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 (www.writerruth.com) 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 (www.communication-central.com, now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com), sponsored by An American Editor and this year planned for October 2–4 as a virtual event. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

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