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Are You Admitting Students with Plagiarized Application Essays?

Keeping Your Culture of Integrity Intact

Christine Lee
Christine Lee
Content Manager






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It’s a point of pride for many institutions to view their applicant pool as the cream of the crop, obviously untainted by plagiarism or cheating. It’s also the purpose of an admissions committee to peruse applications without suspicion or bias. Therefore, it’s easiest to assume that applications are honest representations of student potential.

But are they?

If students who engage in plagiarism are the most vulnerable and desperate students—why wouldn’t those behaviors cross over into the world of higher education admissions?

The realm of admissions is fraught for students. Competition is fierce. Students may feel desperate. The stakes are very, very high; students feel their entire future is based on which university they attend. For so many, their entire remembering lives focus on this very moment.

Even decades later, every moment of my own college applications process remains vivid in my memory. I still have nightmares (along with the one about missing a final exam) about the admissions process. I remember reading samples of successful college essays and yearning to write such winning statements. I remember aching over every word as I wrote my own essay. I remember the feeling of being judged. Of not being “enough.” I remember running to the mailbox for months, dreaming of big envelopes. I remember cohorts at school sharing to which universities they’d been accepted. I remember the counseling center holding Ivy League acceptances in the spotlight.

This emotional battleground may sound familiar—these are all the components that put students at risk of plagiarism. These are factors that leave students, not to mention their parents, vulnerable to plagiarism and dishonesty.

So what happens under temptation? When one makes decisions under stress, one thinks about what one can live with. One wonders if what one is doing is legal.

Is lying on your application essay against the law? So far, none of the students in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal have been charged—the charges have instead named parents and largely focused on money laundering, mail fraud, and racketeering. So while lying on your application essay is clearly an act of misconduct, the message is that it may not be “against the law.”

So what’s the message here? Just don’t get caught? The act of cheating fades into the background in the world of legal ramifications, and in the foreground are consequences for the ways in which payment was made. Also in the foreground are the universities themselves, whose reputations are on the line. So who’ s at risk?

When firms exist to coach students through the application process, sometimes crossing over into essay mill territory, they take control of the narrative and make this territory morally ambiguous. As a result, “getting help” on college applications isn’ t presented with moral clarity to students.

Another moral litmus test is the question, “What would your mother think?” If you felt your parents wanted you to go to an elite college, above all else—it’s logical to think your mom would approve, let alone participate in misconduct.

Are we making clear how vulnerable college applications are to cheating? And how cheating is tempting? And the ways in which one can justify dishonesty?

It’s common for institutions to say they don’t have a problem with plagiarized application essays. To say, “No way would anyone who applies to our institution plagiarize.” Or to say, “There’s no way to plagiarize a personal statement because it’s so personal.”

No way?

Janet D. Stemwedel, notes in her article, “When Applicants for Medical Residencies Plagiarize,” that 5.2% of 4,975 medical residency personal statements contained evidence of plagiarism.

When you admit someone who’s plagiarized or outsourced their application essay into your institution, you’re poisoning your culture. How can you expect someone who’s plagiarized their way through admissions to embrace an ethical culture on campus? How can you expect someone who’s plagiarized their application essay to uphold academic integrity?

The studies are only now being conducted on links between plagiarized application essays and subsequent instances of plagiarism on campus. The preliminary anecdotes make clear the possibility of a connection.

So the short answer is that you cannot expect someone who’s plagiarized their application essay to uphold academic integrity on campus. You must make plagiarism detection a part of your institution’s admissions process. You must free up your admissions committee to read applications without suspicion.

We’ve already seen through various admissions scandals the stain they leave on an institution’s reputation. We’ve already seen through various admissions scandals the short cuts and side doors people are willing to take to enter higher education. What’s stopping students who got away with cheating on their applications from continuing this pattern of misconduct once on campus?

As we stated earlier, earlier academic dishonesty leads to later workplace deviance.

And yes—the majority of students don’t cheat on their applications. The majority of students don’t outsource their application essays. The majority of students don’t plagiarize. But are you comfortable with even 1% acceptance of students who cheated on their applications? Of students for whom “short-cut” answers are an acceptable component of their playbook?

In a 2012 Insider Higher Education article entitled, “Dishonorable Conduct?” written in response to a cheating scandal at Harvard University, Allie Grasgreen states, “Perhaps the main culprit in such behavior, experts say, one that is ingrained deeply in college students today—particularly at elite universities like Harvard—is the idea that the main objective should be to pass, not to learn.”

In the same article, Teddi Fishman, director of Clemson University’s International Center for Academic Integrity, says:

“The students who make it to us (and especially the ones who end up in schools like Harvard) have learned exactly what they have to do to succeed, and sadly, that often has very little to do with becoming educated….Instead, it’s almost solely about figuring out what will be asked (in papers, tests, and other assessments), learning that material long enough to produce it when necessary, and then moving on to the next thing.”

Fishman says that for many students, the educational process “is simply a means to an end.”

This on-campus cheating and short-cut mentality could just as easily be applied to application essays, with the singular objective being “get accepted.” It goes to follow that such a person would bring that short-cut mentality with them onto your campus. It’s endemic to the environment, and while it shouldn’t exist at all, you must make sure they do not enter your gates.

And vice versa—someone who has the basis for academic honesty going in will be way more likely to uphold academic integrity. And we can surmise that ensuring the admission of honest students would then decrease plagiarism cases and scandals, thereby upholding an institution’s academic reputation. Who would you bet on to represent you throughout the course of a lifetime?

Want to uphold academic integrity in your admissions process? Learn more about iThenticate.