Masters in the art of fraud

A reliance on ghostwriters is fuelling Thai students' global reputation for cheating on university entrance forms, prompting closer scrutiny by US admissions boards

Paying 15,000 baht for 500 words of flawless English seemed excessive, but Ms Pang insisted it would be money well spent and there was no chance the deception would be detected.

“I guarantee you,” she said, smiling calmly. “None of our customers have a had problem after filing applications written by us. The university will never know.”

But that guarantee is less than convincing — universities do know, and are becoming increasingly frustrated with Thai students employing professionals to ghostwrite their English-language application forms.

The applications are coming under closer scrutiny, with the Overseas Association for College Admissions Counselling (OACAC) highlighting the practice at its annual conference last year. Unflatteringly, one keynote address at the conference was entitled “As Convincing as a Fake Rolex: Thailand’s Fraudulent Applications and Implications for the Global Market”.

The OACAC has members in 90 countries, but alarm bells have started ringing mainly at US universities, according to a report in Fortune magazine, and in particular at Ivy League colleges.

Spectrum went undercover and visited a company on Silom Road advertising itself as being able to help students who want to study abroad, hoping to ascertain what services it provides and its ethical approach to writing application letters, resumes and essays. We also wanted to know how much it would cost for the applications written in English and whether the professional assistance breached Thai education laws.

DOWN TO BUSINESS

After making contact with the company via email, I meet Ms Pang at a coffee shop on Silom after being told its business premises are undergoing renovation.

Before making contact, the company wanted to know what documents I would require, such as a statement of purpose, cover letter or resume. I was also required to fill out a checklist detailing my name, education history and activities and interests.

In person, Ms Pang immediately set about allaying my fears.

“We have operated for a decade and we have never heard of any customer having trouble from our service,” she said. “Everyone has been happy with what we accomplish.”

She explained there are three different levels of English writers at the company: junior, senior and professional. The junior writer has a master’s degree from an overseas university, but has limited experience in academic writing. The basic charge is 3,800 baht per page, or about 500 words. The senior writer has the same qualifications but more experience in academic writing, and charges 6,500 baht per page. The “professional writer” is a native English speaker who can write “high standard” documents. The cost is 15,000 baht for the first page and 7,000 baht for every page thereafter.

Ms Pang guaranteed the work would be completed within seven days after a deposit of 50% was paid.

As an example, she showed me a resume her company had produced for a talented 19-year-old who wanted to study law overseas, but who needed help with her English skills.

“Some of them have very interesting profiles and experience, but they don’t know how to express themselves in English,” Ms Pang said. “It is only the language problem we can help with. Many of them are smarter than English-speaking students but have lower English skills. After getting help from us, some of them are able to get in to Ivy League universities.”

I told Ms Pang I was keen to study political science at one of the Ivy League colleges such as Harvard or Yale. She said if my experience and qualifications were unlikely to meet entry requirements, the company would help me write about my motivations for wanting to study there.

“We have never used fake information or copied anything from the internet as some companies have done,” she said. “Everything in the writing must be true and come from who you are. We will only adjust and enhance it to look like professional writing.”

Ms Pang said junior writers are matched to specific subject fields, but if I wanted to enter a faculty which required a lot of writing — such as liberal arts or political science — I would need to hire a senior or professional writer.

When asked directly whether the company’s services amounted to cheating, Ms Pang reiterated that they were only offering “help”.

“There are also services like this in other countries like the US. Being a native English speaker does not mean they can write well. I think the students initially have their own knowledge and potential; we are only offering support to put them in the right place.”

THE GHOSTWRITER

After our initial coffee shop meeting, I am invited back the next day to meet Koi, my potential ghostwriter.

Ms Koi is young, professional in her demeanour and told me she has a degree from a US university in public policy. She also told me she still often travels abroad for her other work.

“Normally, our writers also have their own job and work for us at the same time,” Ms Pang explained.

Ms Koi quizzed me about my academic qualifications and how I scored on English-language tests such as TOEFL and IELTS.

“If your final GPA [grade point average] from university is not that high, the Ivy League is quite difficult to reach,” she said.

“However, I have to tell you that the statement of purpose is a very important factor. Some of the students accepted into those universities have shown their passion and impressed the university’s admissions committee.”

After our interview is finished, Ms Pang told me the writer would start writing as soon as possible after I paid a 50% deposit.

“I suggest you apply for at least 10 universities to make sure you get at least one,” she advised. “I will bring you my recommended list next time we meet.”

I decided to keep my money, and that was the last I saw of Ms Pang and Ms Koi.

SCORN IN THE USA

American universities typically require that all students, regardless of their country of origin or English-language abilities, write their essays and personal statements entirely on their own. Using a ghostwriter can be grounds for disqualification.

“Practices of changing student writing or activities, or creating other misleading information, are completely unacceptable to American universities,” said Joshua Russo, who runs the Bangkok-based educational firm Top Scholar. “Doing so risks severe consequences, as universities are keeping a keen eye out for fraudulent behaviour. Many selective universities will revoke acceptances or even expel students upon learning about fraudulent applications, even if the student is already on campus.”

Relying on someone else to make up for perceived shortcomings in their applications could also handicap students down the road, Mr Russo said, since it might give admissions officers a false impression of their abilities, leaving them likely to find themselves in over their heads should they eventually make it to an American classroom.

“Most importantly, if students do not spend time during the college preparation process actually improving their writing skills, they are wasting a valuable opportunity to improve their abilities as students, leaving them unprepared for the rigours of university life,” he said. “All majors, even engineering, require a lot of writing. And it is through writing that our students become better able to share their own culture and individuality.”

Some organisations are trying to change the dynamic. To counter possible fraud and prepare students more thoroughly, Top Scholars helps students figure out which university suits them best, and also offers writing tutoring and practise for admissions tests.

Singular among Bangkok counselling groups, Top Scholars is the only area member of the OACAC, an educational network designed to iron out the wrinkles and ensure accuracy in the global application process by building bridges between universities and foreign applicants.

Last year at the OACAC’s annual summer conference, experts presented a panel on fraudulent Thai applications and discussed the unique challenges Thai applicants sometimes present, as well as the ways in which some students try to game the application process in their favour, such as the use of ghostwriters.

Key to the panel’s findings was that ethics and transparency should be discussed openly along every step of the way — from the Thai home and classroom to the foreign admissions office.

One part of the problem, Mr Russo said, is that misinformation can spread like wildfire within Bangkok social circles, and as a result attitudes become entrenched that don’t necessarily match the American mindset. It’s in part this misunderstanding that warps the admissions process, fuelling a culture of fraud that misrepresents applicants entirely.

“The concept that students must have perfect applications or must exaggerate activities reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the actual admissions process,” Mr Russo said.

The situation facing Thai applicants is usually not lost on American universities, he said, and that’s something families and students need to keep in mind.

“US universities read Thai applicants in the context of their lives and experiences, so they would not expect all Thai applicants to write like native speakers,” Mr Russo said. “A 100% perfect application is not necessarily one that has flawless grammar and activities, but rather one that reflects a student’s true character and personality, beyond grades.”

Another important finding at the OACAC conference was that schools lack a consensus on how to best confront cases of fraud or ethical violations. Different schools may have different approaches to handling certain situations, and some might lack a formalised approach entirely and only address suspected fraud on a case-by-case basis.

This educational landscape is slowly starting to change, though, as foreign programmes begin to find on-the-ground experts to help them navigate the terrain. Some local schools have also gotten on board with the OACAC’s mission, such as the Bangkok Patana School and Keerapat International School.

“Universities are recognising the need to work on the ground with high school counsellors and ethical independent counsellors,” he said. “We find this transparency is a great benefit to the students and schools we work with — and has helped our students to avoid suspicion of fraudulent behaviour and achieve greater success.”

Ultimately, bringing out confidence locally can result in success globally, Mr Russo said, stressing that Thai students shouldn’t be afraid of just being themselves.

“We want to empower Thai students to understand international academic and cultural concepts, allowing them to bring their own Thai culture to the world in a meaningful way,” he said. “It is amazing to watch them not only gain acceptance to incredible universities, but also become successful students and leaders on campus and in life.”

IMMORAL BUT NOT ILLEGAL

The Office of Higher Education Commission (OHEC) says even though ghostwritten applications may appear to be cheating, there are no legal restrictions on it.

“It is obviously contrary to morality, but it is not specified as a law or regulation that anyone wanting to study abroad cannot hire people to write an English document for them. It is still a legal business,” said OHEC secretary Kamjorn Tatiyakavee.

“I’ve heard about businesses like this for a long time. All we can do is warn them [the students] that it is useless to just pass the recruitment process when you cannot write well enough.

“Universities in the US and UK are still open-minded about Thai students,” he said. “But I understand there is an unofficial blacklist because in some cases the Thai student gained entry to a university but could not pass subsequent written exams.”

Mr Kamjorn said the commission was trying to impress on students that hiring a ghostwriter not only ran the risk of having them put on a blacklist, but also undermined damaged the reputations of their relatives and other Thai students.

“Countries like the UK and US always put your family name in front of your name,” he said. “If you are put on a blacklist for being dishonest, your relatives or someone with the same family name applying afterwards would be automatically in trouble.”

Mr Kamjorn said courses existed in Thai universities to help local students write, in English, the documents required for applying to a foreign university. Overall, he believes it is not a pressing issue for OHEC as the percentage of Thai students applying to study overseas is small and no laws were being broken.

He said students using ghostwriting services should keep mind they are foremost a business trying to make money. Students should also be aware that if the same ghostwriters are being used over and over to apply to one university, they will eventually be identified and raise the suspicions of the application committees.

TARNISHED IMAGE

Students who have worked hard and won a place at an overseas university under their own steam believe the “cheats” are destroying the image of all Thai scholars.

“I disagree with these students hiring a company to write for them,” said Warunrat Thadaprapakan who is studying at Deakin University’s faculty of business and law in Melbourne, Australia.

“These businesses are selfishly working for money. They continue until it becomes normal in society. But the writing style of their work looks the same and has the same pattern, so universities eventually figure it is not from the students.”

Ms Warunrat said hiring ghostwriters is also a reflection that some students lack the confidence in their own ability to study abroad.

“It is self-disparaging. Students look down on themselves and don’t want to make an effort for their own future.”

Chatraporn Pakdee, who recently joined a work and travel programme in New York, said it was wrong that Thai students felt they were justified in taking part in the deception because the Thai education system is so weak.

“From my perspective, it’s absolutely wrong for applicants to hire other people to do the work for them,” she said.

“It’s also a shame for our education system that it could not sway Thai students from corrupt actions.”

She said students like her who worked hard to get into a foreign university were affected by constant suspicions of academic misconduct as a result of the actions of others.

“I think it is kind of sad for the rest of us who worked really hard to get into colleges that the assessors would not even want to consider us because of this history of cheating,” she said.

“Though a lot of cheating is going on, the assessors from colleges shouldn’t hold this against all Thai students because it is a stereotype, and we know stereotypes are not always true.”

About the author

Writer: Nattha Thepbamrung and John Arterbury