Rooting Out Plagiarism in MBA Admission Essays

Posted by: Louis Lavelle on December 14, 2011

Don’t say you haven’t been warned. For some time now Bloomberg Businessweek has been reporting on a new service offered by Turnitin that checks admissions essays for signs of possible plagiarism. One business school in particular, Penn State’s Smeal College of Business, has been at the forefront of the effort to root out the problem. Smeal’s admissions director, Carrie Marcinkevage, signed on with Turnitin after her team discovered 29 cases of plagiarism in a batch of 360 essays. Irony alert: the essays were on “principled leadership.”

More business schools are signing on all the time. According to Turnitin spokesman Jeff Lorton, there are now between 10 and 20 schools currently using the service—the exact number, which includes third-party sales and b-schools covered under their institutions’ licenses, is hard to determine. The schools include Brandeis University’s International Business School, Iowa State’s College of Business, Northeastern’s College of Business Administration, UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, the Wake Forest Schools of Business, and of course Penn State’s Smeal.

The Turnitin service was launched by iParadigms in December 2009. It scans admissions essays and compares them to a huge database containing billions of pages of web content, books and journals, as well as student work previously submitted to Turnitin for a plagiarism check. Turnitin looks for instances of matching text, but leaves it to the individual schools to determine whether it’s plagiarism or an innocent mistake.

How widespread is plagiarism in admissions essays? It’s hard to tell, but a Turnitin study of 453,000 “personal statements” received by more than 300 colleges and universities in an unnamed English-speaking country found 200,000 contained text that matched sources in the Turnitin database. Of the more than 1 million matches found, Turnitin concluded that 36 percent were cases of suspected plagiarism. “It is safe to assume,” Turnitin wrote, “that more that 70,000 applicants that applied though this system did so with statements that may not have been their own work.”

Northeastern's director of graduate recruitment and admissions, Evelyn Tate, told me that she signed on with Turnitin after discovering some discrepancies in the quality of the writing found on applicants' standardized tests and in the essays submitted with their applications. In the first round of 2012 applications, at least 10 essays were flagged by Turnitin as containing possible plagiarism. In most cases the essays appeared to originate with web sites offering essays for sale. For many of the applicants, English is not their native language. Several will likely be rejected, she said.

I suspect more business schools will begin subjecting admissions essays to the plagiarism test. Is this something that MBA applicants should be worried about?

I don't think using the same essays in multiple applications will get anyone flagged as a plagiarist--there seems to be general agreement that you can't plagiarize yourself. But borrowing from sample essays found online or other online sources without attribution, even unintentionally, might result in your application being rejected.

I'm all for zero tolerance on plagiarism, but what does everyone else think? Northeastern's online application warns applicants that their essays will be reviewed for possible plagiarism. Should b-schools that use Turnitin warn applicants, or is the stealth approach okay?

Reader Comments

CS Five

December 15, 2011 10:23 AM

Schools should also do their part by keeping the questions original. While some cases are clear, I can imagine some of the hits come from the fact that the essay questions can be so generic, and many writers are unimaginative. This service will only catch the dumbest cheaters, while those with money can still pay for custom essays to be written on their behalf. At least with interesting, imaginative, and varied questions the cost to applicants of cheating will be much higher, where it's possible at all.


December 15, 2011 5:41 PM

business majors.
imagine that.
not shocked in the least.

No Warning

December 16, 2011 12:23 PM

No need to warn applicants that plagiarism checks may be run. Would a cop or judge let you off because there was no radar warning sign on the road where you were speeding?

Louis Lavelle

December 16, 2011 1:55 PM

Excellent point No Warning. I've heard variations of CS Five's argument many times and never understood why the onus is on the schools to write better questions. I'm also not sure how you go about writing a plagiarism-proof question, or one that discourages plagiarism. It is, however, very possible to create a plagiarism-proof essay: have applicants write it in the presence of a proctor, as if it were a test (which it is). This can be done on campus, or as part of the GMAT testing procedures. Schools (or GMAT) would not reveal the questions until the applicant is asked to answer them. The questions change periodically so no one can learn which ones they're going to get from someone who has already been through the process. The end result may not be pretty, but it would be real.

Louis Lavelle
Associate Editor
Bloomberg Businessweek


December 21, 2011 11:01 AM

I have a particular issue with your automatic 5 star assumption about's database.

On these matters using a surrogate in place of the specific skill that one hopes lies not with a comparator of the proverbial 1000 monkeys, but without algorithm or any accountability whatsoever a PRIVATE company is entitled to keep and use for whatever purpose whatsoever (do bother I read the t's and c's prior) they feel they can act as overseeing to the malaise that affects our entire nation: Sophistry. Are we seeing how leading from the rear is not a characteristic that businesses need let alone want?

Use the priniciples of the US Constitution before you degrade anyone with some predisposed lazy professors who think they caught 10 percent applicants for cheating.

Turnitin's entire business model IS plagarising the student's work without payment or notification when it gets flagged as a source of material.

Then forget about that the service NOW has some of our top military officers private scholastic work and without any accountability...instant access to top brass or further down the road, why not answer the phone if the a far eastern nation comes to buy the company being the highest bidder? then why not accuse a W over another more sophisticated candidate of plagarising ....isn't that all that he does? Plagarist-er Commander-in-chief.... and business school? He would never had been accepted.

I actually was forced from my b-school because I would not sign up as a private student without ever turning in a paper to this service of professional rumormonger, accuser... for the service based solely on profit to generate their did they get so many works of scholarly papers? Mostly high school and rented texts, keeping the texts under exemptions of copyright for acceptable much decay must we see before we say the emperor has no clothes upon first sight?

So I presented my work to the school, if they wanted to turn me in then it's on them, but I'm not going to sign up for the scarlet letter factory while the professors get mentally obese.

The bar that was missing was that of suspicion not laziness of the professors. Probable cause is what I believe should be used...MORE LIKELY THAN NOT that the paper is tinged, and if not the professor gets dinged.

It only takes a single false accusation to ruin a student. JUST one and you kill that soul by allowing sloth to reign supreme over passing on ...knowledge.

When has it been a crime to learn and write about it? Did you now that is how we learn? Everything we say should therefore be cited, there is little original opinion. Or did you phone it in instead of using your noggin and standing up for academic excellence...from the school to the freshman. Not just the applicant who was not allowed a defense or any objection or unbiased accounting of the papers.

Remember, corruption isn't rare, it is just human nature to find a better solution.

My guess is many of those 10% were from students who were challenged as to the written essay and to what length citations are used, yet citations used would still count, or does turn it in read the papers for context unlike the professors?

We positively reinforce sophistry and punish those wanting to submit what they know will fall short once they get into the class rooms. Then what of non-native speaking applicants, how else to write an essay in english without translating other words to your own...plagarizing it would be if the service got the second essays of many from this student of high initiative to applied to many b-schools...just in case something unexpected went seriously wrong.

I am inartful in ways of deceit.

Yet, I sincerely doubt turnitin changes human nature and forces the cheater to honest living. The losers don't excel because the paint is newer, if they don't have the right stuff a plagarized application essay would be the perfect motivation to know they are being watched for any signs of cheating. Then with the flag set the battle for the best is on a more level urr...level than one used by turnitin.

In my opinion, they threaten our school system, making pretending professors knowledgeable about billions of pages of historical ASCII characters.

They just make the clever want to show they are more so and the simple left to their own devices without the benefit of an education to learn how not to succeed in business.

Also, btw, Copying is a legitimate business strategy, it's called competition based on price, not quality.

And I didn't withdraw I wasn't allowed to sign up for the next term since I failed my first term although I was not allowed to turn in a single assignment.

I tried to turn it in, but couldn't.


February 15, 2012 6:42 PM

@Tai - your argument is both specious and circular in its logic. You have a completely faulty understanding of the words copyright and plagerism. As long as turnitin isn't passing off any of the recorded works as their own, they are entitled to store as much or as little as they'd like. Google does the same thing and monetizes it.

As stated in a comment on the UCLA story - don't cheat and you won't get caught. I believe Tai is not using higher level critical thinking skills in his(her) rant. Turnitin simply notifies users of a potential match for plagerism and then it is on the professor (or in this case admissions rep) to check the compared source document to determine whether or not plagerism has actually occured. When you accuse someone of plagerism you must support that with evidence. Most schools have an appeal and review process, especially for suspected cases of plagerism, so students do get some form of due process even though they are not legally entitled to any. College (especially grad school) is a completely voluntary act and schools are free to administer their relationship with you in any fashion they see fit. The syllabus serves as your contract with the instructor and the student handbook your contract with the school. Whining about "I refused so I got kicked out" is both disingenuous and, for lack of a better word, silly.

Lastly, with regard to military officers - I can only say that the rules of classification (secret, TS, etc.) would prevent any truly groundbreaking work from being posted to that site. The thoughts and feelings of one officer would be a horrible source of intel for any foreign government regardless of the position/rank of the officer. One need look no further than Douglas McArthur to understand that even the mightiest General can be "benched" by civilian authorities and therefore have little effect on policy. They have input, but any ONE General would have very little impact on US foreign policy. Strategic and tactical decisions are made in the context of the situation and so any paper written would be in response to one hypothetical situation and for any foreign government to draw any sort of conclusion from an academic paper would be foolish and they know it.

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