Home & School Matters: Don’t Plagiarize a B-School Application Essay

As business schools close out the admissions process for the 2013-2014 academic year, tallies of plagiarized applications are emerging. Some schools have begun to use Turnitin for Admissions — software to check originality in admissions essays — and they are finding that yes, a percentage of the application essays have been plagiarized. Bloomberg Businessweek has reported that UCLA’s business school “rejected about 115” applicants in the last few years and Penn State’s has rejected “about 87 since 2009.”

While originality-checking software has long been used in classrooms, it’s relatively new to the admissions process. Turnitin for Admissions, part of the larger Turnitin anti-plagiarism company, began in 2009.

The essay portion of a business school application is one part of the application overall; applicants also submit GPAs, resumes, recommendations, and standardized test scores. The essays help application committees to get a sense of who the applicant is. Turnitin for Admissions helps schools make sure that “people they are admitting are ethical and are who they say they are,” according to Turnitin’s Chris Harrick.

At heart, the software is a flagging system, a tool used to indicate which passages might be questionable. Someone at the university has to review the text and make the call if the similarities are actually plagiarism.

About 20 business schools have signed up with Turnitin for Admissions and only a few of those have publicly acknowledged using it. Dr. David Wangaard, executive director of the School for Ethical Education (the school is a sponsor of Turnitin’s “Plagiarism Awareness Week”), argues that any school who uses such software should be transparent about its use. According to Wangaard, schools should tell applicants, “You’re applying here, your application is going to be screened.”

At the same time, Harrick points out, some schools don’t want to talk about using Turnitin for Admissions because the schools don’t want to be seen as endorsing a given product. And then there’s this: In terms of selective schools, says Harrick, “a lot don’t necessarily want to admit that they have a problem.”

Cheating can happen anywhere, and when the stakes are high, cheating may be more likely. A recent New York magazine article explored the problem of cheating at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in New York City. According to the article, recent research found that even the most impulsive cheaters cheated less often when they believed the point of the test was to help them master the material, not just get a score. “If everything is always high-stakes,” [Professor Eric] Anderman says, “you’re going to create an environment conducive to cheating.”

In 2012, newly-graduated students from 2-year full-time MBA programs who got job offers reported that they received an average of an 81% base salary increase over what they had earned before getting their MBAs (Graduate Management Admission Council – Global Management Education Graduate Survey). An 81 percent salary increase could be seen as a high-stakes situation. Anderman was talking about high school students, but extrapolating from what Anderman says, a significant salary increase could mean that businesss school applications are very high-stakes, and therefore create an environment conducive to cheating.

Rutgers professor Donald McCabe has researched and written extensively about academic honesty. He points to the importance of schools’ creating a culture of honesty as a way to prevent plagiarism overall. “Communicating to students that the institution cares about the issue seems to be an important first step,” he writes in the International Journal for Educational Integrity. He argues that the “constant flow” of reports of cheating in many professions “can create the belief that everyone cheats to get ahead and if you want to be competitive and thrive in today’s world, you’ll have to do the same.” Schools, he writes, may be the “our last chance to deliver a different message to young adults.”

Moira Muldoon
Moira Muldoon writes about technology, culture, education and healthcare. Her work has been published in Wired.com, Salon and the Austin American-Statesman, among others.
Moira Muldoon
Tags: Education,Software,Technology