Jonathan's profile is over flowing with modest grades in English, poor verbal test scores. He has never read a book that was not assigned and has overlooked many books that were. His most articulate replies in the classroom are mono-syllabic grunts, yet Jonathan's college admissions essays are replete with "plethoras," "turpitudes," and "obdurates."
I'm thinking his highly educated, yet equally misguided, mother wrote them.
Don't misunderstand: college admissions essays are the toughest academic obstacle many 17 year-olds have faced. Applicants feel they are being judged; they only have experience writing compositions, not personal essays; they are not sure how--or whether--to communicate their innermost thoughts and feelings. It's a tall order.
Just the same, I try to imagine the dinner table conversation in Jonathan's home: "Your father and I are sending you to college where you will take first year composition classes and write essays. But we've written your college admissions essays for you."
"Because where you are admitted to college is more important than what is in your head."
"Uh, OK. Pass the bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, please."
"But you know it's just for show. The bottle is empty."
"Yeah, Mom. I know."
You've met Jonathan and his parents. We all have. They were ahead of us in line at the amusement park when Jonathan was 14. His parents were coaching him about what to say to the ticket seller. "Tell him you're 12, so your ticket will cost $35 instead of $50."
Jonathan's parents may be sowing seeds for a crop they would prefer not to harvest: their poor model of ethical behavior may have predicable consequences. Some years later--now a senior in high school--Jonathan comes home late:
"Jonathan, you were supposed to be home by eleven o'clock."
"It's well after midnight. What do you have to say for yourself?"
"The traffic was terrible. I-95 was backed up for miles. A 747 made an emergency landing on the interstate. I'm sure it was on the news. Didn't you see the footage? There may have been aliens involved. There were zebras everywhere."
"Are you kidding? Aliens? Zebras? That never happened! You're lying! Where did you learn to disregard the truth like that?"
"In line at the amusement park."
"I beg your pardon? We have ethics in this family. How much is your good name worth?"
"Fifteen dollars, Mom. Same as yours."
Which is not to suggest that a stringent moral code is the only way to bring up ethical kids. And Lawrence Kohlberg would agree that there is a difference between prevaricating about age and lying about authorship. I'm only arguing that kids learn what they live and that "from apple trees, you don't get pears."
"But everybody is cheating," my college counseling clients tell me.
I do not dispute this claim.
Monica, a 20 year-old anthropology major at a college whose name you would recognize, tells me: "My roommate goes to fraternity parties, has seven glasses of wine, and goes home with someone new every Saturday night. She is disappointed and surprised when the young men don't call, but that's not what I wanted to ask you about. My question is about me. In my culture, we don't get drunk and have sex on the first date. Am I at a competitive disadvantage in the market place for boyfriends?"
"No, Monica," I would argue. "You are at a competitive disadvantage only for boys who drink seven glasses of wine and have sex on the first date." If you want to catch a trout, don't go fishing in a herring barrel. In the meantime, perhaps you could introduce your roommate to Jonathan.
What is there to be said for parents who write college entrance essays for their high school seniors? I have argued in these pages for some time: Love your children for who they are, not for what they do. I have suggested that if parents love the kids they get, that they'll get the kids they'll love. There's a line between encouraging your children to be their best selves and disparaging them for not being someone else.
Writing college admissions essays for your kids communicates that the essays they themselves have written are just not good enough--a damaging idea to communicate to a student writing a personal essay for the first time.
And for the record: my colleagues in admissions offices can smell an essay written by a parent from across the room. The "plethoras," "turpitudes," and "obdurates" give them away every time.