An American Editor

August 31, 2020

On the Basics: The ethics of editing college applications

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Once again, inspiration for an An American Editor blog post struck in reaction to a collegial discussion list conversation. (Some of you may have seen the beginnings of the conversation; this is an expanded version.)

A colleague mentioned having received a request to write or edit the client’s kid’s college application and said she responded by telling them that college applications should be the student’s own work. She characterized the request as a possible ethics issue, and I agree; I said I would have responded the same way. If they had only asked for editing services, it might have been different.

This is a frequent, albeit unfortunate, type of request. The asker usually has every intention of paying for the service, so it isn’t a scam in the financial sense, but either doesn’t know or care that it could be unethical. I manage or respond to these requests by making it my policy not to provide editing for college or grad school applications; proofreading, maybe, but even that can seem borderline inappropriate.

This might be an uncomfortable topic to discuss, but I’m interested in how colleagues think about it. Some institutions will let applicants use editors or proofreaders for application statements or essays, but forbid hiring someone to write those materials. Some draw distinctions between doing such work for native speakers vs. speakers of other languages, or between disciplines — hiring an editor or proofreader is OK for students in the sciences, engineering, maybe business, etc., but not for those in English degree programs.

I have a huge amount of respect for anyone who is willing to function in a language other than their original one, especially English, which can be a challenge even for well-educated origin speakers (as we often see here). And I’m not monolingual: I’ve studied and used French, German and Spanish — but wouldn’t want to tackle writing in any of them until I had spent time immersed in them again; even German, which I picked up in childhood mostly from listening to my Austrian parents and only studied formally much later.

In the application process, it seems more fair for someone’s command of any language to be clear in — literally — their own words, especially in areas like medicine, where lack of fluency could have life-threatening results.

On the other hand, rejecting an applicant because of clunky English in an application might be a disservice to all concerned. Many applicants are very talented in their fields and deserve the opportunity to continue their educations at institutions in countries other than their own. There also can be a difference between someone’s spoken and comprehended levels of language vs. their skills in writing it. And it’s valuable for students to meet and interact with peers from other countries and cultures, no matter which ones are involved. Being accepted into a program and interacting with native speakers, both instructors and fellow students, day in and day out would improve a non-native’s command of English as well.

One colleague found it “hard to believe someone has the nerve to ask for such a thing in this day and age.”

Actually, I find it understandable (not acceptable, but understandable). It isn’t new. There have always been ways for students to game the system, even if only by having their parents write or edit their school work or applications, and students have been selling their work to each other for ages and a day. It’s even easier to do nowadays than ever before: Entire businesses are built on writing student essays and applications (businesses that do the writing for students at any level, and people who work for such businesses, are unethical in my eyes and those of many others, both individuals and institutions/organizations). Papers, and probably application essays, can be purchased online with ease. Celebrities pay thousands to phony up their kids’ applications, sometimes without the kids’ knowledge.

There also can be a thin line between editing and rewriting, although the distinction between writing and editing is easier to draw.

I typed papers for fellow students when I was in college (back in the Dark Ages before computers 🙂 ), and would correct some of their spelling or basic punctuation errors as I went along, but I wouldn’t rewrite if their concepts weren’t clear. There was a big difference between typing up a handwritten paper and rewriting or even editing it. More recently, I proofread my niece’s résumé and a cover letter for her; she’s in landscape architecture and is bilingual in English and Hebrew. I was comfortable with catching a few typos that had nothing to do with her professional skills, but I did have an ulterior motive for making her material as close to perfect as possible: I’m hoping she gets a job offer here where I live!

The good news is that the growth of companies that do the work for students and the ease of plagiarizing via the Internet has led to innovation in response, such as anti-plagiarism software programs. These can be used not just to check on whether someone has copied from known published works, but whether they’ve used material that has been “outed” as generated by someone (or thing) other than the student in question.

In the discussion of this that I mentioned above, several colleagues had perspectives on this that were ethical and interesting. Some have worked for college writing centers by providing coaching and advice without actually doing students’ work for them. Others have developed freelance services with a similar focus — helping clients learn how to write more clearly and effectively, but not doing the writing for them.

How and where do you draw a line?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter ( is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and — as of 2019 — owner of An American Editor. She also created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (, now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (, sponsored by An American Editor and this year planned for October 2–4 as a virtual event. She can be reached at or


  1. I agree that this is an ethical issue. I always share with people the Editors’ Association of Canada’s “Guidelines for Ethical Editing of Student Texts” ( At the core of those guidelines is getting consent from the person evaluating the writing that editing is permissible and restricting your editing to flagging issues and asking questions. Do not rewrite. Even when I help my family members with their schoolwork, I am very light with the tracked changes and heavy with the comments. You’re not doing anyone any favours by doing their work for them. Part of getting an education is learning how to communicate better. That takes practice.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Perlkonig — August 31, 2020 @ 12:04 pm | Reply

  2. Apologies for the two typos in the original post and gratitude to colleague Phil Smith for alerting me to them!


    Comment by An American Editor — August 31, 2020 @ 8:05 pm | Reply

  3. I think the line is, indeed, ethical, and can be drawn by answering this question: what exactly is the person being evaluated for? If creativity is under evaluation, you cannot create anything for them. Copy-editing would have to be very conservative here. If the competency for English use is being evaluated, then you can’t do anything, because editing and improving language use would mean the person would get a job or a position in the academy under false premises. But if the content is evaluated (for example, in scientific papers), you can certainly help by improving language use, so that the applicant can convey the message they want to communicate.


    Comment by Patricia Logullo — September 1, 2020 @ 9:08 am | Reply

  4. I, too, was once approached by an editing and writing client to “help with” his son’s application essay to an academic program. Justification? The son just wasn’t very motivated to get into the program, and therefore might not do a good job with the essay!!!

    I differ with you in one respect: this IS a FINANCIAL scam–just, not one that targets the editor/writer. In this time when only the very wealthy can pay all higher education expenses out of pocket for their offspring, the editor becomes an accomplice in a scam to obtain, for the client’s child, both admission (already of financial value, albeit future) AND the financial resources that make enrollment possible. (In addition to being a scam to get in ahead of highly motivated students for whom no professional help was secured.)

    Wherever the line is drawn in terms of skilled language use, the REALLY BIG thing being evaluated in an academic admissions essay is: is this person someone who will benefit from the program and go on to apply what they learn professionally? Note that this is NOT an altruistic criterion focused on benefit to the student: the school’s (or department’s, or program’s) reputation and ratings, its hope of alumni donations, and the probability that loans will be repaid all depend on this. The school is investing in its own future.

    That said, I find I have a different take on resumes. There are many, many forms of help available with these formulaic documents–including help from charities, from government services, from libraries, from placement offices of colleges and universities, and from private editors. And that help includes different formats, different strategies, different ways of framing experience, and certainly proofreading and editing. It appears to me that the expectation of the recipient of a job application with resume is that the information on it is true. Not that it reflects the language skills, sales skills, layout and graphic design skills, etc, of the applicant. Though, by having somehow obtained these things, the applicant does show interest and some commitment to follow-through.

    With regard to users of English as a second language and resumes, I don’t think that resumes are an appropriate vehicle for showing the limitations of one’s English. A resume and cover letter with PERFECT English—plus perhaps a score on an English language test that shows one at a high intermediate level (say) in English—seems much more appropriate than a resume and cover letter that make all the mistakes typical of a high intermediate user of English!


    Comment by Martha Lee Turner — September 1, 2020 @ 10:16 am | Reply

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