Did Daddy do it?

Stiff competition for places in the US has led potential students to enlist the help of parents and consultants to give their application an edge. Jon Marcus looks at how institutions are trying to keep one step ahead

August 14, 2008

First there were the glowing evaluations that were supposedly submitted by the student's teachers but were clearly fabricated. Then he claimed he played on his national soccer team. Finally he divulged he was the son of his country's Prime Minister.

None of it was true - or even particularly convincing - and none of it managed to fool the people who manage Harvard University's stringent admissions process. Instead, they politely suggested that the student give up his persistent attempts to gain a place.

It seemed an isolated case. But now officials at Harvard and other highly selective US universities say they are contending with more subtle, serious and widespread cheating in the desperate competition for admission. They say that anxious parents and high-priced consultants are helping applicants prepare admissions documents - particularly personal essays - or writing the material themselves and fraudulently presenting it as the students' own. They even have a name for this phenomenon: "DDI" or "Daddy did it".

"People have always had a healthy concern about who might have written the essay," says William Fitzsimmons, Harvard's dean of admissions since 1972. "But there has been increasing concern as more and more students are applying in a highly competitive environment. The essay is one area over which people feel they have control. In a tight competition, they want to do everything possible to give themselves that edge" - even if they don't really need it.

"You see this in all phases of life," Fitzsimmons continues. "Sometimes the people with the very best credentials decide that they need to fabricate something - people who want to be at the top. There's no earthly reason for it."

Students and their parents think there is. They know that fewer than one in ten applicants to institutions such as Harvard is admitted, and they find it hard to see the difference between the winners and the losers in the admissions race.

"You can't say that the students the universities say 'no' to are being denied because they're not capable of doing the work. So I suspect that applicants begin to view admissions as arbitrary and capricious, and that's when they begin to think of gaming the process," says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers. "It speaks to an erosion of trust. The fault is not entirely the students' or the parents'. If you had confidence in the assessment process, then you would trust those decisions, even when they say 'no' to you."

Yet admissions deans are in a quandary. More students are applying, including many with equal qualifications. Meanwhile, many schools have promised to place less weight on entrance examinations such as the SAT. This means they need to find new ways - essays, for example - to differentiate between students.

Nassirian says: "Essays are taken to be particularly meaningful, which explains the extent to which the essay has been elevated in the minds of applicants and their families almost into a redemptive device."

All of this has coincided with another trend: the advent of coaches and consultants who charge from $100 (£50) to review a university application to $29,000 to help students and their parents meet all the application requirements for top universities. Some 6 per cent of American high school graduates use such services, up from 1 per cent in 1990. Some websites also claim they can help students with the admissions process.

"It's more recently that we see professionals enter the picture who actually advertise that they can help you write a winning essay," says Nassirian. "Like everything else in America, it runs the gamut from people who charge tens of thousands of dollars to $9.95 on the web."

But Mark Sklarow, head of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, which represents 350 private consultants, argues that it is unfair to blame his members, because they follow guidelines that prohibit them from writing or even heavily editing a client's essay and allow them only to provide broader guidance on things such as effective topics.

But he agrees that cheating occurs. He says: "I'm certain some parents are writing essays. I'm certain students can go on the web and find someone to do this kind of thing."

Fitzsimmons says screeners pay close attention to the consistency of applications - whether a student with poor grades in writing, say, submits "a polished essay that's constructed beautifully, with rhyming couplets at the end, which might alert you to the possibility that it was not entirely the student's own work", as he puts it. In some cases, staff will be asked to evaluate an essay's legitimacy.

Often cheating is easier to spot. In one incident famous in admissions circles, an outstanding personal essay was posted in an internet chat room. "We just groaned, because we knew we were going to see this essay in various forms from all over the world. And we did," says Fitzsimmons. "Some people just plagiarised it. Some changed a few words."

When admissions deans suspect wrongdoing, he says, they will on occasion give a student the chance to respond. "In those cases, sometimes mother goes under the bus, as in 'I had a bunch of essays on my hard drive and my mother sent in the wrong one'."

It has become so bad that many institutions, beginning with Duke University, have added a blunt new question for student applicants: who, if anyone, helped you to write the essay?

But Sklarow and others feel that cheating is a symptom of a larger problem. He says: "We've got to the point where it has become impossible for students and their families to understand why one person gets in and another doesn't. And when anything is unclear, it leads to anxiety. You can imagine how it feels to be a student these days and not understand what it takes to get in. It leads to second-guessing and finger-pointing, and parents saying, 'What can I do to help my kid?'"

Fitzsimmons agrees, but cautions: "It would be tragic if parents were to intentionally or unintentionally lead their children down a slippery slope that could affect the validity of their work. It's a rite of passage to apply to college, one of those points when people have to decide how they're going to present themselves, and whether they present themselves with integrity."

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