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How business schools tackle plagiarism in MBA applications

Plagiarism in MBA applicationsIn 2011, the UCLA Anderson School of Management rejected 52 applicants for plagiarism, 1 percent of its applicant pool. The next year, Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business rejected 48 applicants, 10 percent of its pool. These schools used plagiarism-detection software.

Earlier, in 2010, plagiarism in admissions essays had attracted renewed public attention when the admissions office for the MBA program at Smeal detected the crime in a big way. One of the topics for application essays was how the b-school used the concept of “principled leadership.” The admissions office found that not only had some 30 applicants copied some passages from an article on the topic but some of them had not bothered to change the font of the original article, not to mention its voice.

Penn State turned to, which had developed a software to detect plagiarism in work submitted by college students, and announced its new initiative. The admissions offices of other schools also started using Turnitin’s software. Today, a few thousand schools use the software and more than millions of essays and papers have been processed by it.

What is plagiarism? Simply put, it is trying to pass off someone else’s work as your own, that is, without attribution. Absence of attribution by itself may not be seen as plagiarism. For example, an applicant may use a famous quote without attribution and come to no harm. However, when he copies a sentence or a whole paragraph, he will come under the eagle eye of essay evaluators.

Even in the late 1990s, schools were using online resources to catch plagiarists. Harvard University used, and the website had already screened 27,000 admission essays by 2007 and found that 11 percent of the essays contained at least a quarter each of unoriginal material.

In a frozen state

Although business schools are aware of the prevalence of plagiarism in application and student essays, not many schools have managed to take strong measures against it.

According to research published in 2016 by Kira, a Toronto-based online admissions interview video platform, only 17 percent of over 50 northern American b-schools surveyed reported that they used plagiarism-detection software. A Fortune article in 2015 reported that only about 40 b-schools were using plagiarism detection software.

Kira found that 84 percent of the schools believed that plagiarism in school admissions was a problem, but only 30 percent had a system to prevent it. Of the 70 percent of colleges without a system, only five percent even planned to install a detection process. Only 24 percent had a definition of what constituted plagiarism.

What does Turnitin do?

Schools that use Turnitin, as well as the company, believe that the software has helped reduce instances of admissions plagiarism significantly. The Turnitin software checks an applicant’s essay with millions of web pages, old and archived student essays, journals, and books. It highlights suspect portions of the essay and provides possible sources.

It is, of course, up to the school to decide whether flagging by the software is a false positive, or a major or minor instance, and decide on the applicant’s status accordingly.

According to Turnitin, small instances of similarities could be coincidental, but the chances of a 16-word sentence fully matching a sentence in another source is one in a trillion.


Applicants from East Asia, mainly China, are a big source of worry for admissions officials fighting plagiarism. A New York Times article in 2011 claimed that 90 percent of Chinese applications to US universities admitted to submitting false recommendations.

Seventy percent of them admitted that they didn’t write their essays themselves (in some countries, it is not considered a crime to copy from a published source), and 50 percent admitted that they falsified school transcripts. In one year, 10 out of 18 cases of plagiarism at Smeal involved Indians, according to a web resource.

A number of free essays are available online. Many websites offer “editing assistance” to college applicants, and others provide examples of “essays that worked.” Websites have put up disclaimers that their staff don’t actually write the essays but only provide inspiration to applications.

A Poets and Quants article quotes Kira’s Andrew Hastings as saying that figures for Chinese applicants have to be seen in the light of the fact that enrolment from China is growing and that only about one in six schools are using plagiarism software. It is a serious problem.

Interestingly, Chinese applicants who use essay-writing services are not the only worry for admissions offices. Nor are applicants with low GMAT scores or poor communication talent who depend on essay writers. Among plagiarists are top applicants vying for acceptance in elite schools, who want their essays to be polished to a shine before dispatch.

Kira found that 62 percent of respondents to its research believed admissions consultants were to blame for plagiarism. Many consultants either write applicants’ personal essays or edit them substantively for a fee. Some of them also plagiarize, and not many applicants check whether the consultant has indulged in plagiarism.

Greater use of plagiarism detection software likely

Poets and Quants reports that more schools will be implementing advanced plagiarism detection software. Of these tools is Slate, which was being considered for implementation by Sloan, Tuck, and Columbia Business School.

According to the company behind Slate, the software could detect “statistically significant metadata similarities.” For example, if an applicant wrote her personal essay and also her own recommendation letters to be signed by her recommenders and forwarded to a school, Slate would detect “statistical similarities” between the essays and the letters.

The human element

Hastings says schools could use interviews with applicants to find out whether those neat little essays were actually written by these persons. An applicant may be able to get others to write his essay for him, but he certainly will not be able to commit deception at an interview, whether it is conducted in person or on phone, Hastings feels.

Although software may be a sharp weapon for admissions officials, they need to continue to summon their own expertise in evaluating essays and detecting plagiarism, feel admissions experts. Essay evaluators need to study reports put out by software, and holistically consider the merits and demerits of the applicant.

For example, at Smeal, when software flags an essay, the school officials review the case and detect whether Penn State’s guidelines on plagiarism have been violated.

The Harvard Crimson quotes the Dean of Admission, Harvard College, as saying that admissions officials’ intuition can helps catch plagiarists. The essays that applicants buy from private agencies cannot be labeled as unoriginal, since it may be an original work by a professional writer.

However, when the quality of an essay far exceeds the expectations from an applicant, given her profile, grades, or test scores, officials smell a rat. The applicant is called and asked to give an explanation and, if unsatisfactory, the application is rejected.

For and against software

However, some admissions offices are worried about “due process,” according to an article in They fear some applicants may be rejected on the basis of incorrect reports thrown up by software, and since applicants are not informed the reason for their rejection, they won’t know about the plagiarism accusation against them.

But due process is possible. Of the 30 applicants suspected of plagiarism at Penn State in one instance, 27 were clear cases of plagiarism and were rejected. Three applicants were asked to submit new essays. One of them was admitted. These 30 applicants came from a batch of 700 applicants, out of whom 200 were admitted. Penn State evolved a system where applicants flagged by Turnitin were not rejected but were further evaluated by essay experts.

Some professors on the other hand are happy that software has empowered them. They say that before the introduction of software, they used to feel helpless against plagiarism. Not anymore.

An expert in college admissions points out that hired writers or even parents themselves can write essays for applicants. These essays will appear original and software may not be able to detect that they are unoriginal.

Although Turnitin has said that a substantial number of applicants plagiarize essays—about 40 percent of essays, it says, have some matching text—some admissions officials wonder if the problem is as bad as portrayed, though they too feel that “more than one or two applicants” submit plagiarized essays.

Plagiarism by students after admission

Plagiarism continues to thrive after applicants are admitted as students. In 2006, A Rutgers professor, Donald McCabe, found in a survey of 5,000 students in 32 schools in the US and Canada that 56 percent of graduate business students engaged in fraud—plagiarism or using hidden notes during tests. This was 9 percent higher than graduates from other disciplines. Although ethics is part of b-school programs, these programs have obviously not been able to wipe out cheating.

There’s also a culture of collusion and apathy among students that stops them from reporting any academic dishonesty, according to Prof. McCabe quoted by P&Q. When students see that few professors do anything against plagiarism, they ask themselves why they should report their peers. McCabe’s solutions? Stronger enforcement of the honor code and multiple versions of question papers at examinations.

Going after plagiarism is a tender area for most b-schools, as schools, which are already facing funds crunch, would require even more money for a new system.  Moreover, any publicity would affect them negatively. If students or applicants accused of plagiarism decided to take their cases to court, schools would have to find the time and resources to fight these cases.

Universities have also started to think what kind of managers those students who indulge in plagiarism would turn out to be. In business there are countless situations where the question of integrity is going to come up. How would managers with flexible morals behave in those situations? Would poor ethics continue to guide their principles and judgment?

Also read:
UCLA Anderson rejects applicants for unethical MBA essay writing practices 
How using sample MBA essays can hurt you
Sample Harvard Stanford MBA essays using ChatGPT
How do professors know if you copied essays?
Chinese students caught cheating in college admissions
Resources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 | Image credit:

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