The College Essay Made Simple
Rule #1: Present Yourself As A Driven, Well-Rounded Individual With Something Unique To Offer.
It’s another cloudless morning in Palm Springs, California, and as the well-to-do begin their days of speed-walking and cosmetic surgery, twenty-three-year-old Geoff Cook is already at work, unwavering in his mission to get America’s youth into the college of their choice. Especially the ones who suck at writing. Cook is the founder of EssayEdge.com, where every September through March, about 7,000 college and grad-school candidates per month submit the dreaded “personal statement” portion of their applications for some last-minute polishing, courtesy of Cook’s ableminded crew of off-site cybereditors (Ivy League types, like the boss). No cute after-school tutoring gig, his company pulled in more than a million bucks last year.
“Your essay is the most important thing you’ll ever write at this point in your life,” says Cook, a soft-spoken, Pepto Bismol-chugging perfectionist who hatched the operation when he was a sophomore at Harvard four years ago. Now he manages a stable of 200 freelance editors from a cush downtown office with mountain views, a Foosball area and ample space for four full-timers, one-quarter of whom is his girlfriend. As he rifles through a pile of printouts on the floor near his electric guitar, Cook pauses on a Penn prospect’s attempt to tackle the essay, specifically, deeply weird Topic 6A: “You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit Page 217.” Though many colleges stick with the good old “Tell us a little something about yourself,” the elite, like Penn, are apt to get more creative.
“The problem with questions like that is people feel they have to expound on life and love and all these grand themes,” Cook points out. “But they can end up sounding like some teenager philosophizing about the meaning of life. And, you know? No one cares. Eliminate the fluff.”
His company’s offerings – which start at $24.95 for Premium Harvard-Educated Editing and top out at $649.95 for superdeluxe College Comprehensive Service (it includes aid with “the brainstorming process”) – help hopefuls craft masterpieces that make them stand out, no small job when these hopefuls tend to be the same as every other prospective Joe and Jane College. Consider Cook’s own application to Harvard: student-council president; valedictorian; captain, tennis team; president, National Honor Society; National Merit Scholar finalist; perfect 1600 SATs; Spanish honor society; peer leadership club. Yep, exactly the same as everyone else applying.
To make himself stand out, Cook wrote about hiking up Mount Washington in New Hampshire. “It took a philosophical approach, comparing the hike to the pursuit of scientific study,” he says. “Hiking was a metaphor for seeking higher knowledge.”
From a less talented student, the essay might have marked him as your basic blowhard bookworm. But it didn’t, because he isn’t. True, his bookshelf is weighted with titles such as Origin and Evolution of Viruses, but there’s a Bart Simpson poster on his wall at home, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High is poking out of his VCR. “Now that’s my kind of movie,” he says in all seriousness.
Rule #2: Show Them You’ve Overcome Obstacles To Achieve Your Dreams.
Cook was Born in Bayonne, New Jersey, not the son of Ivy League privilege but the son of Bill Cook and the former Linda Russotto, both of whom attended the New Jersey Institute of Technology. They eventually moved to middle-class South Plainfield and purchased a modest Cape Cod-style house and a Dodge Dart. Young Geoff spent his childhood as most sons of suburbia do: watching Family Ties reruns, mowing the lawn, baby-sitting his two younger siblings and plotting to get out. It wasn’t until high school that he knew his ticket was his brain.
“I started reading Marx, Thoreau and Solzhenitsyn,” he says. “That’s when I started to equate the high school administration with the gulag.”
That’s also when a guidance counselor at South Plainfield High said he’d never amount to anything, perhaps because she was pissed at the smart-aleck thank-you note he sent the administration for censoring the student newspaper. His habit of dissing authority continued at Harvard, where that sort of thing is simply not done. He’d been contemplating a college-essay Web site for a while, partly because he had the instincts of an editor (special-features editor, Harvard International Review, ’96-’99), partly because he had the instincts of an Internet kajillionaire (math team, South Plainfield High, ’92-’96). Among the things Harvard had an official policy against, though, was dorm-room entrepreneurship. Cook set up shop anyway, soliciting business, boning up on HTML, sweet-talking his way out of trouble when someone narked him out to an RA (debate club, spring ’93).
By senior year, his site was making a few hundred grand, and Cook was in search of venture capital. On the rare occasions he attended a class, he’d bring a vibrating cell phone so he could excuse himself to close a quick sponsorship deal while the prof prattled on about utilitarianism and what not. “So I’m leading a camera crew around campus one day for some local news show on student entrepreneurs,” he says, “and I figure I’ll take them to my economics class. I’m not sure the professor appreciated that one of the only times I showed up all year was being taped for TV.”
Through all his struggles to balance scholarship and commerce, Cook persevered, graduating not only with honors (3.6 GPA) but also with enough funding to take him wherever he dreamed (Palm Springs, California).
“As a general rule, avoid sex, drugs and rock & roll – unless the essay shows you’re a committed musician who started your own band or something.” …. “‘Just be yourself’ isn’t good advice if you’re writing about how you’re depressed and suicidal. I prefer, ‘Just be your best self.'” … “A good September 11th essay requires a personal connection showing how you were directly affected. The worst I’ve seen was by a guy who felt the terrorism was justified. I was so outraged, I wanted to tell him his essay was perfect as is. Of course, we had to advise him that it’s not a great idea to be callous and inappropriate.”
Cook is giving me pointers while he paces around his home office, the sliding glass door of which faces the pool, which leads to the Jacuzzi, which can be controlled from the bedroom he shares with his girlfriend. Later, he’ll probably work out on his Nautilus equipment, maybe go for a spin in his ’65 Mustang.
But, for now, he’s tacking a few more hours onto his seventy-hour workweek, conducting a few “random quality-assurance reviews” of essays first fixed by his freelance staff. It’s been a while since he edited one himself, but with close to a thousand under his belt, it’s clear that he’s learned what admissions officers want.
“They want an interesting experience that says something personal in a sophisticated way,” he says. “They don’t want clichés. They don’t want vagueness.” He calls up a file on his laptop labeled REAL ESSAY GAFFES. Among the chestnuts: “I watched as a player from the other team reached our basket and made a shit.”
Something else they usually don’t want, unfortunately for Cook, is writing that’s been air-brushed by services such as EssayEdge.com. Admissions personnel at schools from Stanford to Indiana University have come out publicly with concerns, citing not only the inequities created when some students can afford help and others can’t but also the potential for misrepresentation.
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“We can spot one right off the bat,” says Dartmouth dean of admissions Karl Furstenberg. “When you get this glowing, flowing prose that isn’t backed up by verbal testing, writing course work or teacher recommendations, you begin to wonder. We say explicitly on our application that we expect they’ll be writing them entirely on their own, without any professional assistance.”
Cook takes offense at implications that he’s undermining standards of academic excellence (high school liaison to Board of Education, ’96). He argues that his staff doesn’t sell or rewrite essays, though plenty of other places do; they just tighten the prose and tinker with structure to make it more compelling. As for inequity, “We’re making it more equitable, not less,” he insists. “Our services are relatively inexpensive. For $59.95, someone in a low-income school system can get the same level of attention as someone in an affluent district.”
And someone who charges that much and whose Web site gets about 15,000 unique visits a day can retire as a millionaire at twenty-five. Not that he wants to. At some point, he’d consider applying to grad schools for evolutionary biology. “For my essay, I’d try to explain my theory about neo-Darwinian evolution and random mutation,” he says. Lucky for him, he knows a couple of hundred good editors.
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