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When college applicants plagiarize, Turnitin can spot them

UCLA's Anderson School of Management and Stanford University are among more than 100 colleges using Turnitin's database to detect plagiarism in application essays.

January 29, 2012|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times
  • Andrew Ainslie, a senior associate dean at UCLA's Anderson School of Management, pictured with a Turnitin plagiarism report, says "nobody ought to be able to buy their way into business school."
Andrew Ainslie, a senior associate dean at UCLA's Anderson School… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

The student's admissions essay for Boston University's MBA program was about persevering in the business world. "I have worked for organizations in which the culture has been open and nurturing, and for others that have been elitist. In the latter case, arrogance becomes pervasive, straining external partnerships."

Another applicant's essay for UCLA's Anderson School of Management was about his father. He "worked for organizations in which the culture has been open and nurturing, and for others that have been elitist. In the latter case, arrogance becomes pervasive, straining external partnerships."

Sound familiar? The Boston University student's essay was written in 2003 and had been posted at businessweek.com. The UCLA applicant was rejected this year — for plagiarism.

The detection of such wholesale cheating in college applications is on the rise due to the use of Turnitin for Admissions, an anti-plagiarism database service that compares student essays to an immense archive of other writings. Around the country, more than 100 colleges and universities have adopted it, mainly in graduate divisions, although Stanford University is among the dozen schools starting to use it for freshman applicants this year.

That growth highlights the search for authenticity in college admissions at a time when the Internet offers huge amounts of tempting free material, increasing numbers of private coaches sell admissions advice, and online companies peddle pre-written essays. In addition, the larger numbers of applications from overseas have raised concerns about cheating that may be difficult for U.S. schools to discover unaided.

"The more we can nip unethical behavior in the bud, the better," said Andrew Ainslie, a senior associate dean at UCLA Anderson. "It seems to us nobody ought to be able to buy their way into a business school."

In the school's first review of essays from potential MBA candidates this year, Turnitin found significant plagiarism — beyond borrowing a phrase here and there — in a dozen of the 870 applications, Ainslie said. All 12 were rejected.

Turnitin — as in, "turn it in" — began in the 1990s and became a popular tool at high schools and colleges to help detect copying in academic term papers and research by scanning for similarities in phrases from among billions of Web pages, books and periodicals.

Two years ago, the Oakland-based firm developed a service for admissions decisions, allowing large numbers of essays to be reviewed quickly and creating a database of students' essays. The service shows sections of essays next to the possible source and calculates a percentage of possibly copied material. It is left up to schools to determine whether the plagiarism was minor, accidental or serious enough to reject the applicant.

"If you are a very selective institution, or a very prestigious institution, and you have a huge number of people vying for just a couple of slots, admissions people want to make sure they have all the information to make the fair decision," said Jeff Lorton, Turnitin for Admissions' product and business development manager.

Internal testing of the database, using past essays, showed plagiarism ranging from about 3% to 20% of applicants, Lorton said.

Colleges want "to be proactive in discouraging dishonesty," said Richard Shaw, Stanford's dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid.

So Stanford will test Turnitin on the 7% or so of its 36,000 applicants who make it past other hurdles to be offered admissions, Shaw said. If plagiarism is detected, students will be allowed to respond but probably will face revocation.

Other schools are skeptical about using Turnitin on prospective freshmen, especially since the company charges large campuses several thousands of dollars a year. Rather, plagiarists can be discovered when admissions officers notice mismatches between strong application essays and weak grades, interviews and SAT or ACT writing samples, said David Hawkins, public policy and research director of the National Assn. for College Admission Counseling. Schools also fear wasting time on false positives triggered by cliches and platitudes, he said.

And experts say it can be easy to tell when several applicants repeat the same material or, more glaring, when they don't change electronic typefaces from their sources.

Turnitin's freshman screening could rise sharply, however, if the service is adopted by Common Application, the online service used by 456 college admissions offices. Rob Killion, Common Application executive director, said there is "a very real chance" it will add Turnitin in 2013.

Among current Turnitin for Admissions users are some graduate schools at Johns Hopkins, Brandeis, Northeastern and Iowa State. They pay annual fees that start at $1,500 and rise depending on volume, averaging about a dollar per application, Lorton said. About half the schools explicitly tell applicants about the detection while others warn more vaguely.

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