Turnitin, a software program that's used by colleges around the country to detect student plagiarism, is now a tool in the admissions process.
Larry Gordon of the LA Times reports that more than 100 college and university programs are now using the software to screen applicants' essays. UCLA's Anderson School of Management and Stanford University are among the schools doing so--and turning away applicants whose work is not their own, Gordon writes.
At UCLA's graduate school, plagiarism was discovered on a dozen of the 870 applications received this year. And since Penn State's Smeal College of Business started using the program, it's picked up plagiarism rates of between 3 and 5 percent, an admissions officer told the LA Times.
High schools and colleges have used Turnitin's database since the 1990s, and the company developed a version of the software for admissions essays two years ago, the LA Times reports.
And the use of Turnitin on applications for undergraduate programs could become a lot more widespread if the software is picked up by the Common Application, an online service used by nearly 500 colleges that's seriously considering implementing it, according to the LA Times.
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As college admissions consultants, one of our primary tasks here at CollegeVine is to help students write the best personal essays they possibly can. As we’ve noted before, the personal statement has the potential to seriously help a college understand why they should accept you. At the same time, knowing how powerful a personal essay can make the prospect of writing one seem difficult intimidating.
The stress of writing a personal statement that some students face can cause some to feel tempted to instead cheat the system for fear that they cannot succeed or will not be accepted to a satisfactory college otherwise. Some recruit someone or several people to write their essay for them, or even try to submit essays or portions of essays that they find online as their own work. This is considered plagiarism, and we do not condone it in any way.
Because we know how stressful the college application process can be, we’d like to take the time here to remind you all that plagiarism is never the answer. Though competitive and complicated, the college admissions process is not an unwinnable game. There are virtually no benefits to being dishonest; meanwhile, cheating leaves you vulnerable to endless issues and negative repercussions. What many students do not realize—and what we would like to highlight here—is that it is remarkably easy to identify plagiarism. Chances are, if you do not write your own application essay, you’ll get caught – and here’s why.
What Counts as Plagiarism?
First, let’s clarify what a university admissions committee would consider to be plagiarism to avoid unknowing offenses. Plagiarism is defined as is the act of claiming another’s work as your own. The most obvious form of plagiarism in the college application process involves hiring a freelance writer or company who will write your essay for you. Though it may seem appalling, these companies and individuals do exist and operate. However, if you are caught using their services, it is you, not them, who will suffer through the negative repercussions.
Another form of plagiarism involves copying-and-pasting sentences or entire paragraphs you did not author into the Common App. Even if you generated some of the content of your essay, one stolen sentence or paragraph is enough to be incriminating.
Additionally, gross over-editing from a parent, guidance counselor, or tutor becomes plagiarism when you are no longer writing the essay but rather directing your family and teachers to do so. What’s more, there really is no “fine line” between getting help and plagiarizing—if you are cheating, you will know. It is certainly okay and even encouraged for students to seek advice and feedback from teachers, parents, and guardians. But when you begin to allow your helpers to sit at the computer and type for you, a red flag should arise in your mind. When an editing session reaches that level of involvement, it has usually gone too far.
Why Is Plagiarizing Bad? An Ethical Approach
Before we ever launch into a discussion of the very real repercussions that can come of plagiarism, we think it’s important to discuss the ethical argument against plagiarism. As we state above, we do not condone it, because it disservices both you and your accomplices in the long run. Obviously is it unethical to put your name on another person’s words and take credit for their work; this is unfair to the original writer.
That said, it is wildly unfair to you as well. By cheating, you admit to believing that you need someone else to help you get into the right school when, in fact, just the opposite is true. The only person who can get you into the best school for you is—you guessed it—you. If you wind up being placed at a college based on work that isn’t your own, it could certainly come back to bite you later. Ultimately, you should want to end up at an institution where you are accepted on your own merit—these are the institutions that can best service you, your work ethic, and your specific set of strengths and weaknesses, and you need to apply honestly.
What’s more, you put yourself at a disadvantage by hiring someone else to write your personal statement for you, since the ultimate goal of the essay is to share intimate information about your personality—something you can do better than anyone else. Often, when students allow parents or tutors to revise their personal statement with too heavy a hand, the idiosyncrasies of the student are erased.
Why Not Plagiarize? The Practical Approach
We’ll start off by saying that it is usually fairly transparent when a student hasn’t written his or her personal statement. If the voice of your personal essay sounds inconsistent with that of other sections of your application, an adcom might notice and investigate further. College applications present you with many opportunities to voice your opinions—in the personal statement, through supplemental essays, or at an interview—and college admissions committees are particularly attuned to your voice throughout the process; this is because, ultimately, adcoms are trying to arrive at an admissions decision based upon your personality and mode of thinking. If you present a certain way in your interview and Common App but sound different in your personal statement, it will raise a red flag.
Your English grades and TOEFL test scores can serve as another point of reference for adcoms as they read your personal statement. If your scores are average, but your essay is extremely well written, adcoms may question your essay’s credibility.
Moreover, adcoms are aware that it can be tempting to plagiarize a personal statement. They also know that there exist many consulting companies and outside parties that are willing to write essays for hire. Because of this, any suspicion about the credibility of your personal essay will trigger further investigation and may disqualify you from admission if substantiated.
Practically speaking, there are multiple ways for colleges to find out you haven’t written your own essay. Because application materials are submitted online, it’s easy to run plagiarism checks on essays through outside parties. Harvard is just one of many universities that uses this software capability to weed out plagiarizers.
Finally, stakes are high and universities do not entertain cheaters. If a college finds out that plagiarized your essay, you can expect an immediate rejection, or for your admission to be rescinded if a college finds out after the fact.
The Ethical Way to Get Help
If you are stressed about your personal statement—or, really, any part of your college application—there are myriad people and places that you can go to for help. Trust us when we say that cheating is never the solution. Our blog here is filled with posts that are designed to help answer any of your questions about the application process. Read this guide to answer all of your questions about whom to ask for help and how. Specifically with regard to essays, we publish “Essay Breakdowns” each year explaining how to approach the supplementary questions for top universities, guides to writing the Common App, and specific analyses of each of the personal essay prompts (here’s #1 in the series).
And, of course, we’re always here to help you. If you need help on an essay and want to work with one of our essay editors, follow this link to set up a meeting with a CollegeVine essay specialist
Lily is a History and Literature concentrator at Harvard University who is doing her darnedest to write a thesis about all of her favorite things at once: fashion, contemporary culture, art journalism, and Europe. A passionate learner, she cares deeply about helping high school students navigate the process of college admissions, whether it be through private essay tutoring or sharing advice on the CollegeVine blog.