‘The essay doesn’t have to be written in my style, just make it get me a grade A.’
This was the first line of an email written to a friend of mine who’d been asked to ghost write a student’s essay. The instructions were to write a speech for a ten minute video log on why men and women can’t communicate.
The student, a young man aged about 19, had recently enrolled in an American university and was failing in his parent’s eyes, consistently gaining B’s and B+ in his assignments. It wasn’t good enough. He was causing his parents to lose face and they demanded that he do better. Anything less than an A was unacceptable and, if he really wanted them to be pleased with him, he’d need to achieve an A+ on a regular basis.
The student had been considered above average in China where he’d spent most of his free time studying, eschewing common teenage leisure activities such as going to the movies and hanging out with his friends, considering them to be nothing more than ‘a waste of time.’
But now, in America, these same activities beckoned strongly in favour of attempting the much bigger workload and succeeding at it. It wasn’t that this student was lazy, far from it, he was just overwhelmed. The pressure of studying in a second language with all of its grammatical quirks, assimilating into a foreign culture and pleasing both parents and teaching staff was taking its toll and he was still only two months into a four year degree.
My friend agreed to write the essay, grumbling a little at the short deadline. It was the third request he’d received in less than seven days and he knew there’d be more to come. Once one student had gained an A from the ghost written work, more would flock to the ghost writer freely offering their parents hard earned money.
I asked him if he would write the same essay in different voices so that it was unique to each student. He said that that didn’t matter. Neither the students nor their tutors seemed to care if the essay obviously didn’t match the student’s previous abilities. Schools wanted their foreign students to do well thus encouraging more foreign students to apply and attend paying fairly high fees, while students needed a bank of A grades to move beyond the status of underachiever and keep their parents happy.
Helping students in this way begins even before they go abroad. In China there is a thriving market for writing personal statements and Ivy League Admission essays. Ghost writers are usually ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers who are approached by parents, agencies, school or training centre staff. They are also teachers who spot a gap in the market, do their own advertising and set themselves up in an informal but fairly lucrative business.
Although Chinese students are welcomed and supported throughout their American or UK undergraduate education, the competition for places is still stiff. A Skype interview may be requested by the school along with the written application. Coaching for Skype interviews is common, but the biggest request by far is for help with anything which needs to be written.
Transcribing directly from Chinese to English produces Chinglish which is a mish mash of ideas, prepositions and sentence structure and which does no favours for the person it’s supposed to represent. Hence, the scramble to find an ESL teacher who will re-write a personal statement or, even better, create one from scratch.
Perhaps ethically speaking, being a ghost writer for a struggling Chinese student who’s becoming more and more burdened is not the best choice. Surely doing the student’s work for him or her reduces opportunities for personal and academic development?
However, in reality, most students request only a small portion of their assignments to be ghost written perhaps during the first, very tough year.
It’s hard to tell which is worse; the pressure from parents who are spending $60,000 per term or more depending on the college or, complicit lecturers and professors who recognise the stark difference in an essay worthy of an A grade in comparison to student’s previous work but say nothing.
Is this cheating? Is it doing the student a disservice? Is it an ethical or moral dilemma? Should we expect students who obviously cannot compile academic sentences in a foreign language to succeed on their own at western universities anyway?
Another email request for a ghost written essay this time for a Chinese student at another American university pops into my friend’s inbox. The subject is about the positives and negatives of volunteering. The student has added a badly worded note saying he’s never volunteered so he wouldn’t know what to write about.
It’s clear to me that the market for ghost writers is not drying up anytime soon.