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Cheating in College Application Essays

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Thanks to the Internet, smart phones, and other technological advances, the frequency of cheating in college—unfortunately—continues to soar. Some high school seniors are following suit before they even begin their first semester by plagiarizing their college application essays.

It’s merely one portion of the entire college application, but writing an application essay is no easy task. According to the College Board, a majority of colleges and universities still consider college application essays to be of “considerable” or “moderate” importance in determining which academically qualified students gain admittance.

Buying Essays Online

High school seniors have fretted over college essays for decades, and the stress or lack of motivation for some students makes them desperate enough to buy essays online or use one that a friend or parent wrote for them.

A 2007 study conducted by plagiarism software developer iParadigms analyzed the personal statements of 453,000 college applications. Forty-four percent contained some matching text while 36 percent contained “significant matching text,” leading to the suspicion that they were plagiarized, “recycled,” or purchased documents, reported Campus Technology.

Software Compares College Essays to Other Content

iParadigms’ plagiarism product, Turnitin (pronounced “Turn it in”) was such a success that they created Turnitin for Admissions in December 2009. Personal statements, admissions and scholarship essays, and other content submitted by college applicants are verified to help discover cheating in college application essays. Documents are submitted to a huge database of Internet content, subscription content, and other previously submitted documents. If a student’s content matches other content so closely that cheating is suspected, the college can then determine what action, if any, to take.

The L.A. Times reports that more than one hundred U.S. colleges and universities are now using Turnitin for Admissions, mainly for graduate applicants. The article speaks of plagiarized college applications at schools from coast to coast.

One MBA applicant at Boston University wrote about his own employment history, lavishly describing the organizations for which he had worked. A UCLA Anderson School of Management applicant used the same exact terms to describe his father. Coincidence? No. The Boston University student’s essay was from 2003 and had been posted on a business website. The UCLA applicant was rejected for plagiarism, thanks to Turnitin for Admissions.

Why Applicants Cheat

Larry Schwartz, graduate admissions director at Dominican University of California in San Rafael, told the Times that some applicants “resort to whatever means possible to get an edge. It’s unfortunate, but I think it’s human nature.”

The Pew Research Center, together with the Chronicle of Higher Education, surveyed over 1,000 college presidents from both public and private two-year and four-year schools. More than half said they have noticed an increase in plagiarism in the last decade and claimed that the Internet has played a major role.

Don McCabe, a professor at Rutgers University Business School, told NPR that many students cheat simply because others do. “They see other students cheating and getting away with it and getting ahead in this great GPA race,” which makes them feel like they’re being left behind unfairly, McCabe explained.

The American Dream?

Cheating in college application essays isn’t limited to American students. GlobalPost reports that some Asian students are willing to sacrifice their integrity and do whatever it takes to attend a U.S. college or university. College prep agencies offer plagiarized essays in perfect English as well as fake awards, transcripts with adjusted grades, and even smarter students willing to pose as the applicant to take SAT exams.

A survey by Zinch China suggests that application fraud among Chinese college applicants is ubiquitous. According to the 250-student survey, an astonishing 70 percent of college essays were ghostwritten and 50 percent of high school transcripts were also faked.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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