The role of the college admissions essays is to personalize an applicant who might otherwise be defined solely by grades and scores. Admissions officers get to see students as people, not numbers.
This differentiation becomes important in the process of applying for elite colleges, which receive thousands and thousands of applications from students with near perfect test scores and super high grades. There comes a point where there is no way to parse the numbers. To decide whom to choose, admissions officers turn to recommendations, extracurriculars, and essays. Of these three, the essays are the only one a student can control by the time application season begins.
As for hiring a consultant, I have a clear bias — I am a coach for college admissions essays. I have read articles saying that more and more students use a private college counselors, some of whom are essay specialists. But does everyone need an essay coach? Certainly not!
The students who are least likely to need essay help are those with good grades and scores who are applying to their state university. Many of these base admissions decisions largely on numbers. The essays will not be a big factor. Similarly, there are lots of schools with high admission rates. Again, the decision will not turn on essays, so there is less need for support.
Elite schools such as Stanford, MIT, and the Ivies are where essay coaches are most likely to make a difference. Anyone applying to Top 20 colleges, who is not confident is their ability to identify the right material or present themselves in the best light, could benefit from guidance.
Guidance from a specialist is not cheating. I do not know of any college essay coaches who write for their students. Instead, they help students understand what colleges “want,” they nurture ideas, and they show students how to do their best writing.
Essay coaches also help to level the playing field. Many applicants to top colleges go to elite private schools. Others have parents with Ivy League degrees. These and other cultural advantages cannot be matched by students whose parents may not have English as their mother tongue. Indeed, about half of my essay students are first generation Americans.
For anyone who might want to consider an essay specialist, I will copy below the shopping process that I recommended in a previous Quora post:
Avoid big services. Few people can write well. Even fewer can teach writing well. Still fewer can put teaching writing into the college admissions context. You do not want a service that will farm you out to an associate whose track record you do not know. Services lure you in with brands that say “Ivy” or “Harvard.” But more likely than not you end up with a recent college grad who is marketed as having an Ivy degree but has really has little experience writing, teaching writing, or working in the admissions context. If you can identify someone good within a company … great. Otherwise, only hire an individual consultant who can prove that he or she is good.
Find a storytelling expert. The key to college essay success is getting away from the five-paragraph essay and learning to use the structure of a story, which is quite different. And you want someone who offers more than “tips,” which are vague and unhelpful. Find someone who can show you, in a coherent way, how to structure a poignant story around a personal theme. I have a blog post that will spells out these steps: Expert Help For College Admissions Essays
Check the results. Lots of essay consultants will claim that their students have been accepted by Stanford, Yale, etc. I do the same, listing student acceptances on my website: Expert Help For College Admissions Essays. To add confidence, I direct folks to Google reviews from students and parent. These can be found by Googling “College Essay Help 10024”. I suggest asking for similar proof and references. Word of mouth from past clients is always great.
Ask for sample essays. I like to be sure that prospective clients want the kind of essays that I offer. When someone contacts me I sent essays from past clients. And I send enough that there is confidence that I did not cherry-pick the best ones. Anyone who wants to inspire confidence should do the same. So be sure to ask. And do not take no for an answer.