New start-up buys Stanford personal statements

Feb. 24, 2011, 3:04 a.m.

Stanford students looking for an extra buck or two can now earn cash by uploading their personal statements to the Essay Exchange. The new website says it aims to give disadvantaged high school students access to a cheap alternative to college counseling, but University officials are skeptical.

New start-up buys Stanford personal statements
(ANASTASIA YEE/Stanford Daily)

Started last August by three Harvard Business School alumni, the Essay Exchange pays $2 to current and former students at 25 elite universities every time a prospective applicant reads their admission essay.

Despite a slow start, the Essay Exchange gained popularity by advertising on Facebook and by word-of-mouth promotions from on-campus representatives. Since its launch, the website has gathered approximately 700 essays, including 128 essays from the Farm. Stanford is the second largest contributor after Harvard.

The Essay Exchange’s Stanford representative, D’Shai Hendricks ’14, said the majority of these essays came from the current freshman class.

“Initially, when I sent out the first e-mail, most people were confused about what it was,” Hendricks said. “ Later, most people basically understood it’s three minutes of your time, and it’s an opportunity to make money.”

“The [website] was founded on the premise that college admission is unfair,” said Essay Exchange co-founder and CEO Rory O’Connor. “Our goal is to make personalized college insight more accessible and more affordable.”

According to O’Connor, part of the website’s success comes from the idea that quantity makes quality.

“We offer a better selection,” O’Connor said. “The main advantage we have over books with application essays is that our selection is growing, and the options are changing all the time.”

In fact, the website’s virtual writing tutor is so personalized that high school students can search for personal statements that best match their individual backgrounds. Students are given a preview of each essay before they decide whether or not to buy it. Individual essays can be purchased for $7.50.

In the past, websites like the Essay Exchange have been criticized for allowing plagiarism. O’Connor, however, was confident that this problem could be avoided. His website does not allow users to copy, cut, paste or print personal statements.

“We have talked to over 100 admission officers,” O’Connor added. “We’re willing to work with them so that all of the essays are in their college admission department.”

According to Stanford Director of Admission Bob Patterson, representatives from the Essay Exchange have not contacted the University. He further noted that the website raises a red flag for plagiarism.

“When we read completed essays, we are able to discern if the essay was written by the applicant by making connections with the additional information the student provides,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Daily.

Patterson said the University is engaged in a “discussion about what we want to do in the future” to combat plagiarism in the college application process.

One possibility is partnering with outside vendors who run authenticity checks on the admission essays, he said.

For others, the problem goes beyond plagiarism, and some college counselors remain unconvinced by the Essay Exchange’s stated purpose.

“I don’t think the inspiration for it truly came from any desire to level the playing field, since it doesn’t level the playing field in any substantive way,” Alice Kleeman, a college counselor at Menlo-Atherton High School, wrote in an e-mail to The Daily.

Kleeman said the website also defeats the purpose of making a personal statement personal. Such outside help makes it difficult to understand what role the personal statement plays in a student’s college application, she added.

“When students read too many sample essays, they begin to believe they need to write in the same style or about the same topics,” Kleeman said. “[What students] really need to do is to be themselves.”

According to Patterson, these sentiments can easily lead to plagiarism, especially when resources are so readily available.

“I do empathize with those students who feel the pressure to write a good essay,” Patterson said.

“However, when stress levels are so high, they can succumb to the temptation of plagiarism,” he added. “I am appalled with companies when they try to make profits from students at one of their most vulnerable stages in life.”

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