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Buying a better grade

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There’s an essay due next week in that elective course you threw into your schedule hoping it would be an easy A, but found yourself completely out of your depth in, and are struggling to keep a passing grade.

Or maybe you just needed to take it as a requirement for your degree, but you’ll never use the knowledge from that course in the real world. Maybe you’re just so overloaded with other classes, a job, and life, that you can’t make any time to write the essay yourself. Whatever the case, you consider taking a shortcut. You consider paying someone else to write the essay for you.

But how well do those promises of easy sailing through courses stand up? How easy is it to buy your way to good grades? I decided there was no better way to find out than to try it myself.

First things first: I needed an assignment to cheat on. I enlisted the help of the University of the Fraser Valley’s own Eric Spalding, associate professor in the social, cultural, & media studies department. Because Spalding marks all assignments blindly to avoid personal biases, insisting that students submit their work with just a student number rather than a name, he would be able to judge my submission more fairly. We discussed a plan, and decided that I would buy three essays online from different sources each following the same instructions from one of his current courses, and then submit them to him on the due date. Spalding wouldn’t know which three assignments were fraudulent until he finished marking, and found three student numbers not actually enrolled in his course.

From Spalding’s assignments with upcoming due dates, I selected a straightforward essay from his popular Media and Communications Studies (MACS) 110: Introduction to Communication Theory class. The assignment read as follows:

“Are you typically an opinion leader or an opinion follower? Are there specific topics (fashion, movies, music, sports, politics) on which you are one or the other? What makes you one or the other under different circumstances? This assignment is not a research paper. Rather, it is more like an opinion piece or editorial that you might write for a newspaper. Still, you can use an outside source or two if you want. I think, however, that you should base yourself primarily on the excerpt from the textbook, in-class discussions, and your own reflections on the topic.”

It seemed like a straightforward choice: 850 words, no sources required, and opinion-based. For a talented essay writer, even one unfamiliar with the course, it shouldn’t be much trouble.

When it came time to purchase my essays, I quickly found myself in a virtual world that straddled the line between professional and sketchy. There are sites — a lot of sites — dedicated to selling essays. Most of them look very businesslike, with an interface you might expect from a hotel website. It allows you to customize your specifications, and when you want it (though they may in fact be less buggy than most hotel sites I’ve booked through). These sites offer live chat or telephone customer service, plagiarism-free guarantees, and long lists of the included features such as revisions, bibliographers, and formatting.

When you look a little closer, though, suspicious elements start to appear. Sample papers show minor but noticeable grammatical and spelling errors; excessively positive testimonials praise the excellence of the services; and most damningly, the ordering interface is the same across websites.

I don’t just mean it’s very similar with the same kinds of options. I found well over a dozen sites with radically different layouts, but exactly the same order form. They each offer the same options, in the same order, at the same prices. I tried looking into the names and locations of the domains’ registrations, but they were all obfuscated by their registrars.

It seems highly likely that all those sites, which made up the vast majority of my search results, were run by the same company. I even found multiple blogs listing the “best” places to buy essays — all of which displayed this same uniform order form. Clearly, this is an extensive business.

Ultimately, I settled on three essay writers at three different price points. At the high end, I paid a professional-looking site called JustBuy Essay $49.95. I picked it because it accepted PayPal, and presented a high quality website at a lower price than the sites that all shared the duplicated layout mentioned above. In the middle of the pack, I paid $35 to a person who alleged (or at least implied) that they had a Ph.D on Craigslist. Last of all I paid $15.66 to a writer sourced from the freelancing site Fiverr.

Although it took some time, the ordering process for the cheap Fiverr essay made me feel the most comfortable. It’s an established, well-known site not specifically tailored to essay selling. Despite the branding of the site promising services for $5, most of the essay writers on the site started at $10 (USD) for work of any length close to what I needed. It was also expected that I reach out to the writers before paying for their services, something that was not made clear to myself, a new service user. I hired one person, but upon hearing the request, they told me it was not something they were capable of, and refunded my money. I appreciated the upfront response, and moved on to another Fiverr contractor, a woman from Pakistan.

This seller was quick to reply to my inquiry, agreed to do the piece, and promised it in just a few days. She was communicative and clear about the process, and provided excellent customer service. She also delivered the essay on time, but unfortunately it did not live up to her communication abilities.

From the opening paragraph, I realized the essay wasn’t going to receive a passing grade.

“Recognizing that the social context of many public health issues is important, the social nature of the solution is implicitly recognized as an important step towards making real improvements in health. In fact, marketing is trying to manage individual behavior by providing enhanced incentives and consequences in a context of voluntary exchange (Resnick & Siegel, 2013). Focusing on the viewer is a fundamental principle of social marketing; therefore, the individual’s attitude toward the product, its preferences and behavior, and its differences in location, will be designed with my target audience.”

It was a mostly error-free piece of writing, but it was confusing, and bore absolutely zero relevance to Spalding’s assignment. It was also clearly not written for me. The final paragraph began with the phrase “According to our class power point by professor Lea.”

I asked the seller about this reference, wondering if she’d possibly sent me the wrong file — mistakes happen. Her response? “Oh, I am sorry, that is my other client’s professor. Let me remove it.” She then sent me the exact same file again, professor Lea and all. Deciding to leave it at that, I told her my real name, and the reason behind my hiring her. Again, she communicated openly, saying she’d be happy to answer some questions for an interview through Fiverr’s messaging system, as long as her identity remained anonymous. She told me that her background was as a software engineer, and that she received many orders for essays — most of them on the topic of literature. “Assistance is always helpful,” she replied when I asked about her philosophy on the work she did, and if she felt it was any kind of moral issue.

On the opposite end of the price scale from Fiverr, my experience with JustBuy Essay was also relatively painless and straightforward. The ordering process was very easy, and required no haggling, just simply that I input my requirements. Every element of it seemed proper and professional, but it was hard to shake the sense that I was ultimately throwing money down a hole, and hoping an essay would come flying back out. However, despite taking a few days longer than the Fiverr order, it was ready within the first half of my two-week deadline.

There was much less communication than on Fiverr — my only direct contact was when I added a note about the title I entered for the paper to correct a typo I’d made. After submitting the change, I quickly got a response assuring me it would be updated with the correct title. When the essay arrived, I was pleased to see that, unlike the Fiverr seller, my anonymous writer had clearly written something just for me. It referenced the question, as well as used and defined the terms “opinion leader” and “opinion follower.” It wasn’t perfect, but it could certainly blend in with a crowd of genuine students.

And finally, there was Craigslist. The person I hired never gave me a name, but listed their email as “levyphd.” Their ad was plastered all over the site, on different regional Craigslist listings across Canada, including Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. It was also reposted every few days.

“If you’re having trouble academically,” said levyphd, “or, if you just need a little boost to help you go that extra mile, I am the best choice for academic and writing assistance.” Levyphd also claimed that they were “a MSc Professional Tutor with extensive experience tutoring high school, university, and college students.” How could I argue with credentials like that, especially when the long list of topics they could write about even included media & culture and “ANY course that requires well-written essays?”

I sent an email to levyphd, which listed the requirements, and asked for an estimate. They replied in only 11 minutes with a terse email asking when I’d need it done by. A bit of haggling ensued: levyphd claimed to have just finished a 1,200 word essay for $85, so they thought that my 850 word essay was worth $50. I countered with $35, but said it could be 800 instead. Levyphd was okay with that, and sent me a second email address, telling me to PayPal the money there. Both that address and the name PayPal gave me for the payment indicated I was paying someone named Sab Lee, not Levy. I suppose if I were writing essays for money I wouldn’t want it to be too easy to link back to my real name, either.

However, when I Googled that address, I found more ads offering tutor and essay writing services, but these ones were all located in Toronto and Ottawa. Obviously this person was not being up front and honest. It felt intensely wrong to send money to some person I stumbled across on Craigslist. It ran counter to all of my intuition, but I went through with it. Besides, I rationalized, it’s a good story if it’s a scam, too.

Levyphd, or Sab Lee, or whoever I was talking to, was not as good with communication and customer service as the other two essay sellers. Levy/Sab’s emails were always one or two sentences, and they often ignored my questions. They took almost the full two weeks to deliver the essay. Multiple check-in emails I sent went ignored, or were answered with assurances that they were working, but no details on when it’d be done. The day before my deadline, they finally replied with this message:

“Hi I just finished. Attached is proof. You can now make the final payment. Thank you so much.”

I’d already paid. In full. Below the message was a phone screenshot of the first page of an essay. Was it written on a phone? The sample talked about welfare and former Ontario premier Mike Harris. I told the seller that I’d already paid the agreed amount, but expecting them to say it was harder than anticipated, and that they needed more. Now that they’d kept me hanging to the last minute, I might be desperate for an essay, and willing to pay more. I asked for some clarification:

Hi and thanks! I already made the whole payment though. We agreed on $35 and I sent it over right away. Are you maybe getting me confused with another person? My essay also wasn’t about Ontario (unless you tie it in later maybe!)”

I chose Mike Harris.”

Sure, maybe they wrote about strong opinions on Mike Harris. I continue to play the role I’d been acting out: a student desperate to get their article, too broke to pay more, and who doesn’t believe in using commas.

“Oh okay I understand! But I did already pay the full amount we agreed on.”

After that, levyphd/Sab Lee sent me the essay in the body of an email (rather than a formatted .docx like the other two sellers). I use the word “essay” to refer to it in a loose sense. The 800 words we negotiated got me 629, and they were obviously not written in response to my assignment. Worse than just being off topic, and for another class, this clearly wasn’t even a whole essay — it had an abstract, an introduction, and that’s it. It set up a discussion on the role of women in the workforce and welfare, but never even got to whatever Mike Harris or Ontario had to do with any of that. It was also riddled with errors, and included page number citations sprinkled throughout but (because it was clearly just the first portion of another essay) had no actual bibliography at the end. I submitted it to Spalding in the state it was delivered in, but that state was abysmal.

My interactions with the mysterious Craigslist seller ended with me telling them my real intentions, and asking if they’d answer a few questions. They replied “sure if you can pay me for my time.” Even ignoring the ethical issue of paying for an interview, I couldn’t imagine paying this person for something I legitimately wanted to be good.

My only regret is that I didn’t wait until after getting my marks back to reveal the truth, so that I could see what happened if I asked for a refund.

After about $100 spent and a few weeks waiting, I finally had all three essays in hand. I gave them cover pages that were neither outstanding nor horrible, added fake student numbers, and handed them in to Spalding for marking along with the rest of his class’ work.

Having spent around 30 years as an educator, Spalding keeps watch for academic dishonesty. He chose long ago to weigh his grading more heavily towards exams than assignments, and is a detailed but fair marker who tries (as one hopes most professors and teachers do) to remain consistent in his grading criteria. In the outline for MACS 110, he lists the criteria for his evaluation of the assignment.

“I will evaluate you on:

  1. The structure and style of your paper;
  2. Its originality within the parameters of the assigned topic;
  3. How informative and interesting it is;
  4. How much effort you appear to have put into writing it;
  5. Your ability to integrate course ideas.”

While Spalding went into the marking process knowing that there would be three counterfeits among the genuine submissions from his students, he admitted that his focus was on the wrong end of the spectrum. “I was expecting high quality,” he told me afterward, explaining that he imagined the writers selling their essays as older — in their 50s or 60s — and academically experienced. As he marked the class’ best papers, however, he had to discount many of them from suspicion. Those that referenced the textbook or the class discussions clearly had to come from his students.

Eventually, though, he came to one that did stand out, though he didn’t realize it was one of my submissions. The article from Fiverr clearly bore no relevance to the course, so Spalding made a note to contact its author, and check if they’d submitted the wrong paper,  just as I had asked the seller when she sent the document to me. When he looked up the student number, he saw it wasn’t listed in his course. If it’d been a genuine mistake, that’d be one thing, but if a student had purchased and submitted this essay for real, they’d be left to scramble, either accepting a zero on the assignment, or rushing to write (or buy) a better one.

The incomplete submission from my Craigslist contact fared little better. “I don’t understand what happened here,” reads the note Spalding left at the end of the otherwise unmarked essay. “Did you submit the wrong paper?” After explaining the requirements of the assignment, he ended his note with the ominous phrase “be careful about plagiarism.”

Only the most expensive essay, the $50 piece from JustBuy Essay, made it past Spalding. He described it as eye-opening to see that someone not at all involved in his class could deceive him, and receive a legitimate grade.

That essay opened and closed by answering the question posed by the assignment, claiming that the imaginary student was an opinion leader in the areas of film and music. It even defined the terms “opinion leader” and “opinion follower.” The bulk of the essay, however, was completely tangential, giving a summary of what film and music are, rather than how the student influenced, or was influenced by others.

Spalding noted a “digression from the topic” in his feedback on the paper (though he later called it “just padding”), and highlighted other minor issues throughout the paper — one word needlessly capitalized, another missing, and so on. It was ultimately good enough that he awarded the essay 11/15 — a B grade. Upon reviewing the essay after discovering that it was one of the papers I’d given him, he admitted that perhaps it was a “generous B,” saying that he’d suspected it was written by a student who skipped most of the classes, and didn’t read the textbook, but had still put in some effort.

Although Spalding is aware of and watchful for plagiarism, sites such as these make that task difficult. Ostensibly, the articles are not quite plagiarized. Rather, they’re original writings made specifically for each client. There’s no uniform way to check for that, only the intuition of an instructor. In a class like MACS 110 with around 36 students, and for a professor teaching other classes at the same time, it’s not always possible to know and recognize every student’s writing style, or to know when something is wrong.

But what if it had come to light that the Fiverr or Craigslist essay was purchased, or if the JustBuy Essay one stood out from that student’s normal work? There are, of course, consequences.

According to UFV’s Student Academic Misconduct policy, it is considered cheating to submit “work prepared in whole or in part by another person, including work purchased, and representing that work as one’s own.”

Would-be entrepreneurs beware, these rules also forbid the selling of such material by UFV students. And if you break the rules? The potential punishments include mandatory workshops, a grade reduction or no grade for the course, a recommendation for expulsion from the university, revocation of awards, degrees, or other credentials, denial of readmission, and forfeiture of financial assistance.

In short, if you buy an essay and get caught, you’re looking at a penalty far harsher than the poor grade you might get by just throwing together the essay yourself the night before it’s due.

Ultimately, just like anything else, it seems that in the world of essay buying, you get what you pay for. Yes, the most expensive essay got a decent grade, but would it work consistently, or would buying a second essay for the same class, especially for a professor who didn’t mark blindly, reveal the truth? There’s no guarantee of consistency when you don’t know who’s writing each paper. The cost also seems prohibitive to the typical student budget: who can afford $50 per assignment multiple times per course, with multiple courses per semester, on top of all the other expenses of student life?

The risks also may outweigh the reward. By circumventing the rules of the institution, students buying essays online not only open themselves up to serious consequences, but there are also risks in the process itself. When I told Spalding about my experiences, he pointed out that “As they say, there’s no honour amongst thieves.” I may have received three essays, but it’s hard not to call two of them complete scams, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the seller on Craigslist would not be inclined to offer a refund, despite their failure to deliver satisfactory work. The Fiverr writer, however, assured me that in the case of a failure, she would offer a refund. Perhaps there’s more to be said for repeat business than a quick buck.

If you’re struggling on an essay, feeling overworked, or fighting apathy in a course you don’t care about, you may be better off looking into the other resources nearly every university offers: tutoring, advising, and mentoring. If you decide to break the rules, you may not like the results.

Read the full purchased essays:
Purchased essay – Fiverr
Purchased essay – JustBuyEssay
Purchased essay – Craigslist

Image: Renée Campbell

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