An online black market offering bespoke essay writing services - often for hundreds of dollars - is continuing to thrive in Singapore, despite warnings from schools that students caught paying for their grades could be expelled.
Rates start at $100 for 1,000 words - excluding additional charges if it is a last-minute job - with some online advertisements guaranteeing students from polytechnics and universities here at least a B grade.
A Straits Times check found at least 30 users on online marketplaces like Carousell and Gumtree hawking such services, as well as three websites aimed at Singapore students, offering to complete assignments for a fee.
Some sellers appear to be based overseas, though most appear to be local students or working adults.
In addition to doing essays on subjects like business, healthcare, marketing and economics for polytechnic and university students, they say they can complete coursework for project work at the A levels.
Students can request revisions of essays, and are promised that the work will be plagiarism-free to avoid detection.
There are also posts offering to finish coursework for art at the N and O levels, and programming assignments for computer science.
A seller on Carousell claimed on his page that he has completed more than 1,000 essays in the past two years, with several reviewers on the page endorsing his work.
Sellers promise that the students' identities will be kept private and ask them to use dummy Carousell and e-mail accounts.
One student, who appeared to be from a degree or diploma programme under private school SIM Global Education (GE), said in a review that she had received 93 out of 100 marks for an "outsourced" essay, which was completed in a day.
Another student posted on Carousell, offering $150 for help with a business assignment from private school Kaplan Singapore.
A polytechnic graduate, who declined to be named, said she and two friends paid for essays in their design-based marketing and communications subjects. "We would get at least a B, which is quite good since design courses are hard," she said.
Assistant Professor Ryan Hong of the National University of Singapore's psychology department said students may resort to these services as they feel "overwhelmed by academic demands".
Others may be "not particularly interested in intrinsic learning and see getting a degree as something they need to do in order to pave the way for their future career".
Kaplan and SIM GE said a student who passes off another's work as his own can face penalties ranging from marks deduction to expulsion.
Mr Rhys Johnson, senior vice- president and provost of Kaplan Singapore, said it has processes to detect cheating. For example, a student who scores highly in coursework but gets a low exam mark will be flagged.
Teachers must also authenticate candidates' coursework before submission, said the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board.
However, cases of students getting others to do their assignments are hard to prove. SIM GE said it has not come across any.
One anonymous local essay service provider, in his 30s, said he ensures the content matches the required depth of knowledge for the students' grade level, and tells them to edit his work so it matches their style and level of understanding.
Each piece of work costs between $180 and $600, and he gets an average of about two inquiries a month. He does not think of his work as unethical, saying: "We only wish to ease the burden of schoolwork and not to help students pass one assignment after another, which would give some an unfair advantage."
Carousell said it has not received any feedback from schools about such services, and it will work with the authorities if it is required to.
I chatted with a former professional essay writer and I shared most of her views. These are her confessions and I hope you enjoy the read.
I considered myself to be great in writing essays, so maybe I could finally benefit from that talent. I applied for a position as an essay writer for Best Essays and a few days after I got it, I decided to quit my office job for a marketing firm.
With time, the enthusiasm dropped and I realized that professional writing services had an undermining effect on today’s educational system. I read a publication in The Atlantic once and the article made a huge impact: now I’m out of that industry and I’m already an ESL teacher, I thought to share a few of my findings.
Initial Impressions: It Was Great To Be An Essay Writer.
At first, I believed I was helping students become better writers. They were going to use my content as foundation for their own research, and they would develop the ideas further. Truthfully, some went ahead to become better writers themselves, improving on their content and research abilities, but some just made seeking professional writing a habit.
I have to say the company I worked for did not convince students to buy papers there. It was strictly their own decision, and we were providing the products they asked for.
Why Students Need Essay Services
Maria, one of the first customers I worked for, needed a review of The Count of Monte Cristo. She told me she liked reading, but the volume of work the professor imposed was too much. I remember what she said: “If I read and analyze all these books, when will I find time for the other papers? When will I study for the exams?” That was a genuine concern.
Robert, another student I remember, liked the work I delivered, so he specifically requested my assistance for several other projects. As he explained, he didn’t want to go to college in the first place, but he had to deal with the great expectations of his successful parents.
Students have many reasons for using an essay writing service. Some of them are lazy; others are too busy or have poor time-management skills; some are parents; others have a part-time job; and most of them have no idea how to write academic papers. Most of the students who buy papers online are non-native English speakers from Eastern Europe and Asian countries, but Americans and Australians also place many orders. The percentages of males and females in the base of customers are almost the same (52% are male and 48% are female). Interestingly, 65% of the first-time users returned to buy more papers.
College students are not the only ones who need essays as 40% of the customers are between 25 and 34 years old. MA and PhD candidates also need assistance with writing a dissertation or a thesis paper and that in itself, isn’t a bad thing.
The Problems With The Academic Writing Industry
I noticed a few glitches in the system. Now the work for a writing agency is very flexible. A writer can take as much work as they can handle. The pay is never a problem; as long as you work well, you get good money.
One day, as I logged into my profile, I noticed there were no orders delegated to me. I contacted the superior to ask if there were any available projects, and I got an answer I didn’t expect. The website’s positions in Google search results dropped. The competition built links to our website under misleading anchor text, such as “porn essay” or “payday loan.” Since Google can ban sites from niches like payday loans, gambling, and porn, black hat marketers are often building such links with the goal to get competitive websites banned.
The company managed to take those bad backlinks down, and the website was back in business. After some time, there was another incident that showed how corrupt online marketers could get. I got a request for revisions. I had been working with the student before and he was happy with the work I delivered. This time, he was furious about the bad quality he received. We exchanged a few messages before I realized; that paper was not written by me. The competitors had created an identical website with a very similar domain name, and tricked our loyal customers to order papers there. They got plagiarized content and no refunds. That was a shame.
During the high seasons (fall and spring), there are almost 7,000 people looking to buy papers online, monthly. The keyword planner marks the competition for this keyword as “low” because these services don’t have access to advertising campaigns. Google banned such adverts back in 2007. Regardless of that action, the essay writing niche is still very competitive and growing stronger than ever. Its little wonder competitors are using whatever means necessary to gain mileage.
The situation with the scamming service presenting a plagiarized paper as something I wrote was the drop that spilled the cup. I realized I could help students do better with their tasks through other means, hence the career change. Now, I’m working as an ESL teacher.
Many would say that the essay writing niche is unethical and I would agree. But I believe these essay providers can devise a means to help students actually become better at writing and carrying out their academic goals or assignments. It may seem as a bad business strategy, but it is value added.
It was an interesting experience, to say the least. I enjoyed researching and writing, and I focused on the fact that I was learning something new every single day. However, I can help students become better professionals in a different way.