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A friend of mine is looking for undergraduate or graduate students in the US to proof-read college admissions essays from high school students back in my home country. There will be pay, but the proof-reader can also do it pro bono. Given that the students are not native English writers, "proof-reading" means more than spell-checking, and more like writing coach.

I have always felt torn about this. If I help a student, doesn't it make it unfair to others? This is especially serious because in college admissions essays, the story and the voice of the essay matter a great deal. In contrast, paid proof-reading of graduate dissertation is much more justified, because the make-or-break factor is the scientific substance, not the prose.

On the other hand, perhaps this a trivial matter compared to all the other unfairness that the admission process entails e.g. test prep, going to a good high school, or even being born to a better parents.

Thus, I want to ask how admission officials think about this? And does the argument change in any way if pay enters the equation?

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Having a qualified reader provide more than superficial corrections to an admissions essay is a valuable asset, and one which is almost certainly required for top tier institutions. Many American students are literally surrounded by qualified readers with diverse perspectives, while international students may have fewer contacts with the requisite mastery of the language. If the only competent advice a student can obtain is from a paid reader, they are still only narrowing the gap with their American peers. I think there are only two ethical arguments to consider here.

First, is the paid service worth anything? If the criticism and corrections are junk and the service does not increase any student's chances at all and the service provider should reasonably be aware of this, then it's clearly unethical.

Second, does the contribution of the reader go substantially beyond what an American student would receive? Specifically, do the contributions of the paid readers potentially cross the line to misrepresent the abilities of the applicant? If the submitted essays are not representative of the, as you put it, story and voice but also of the English competence of the student, it could be a disservice both to universities and to inadequately prepared students.

If you are clear of these two issues, I see no ethical complaints. Of course, a generous person might donate their time, but that doesn't make a student who needs to earn a living unethical.

  • Could you describe "what an American student would receive"? I suppose what's considered ethical in American college prep could serve as an useful guideline here. (Of course, one may ask whether the services that wealthy American students receive are themselves ethical or fair, but that gets philosophical very quickly.) – Heisenberg May 20 '15 at 20:06
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    @Heisenberg Just as an example, when applying to colleges, I had a couple of my high school teachers proof-read my essays (a college application-style essay was actually one of our assignments senior year, and most people obviously used theirs), as well as several of my friends. Proof-reading was for spelling and grammar, as well as some higher-level style and organization suggestions. My guess is that the line is before when you start actually (re-)writing sentences for them. – Roger Fan May 20 '15 at 20:31
  • After just going through this with my daughter. Paid services are available. Lots of unpaid options as well (such as the teachers and fellow students per @RogerFan).I certainly spent my share of time reviewing and discussing the various essays my daughter wrote. As a reasonably well-published scientist who did a post-doc overseas (so helped many students write better) and had a mother who was an English teacher, I think I did a pretty good job. Was that unethical? No, I really don't think so. Others aren't as lucky to have help in the family. Paid help may be the only way to go. – Jon Custer May 20 '15 at 21:32
  • @JonCuster The issue is where to draw the line with "helping". Proof-read is okay, write whole essay is not. What about suggesting a more appropriate word? Sentence? Paragraph? Now I'm uncomfortable deciding. – Heisenberg May 20 '15 at 21:49
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    @Heisenberg - I think that any help equivalent to what one might reasonably expect in a high-school English class would be in scope. Spelling, grammar, sentence structure, discussion of theme, ... That is a level of help/instruction what non-US applicants might not easily obtain. Somebody else writing significant portions from scratch would be right out though. Yeah, there is a lot of grey area. – Jon Custer May 20 '15 at 22:21

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