-exploration, the site this month is adding free interactive workshops, including an exercise in which the computer grills students on common essay fodder like biggest challenge, favorite book and most admired person. ( offers pages of free writing tips and chats with Linda G. Abraham, its president and the author of a how-to book on essays. Clients of CollegeGate ( can pose questions to editors on a private on-line bulletin board. The Cambridge Essay Service ( specializes in prestigious business schools.

Prices vary, from $24.95 to $325, for services ranging from an "opinion" to a polish to a start-to-finish package.

The companies emphasize that they do not ghost-write essays, just critique them. At the question-and-answer section of, the question "Will you write my essay for me?" is answered with a terse "No."

"We do get asked," said Ms. Abraham. "We don't do it."

Still, admissions officers express misgivings. For one, they say they are careful to put essays in the context of the rest of the application, in part because they are aware essays may have been vetted. Further, they consider the service an unnecessary expense for students who may already have spent considerable money on the application process, including SAT preparation courses. Many admissions officers will share their own tips on essay writing, for free.

"Any aspect of this college admissions process -- someone has found a way to make money off it," said Joyce E. Smith, executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Karl M. Furstenberg, dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth College, also worries that the sites feed on application jitters. "What bothers me is a lot of these services are, in essence, capitalizing on anxiety about the application process," he said.

Sanford Kreisberg, who used to teach expository writing at Harvard and now runs Cambridge Essay, believes the opposite. "At highly selective schools, the anxiety is imbedded," he said. "Working with a professional helps to ease the anxiety."

While the electronic medium is a new twist, the idea behind the companies predates the Web. There have long been advice books and for-hire coaches to work with students on their essays. Mr. Kreisberg moved his business to the Web in 1995 after 10 years coaching off-line.

The businesses are being fueled by modern educational and demographic realities. In previous generations, parents had the time to blue-pencil junior's essay. Now, with both parents working, those editing hours are harder to find. And there is the increasingly fierce competition to gain entrance to elite colleges. At Harvard, some 18,200 students apply for 1,650 freshman slots.

Since essays can help an applicant rise above all the statistical data, students hungering for a top-tier degree may decide that the cost of polishing one's writing is a worthwhile investment.

"M.B.A.'s are really demanding the service," said Vedant K. Mimani, a co-founder of "They do a cost-benefit analysis."

Pamela Mendels writes on education and technology for The Times on the Web.