Why I write for an essay mill

How a ‘freelance ghostwriter’ haunts the sector

August 1, 2013

Source: Paul Bateman

Google Books and Wikipedia are the tools of my trade. I give the illusion of depth, the impression of analysis. It’s always enough to score a 2:1 (at least)

In recent months, I have written thousands of words of coursework for more university courses than I can remember. I’ve covered everything from literature and international relations to conservation and the Renaissance. But my name is not attributed to a single essay I’ve produced. I will receive no academic credit for my work and it won’t help me to graduate.

Why? Because I am a freelance ghostwriter. I work primarily through agencies (as any academic knows, there are many operating in the UK), bidding for contracts to complete students’ university assignments.

Sometimes I work through the night to complete an assignment on a tight deadline. On other occasions I work slowly, gathering material and considering my arguments with careful deliberation. And yet I don’t have a library card, nor access to any university’s cache of e-books and journals. Google Books and Wikipedia are the tools of my trade. I give the illusion of depth, the impression of analysis. It’s always enough to score a 2:1 (at least).

It all started six months ago, when I was made redundant from a well-paid office job. I cast around seeking conventional work, yet nothing appealed. In truth I was tired of sitting beneath strip lights filling out spreadsheets, answering emails. I was initially hesitant to get involved: was it all a scam? Besides, what kind of student would be tempted to use this service? During my own studies at Oxbridge I never once thought of cheating. I enjoyed what I did and was good at it.

The agencies are surprisingly thorough in hiring writers, which surprised me. I had to provide evidence of my qualifications as well as samples of my writing. I was asked to provide a breakdown of the areas in which I felt comfortable writing (but that has never stopped me taking on essays in areas that are not immediately familiar). It was also a prerequisite that I had graduated from Oxbridge or another Russell Group university. We are told that we are the best, the pick of the crop.

I’ve seen all sorts of assignments as a freelancer. The agencies maintain sophisticated databases of available work, and there is often more demand than we can handle. If you perused their lists, you would be shocked. They feature everything from first-year undergraduate assignments on Dickens (so easy! Who would need to cheat?) to PhD theses on molecular biology – not to mention the odd MBA on business ethics.

I stay away from applied fields – it is my only ethical standard as a ghostwriter. I will not help a nurse to qualify on false pretences: who knows, it might be my parents who find themselves in their care.

Some clients provide vague briefs, such as an essay question and suggested reading. That’s easy. Other times you can be sent a full package of primary data, segments of chapters and comments from the student’s supervisor. While some clients are in a hurry or lazy, others have difficulties with their English and cannot complete their assignments to the required standard. I suppose they are afraid to fail.

I can make up to £150 for a standard essay of 2,000-3,000 words – an evening’s work. Longer items can fetch up to £2,000.

I know all the tricks universities use to identify plagiarism and have learned how to dodge them. Now that software can identify the percentage of text that has been lifted from other sources, bespoke personalised essays – as opposed to generic ones – are the norm. I’ve also edited students’ clumsy plagiarism, hiding their tracks with my own well-hidden watermarks.

I operate on the assumption that the student I’m working for will have little or no personal interaction with academic staff. This means there is only a small likelihood that the lecturer who sets and marks the questions will be familiar with the student’s style of writing. Helpfully, clients will also specify what grade they require – after all, a third-rate student would attract suspicion if they submitted a first-class essay. These students ask for a 2:1, or merely a pass; sometimes it helps to leave a sentence in rough shape or drop in a spelling error. Personalisation is the key.

I don’t justify the work I’m doing on ethical grounds. While what I do is not illegal, it does enable others to break rules and suffer the consequences if they are caught. The agencies maintain the image of legitimate businesses: many do not even refer to “cheating”. You are simply “helping” with an assignment (making up, as one agency argues, for the university’s failure to provide adequate tuition). While I’m happy to acknowledge that I am dependent on clients’ continued cheating, this doesn’t mean I am not conscious that my job is a symptom of an illness, a fracture, in our universities.

If you asked me whether I enjoy my work I’d say – on the whole – “yes”. Of course I’d prefer to write honestly for a living, but in this market words are a slight commodity. For now it beats getting the train to work.

On the opening page of each assignment, I always remember to add that oh-so important line: “I confirm that this essay represents entirely my own work.”

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Reader's comments (14)

Many people are critical of Essay Mills but as the author says: "I operate on the assumption that the student I’m working for will have little or no personal interaction with academic staff", despite paying higher tuition fees than ever, students are still not getting the support that they need from the UK university system.
"students are still not getting the support that they need from the UK university system." This is typical of the self-justification of such essay mills. They have no idea and do not care how much support/contact time a particular student actually has access to, they just want to take the money- they should be upfront about that and stop trying to fool anyone that they have an honest business.
I have given this article 5 stars and I want to explain why. I am journalist and able to evaluate the quality of the product very well. I think it has been written by a well educated person who is willing to work hard and earn as more as possible. Moreover, I do respect people who are fond of their jobs. According to official statistics, only 10% of the people like their job positions. From our childhood, we have to think and decide honestly who we are and what we want to do. The earlier we understand that, the earlier we will be able to earn a lot of money and maybe our dreams will come true. It is really hard to motivate and please my, but the author of this article has done that. I do appreciate your efforts. Thank you in advance, I wish you the best.
I write for an essay mill. The pay can be really good, $50 for an hours work? Ok! Got my PhD in history, but the schools chose to cut jobs and create online courses. Want your students to make more forum posts? I guess you can pretend that they are writing them... What can I say, I'd teach history for minimum wage, but academia has failed to create the jobs, preferring instead to hire celebrity profs with bloated salaries. It's not my fault you can't tell if your student actually understands the material. Maybe you should hire more staff and reduce class sizes? It's always disconcerting to get the orders from nursing students and aerospace engineer seniors, but its not my problem. I've got bills to pay .
Sophie 1. It is all about self justification. That is what they are doing when they claim a university is not delivering so it is OK to cheat. They have no idea if the university is failing or not- it is irrelevant to them. I do work in a university and I make time to help the students because it is my job to do so. Your blanket assertion that most staff do not have the time is not grounded in evidence. 2. Of course there is a burden on the university to provide a proper service, no one is denying that. 3. What is this? A sixth form argument at best.
The view must be great from up there on that moral high horse.
"The agencies are surprisingly thorough in hiring writers, which surprised me." Another 2:1?
I've hit rock bottom and can't see a way through unemployment. I am trying very hard to get a job (I'm not limiting myself to academia) but although I've many skills and good experience funding across many areas has been cut. It's been tactfully suggested that I leave out some of the qualifications on my CV (by someone who works for the same department that funded my PhD) but my qualifications have been published and the idea of doing this doesn't rest well with me. I am under extreme pressure to get a job, my back is against the wall and if it is the students who can put work my way, help me pay the bills and relieve pressure then I may need to travel this path but it will be with a heavy heart and great reluctance. At one time I'd have been horrified at the idea but I now understand why people need to do it and needs must.
Anony - mouse could easily turn into a true Anony-Cat, provided that: you forget about your nausea and "heavy soul" when dealing with the Essay Mills - or avoid them by taking a job worth of your academic education and many skills; a job like international truck driver. An academic myself, I made friends among the French fraternity called " Les Routiers " - the long-distance runners driving 20 Tons freighters on the Continental highways; there were hundreds of them some years ago - filling truck stops in Calais, on the German Autobahns, in Normandie, Marseille - or filling trucker pubs in Spain. "Les Routiers" are probably the most educated bunch of ouvriers in France - and not only. Some of them had millions of miles in their pockets - and it was a good pay, too ! As I had myself a driving license covering all grades, I joined the gang during my sabbatical year and accompanied my new friends on the Autoroutes from Paris to Wien and from Marseille to Costa Brava - up to Barcelona... It was a true experience and - I am not ashamed to say - it was also one of my best paid and carefree time in my life...
Absolutely not, anonymous. Don't even think twice about feeling bad. If your writing skills are good (and they seem to be) there is nothing stopping you from making between $200 - $400 a day (yes, even that much) doing what you're naturally good at.
There are situations - and there are circumstances; some are relevant - some are not. The bottom line is that " ghost writers" and " Essay Mills" are nothing but a product supplied on demand; a demand generated by a superficial, flawed and basically dishonest teaching system. A System bordering on the one side by the Academic Dons & Sons Inc., and by the Penitentiary Community Ltd., on the other. Hence the question: why should the E-Mills output be regarded as "morally questionable", while the lack of interest, almost non - existent interaction with the students and robotized lectures of academic dons is regarded as "standard grade" higher education ? Have you seen any of the Harry Potter movies? Did you enjoy the marvelous lectures on witchcraft? The author herself was a teacher - and a good one, apparently. The first of Harry Potter's books was on students' education and formation - while keeping in mind all along the final goal; nor was "continuing education" forgotten - in some of the subsequent Rowling books... Do the Academic Dons from Oxbridge really rise up to the teaching standards featured in the Harry Potter series? Essay Mills were born out of necessity; because students are sometimes bored, sometimes exceeded by the mind-darkening volume of bibliography - or simply because their choice of higher education was inadequate. So...
Very sadly, a year on things haven't really changed for me and, in some ways, are worse (if that's possible). I am spending my life looking for work and I have tried. My impression is I'll really struggle to get work in H.E. and struggle to get work outside of it (viewed as overqualified). So now I must do what is best for me.
There is absolutely nothing ethical about Colleges and Universities accepting unimaginable amounts of money every year for degrees like Community Development or Gender Ethics while knowing full well that the consumers who buy these courses will end up dealing coffee at Starbucks.
Gosh, I hope that aeronautics engineering student won't be working on the plane for my next flight.