It doesn’t actually have to be like this, with wealth and privilege being the only winners. As a college essay coach devoted to equity, my business model has to make room for that possibility. The essay writing process itself is so easy to scrutinize as a shortcut for rich kids, but it can be substantive, one of meaningful self-development.
The latest college admissions scam has shown us that, shocker, Money is still propping up Elitism and Whiteness, and, surprise surprise, privilege is blind to its own reach. And of course, the fact surprising perhaps only to the white people with their head buried in the colonial sand, is that people of color and poor people still have to earn — like, actually earn — their place at the table by working twice if not thrice as hard as everyone else. By living, rather than assuming, their exceptionalism.
Once admitted to these elite schools, these groups are subject to extra scrutiny from the institution, their community ("How are you representing us?") and the constant chaperone of self-doubt ("Am I here just because of my race?"). I know this because my students share with me openly, during and after the writing process.
While I think Jia Tolentino previously exposed the problem of nebulous, white-washed admissions greed magnificently for Jezebel, my experience as a personal essay coach for years is very different than hers. I am white, and I work with students from all demographics, but still primarily young people of color, often young men, and often students whose families qualify as lower-middle or lower class. I work independently and in partnership with top educational non-profits. I began my business with the intention to treat the essay as the rite of passage it could and should be if we had our heads on straight about what we expect from adolescents, and what they need from us at this transitional moment in their lives. Among other things: to be heard.
The finances of the college admissions industry racket are mind-boggling, and anxiety fuels what families will invest, if they have the choice. Essay tutoring can cost anywhere from $50 an hour to $500 an hour. Participating in this as a beneficiary can feel like bourgeois enterprise, and one that upholds all the pillars of race and class disadvantage that this country was built on, and that capitalism relies on. I am sensitive to this. I try to call the bloating what it is. But in truth, the kids I work with are rarely bloated themselves.
When I offer my coaching services as an independent business owner, I ask families to place themselves on a sliding scale of full fee to pro bono, and we build their customized support from there. This produces some awkward conversations about affordability. However, I’ve had a tussle over finances with only one family. It means at any one time I am working with students who can afford boutique services and those who cannot.
For many students, even those who consider themselves writers or "actually" like writing, their college admissions essay is the most invested they have been so far in a single piece. They want it to be good. They want it to do all the things it's supposed to do. And they want it to make them sound unique without saying so directly. It's a tall order.
Especially for students of color, students without financial access — the world is not clamoring for their voices.
It's bizarre that at exactly the moment when it matters the most, students are asked to attempt a genre that requires vulnerability and insight, reflection on a slice of life. While I don't think a college essay per se has to be part of a school curriculum (in fact it's often ruined that way), these skills are often not taught in the classroom. And everyone should know how to write about themselves, as a life skill; everyone should find that magic place of articulating their strengths while understanding that the sun and moon and stars do not revolve around themselves or their future.
So many students go into the application process armed with... nothing. It's common practice to rehearse even a wedding. But for an essay that plays a significant role in the landscape of admissions, we get no practice prior to game time. You're just supposed to jump in and produce something awesome, relevant, and effective.
I love coming in at this time and helping to vanquish the anxiety around the essay. To give the student something that lasts beyond actually pressing submit. Especially for students of color, students without financial access — the world is not clamoring for their voices. The voices of the Abigails and the White Dudes that Run Institutions are still the loudest, or most respected, or the least threatening to the Status Quo. I want my students' essays to be so inarguably good, so them and only them, that admissions/audience sit up and listen.
Most students don't want to lean into unfair advantages to propel their narrative forward. If they get into a prestigious school, great. If not, things'll be OK.
To answer the biggest question on many people’s minds, I have never had a parent even come close to asking me to write the essay. And despite the rightful critique my boutique-services industry comes under, I find it deeply rewarding, not just for me, but for my students.
Truth is, this incident of bribery is reflective of a different problem, that has so many faces: why focus on elite schools? Ivies at literally any cost? The entire admissions process goes best for those who enter with an open mind, not a fixed or pinched one. It is most meaningful, and has the most integrity, for those who approach the writing and application in general with a sense that the world is big and life contains many twists and turns. Most students don't want to lean into unfair advantages to propel their narrative forward. If they get into a prestigious school, great. If not, things'll be OK.
And we owe them a world that makes that be true — thing’s will be OK, and not just for Wealthy Abigails. We can start that by an honest accounting of who we are, the growth ahead, and what could be possible.
I see my job as one of extremely deep listening: I listen to what the student is saying underneath what they are saying. I ask them, again and again, what they really mean. What they are really trying to say. I show them how good writing works (the million different ways), and also how to distill from their life something actually interesting. When an essay hits home, you feel it.
And you feel it if you read that same essay 17 times (as I often do). That feeling has no price tag. That feeling belongs to the student forever. And if I've done my job well, I help them plant the seed of that feeling so they can find it again and again over the years when they are tasked with writing something meaningful. It's a far cry from Photoshopping their faces onto polo sticks.