I was very pleased to read the recent news article  in Inside Higher Ed describing the new essay service that has been made available by Turnitin.com to uncover plagiarism in admissions essays. The article presented some compelling statistics for utilizing this service including that “36 percent [of the 450,000 admissions essays scrutinized] had enough in the way of ‘significant matching text’ to make it reasonable to suspect plagiarism or the use of purchased essays.” I am clearly pleased that we will have a new tool in the fight against plagiarism. Academic dishonesty should always result in serious consequences and imposing consequences can only happen if there is knowledge of what transpired.
But does this go far enough? A number of years ago, a friend was talking to me about his son. The son was in the process of applying to the top five national graduate programs/ schools in his subject area. This friend talked about his son’s GPA, and his score on the standardized test and both were very impressive. The dad also talked about his son’s essay which he felt was also very compelling. The essay outlined a series of activities undertaken by the son to help economically disadvantaged youth. I commented to the dad that I was enormously impressed by both the quality and quantity of the son’s community engagement. The dad’s response, which surprised me, was that he wasn’t sure that his son had done all that was claimed but that the essay was nevertheless very compelling. I very quickly responded that I have zero respect for someone who takes credit for important work that the person never actually did. And the friend responded just as quickly that his son had done all the work claimed.
Did he actually do the work? I accepted what the friend said but I’m not sure I believe it. And the reality is that we often have no basis to conclude whether an admissions bio or an admissions essay is true or is not true. But we would be very safe in assuming that both alternatives are well represented in the typical pool of admissions essays. Therefore, even if we can spot plagiarism, we may not have made the overall progress we need to make if major league lying is not detected. What should we do? Rethink the admissions essay and be careful that what we ask can help limit puffery. But if a potential student talks about service or accomplishments and if this service or these accomplishments can make a difference in terms of the admissions decision, the student should be asked to include a reference from a person familiar with this aspect of the student’s accomplishments. We should give credit where credit is due for a student’s accomplishments. And we should do all we can to make sure that credit is not given and a penalty is imposed, if the reality is that there is no reality in what the student is claiming.