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Written by Bryce Hammons, published on 2013-04-26

Deja vu came over Smeal College of Business MBA Managing Director Carrie Marcinkevage. There it was again – the same feeling that had been vexing her ever since the applications process three years ago. Something just wasn’t right. At that time director of the MBA admissions office, Marcinkevage felt as if she were reading the same sentences over and over again, only in different admissions essays. And according to Penn State’s Daily Collegian, it turned out that she was on to something.

Marcinkevage and her admissions staff decided to re-read essays to test her hypothesis. What was a tedious, days-long process for the staff soon paid dividends, though. They discovered that 30 of their prospective MBA applicants had taken unattributed sentences and ideas from two key online sources. Cheating on the MBA admissions essay: now, that was a new animal.

Plagiarism Doesn’t Pay

New, but multiplying. Plagiarism in admissions essays is increasingly being tried by applicants looking to give an extra boost to their applications. Plagiarism detection technology is not lagging behind, though. Advances in the state of the art have helped to bring the issue to the forefront and are streamlining the process of catching these admissions cheaters.

So, why take the risk of cheating? And anyway, why use somebody else’s ideas and words in an admissions essay meant to show who you are as a unique individual, and why you should be awarded admittance to a prestigious MBA program? Doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose?

Beware the Application Consultant

UCLA’s Anderson School of Management says that the plagiarized passages – found in rejected essays accounting for approximately two percent of their overall MBA applications – come from nonprofit organizations, websites which offer free essays, and – wait, did they say consultants? Come again?

But it’s true. CNN Money offers a glimpse into how consulting firms are affecting the MBA admissions process. According to author John A. Byrne, a former executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com, consultants have become an irresistible option for some MBA applicants hopelessly dreaming of that “perfect” admissions essay. In fact, according to most estimates, about half of the students at Stanford, Harvard and Wharton employ consultants in an attempt to upgrade their MBA essays and applications. It seems you can find a consultant for anything these days.

Senior associate dean of UCLA’s MBA program, Andrew Ainslie, says that the majority of consulting firms are providing services that can assist prospective students in improving their MBA odds. But a few of those “services” are behaving in ways that are out-and-out bad for business – for everyone involved.

For example, using plagiarism software from Turnitin to scan for copied passages, pilfered paragraphs, and unattributed quotes, Ainslie and his UCLA crew found large-scale segments of previously published items in ostensibly original student essays. These prospective MBA students lifted material liberally from Wikipedia, various websites, and other web-based content. In one instance of obvious cheating, Ainslie found that almost 85 percent of a student’s essay was directly taken (and yes, that is regarded as “stolen”) from an existing online source.

Shifting the Focus Away from Essays

Whether or not certain consultants can be pinned down as “assisting” prospective MBA students to cheat – either by writing the essay themselves, or by copying and pasting out of a catalog, website, or previously written work – is a question that’s hard to answer, for all kinds of reasons. And according to Soojin Kwon Koh, the admissions director at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, it’s also a challenge to ascertain when a student is using a consultant to conjure up a more highly qualified – and thus, unrealistic – image for themselves. To sidestep and protect against this potential spinning of the facts, Michigan now focuses more on the interviewing process and goes right to the heart of the matter: who are you, why do you want to enter our MBA program, what do you have to offer?

As was the case with Smeal College of Business at Penn State, it doesn’t matter how or why you cheated. The most important aspect to take away from the whole affair is that – aside from setting up a fantasy image you may find it hard to live up to – you will most likely get caught.

Using Plagiarism Detection Software is De Rigueur

Just look at what Marcinkevage did. Following the arduous task of going through essays one at a time, she realized there must be a better way to find plagiarized passages. In the end, she found her solution and Smeal became the first business school in the country to begin using the advanced Turnitin software. That means trouble for plagiarizers.

Why? Because using Turnitin’s content database, software administrators are able to match a student’s admissions essay against more than 24 billion web pages and 300-plus million student papers, as well as millions of books, publications and articles to boot. And all in the span of about 30 seconds. So, for those thinking about taking that particular passage to reach their goals, here’s an unattributed quote from over there: it’s safe to say you run a high risk of skunking your MBA admissions quest before it’s even begun.

Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business is one of the most recent MBA programs to use Turnitin’s plagiarism detection software. And according to Bloomberg Businessweek, it’s also the highest-ranking program to let on that it’s doing so. In actuality, most of the Turnitin clientele list chooses not to publicize their use of the program; and the company itself keeps its client list private.

While Duke University is still in the process of fine-tuning their plagiarism reduction efforts, as we’ve seen, it’s not the only school seeing a lot of copied material showing up in MBA admissions essays. Penn State’s Smeal College of Business has turned down over 87 applicants since 2009; and during the more recent 2012-13 term, Smeal identified 40-plus applicants who plagiarized in their MBA admissions essays (roughly eight percent of their applying pool of candidates).

Other schools have similar stories. Since the 2011-12 school year, UCLA’s Anderson School of Management has refused entry to approximately 115 applicants for the same reason. And it’s interesting to note that UCLA’s Anderson School of Management still has their third round of MBA applications upcoming; the tally of MBA hopefuls caught plagiarizing could jump well beyond the current number.

Come As You Are—Warts and All

So, why cheat? The simplest and most direct answer: you shouldn’t. To present yourself as you are – warts and all – is to give yourself a much better chance at admission and later success. That’s the whole point of admissions essays.

If you’re still thinking of taking that route, no matter the reasons, be aware that you’ll be putting yourself at risk of nullifying all the hard work and dedication that got you this far. Detection rates are now reaching the point where cheating is tantamount to requesting a rejection letter delivered to your mailbox. As we’re seeing more and more, plagiarism – in MBA admissions essays or beyond – doesn’t end well.