Warp speed

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 February, 2012, 12:00am


Is it unforgiveable, not to mention fraudulent, for students to hire ghostwriters to write undergraduate essays? It is. But, then again, so is the multibillion-dollar college admissions industry that helps students get to universities, which many are probably underqualified to attend. And what about the tutoring industry that helps students with homework? Where do we draw the line between what's fraudulent and what's normal practice?

We live in a city obsessed with academic results, where some parents feel school is for socialising and play, and the real learning begins at 4pm, when children swarm to tutorial centres.

So how can we be surprised that students are hiring ghostwriters online? These students are probably just as frustrated, attending classes which are way over their heads. The question is, how did they get into those establishments? Probably with the help of college admissions consultants.

I am one of those people. For the past seven years, I've helped hundreds of students all over Asia with their college applications. I am part of the vast behind-the-scenes crew responsible for the recent influx of Chinese students to the US, a staggering 40,000 Chinese undergraduates in 2011. My experience has led me to this conclusion: college applications, especially essays, either need to be strictly invigilated or completely eliminated.

The first time I advised a student on his personal statement, I was just starting out as a teacher. The student was 17 and applying to Stanford. His personal statement was pitiful. I suggested he start again. After hours of brainstorming, nothing was clicking. Suddenly, I had an idea. I gave it to him and watched his eyes light up and fingers start typing. When I got home, my excitement faded, and anxiety and shame filled its place. I experienced the first of many panic attacks about the ethics of my work.

Sure, I didn't write anything for him but I gave him the central idea of his essay. How much of good writing is the prose itself and how much is the idea?

Fast forward seven years, and the college admissions scene has completely changed. Recent statistics show that 70per cent of the Chinese students going to US universities every year have other people write their application essays, and some agencies charge tens of thousands of dollars.

It's not uncommon for my students to show me their admissions essays with five different tutors' tracked changes on them - all just waiting for the student to click 'accept all'.

So, before we label ghostwriting essays as unforgiveable fraud, we need to take a long, hard look at the entire academic arms race. When overseas university decisions start pouring in next month, we need to look past the celebratory high fives and the sullen, defeated shrugs. Instead, we should see college admissions for what it has become - a money-driven, unregulated industry which may ultimately threaten the very future of higher education. Until we act to change things, we can't ever stop wondering, whenever we read a great student essay, whether it was written by a 40-year-old in Shanghai.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. kelly@kellyyang.com