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College admission essay plagiarism: How do professors know if you copied essays?

College admission essay plagiarism: How do professors know if you copied essays?


College admission essay plagiarism

A Quora post, written apparently by a professor fighting plagiarism as part of her campaign to uphold ethics in daily life, challenges students who plagiarise: “If you find something to cut and paste, I’ll find it, too.”

She says that since plagiarist are also lazy, professors can detect copied portions from the very first page of plagiarism-search results, even when they have chosen just five words from the student’s essay to check.

What’s plagiarism? If you misappropriate someone’s work as your own and fail to provide attribution, then you are guilty of plagiarism. To be fair to the original author of your source, you could mention the source in your own text or provide a citation with footnotes, endnotes, or a bibliography. After mentioning your source and giving the proper citation, you could proceed to support or refute the original author’s idea or add to it with your own thoughts and findings. That’s the way to keep away the p-word.

But you need not panic over every sentence, thinking it will be marked as plagiarized, although it isn’t. As long as you provide citation to everything that you mention that is not common knowledge (“the sky is blue” doesn’t need a citation), as long as you put quotation marks around someone’s exact words, as long as you used your own words for text outside quotation marks, you’re not guilty of plagiarism.

How do professors know if you plagiarized or copied essays?

Detecting plagiarism is no rocket science for admissions officials and professors. They can usually spot a copycat’s work miles away. When the style of writing or tone or quality of an essay changes through an essay, and seems superior to the student’s known academic standard as evident from his/her academic transcript or history, then things are obvious to them: the applicant or student is guilty.

However, admission officials are always pressured for time, and many may not go through every essay with a fine-tooth comb unless there is a really bright red flag: for example, if a student with low testing and academic grades submits an essay on James Joyce.

Writing style

Admission-essay evaluators are blessed with an almost preternatural talent to identify passages where the applicant’s writing style deviates from the rest of the essay and points to plagiarism. Their eyes only have the skim the first few words for them to make out that an entire sentence or paragraph is a lift from another source.

When part of an applicant’s essay sounds to evaluators like something they have read before, their first instinct is to Google it. They can tell when a student attempts to paraphrase someone’s words but fails. An educator points out that evaluators and professors are experts in particular topics and have likely read many books and papers written on those topics. Identifying a concept as something that they have seen written before by another author is not difficult for them.

Poor writers also tend to ramble or, in some cases, write too little. Some of them make up daft phrases or repeat themselves, “This article is written by . . .” or “This author says in his article . . . ,” in order to get to the minimum word length required for their essay.

Quality of discussion

Professors/evaluators also look for deviations in the level of thought and discourse in an essay. If an essay suddenly starts to sound deep and incisive, they guess what’s going on.

After a few inane paragraphs, some essays suddenly shift gears. This makes the evaluator wonder: Could this essay have been written by this applicant given his/her previous academic performance and academic record? Could this introduction and conclusion have really been written by this student?

Of course, not all great essays are one hundred percent original. The writer probably drew at least some concepts from another author’s work. But good writers have the skill to rephrase ideas well enough that only the bare concepts are identifiable. Most student writers don’t have this skill. They depend on crude copy-paste or other methods and are easily caught out.

Other signs of plagiarism

Professors also check the file properties of the paper when in doubt, such as the date on which the file was created, when it was last edited, and who last saved the file. They are immediately suspicious when this data doesn’t show the applicant as the user.

Changes in the font, type size, type style (italics, bold, underline), and formatting (spacing, margin) are complete giveaways and quickly alert essay evaluators. So also the presence of hyperlinks. Changes in voice or tense and shift to first person are also warnings signs—for example, when an applicant suddenly starts writing in first person, “after many years as a physician, I find that . . . ,” but that would be shouting from the rooftops.

Some applicants are careless enough to provide outdated information, such as “our current President, George W. Bush” or “the Soviets have recently made this discovery . . . ” Some others mix up citation styles among Chicago, MLA, APA, etc. A few expose themselves by shifting between US and British spellings.

Professors can identify essays that were bought and used or recycled. They see the same clever phrases in hundreds of essays sourced from essay-writing agencies. Often, the essays that are bought have no proper in-text citation or bibliography.

An academic experts feels that it is errant applicants from economically underprivileged backgrounds who resort to the most unsophisticated methods of plagiarism. In a desperate attempt to submit a good essay, they depend on essay mills and are more likely to get caught. Applicants from well-off families, however, can afford better ways to break the rules: they can summon “master artists” who dish up not plagiarized essays but original ones custom-written for applicants for a fee that may run into six figures.

Plagiarism Checker Software and Detection Tools

A quick and simple method that essay evaluators and professors use to detect plagiarism is to enclose a sentence or a paragraph from the applicant’s essay in quotes and Google it. The search results will show exact matches to earlier works in which the sentence or paragraph was used.

There are now more sophisticated software tools to identify plagiarism, which use “pattern-matching technology.” They include Turnitin, Veriguide, Plagiarism Checker, Grammarly plagiarism checker, PlagiarismCheckerX, Plagiarisma, Crosscheck, iThenticate, SafeAssign, Plagium, Plagscan, and Writecheck. Built-in text matcher software is also in use. There’s even a software tool to check computer programs, called MOSS (Measure of Software Similarity).

Turnitin, for example, compares essays with a massive online database that contains not just the works of well-known authors and other good writers but also student essays already submitted. The software highlights repeated content and puts out a similarity report. It is up to the evaluator to make an informed choice about whether an essay is plagiarized or not.

However, the use of software to check essay plagiarism has seen its share of controversy. Detractors point out that two applicants may inadvertently use the same phrase in their essays or one may repeat something he/she wrote before. The essay database may flag these instances of “accidental plagiarism” as suspicious. Software that warns applicants and students about parts of their essays that may be seen as plagiarized is also available, “essentially arming both sides in the plagiarism war,” according to an FT article.

Consequences of plagiarism

College admissions officials quite unsparingly reject applicants on strong evidence of plagiarism. Many see their action as a warning to students to always maintain academic integrity. They may, on occasion, overlook inadvertent errors such as failure to provide citations for one or two points in an essay, if on the whole, the work reflects honest effort. But blatant plagiarism is not a crime they condone.

By punishing plagiarists right at the doorstep, admission officials and professors hope to dissuade them against carrying the copying habit eventually to their schools and to persuade them to work harder.

They hope to warn them of plagiarism’s dire consequences—destruction of the student’s reputation and expulsion; rejection by other schools or colleges for ethics violation; destruction of academic and professional reputation, as a past academic misdemeanour can follow a person through his career; legal repercussions, as suits based on copyright laws may be filed; and monetary loss, as the original author may have to be compensated.

College officials are likely asking plagiarists, if you have spent more time on how to avoid being found out for copying than on how to write a great essay, then are you really cut out for academics? Are you planning to graduate because your parents want you to, or simply to get a job, or because you didn’t know what else you could do? Many students find from their own experience that if they earn their teacher’s respect for their honesty and academic effort, it is not difficult to succeed, and that their struggle to beat detection is, at least eventually, a hopeless exercise.

The tragedy of student plagiarists is that most fail to learn to write well after years of school and college. They deny themselves the benefits of reading important and interesting books and papers, evaluating and understanding new ideas, and putting across their viewpoints in their own words. They convince themselves that it is not worth it or not possible.

They spent more time in the often fruitless pursuit of how to cheat, and fail to realize that they may be able to cross this hurdle if they ask for help. Their laziness and lack of application result in their never being able to learn, a shortcoming that may stay with them even through their professional lives. For, if the prospect of entering a university doesn’t ignite their passion for learning, what other environment can inspire them?

Also read:
UCLA rejects applicants for MBA essay plagiarism
Sample MBA Essays – 5 Reasons they won’t work for you
What you can do after getting rejected by your dream university?
How to write Undergraduate College Essays about yourself?
References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10