Ethics debate: Who should write a student’s college essay?

THE COLD WAR MIGHT be finished, but there’s a new arms race underway. Eager to get into America’s most-selective colleges, high-schoolers are beefing up their résumés with more and more extracurriculars, hiring consultants to help with college applications and doing everything they can to boost their grade-point averages. Ethics Cheating in School

For many, a 4.0 GPA is no longer good enough; students take honors or Advanced Placement courses that give them “weighted” GPAs of 4.5 or higher. Given this pressure, it’s no surprise that some students cheat.

Use this fictional ethical dilemma with your Scouts to explore the gray area between helping a friend and cheating on his behalf.

The Dilemma
Since he was a child, Bronson McLean has dreamed of attending Princeton University. He has decorated his bedroom with Princeton paraphernalia. His school locker sports Princeton Tigers bumper stickers. And he even persuaded the other members of his Boy Scout patrol to call themselves the Tigers instead of the Sharks.

Bronson has a 4.24 GPA, great SAT scores and a solid résumé. But he lacks one thing: the ability to write persuasively. When he learns that the Princeton application requires a 500-word essay on “an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world,” he panics. He has no idea what to write about and knows that, even if he did, he couldn’t effectively communicate his thoughts.

With time running out, he approaches fellow Tiger Patrol member Josh Walser (who has already been accepted to an in-state public university) with a simple proposition: Write the essay, and I’ll give you $100. Bronson hates to cheat, but he believes he has no choice.

For Discussion
In trying to solve his problem, Bronson has created an ethical dilemma for his friend as well as for himself. To clarify the discussion, invite your Scouts or Venturers to put themselves in each character’s place as they answer the following questions:

For Josh, the Friend

  • Would it be cheating if Bronson used an essay you wrote as his own? Why or why not?
  • Would it matter if he had asked you to write the essay because you’re his friend instead of offering you $100? Why or why not?
  • If you accept Bronson’s offer, are you being complicit in his cheating? After all, you’re not the one trying to get into Princeton. Why or why not?
  • If you turn down Bronson’s offer, how might that affect your friendship? Should that matter in your decision? Why or why not?
  • If you turn down Bronson’s offer, he hasn’t technically cheated yet — although he might find someone to write his essay. Should you still turn him in? Why or why not?
  • If you do decide to turn him in, whom should you tell? Your Scoutmaster? Your principal? The Princeton admissions office? Why did you pick that person or entity?
  • If you decide not to turn him in, are you being complicit in his cheating?
  • How much help could you give Bronson without it being cheating? Would it be OK to brainstorm ideas with him? To edit his rough draft? Would it make any difference whether he paid you for that help?

For Bronson, the Princeton Hopeful

  • Let’s assume you haven’t cheated since seventh grade. Does that make having Josh write your essay less ethical, more ethical or neither? Why?
  • Would it be less ethical, more ethical or neither if you had asked him to write a term paper for your senior English class instead of college admission? Why?
  • Does cheating in high school or on your college essay really matter once you get to college? Or do you start with a clean slate as a freshman? Why or why not?
  • Given how selective Ivy League schools are, you might assume that other applicants are also cheating. Should that make a difference in whether you pay Josh to write your essay? Why or why not?
  • Should the fact that the essay is about values matter? Why or why not?
  • Should the fact that you’re a Scout matter? Why or why not?
  • Should the fact that Josh is a Scout matter? Why or why not?

Next Steps
Challenge your Scouts or Venturers to devise a solution to this dilemma that doesn’t involve cheating but still gives Bronson a decent chance of getting in to Princeton. Invite them to reflect on times when they’ve faced a situation similar to Bronson’s or Josh’s.

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