China  sends more students to US Business schools than India this year
A group of students studies on the campus of San Francisco State University in San Francisco, California June 30, 2009. State officials are facing a midnight deadline to close a $24.3 billion budget deficit, and college students would be among those receiving IOU's for loans if the deadline is not met. REUTERS

China has been known to be an outsourcing destination for all kinds of American jobs. Perhaps less known is the lucrative market of Chinese hopefuls who want admission into a Western university and are looking for native English speakers to help write their admissions essays.

Chinese students represent a large portion of American universities’ international student population, but the application process, which differs a great deal from the Chinese admission system, can often be challenging for a person who studies English as a second language. The biggest difference is probably the personal statement essay, a sample of a student’s writing that should say more about the applicant than test scores and club memberships. Unlike the SAT, it’s not really something that can be studied for.

Enter Hannah Lincoln and Sean Ages, who answered the ads of one of China’s education consulting agencies while living in the country. The consulting firm, which helped guide Chinese students through the unfamiliar admissions process, outsourced college application prompts to people like Lincoln and Ages, who took jobs after seeing “editing” jobs that paid up to $200 a week. But it turned out they were doing much more than just editing -- they were essentially working as ghostwriters.

“The promise of cold, hard cash in the leering face of student debt overrode the warnings from a classmate and previous ghostwriter that the potential employer was a ‘psycho’ who sometimes ‘failed to see that what she was doing was immoral,’” Lincoln wrote for Forbes. “Clearly our moral compass wasn’t so important either.”

The students they were asked to ghostwrite for were often extremely academically qualified for many American universities, earning grades that landed them in the top 3 percent of their class and gaining other arts accolades. However, most American schools select their student body by finding a mutual fit, a unique trait that makes you more suitable for, say, Stanford, rather than Harvard. Bogged down by generic anecdotes and tired analogies, Lincoln and Ages ran into some problems writing personal essays for people they didn’t really know.

“[Sean] slogged through hokey writing and repetitious themes as the money steadily flowed to his bank account. Somewhere around his 90th essay, he ran ashore.” His bosses at the consulting agency said that an essay he wrote for a student applying to Emory University in Atlanta was inadequate because the student had “done no research at all and she does [sic] even really know what makes her want to attend Emory.” Ages looked at it as an opportunity to find out more about the girl, and asked to be put in touch wit her to help better understand her desires to go to the southern university. Unfortunately for Ages, that was the last essay the company ever sent him.

The competition is not only tough for Chinese applicants, but also applicants for ghostwriting. There is a lot of money in education consulting in China because to many wealthy Chinese parents, there is no price too high or measure too far for their children’s education. “There is no force great enough to alter Chinese parents’ commitment to their children’s educations. Nor is the phenomenon of cheating soon to escape Chinese culture,” Lincoln wrote.

“And as long as there exists a plethora of educated twenty-somethings who seek employment overseas, they will ghostwrite.”