Turnitin Begins Crackdown on Plagiarism in Admissions Essays

Posted by: Louis Lavelle on January 20, 2010

For a long time, b-school applicants have had it good. Submit an MBA application to Harvard, and who’s going to know if you send the same one to Wharton? And Columbia? And Yale? Turn in an essay with a few well-chosen words lifted from an online source, or a friend’s essay, and who’s the wiser? Well, those days are over my friends. O-V-E-R, over.

Turnitin.com, the web site that professors have been using for years to check student research papers for plagiarism, is now turning it’s attention to admissions essays, with Turnitin for Admissions. The new service, which was announced in December, checks admissions essays submitted by participating schools against a massive database that contains billions of pages of web content as well as more than 100 million student works previously submitted to Turnitin and millions of pages of proprietary content, including journals and books. It’s capable, the company says, of flagging instances of “plagiarism, recycled submissions, duplicate responses, purchased documents, and other violations of academic standards.”

No b-schools have signed up for the service yet, but it seems only a matter of time. The service was started by popular demand from colleges and universities, and b-school admissions directors are as vocal as any in their complaints about duplicate essays and similar problems.

And they don’t even know the half of it. Back in 2007, in anticipation of the new service, Turnitin undertook a study of every single undergraduate admissions essay submitted over the course of a year in a large (unnamed) English-speaking country, all told, about 453,000 “personal statements” received by more than 300 institutions of higher education. About 200,000 of them were found to include text that matched sources in the Turnitin database.

In all, more than a million matches were found (5 for each of the 200,000 essay). Half the matches were from online sources, with 29% coming from student documents (research papers, etc.) and 20% coming from other admissions documents. Turnitin’s conclusion: that 36% of the matches it found were suspected plagiarism. Here’s an excerpt from the Turnitin report:

Personal statements attached to university applications should be the work of that applicant and help the university know more about the perspective applicant. It is safe to assume that more that 70,000 applicants that applied though this system did so with statements that may not have been their own work. The number of Internet sites that matched personal statement/essay providing services leads one to question the additional 100,000 applicants whose personal statement contained a significant match (they may have borrowed or purchased all or part of their personal statement).

The list of internet sites where most of this poaching went on includes Wikipedia, the BBC, the Guardian newspaper, as well as numerous sites designed specifically to help students with their essays, including Peterson’s Essayedge.com. A few of the sites belonged to admissions consultants, including Accepted.com and EssayEdge.com, and few others, if you can believe this, actually belong to schools themselves, including online writing labs at Purdue University and Ohio State.

I really don’t know where to begin. If the Turnitin study is at all representative of the current state of college admissions, it seems safe to assume that more than a few current MBAs, and quite a few MBA alumni who have gone on to bigger and better things, started out their academic lives committing the cardinal sin of the academy, and a serious breach of ethics. If they stammered through the essays on their own, without the benefit of cutting and pasting, would they have been admitted? Impossible to say. Did not getting caught encourage them to go on to bigger and better lies? Again, nobody knows.

I’m willing to entertain any opposing viewpoint that makes a modicum of sense, but I’m not sure there is one. Is duplicating your admissions essay okay? Is plagiarizing someone else’s work in an essay ever permissable?

Reader Comments


January 19, 2010 9:35 PM

I agree about plagiarism, but what's wrong with using the same essay (story about leadership, mistake, etc.) for several mba admission applications? The schools ask similar questions, if it's one's own writing, why do you think it's wrong to submit the essay to more than one school if it still answers the question?


January 20, 2010 1:19 AM

While I agree that copying from some one else's work is wrong, I am concerned with implications that I can not recycle my own essays across schools.

As a B-school applicant, I have applied to multiple schools in various rounds. Would use of turnitin.com flag my goals essay as plagarism just because I have lifted a couple of paragraphs from an essay that I submitted to another school previously?

Further, what would be the level of information that would be sent back to the b-school? Would they know that I have applied to ten other schools and which schools? Do they even have a right to this information? It seems to me that this is an blatant invasion of privacy.

Also would there be a manual review in addition to the electronic matching of text before flagging this off for suspected plagarism? If so, who would do it? Turnitin.com staff or the respective B-school staff? in either case, there are privacy concerns. I hope turnitin.com has thought this through.

BW's Louis Lavelle

January 20, 2010 8:30 AM

@Ryan: I'm sorry if my post gave the wrong impression, but I'm really not sure if duplicating essays (in all or in part) on different applications is wrong. That's why I asked the question. I know admissions directors hate it (they sometimes find out when applicants inadvertently leave another school's name in the text of the essay) but that doesn't mean it's wrong. You make a good point about the schools asking similar questions, and let's face it, after a few years in the workforce how many many really good stories about leadership lessons learned can one person possibly have? I would really like to hear some other points of view on this one. Thanks Ryan!

Louis Lavelle, Associate Editor, Bloomberg BusinessWeek

Turnitin for Admissions

January 20, 2010 12:18 PM

Louis, I would like to clarify a few things for your readers. Turnitin for Admissions does not identify plagiarism. We identify matching text that can only be identified as plagiarism by the admissions professional that reads the Similarity Report.
In some types of documents like personal statements, there should not be significant matching text. It is safe to assume that many of the matches that we described in the report (all personal statements) were plagiarized.
When developing this new service, we found that many admissions professionals do not consider self-plagiarism a problem. This service has multiple safeguards built in to eliminate self-matches to the applicant.
We refer to recycled submissions as those application documents that are submitted by multiple applicants. For example, many business school applications contain essay questions that do not change from year to year. We are told that multiple applicants in the same year and in following years may submit the same answers. The volume of applications and the number of folks reading those applications make it difficult to identify those recycled essay answers. Technology is one way to help the admissions professional level the playing field and help them make fair well-informed decisions about applicants.

Jeff Lorton jlorton@turnitin.com

BW's Louis Lavelle

January 20, 2010 1:03 PM

@Turnitin For Admissions: Jeff, thanks so much for your note. It really clears things up about the new service. It also got me thinking: Will schools that use Turnitin For Admissions notify applicants of that beforehand, and clearly state their standards (i.e. using "recycled" submissions from another applicant will disqualify you, using your own essay at more than one school won't)? I think that alone would go a long way toward reducing recycled submissions.

Louis Lavelle, Associate Editor, Bloomberg BusinessWeek

O.N. in Columbus, OH

January 21, 2010 9:17 AM

Plagiarism should not be tolerated at any level in higher education and more so in b-school. Having said that, I am a bit confused as to why admissions officers find it problematic for one to give the same answers to the similar questions from multiple schools.

As a b-school prospect, I believe the same idea can be reframed in a unique narrative that subtly differentiates it from the others albeit told along the same lines. This is important because it offers prospective grad student the opportunity to give these essays the appropriate gravity they carry in determining the various qualities (righfully and otherwise) admissions officers look for in applicants. And this is from the standpoint of the addmissions folks.

I still believe that recycling one's OWN work, word for word, constitutes plagiarism. No question about that! In my undergrad studies, this was made abundantly clear and turnitin.com was simply an inescapable reality of our coursework.

Jeff Lorton

January 21, 2010 7:16 PM

Louis, we don’t know if admissions folks will notify applicants of their use of Turnitin for Admissions. We do know that many institutions currently include warnings about plagiarism in their admissions policies/applications. Our experience with clients using the Turnitin academic service and iThenticate (professional/corporate service) leads us to believe that deterrence does work with a small number of people. But to really make an impact, it takes more than warnings.

One more question to add to the discussion. If you are capable of success in business school, do you really need to be told that sharing your personal application answers (that may be reused by others) or using a consulting service to write your application documents is unacceptable?

Jeff Lorton
Product & Business Development Manager

BW's Louis Lavelle

January 22, 2010 9:14 AM

Folks, Turnitin just posted the report quoted in my blog post on its web site. If you'd like to read it for yourself, it's here: http://static.turnitinadmissions.com/static/build/media/c67485a9a6b64b07d830f7c3173d4f4dcb_countrywide_report.pdf

The press release about the new Turnitin for Admissions service is here: http://www.turnitin.com/resources/documentation/turnitin/sales/Turnitin_RELEASE_120109_Tii_for_Admissions_Announcement.pdf


January 28, 2010 6:16 AM

I believe Tuninitin.com is doing a great service for genuine applicants. It will go a long way in differentiating between students for the admission offices to select. However, the admission professionals have to accept the fact that essay questions do not vary significantly between B-schools. If the questions differ, then the institutions will automatically receive differential essays and sop’s.

However, using ones own work must be given admittance, some of the reasons for this are:
a) Applicants are applying to multiple institutions for a similar program.
b) The application process to b-schools will increase in complexity without adding value.

When a manager wishes to send a common memo or a message to multiple recipients – he does not send a special mailer personalized to each recipient… imagine the amount of time it would involve. Personalization must occur once – if it is the same cause. Beliefs can only change if there is a time-gap; involving more information or change in circumstances to alter the perspective. Presuming that these events will occur in a space of a couple of weeks between application deadlines of different schools is absurd.

Life before Turnitin.com: has it to be assumed that all admissions before this service have been incorrect and that schools have not been able to select genuine candidates? Have not the selected applicants turned out to be “excellent alumni”? If the admission offices agree that the students have turned out to be genuine…then Turnitin.com is to be considered only one of the tools of assessing the genuineness of the applicant.

Like Louis has suggested: The schools must clearly state their rules of accepting applications.

Further, rather than suppress the need for applicants to seek professional or personal help to apply, colleges should genuinely seek information on any support the applicant has received while drafting the essays. Sometimes, it helps if you have a consultant on your side…this does not mean that the words, thoughts and instances are not from the applicant themselves. Are the candidates who are taking a big decision in their lives not supposed to seek opinion (discuss) on their write-ups from friends, parents, well-wishers, professors etc while applying. And does it not turn out that a particular sentence, structure or presentation could become better due to the inputs of such associates? So how is this incorrect? Or at the other end of the spectrum; how will the Admission office resolve the problem…when the essay is not plagiarized…but still the applicant has used someone else to draft the essay or sop?

Turnitin.com is just one tool the admission office must use and definitely debar essays plagiarized, but should definitely accept multiple self-written applications. Additionally institutions should encourage ethical disclosures of help and support received by candidates and finally must clearly state the rules of disbarment.

Bill Dreisbach

January 28, 2010 6:59 AM

I'm not sure if "self plagiarism" is possible - kind of an oxymoron. Isn't plagiarism using some ELSE's work? It is according to the definitions I've seen! Re-using your own work is not plagiarism.


January 28, 2010 1:18 PM

I agree with Ryan in that the first sentence of the first paragraph is mis-leading. When b-school all asks your short-term, long-term goals, it makes no sense to write a different version of it every time to the 6 schools you apply. While I frown upon using the same "why xxx school" part for each school (which is usually not the smartest thing to do if you try to get into a top bschool anyway), I don't think using the same leadership story for different applications is wrong. And in regard to multiple applications in different years, b-school usually keep denied applicants' application for 1-2 years and refer back to it when a new application is received. So it would only be suicidal to submit exact the same work as before.

Ray Huang

February 2, 2010 9:33 PM

If B-Schools can weed out admissions essays that are not genuine or contain portions of plagiarized content, it will help raise the quality of students that are excepted into quality MBA programs, and sends a message to applicants, alumni, and the world, that they take a strong stand on ethics. They might do the world a favor by blacklisting the really bad ones. But that raises other ethical concerns.


March 17, 2010 10:30 AM

I thought the discussions in this forum on this topic is interesting. But I really don't think any admission officer truly read an essay carefully and evaluate it. For most of the applicants, including myself, it takes forever to draft a good one; but it only takes the admission officers 1 minute or less to read an essay. For the most part, they don't even use the essays as part of their decision making. Most of them just look at the test score and GPA.Why? because it's easier to read number! This whole SOP/essay thing is just a pure SCAM! it does the school no good, and it does the applicants no good. It is one time consuming process. Honestly, how many people really do what they say about their long and short term goals? The reason that you go to school is so you can learn something new. Coming into a program, you think you can do X and Y and Z when you are done with the program. But in reality, all that will change when you graduate. Be honest to yourself and don't make admission essays too complicated. My resolution is, have a few short answer questions to replace the essays. That way it is easier to write and people will be more honest. I have done lots of admissions work in the past, and I thought the whole process is BS. They are making the application process way too complicated - and the worse part is, they still end up selecting the most retarded candidates.

Jeff Lorton

March 31, 2010 5:25 PM

Two things to add to the comments: Application Essays- In the admissions offices of the most selective universities in the US (those accepting less than 50% of applicants), NACAC found in their 2009 survey that 57% of those selective universities place high importance to the essay/ writing sample. It is important and the essays are read. The application process is so important that some people may be motivated to do things that they may not do in less important settings-Campbell’s Law: Loosely translated says, “The higher the stakes, the more likely people will cheat.” Donald T. Campbell, social science researcher. Admissions is a high stakes process. Jeff Lorton jlorton@turnitin.com


May 6, 2010 6:41 PM

I recently completed an MBA and I was shocked at the amount of cheating and plagiarism that goes on, well more than half the students. It concerns me that most of the students had a 'win at any cost' mentality and were willing to cross ethical lines. So I applaud the effort to weed out those with questionable ethics in the admission process - because if you don't, you will get a cohort like I experienced. It got to the point that those who don't cheat are at a disadvantage at my school.

Plagiarism Checker

June 17, 2010 1:01 PM


December 3, 2010 7:40 PM

These are some great tips. For those who could use some more specific advice, tips and information about great article thanks for posting…..The papers given by authorsmania are all written from scratch, and there is no danger of plagiarism at all. They write an out-of-this-world essay that attempts to construct a clear argument based on the evidence of the text provided by me. I would definitely recommend it to my friends.

Brenda Deangelo

April 6, 2011 12:16 AM

good post.Never knew this, appreciate it for letting me know.

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