In a small, two-room apartment by the Toronto Reference Library, you can find a desktop computer, an old IKEA shelf weighed down by textbooks, and a safe concealing hundreds of dollars in cash. Students—desperate, lazy, rich, or inarticulate—call this office, pay a minimum of $30 per page ($15 to the writer, $15 to the company), and receive a tailor-written essay. Virtually all of these students will then write their names on the title page (a title is frequently thrown in as a bonus in such transactions), and turn it in to their professors. They usually get Bs.
This market is unthinkably huge. “What qualifies you more than anything, really, is an understanding of the essay form,” explains Jacob, an essay writer whose real name won’t be revealed in this article—partly because he’s still finishing his undergraduate degree, and partly because he’s continuing his yearlong career at this Toronto-based company. “If you’re a busy professor, or a busy grad student, you’re marking reams of material, much of which is professionally insignificant to you, or just opaque… It’s been my constant experience talking to undergraduates in the humanities about their work, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I spent five hours on this paper, and 50 hours on this other paper, and my mark was virtually identical.’ Well, that’s because you have a good understanding of the essay form, and that’s really all a professor can look for.”
There are no numbers to quantify this industry. It’s impossible to know how many students buy essays, let alone how many write them for money. Most companies hire around a dozen graduates, often with at least a bachelor’s degree. (Most advertise hiring only specialized PhD graduates, which Jacob has falsely claimed to be in the past, just to ease clients’ minds.) Each of these dozen employees will write as many weekly assignments as they can manage, ranging from high school Hamlet essays to doctorate dissertations and full online courses. On average, Jacob thinks he’s earned $500 per week. “As long as the BA is an economic investment, you have to expect that people will just address the economic investment in little ways,” he says. “I consider myself sort of a broker.”
There are literally thousands of these companies in the English-speaking world, all making the same promises: personalized essays, delivered on time, free titles and bibliographies, unlimited revisions, 100% plagiarism-free. The same company will even advertise under different domain names. Prices vary along with the syntax of their FAQs: Custom-Essay-Writing-Service.org, for example, poses the clipped-English question, “I need essay [sic] within 12-24 hours, can you help me?” and provides less-than-reassuring answers such as, “We assign only experienced writer [sic] to help you with essay writing. We do not hire writers from poor countries because we understand that quality is one of the key aspects you seek.”
So what qualifies Jacob, an English literature major, to write an economics, geology or history essay? “Nothing.” Does he adapt his writing style for each paper? “Heavens no.” Does he at least enjoy it? “Not in the slightest,” he replies without thinking. “It’s kind of a miserable experience…kind of like meaningless sex.”
Nobody enjoys it. The world learned this when an anonymous essayist wrote “The Shadow Scholar”, published last November in the Washington-based Chronicle Review. In it, the author outlined his academic blueprint: “A close consideration of the events which occurred in ____ during the ____ demonstrate that ____ had entered into a phase of widespread cultural, social, and economic change that would define ____ for decades to come.”
“The Shadow Scholar” exploded online, mostly through re-tweets and Facebook posts. Book publicists and movie producers called the Chronicle Review, begging for rights to the author’s story. Over 640 comments were written in response to the article itself, including professors who either passed the buck onto administrators (“Why is it the fault of the faculty that their students, who should never have gotten into college in the first place, are cheating?”), or admitted to being helpless in these situations. “Talking to the student on the phone and listening to them fail miserably at summarizing ‘their’ essay is not seen as proof,” one commenter wrote. “At least the lawyers of our students don’t seem to think so.”
“I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to take advantage of a corrupt system that allows taking advantage of,” Jacob says, adding that some students “could give a fuck about Chaucer, or Thomas Pynchon, or the French Revolution, or, or, or, or, or. And as much as I give a fuck about Chaucer and Thomas Pynchon and the French Revolution, I think that’s a perfectly valid stance to take. And it’s kind of lousy that we’re in a society that’s of two minds about its education, that you have to get the Thomas Pynchon and the Chaucer, but you also have to be ready to be a mid-level copywriter, and that those have to be the same thing.”
But Jacob still plans on completing his undergraduate degree. Writing essays for money actually made his life easier, because now he knows “how spare an effort is required for a good mark.” And he will continue to write essays for money, since he can make an easy hundred dollars in an afternoon. Like the time he wrote someone’s 750-word nursing school application. It was due in 24 hours, sent to him by a desperate applicant, along with a few biographical details. The applicant had the grades, but couldn’t articulate why he wanted to be a nurse. And he genuinely did—he just didn’t believe he could do it, Jacob thinks. Jacob wrote his full personal essay, as if it were his own, plucking “salient biographical details” from the applicant’s life.
Naturally, he got in.