Like many English majors before me, I found myself walking across the graduation stage in 2019 knowing my college days were behind me—and that I’d soon be unemployed. Despite giving it my all and winding up with a near-perfect GPA, my only immediate options were continuing my part-time bartending job or going to grad school. Since I had already amassed nearly $70,000 in student loans, I chose the former.
For much of the next year, I bartended at the most popular pub in my college town, along with some freelance gigs. Then COVID hit. The bar closed. At first, they told us we’d only be off for two weeks to “stop the spread.” Two weeks turned to two months. Soon came a group text that the bar would be shutting down indefinitely.
When it came to stimulus checks and unemployment, part-time bartenders who are listed as dependents on their parents’ tax returns aren’t entitled to much. I was screwed. My self-esteem cratered. I was fighting with my parents daily. I had nothing to do, nowhere to go, and the countless work-at-home jobs I was applying to had landed me zero interviews.
Toward the end of April 2020, a college friend of mine reached out: “Are you looking for work? I work for this essay writing service, and they’re offering referral bonuses to anyone who joins the team.”
He told me he was writing essays for college kids for a website called Killer Papers, and he was making tons of money. The owner had claimed 30 percent sales growth since most students had moved to distance learning.
Just 24 hours later, I had already interviewed and written my first essay: $40 for a three-page “reflection paper” on how COVID had been affecting college students. Fitting.
I got a quick education on what this system for black-market essays really looks like. The overarching stereotype is that privileged sons and daughters of wealthy families use their money to cheat their way out of their work and into a degree. And … sure, this is often true.
“My parents are doctors, so we’re pretty loaded,” said one client, who claimed he was “cool with the owner of the site” and had been using it since 2017.
“Oh, nice!” I said as I ate my grilled cheese and typed my seventh paper of the day from the basement of my parents’ house.
More disappointing were the many parents who encouraged this behavior, with some going as far as requesting the essay and purchasing it all without their kid lifting a finger. Their children were so lazy that they couldn’t even work with me to get it done. “My son is on the lacrosse team, so try to incorporate a sports struggle into this narrative,” one mother instructed me. I did as I was asked, so long as they left me a tip so I could afford gas.
But for every privileged kid too lazy to write an essay, there was a more complex story. To my surprise, of the hundreds of clients I worked with, many—maybe most—students were simply desperate for the help.
They were not rich. Students would try to negotiate prices or work out payment plans. They said things like “I’ll be back to accept your offer on Friday when my check clears.” An assistant manager at Taco Bell, a drive-through operator at Wendy’s, a cashier at Whole Foods— you name it. My clients had a variety of low-income jobs and attended classes simultaneously. I’d ask them a question about their project, and they wouldn’t get back for a day or two. When I’d finally hear back, they’d say, “Sorry, I was working a double.”
And more often than not, it wasn’t students—or parents—at elite colleges purchasing papers. It was students at community colleges working for minimum wage who didn’t have time to write them.
It was single parents who had to balance work, child care, and college. They often had kids and multiple jobs, and they were just trying to advance their careers with a degree.
It was international college students. A few clients from China told me they could crush any American in calculus, but when it came to writing an English essay for their American lit class, they were at a major disadvantage, especially when COVID began and they went back to China.
The university writing centers that many relied on closed or moved online, but time zone differences meant it was tough to get the help they needed. When faced with the prospect of getting a poor mark or cheating, they chose the latter.
There was also the COVID factor. Variations of “I’ve been following Killer Paper’s Instagram page for years, but I never thought I’d use the site. I’m just so depressed, and my work is piling up” would fill my site inbox as quarantines continued to be extended.
And it got worse. My clients lost friends, family, and even professors. One customer told me that they were on their third professor of the semester for the same course last fall because the first two had died from COVID.
For all the official grumbling about services like mine among professors, I learned something else too: Many professors don’t want to be bothered with students’ struggles. As COVID marched on, so did the deadlines, and a lot of the professors were quite rigid with their rules. On the rubrics I would read from students, I remember seeing one that said, “No missed deadlines. I don’t want to hear your sob story.”
Many of my fellow essay writers themselves were in academia—they wrote papers for students because they couldn’t make ends meet.
If you had told me in March 2020 that in a few months, I’d be making more money as an academic ghostwriter than I ever had in my entire life, I’d have thought you were full of it. In the summer, it was never more than $500 a week for roughly 10 to 12 essays. But during the semester, it could be up to $2,000 a week for 30 to 40 projects—a numbing amount of writing, but a lot of cash.
By the time I started, I was too desperate to worry about the ethics. I felt more bad about the students who were scraping by and paying me for this work, but I developed a payment system where I cut minimum-fee deals for the clients who really needed it. And I justified it to myself, because I had been so out of options.
Eventually, I couldn’t do it anymore, and more opportunities opened up. I went back to bartending when my area reopened. I proofread ebooks, books, and college admissions essays, plus a little freelance writing like this. More “respectable.” But my own little slice of pandemic desperation gave me a window into what many others deal with no matter the times.