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Letters may not make grade

A 28-year-old Bostonian has created a Web site to sell more than 1,000 "successful" essays used by students to get into schools like Harvard.

Harvard University admissions officers are sifting through 18,000 undergraduate applications at this moment, reading the enclosed "personal" essays and deciding who will fill the precious 1,600 spots in the class of 2001.

College admissions letters can be the deciding factor in who gets in and who gets a short rejection letter in the mail. Daniel Kaufman, the creator of IvyEssays, knows this. He got a thin letter from Harvard more than a decade ago.

That's why he says he created the Web site where he's selling copies of more than 1,000 "successful" essays used by students to get into law, business, and other programs at schools like Harvard.

Kaufman, a 28-year-old Bostonian and a Williams College graduate, says he wants to give students all over the Web a leg up when applying to prestigious universities. But at least one Ivy League school has questioned the legitimacy of the site, saying users should view it with a good dose of skepticism.

Kaufman says he is selling undergraduate essays for $1 to $4 for a single essay or $10 for a package of ten. Law school essays go for $20 per package, and business school essays are the most expensive at $50, with the exception of Harvard-only packages, which are priced at $60.

Although the users have no way of knowing if the essays are really winners, Kaufman says he asks essay writers to provide verification that they were actually successful through proof of enrollment or a copy of an acceptance letter.

In return, he shells out $150 for each complete set of successful business school essays, $100 for law school essays, and $75 for undergraduate essays. He said he can tell a successful letter when he reads it.

Kaufman rounded up his first batch of letters through "friends of friends" that got into Harvard. The name-dropping site advertises letters to the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern, University of Chicago, M.I.T., Dartmouth, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Columbia, Duke, University of Michigan, New York University, Stanford, and Yale.

Kaufman, who warns users not to plagiarize the letters, said, "We are doing this as responsibly as possible. I don't think any student who works hard for four years, getting good grades and doing extra curricular activities would all of a sudden take the last route and copy someone else's 200-word essay."

But Alex Huppe, director of public affairs for Harvard University, said students will plagiarize admissions letters. They've done it and been caught.

"Our admissions office has, in the past, caught plagiarizers, and those people lost chance of admission as a result," he said. "Our officers can tell real from phony. They make very, very few errors."

Huppe added Harvard does not endorse the site and did not release letters for its use. He suggests that students be wary of the validity of the letters. "I'd be suspicious of it."

Kaufman doesn't deny that people will do with the letters what they please, but he hopes students use them as a resource, just like the many books and courses already on the market.

"I think it helps relieve anxiety for kids because they're sitting there looking at five applications, and they don't know where to start."

Even the brightest of high school seniors need inspiration when tackling college entrance essays, according to Joan Catelli, a counselor at nationally recognized Lowell High School in San Francisco.

"Here, we have brought in people to talk to the issue of writing a good essay. We use sample essays, and [for] some of our teachers in their English classes, their course work involves writing a college entrance essay," Catelli said.

She agreed with Kaufman that students who have a shot at a school like Harvard aren't cheaters. "It's just one more source of information. They get their own ideas. I agree with that."

But still she thinks that students benefit more from individual attention than reviewing great letters. "I don't know whether the guidance has to come from looking at sample essays" as opposed to "talking to students and bringing out who they are as an individual."

But if students can't find themselves, they can still turn to sites Kaufman's site or even costly alternatives like the College Research Associates, who will review up to ten complete applications and essays for $800 or Campus Bound's complete application package option, in which for $200 a tutor helps write up to three essays.