We tried buying a college admissions essay online, here's what happened

PHOTO: Students write an essay in this stock photo.PlaySTOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
WATCH How easy is it to buy a college admissions essay online?

“Operation Varsity Blues” is the country’s largest-ever college admissions scandal, with millions of dollars allegedly paid for bribes and test cheating. “Good Morning America” found you can pay much less to cheat on college essays through contract cheating. But is it worth it?

“Contract cheating has grown a great deal over the past ten years, “ said Professor David Rettinger of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Rettinger is president of the International Center for Academic Integrity, an organization that promotes integrity in academia throughout the world. "Students are willing to use internet sites, family members, friends and other technology to get contractors to do their work.”

According to industry estimates, contract cheating is a global business worth hundreds of millions of dollars, advertising online and on social media.

“It’s quite covert,” said Associate Professor Cath Ellis, of the University of New South Wales in Australia. “It’s designed not to be able to be investigated very effectively.”

"GMA" did a simple internet search for “buy college admissions essay” and countless options popped up. On some sites, writers even submitted bids for their work. For less than fifty dollars, "GMA" purchased a fully-written college admissions essay online.

We gave a panel of four former admissions officers and directors five essays to read: the one we bought and four others from real students who successfully applied to colleges, including an Ivy League school.

Could the panelists spot the fraud? As it turns out, none of them chose the fraud essay. But the reasons for their choices show the dangers of cheating.

“It was probably the worst essay. And that’s why I thought it couldn’t be the fake one,” said Sally Ganga, college admissions consultant at Bright Horizons College Coach.

“They wrote about a topic that a lot of people write about because they think it’s what admissions wants to hear,” Elizabeth Heaton, also at Bright Horizons College Coach, told "GMA." “You want to hear what’s important to the student.”

The experiment was limited by the fact that there was no complete portfolio with which to judge the essays. “If something was utterly fake and submitted off the internet, the degree with which it didn’t jive with the rest of the details would make it stand out,” said Davin Sweeney, Director of New York Metro for Collegewise.

An even bigger problem is “parental tinkering,” according to Sweeney. “That is the most prevalent example of essays that end up in the admissions office that are not purely the student’s original voice. And the question is often can you tell when a parent got their hands on it? It’s difficult.”

All the panelists thought it was a waste of time and money to have someone else write a student’s college admissions essay. And they think the current scandal could result in reforms. "I’m really excited by the conversation that is being forced," said Kyra Tyler, college admissions consultant.

For students applying to college, Ganga’s advice to students is "be your authentic self.”

"This is really not about the parents. This is not what you get to tell your boss or your peers or your family where your kid got into college," said Tyler. "The focus should be on helping your child successfully manage this and feel good about themselves."