Custom Essays – Cheating or Study Aids?

What is a custom essay?

A custom essay is a paper written by a ‘ghostwriter’ – i.e. a professional writer who is paid to write books, articles, stories, reports, or other content but who does not receive any credit for it. The essay is ‘custom’ because it is written to the student’s exact essay question. A custom essay may be distinguished from a pre-written essay obtained from an ‘essay bank’ or ‘paper mill’. These types of essays are past essays donated by students, either in exchange for part of the sale proceeds or in exchange for access to other pre-written essays. They will be essays written in answer to a particular topic and therefore not ‘custom’ to the student’s essay question.

Where did custom essays come from?

Getting another student to write your paper for you is one of the oldest ‘cheats’ in the book – this might have been in exchange for cash, or if the student was weak, as a result of threats. This underground business was formalised in 2003 when Barclay Littlewood founded ‘Academic Answers Limited’, a registered UK company that trades under various names including UK Essays, Law Essays, Law Teacher and Degree Essays. The Company sought to clean up the industry by giving the custom essay customer, who would be used to dealing with dodgy companies often based in poorer, non-English speaking countries, a legitimate and worthy customer service experience. The Company attracted much criticism as ‘encouraging cheating’ and spawned many ‘copycat’ services.

How do custom essay services work?

The customer orders their essay usually through an essay company’s website. The Company sends out the order to their team of writers and those writers who can complete the project will put themselves forward to do the work. The Company usually seeks payment from the customer at this point. When the customer pays, the Company picks the writer they think is best suited to the project and tells them to start. The customised essay is delivered on the day the customer has agreed with the Company.

Is it cheating to use a custom essay service?

Arguably, to use the service alone is not cheating. Take, for example, a lecturer who sets a nice easy essay question: ‘Who was John F Kennedy?’. Most students will use Google to search for initial information on this topic and they will find some 7.6 million answers to their question. The process of reading through these answers is not cheating. However – if the student takes one of the answers and hands it in, passing it off as their own work, then without doubt, they are cheating. In fact, there are many more subtle ways they could use their material to cheat – rewording a website they found, rearranging words, citing the source but relying too heavily on the material – and so on. But they could also use the material as a guide and write their own, original answer to the question set. In the same way, a student who orders a custom essay can use the essay as a guide and can write their own original answer to the question that has been set for them. They can even do their own research.

How can a student benefit from a custom essay?

Universities are often cited in the press as saying that when a student orders a custom essay, they are being lazy – all the work is done for them. However, our earlier example of using Google or using a Question and Answer book – or even a model answer provided by the tutor themselves – shows that there are times during the research process when the student will come across what they think is the right answer. However, this does not mean they have to copy the answer word for word, neither does it mean that what they have found is the only answer and they should stop researching. If a student takes a custom essay and uses the sources to ‘read up’ on a subject, and to help them generate more sources and a greater understanding, then the custom essay is just a stepping-stone on the road to something greater. It is an example – a template, if you like – for students to see how the question could be dealt with – but after doing their own research, the student could well think that there are far better ways of dealing with the question!

When is using a custom essay service cheating?

The problem that is often publicised by the Press is that not all students who use custom essay services will use the service honestly. Some will hand in the essay that has been written for them, without doing any work themselves. When custom essays are viewed in this context, they help students to cheat and they reduce the value of a university education. Honest students, who do their own research and writing, are angry to know that their counterparts have completed the same degree, gained a better mark than them – and not lifted a finger for themselves.

But hang on .. degrees aren’t all about essays!

True. Even the most dishonest student HAS to do some work. Why? Because degrees usually involve at least: (a) Some practical assessments; and (b) An exam – or more often, several exams. So for the great majority of degrees, it’s not possible to cheat your way through university, even with the help of the best custom essay company. However – let’s say that in weighting your degree, your coursework element is worth 50% and indeed, the custom essays you receive and submit get you full marks. Your exam is worth 50% and you need a 40% grade to pass. This means you can get away with writing 2.2 standard answers in your exam and still gain a 2.1 degree, or writing 2.1 answers in your exam and still gain a 1st degree. This doesn’t work in every case though – the Open University for example, grade your course based on your exam and your coursework. If you only gain a 2.1 in your coursework then you can only get a 2.1 for that module, even if you get 100% in the exam. Even in that case, you could use custom essays to significantly reduce your workload. You could, for example, submit them all as coursework and have a lot more time to revise for the exam as a result. So understandably, there is a great deal of concern from Universities and from the Press about how these tools can be misused.

If they are open to misuse, why are custom essays still legal?

Custom essays are 100% legal, just as model answers that teachers hand out are 100% legal. Question and Answer books such as those produced by Blackstones are also 100% legal and sometimes, the questions in those are very, very close to the questions set for essays and for exams. The idea of these resources is that they are used as guides – they are not to be copied verbatim with no other research done. There are many things that are open to misuse that are still legal. Alcohol can be abused to the point of death but it also can be enjoyed sensibly, and so it is not a banned substance. Many over-the-counter drugs are potentially lethal if taken in large doses, but they also can cure the symptom of headaches, stomachaches and so forth – so they are not banned. Knives can kill, but they are also useful for chopping food. All these things have a use – as do custom essays. However, because the custom essay industry arose from a shady background, unlike alcohol, over-the-counter drugs and knives, people are not educated properly in their use and they do use them to cheat. This problem is further accelerated by the fact that a huge number of essay companies are happy to let their customers hand in the work and don’t offer any guidance on how it should be used. In addition, because the work is custom, it is difficult for teachers to detect that the student is cheating.

How could universities stamp out this kind of cheating?

Universities have already developed several strategies to combat this type of academic fraud. Some professors require students to submit electronic versions of their term papers, so that the text of the essay can be compared against databases of essays that are known to be plagiarised, ‘essay mill’ term papers. Although the student is ordering a ‘custom essay’ and expects it to be 100% original, in fact, many companies just rehash internet content and previously submitted work so what the customer receives is nothing like original – and so they get caught cheating when they hand it in. Other universities allow lecturers to give students oral examinations on papers which a lecturer believes the student did not write; if the student is unfamiliar with the content of an essay that they have submitted, then the student can be charged with academic fraud. Most lecturers know their students’ work well and will quickly spot if a student has changed style.

If custom essay companies agreed to submit all of their papers to the universities to scan, then students could not hand in the work as they would be quickly detected.

Should custom essay companies be banned?

Universities would certainly like to solve the problem by banning custom essay companies. However, the likely effect of this is that the service would just go ‘underground’ as it was prior to 2003. There are other ways that the problem could be dealt with. For example, if custom essay companies agreed to submit all of their papers to the universities to scan, then students could not hand in the work as they would be quickly detected. Barclay Littlewood of Academic Answers Limited has offered in the press to discuss this possibility with the relevant authorities, on the understanding that those authorities stop banning the use of his company, but to date, the prospect of working with the Company has not been entertained.

To use .. or not to use?

That is the question! The answer is a matter for your own judgment – if you plan on using a custom essay service to cheat, then it is likely you’ll be caught. The fact that the essay is 100% original is no safeguard for your lecturer’s sharp eye and if you’ve not done your research, you could be caught out when asked difficult questions about the content or the sources you’ve read. If you’re planning on using the custom essay properly, it’s a fantastic piece of research to use as a starting point for your own work. Don’t forget, however, that there are many dishonest websites out there – make sure you know where they’re based and ensure they are 100% legitimate, or you’ll end up paying a lot for something you could have found on Google for free.


About the Author:

Jennifer is a Fellow of the Institute of Legal Executives, holding the LL.B with first class honours and having over six years of experience as a lawyer in private practice. She now works for a private company in the Midlands and, in her spare time, writes for various websites. On this topic, she recommends Essay Cheat and, two sites devoted to the topic of essays and cheating in the context of university education.



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