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Two of my colleagues and I recently appeared on Good Morning America in a segment in response to the college admission scandal. The piece explored a different and more common way that students try to game the admission process: using an essay they didn’t write themselves. The segment entailed the three of us, plus one additional college counselor, reviewing personal statements and trying to spot the “fake” essay, which proved to be a more nuanced task than I think the GMA producers had expected. We at College Coach thought it might be useful to do a “behind the scenes” account of why spotting the fake was a challenge, and why you still shouldn’t use a fake essay!

Upon arriving at the GMA studio, we were given four essays to review, with no identifying characteristics other than numbers. Our task was to identify the fake essay that had been purchased off the internet instead of written by an actual applicant. Out of the four of us, all with significant backgrounds in selective college admission and counseling, none of us were able to do so.

I realize this may seem alarming. I mean, if you’re a high school student applying to college, putting real effort into your essay, you may think, what’s the point when I could just buy one off the internet and no one would know? Well, here’s why. No college admission essay is read by itself in the way that the four of us read it in GMA’s conference room. What many don’t understand about the college admission process is that applications are considered as a whole. So, any essays are generally read after a thorough examination of the high school transcript, and immediately before reviewing the student’s activity list as well as recommendations from the school counselor and teachers.

All of this additional information contextualizes each student’s essay. In other words, if a student essay does not sound like what we’d expect from the rest of the application, it raises a red flag. For example, I once worked with a student who was very strong in science but earned mostly B’s in her English classes and found writing to be a challenge. One day when she brought me a copy of her essay, I realized it didn’t pass the smell test when her formerly good essay, one that did a nice job of giving the reader insight into her, was suddenly written in strikingly eloquent prose that included a quote from an author obscure to anyone but the most die-hard European literature fans. After reading it, I asked her if someone had “helped” her with it. She said yes, her father had. I pointed out that this was so clearly not her writing that any admission reader would know it wasn’t hers, and that I was happy to help her within ethical guidelines with her writing, but not someone else’s.

If you saw the GMA segment, hopefully you also remember that I called what would turn out to be the fake essay the worst of the four. In fact, I assumed it was not the fake essay because it was so bad. For example, it focused on the over-used topic of a service trip abroad. It also tried to cover far too many disparate topics, and came across as trying hard to garner sympathy and the reader’s goodwill; an essay that tries too hard to be what an admission officer wants can seem insincere and off-putting.

So my advice was, and always is, this: Be your authentic self! In my experience, essays in which a student has tried to genuinely reflect on a moment when they showed real emotional growth, either through a challenging moment or circumstance, or through an opportunity, are the strongest. With all this said, it is forgivable for a student to write a less than wonderful essay. What is not forgivable in the admission process is committing fraud by not using your own work. And guess what? The admission reader will likely know.

To see my colleagues from the Good Morning America panel and I reunited to provide more college admissions insight later this month, register for our Live Q&A: How to Stand Out on Your College Applications, taking place on Wednesday, August 28, at 8:00 p.m. ET/5:00 p.m. PT. Learn more, register, and submit your questions here.

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Written by Sally Ganga
Sally Ganga is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Prior to joining College Coach, Sally was a senior admissions officer at The University of Chicago, Reed College, and Whittier College.