College admissions officers get help catching plagiarists

College Admissions

An integral part of many college applications is the admissions essay. Students are expected to write these compositions on a wide range of topics, from hardship and perseverance to their favorite movie or book. Sometimes, they're expected to write these essays with no topic given at all. The entire writing process can be very intimidating, and often exhausting. With so much riding on these statements, and with thousands of essays available at the click of a mouse, the temptation to plagiarize admissions essays can be very strong.

In the past, admissions officers had to rely on a keen eye and a wealth of experience to help them distinguish between original prose and plagiarized verbiage. Nowadays, though, they have their own technology at hand: Plagiarism detection software.

Is college admissions essay plagiarism on the rise?

Plagiarism has become a problem for many admissions officers, from college to graduate and professional school. In a recent article on the website Inside Higher Ed, one admissions officer shared her story:

It wasn't that hard for admissions officers for the M.B.A. program at Pennsylvania State University to figure out that they had a plagiarism problem this year. One of the topics for application essays referenced the business school's idea of "principled leadership." Some applicants apparently Googled the term and came up with an article about the concept in a publication of a business school association. Thirty applicants submitted essays that either lifted many passages straight from the article or substantially paraphrased the article without appropriate attribution.

Carrie Marcinkevage, the program's admissions director, said she knew even before the most recent incident that some applicants plagiarized -- often badly. She described receiving essays in the past in which most of the application was in one font, but the essay was not only in a different voice but a different font, as if an applicant couldn't even be troubled to try to hide his dishonesty by changing fonts. This year, because 30 applicants plagiarized using the same essay, it was clear to Penn State that this problem isn't about just a few outliers.

"After this year, we knew the problem was real and we had to do something," said Marcinkevage.

So Marcinkevage and
Penn State turned to TurnItIn, plagiarism detection software that has been helping high school and college educators scan students' papers for unoriginal work since 1998. "Penn State business program has become the first college or university program to go public about using a new admissions essay service offered by Turnitin," says the Inside Higher Ed article. Other admissions offices have also signed on for the software, according to the company, but haven't gone public with that information.

What are colleges doing to stop plagiarism? 

Although originally designed to help catch and stop plagiarism in academic papers done in the classroom, the fact that TurnItIn scans over 13 billion pages when searching for plagiarized content makes it invaluable for admissions officers looking for websites students may use when writing admissions essays. Says the IHE article:

Turnitin is a huge force on campuses: it is currently used at 9,000 high schools and colleges, and has processed more than 100 million papers. Many professors value Turnitin and can be seen at scholarly meetings thanking its representatives in the exhibit hall. These faculty members tend to say that they used to feel helpless to fight plagiarism -- and that they were tired of using Google to try to find proof about work they suspected wasn't original.

Is this technology helping or hurting?

However, while this can definitely be great for educators and admissions officers, is it really that necessary? Some people are worried:

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director for external relations at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said he saw Turnitin's new service as "a solution in search of a problem." [...]The big challenge for admissions officers, he said, is "authenticity" -- how to find when the essay truly reflects the applicant. But Nassirian said that he doesn't think authenticity is destroyed when a parent or teacher proofreads an essay for typos, and that such a review is entirely appropriate. At a time when college admissions officers need to help applicants understand the difference between that kind of legitimate help and truly inappropriate help, plagiarism detection software creates a misleading view of what's ethical, he said. "The notion that the student sat in a hermetically sealed box and wrote the essay and sent it in was never an illusion of ours," he said. "The question about help is 'How involved?' "

And what about common phrases or definitions? Would TurnItIn consider those to be plagiarized? That remains to be seen. But when given cases like the recent Adam Wheeler forgery, can schools really be blamed for wanting to have as many discernment tools as possible at their disposal?

At the end of the day, what can you, Potential College Applicant, take from this? You never know who's reading, and you never know what they're using to check up on you. When in doubt, always be original.