For a Knockout Essay, Get Thee to an Editor

Online services help students hone their writing

David Hamilton, college adviser at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Wheaton, Md., has about 200 seniors to shepherd through the arduous application process. He has a new tip for the Class of '01: Check out essay-editing Web sites, such as "The essay is a crucial part of the package," he says. "Services like this can be extremely helpful."

Essay editing is one of the fastest-growing online services targeting the college-bound. The entire transaction, from edit to payment, can take place in just a couple of days. Rates run from $25 for a one-time critique to several hundred dollars for a more extensive consultation.

Not surprisingly, many college admissions officers look askance at such services. The concern is that these sites, staffed with facile writers, will simply sell stressed-out teens--or their parents--a finished essay. "We want the essay to be your own original work," says Michael Goldberger, director of admission for Brown University. "We appreciate that it is a 17-year-old writing."

In their defense, editors-for-hire note that many students already receive extensive essay-writing help from their parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and, if they can afford them, independent college consultants. Online editors simply offer the kind of feedback once primarily restricted to kids at well-staffed private schools. The editors also insist they do not actually write the essays, even though they're asked constantly. "I've had more than one client say, `Just name your price'," says Nancy Nolan, founder of She always declines. offers proofreading and feedback--$50 for a 750-word essay (about three pages), $15 per additional page. An editor initially gives the piece a once-over for writing elements, such as sentence structure and grammar. Then, another member of the five-person staff, a former college admissions official, critiques the essay's effectiveness.

In one example at the site, the applicant had been asked to write about a fictional character she admired. This is her original opening line: "Although it's completely embarrassing to admit it, I was a huge fan of Jessica Fletcher, the main character on Murder, She Wrote." Here's the edited version: "For nearly a decade, my favorite television character was Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote. I offer this admission with a certain level of embarrassment."

I liked the original essay better--it had personality, and the writer sounded her age. But, says Nolan, an essay for an Ivy League school needs a more formal, less extemporaneous feel. Applicants would be wise to research their schools of choice thoroughly to best choose a tone for their essay and know whether or not an editor is getting the essay closer to that goal.

EssayEdge has a different pitch. It is staffed entirely by recent Harvard University grads--from founder to line editors. The site is well-designed, offering a full description of editing services and prices, which range from $24.95 to $240, depending on the essay's length, and a turnaround time of 24 to 48 hours. The site also offers free writing tips. Founder Geoff Cook, Harvard '00, says essay editing is not a guise for selling essays. "Our editors do not add new content," he says. Instead, he says, they look for flaws--statements without supporting evidence, weak intro paragraphs, or poor transitions.

Linda Abraham, president of, is one of the more experienced online essay editors. She began helping college-bound students craft essays nearly a decade ago and took her business online in 1999.'s services range from hourly consulting ($120 per hour, one-hour minimum) to a $460 package that includes an interview and editing from idea to final draft. Clients in Los Angeles, where Abraham is based, can receive counseling in person, but most get help online or over the telephone. "Any professional writer has an editor," says Abraham. "I don't see why it should be any different for amateurs." Given how much is riding on college essays, many students and their parents obviously agree.

By Ellen Neuborne

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