Spoiling the Ballot – Online Update 2

Click here for the previous update 5 March 2011

A sideways look at the Cambridge University Students’ Union elections.

Yesterday’s blog post created a pretty furious response.

Having checked and done a little more digging on Access candidate Taz Rasul’s website, I have a couple more comments to make:

On her TazHelp page, Rasul links to a website for Peterson’s Graduate Schools, saying it provides “…good information.”

Peterson’s certainly does contain some advice on personal statements, much as Rasul’s site does of the “choosing a topic that won’t offend readers is… important” kind.

However, it also contains a whacking great advert for a Peterson’s-owned company called EssayEdge, which offers a “Premium Essay Editing Service” to “make your college admissions essay shine.” For this – EssayEdge charges up to US $401.95.

Rasul’s site also recommends Studential, another personal statement ‘advice’ service, which prominently advertises ‘professional editing’ company personal-statement.com – a site that apprears to charge applicants a minimum fee of £24 for their services.

Studential also points Oxbridge hopefuls in the direction of Oxbridge Interviews, a company charging money for interviewing advice. It also links to oxbridgeapplications.com and for good measure, a few ‘Essay Mills’ such as bestessays.com and essaywriter.co.uk.

Both Cambridge University and CUSU have major, major beef with these companies.

CUSU has policy condemning them, and the Admissions Office is unequivocally damning in its criticism on schools visits.

Yet from TazHelp, their websites are only two clicks away.

It’s probably worth pointing out former Access Officer Joe Farish agrees with my comments on TazHelp in yesterday’s post. I received an email from him about a couple of hours ago, which is included in full below.

“As last year’s CUSU Access Officer and the person who took to CUSU Council the policy on organisations and websites that offer personal statement editing services and interview coaching, the issue is not just about whether students have to pay to use the service.

“It is often seen to be the case that you need additional information or special advice, above information already provided by the University, in order to get in to Cambridge. It is this misconception that allows organisations like Oxbridge Applications to exist. By running a service which edits personal statements, it implies (no matter how well-intentioned the founder is) that you need this extra support and service to write a “good” personal statement (or to get through a Cambridge interview). This undermines all of our attempts to try to convey the message that you don’t need any additional services or training to get a place.

“I also worry about the students giving help being considered to be ‘experts’ – there is no single model of ‘good’ personal statement and there are many different styles, with the focus varying between subjects. Cambridge students have only written one personal statement, and there is no guarantee that their statement was exemplary; I worry that they could actually give misinformation, which would be even more detrimental to access.

“If you want a level playing field, you have to make sure that information is provided by universities freely and that it is easily available to all students – and this is something that Cambridge is doing with its Applicant Toolkit. Encouraging them to provide more information about a specific aspect of the application system is fine. Different universities use the personal statement in different ways, so it should be the universities providing information about what they look for in personal statements, not students.

“For me, the distinction lies between general advice (which Tazhelp does also appear to give, and is something that I often gave in school visits) about personal statements (the purpose of them, topics that you might want to cover), and editing or trying to give specific advice about personal statements. Once you get into the latter territory, you enter very murky waters and risk perpetuating the myth that there is information that the University are only telling certain people. Many students already worry too much about their personal statement and there is no set template for it; candidates should be encouraged to ensure that their personal statement is just that – personal. The University steers clear of organisations claiming to offer ‘insight’ into admissions or individual help with applications, and I would urge Andy’s successor in CUSU to do the same.”

Right…Onto a bit about one of the candidates for Coordinator:

On her website, candidate Charlotte Lawes makes a big deal of her “extensive organisational skills.”

She tells us she has extensive experience “at a company called Maplecroft, which deals with Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) risk. I’ve worked my way up from an office junior, and now juggle research with a whole load of other administrative tasks.”

Excellent stuff. Or so it seems. But Maplecroft, a company which analyses “over 500 global risks and issues to provide a comprehensive portfolio of indices, interactive maps, scorecards, briefings and in-depth reports,” has come in for some harsh criticism in recent years.

Ed Carr, an Associate Geography Professor at the University of South Carolina, has said “they really don’t know what they are talking about, but they have made a nice looking product that might mislead people into thinking that they do.”

Website Examiner.com is also pretty dismissive, saying: “If you’ve never heard of Maplecroft, rest easy. Most people have not….and for the sake of simplicity, let’s say that Maplecroft rates terrorism risks the way Nielsen rates TV hit shows.”

Australian student paper Campus Daily dismissed the terrorism risk analysts’ products as “built on lies no fitness of purpose.”

If Adam Booth gets elected as President, Lawes’ ‘work experience’ may be a serious problem. That aside, in today’s Presidential debate, opponent Gerard Tully branded the left-wing Booth an “extremist,” to the baffled amusement of both Booth and the listening crowds. With Lawes as Coordinator, CUSU much like her mentors – could possibly struggle to properly assess the ‘threat’ he poses to students.

That’s all for now – the candidates’ debates will have to wait for my next post…

James Burton

Views & Comments expressed are the opinions of individuals and not necessarily the opinions of Cambridge University Students’ Union or The Cambridge Student Newspaper. Any views of potential candidates expressed in this column are not necessarily the views they would hold if elected. In all cases, elected candidates would respect due process in the totality of their interactions with staff.

Spoiling the ballot will be running regularly online for the remainder of the election:

Click here for the next update

Click here for the previous update