UCLA Rejects 52 MBA Applicants

UCLA’s Anderson School of Management said that it has rejected 52 MBA applicants in the school’s first and second admission rounds for plagiarizing their MBA application essays. In an interview with PoetsandQuants, Senior Associate Dean Andrew Ainslie said the school’s admission office detected 12 plagiarists in its first round and 40 more in the second round.

Rather than confront the applicants with the issue, the school chose to simply ding them. “We just reject it,” Ainslie told P&Q. “I don’t want to enter that conversation. All I would be doing is to allow them to compound one lie with another lie. I’m sure they’ll have stories for us.”

This is the first year the Anderson School began checking essay questions with anti-plagiarism software from a company called Turnitin. The software compares applicant essays to an archive of other writings. More than 100 colleges and universities are now using the software, including such graduate schools as Johns Hopkins, Brandeis, Northeastern and Iowa State. Staffers at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business two years ago discovered 29 essays about “principled leadership” that contained material lifted from the Web.


At Anderson, Ainslie said, the school decided to begin using the software due to the increased use of admission consultants and essay editing services for MBA candidates. “We’ve had a concern for awhile that there has been an increasing use of these so-called consultants who help applicants with their applications,” he added. “Many of these consultants are ethical and do the right thing. But quite a few of them either write the essays themselves or pull them out of catalogs.

“So our initial hypothesis was that the same essays would show up and be recycled by the consultants. What we actually found is just wholesale copying of massive chunks of stuff from websites or taking it out of articles or Wikipedia. Essentially, they (some MBA applicants) are just plagiarizing it. Our initial hypothesis is probably going to take longer to prove out. One of the great things Turnitin does is that once you put a document in, it becomes part of its database. After a few years, I think we might spot repeated use of these essays.”


Asked if there was a dividing line beyond which an applicant would be immediately rejected for admission, Ainslie said “we’re drawing a pretty conservative line. A minimum of 10% has to be plagiarized. If someone takes six lines out of a Tennyson poem and attributes it to Tennyson, we’re happy with that. But if 10% or more of the essay is plagiarized and not attributed, we’re turning down the applicant.”

So far, added Ainslie, between 1% and 2% of the applicant pool has been found to plagiarize material in their essays–well below the 4% to 5% rate at some undergraduate institutions that have used the software. “So as bad as it sounds, it looks like we’re seeing less of this,” he said. “We’re making it a lot harder for people to pass off someone else’s intellectual property as their own. One of the strongest academic values we have is the value of intellectual property. The software gives us a real ability to detect violations of intellectual property.”

In one case, Anderson found an applicant who had taken 85% of his essay straight out of another source. All the applicant did to adjust the essay was to change the name of a country named in the essay.

Anderson’s new admission checking policy came to light yesterday (Jan. 31) in an article in The Los Angeles Times which reported on the first 12 candidates turned down in the first round. The reporting for the story apparently was completed before Anderson toted up its numbers for the second round.

“The more we can nip unethical behavior in the bud, the better,” Ainslie told the Times. “It seems to us nobody ought to be able to buy their way into a business school.”

In Anderson’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.”


One Anderson applicant apparently copied parts of a 2003 essay that had been written for Boston University’s MBA program and published on BusinessWeek’s website. The BU applicant wrote: “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.”

The Anderson MBA candidate used those identical words in an application essay describing his father. Wrote the applicant: 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.”

According to the article, another Anderson applicant stole verbatim from the school’s website in citing “exceptional academic preparation, a cooperative and congenial student culture, and access to a thriving business community.”

Both candidates were among the dozen rejected by Anderson.

If plagiarists like that are denied admissions, future business leaders may include fewer unethical careerists, Ainslie told the newspaper. “If they are going to do that,” he said, “they are going to do it in every aspect of their lives.”


  • AugustineThomas

    They’re absolute idiots if they think this is going to make MBA graduates any more ethical.

  • NYC_Traffic

    I wonder if UCLA rejects any applicants from China, 90% of whom have their essays and recommendations written for them by local agencies there. It is a huge business, but US schools have been looking the other way for years because of the $$ they’re making in tuition.

  •  we cant have it all Clint…..if there is cheating we must find it….intellectual property rights are for lawyers and schemers who want to just limit the system and stall results.

  • Clint

    Legal Eagle,
    I brought up this topic because it seems interesting, I appreciate your your ideas and inputs.

    I think we both agree that schools should be doing whatever they can to prevent students from gaining from plagiarized works, I’m just a bit on the fence on whether the turnitin/school/student dynamic is entirely ethical.

    I would suspect that schools would be hypersensitive to treating ideas and intellectual property with respect. I don’t know (nor have strong thoughts on) whether that’s being done with respect to the students contributions, but I appreciate the discussion.

  • Legal Eagle


    You’re mischaracterizing the debate here. The issue is not redistribution rights because the essays are not redistributed, strictly speaking – Turnitin only adds the essays to a private database. The issue is whether it’s fair to students for Turnitin to profit from students’ work. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turnitin There is an additional privacy concern looming here, but that concern is shattered by the fact that student names are all redacted.

    Ethically, the schools are fine because their reason for continuing to use students’ essays is morally consistent with their reason for protecting their own content; it’s certainly plausible that a school would want to both prevent prospective students from benefitting from plagiarism and ensure that others don’t plagiarize (or otherwise unduly benefit from) the school’s own content.

  • Clint

    @Legal Eagle,

    I agree that a student submitting their essay for review can reasonably expect it to be checked against the turnitin database. Thats not my question.

    Whether a student knows that (and consents to) their work being kept indefinitely, so that future submissions can be compared against it, is another story.

    The fact is that turnitins will re-distribute portions of this students work (the part that may match someone else’s submitted essay) as part of operating their business, without the students knowledge or consent. Whether the original student would receive authorship credit is unclear.

    Equally unclear is how turnitin built their database to begin with. There is no argument to be made that the first few submissions into their database were submitted for the purpose of checking for plagarism. The first few essays in the database were to build their database, nothing more, after all without a database there is no database to compare essays to.

    How did those first essays get there in the first place? What is an ethical scenario where those first few essays could have been submitted without a students consent (especially given that they’re necessarily being submitted by academic institutions)

    What is the ethics of an academic institution requiring that for an essay to be submitted for grading, it must be submitted in a manner that allows for infinite redistribution?

    How is it that academia is so quick to protect the origin and distribution of their own works, but so easily throws their students intellectual property rights under the bus? (remember too that turn-it-in isn’t just being used on undergraduates, but in professional and doctoral programs as well, where the intellectual property of the students approaches the same academic value of the professors)

    Do a turn-it-in search on this quote and see where it comes from:

    “Although copying all or part of a work without obtaining permission may appear to be an easy and convenient solution to an immediate problem, such unauthorized copying can frequently violate the rights of the author or publisher of the copyrighted work, and be directly contrary to the academic mission to teach respect for ideas and the intellectual property that expresses those ideas”

  • Legal Eagle


    Students don’t have absolute intellectual property rights over their essays to begin with, much less after they submit essays knowing that the essays are subject to review. In effect, once a student submits her essays, she consents to all uses of the essays within the reasonable scope of the review. You’ll have a very hard time convincing a judge that checking for plagiarism is not within the reasonable scope of reviewing essays for submission.

  • Prakash

    HBS should start this as well , at least no more Enron’s and lehman brothers will happen 😉

  • Prakash

    Whoever is endorsing the cheaters and plagiarism (I see couple of them here) , for you people I feel pity and anger. Shame on you. People like you are the reason our society is corrupted. I am glad that UCLA is doing those cheaters , they should be slapped on their faces , a straight ding is the least that should be done. Even I suggest their names should be shared with GMAc and GMAc should cancel their GMAT scores and blacklist them. Only god knows how many chetaers have had their way into top progrms by cheating in various ways. Thank god now we have tools and mindset to stop this ill practice. All bschools and other schools should follow this.

  • This comment was left by UCLA Senior Associate Dean Andrew Ainslie:


    Thanks for your comments. You raise two important points. Fortunately, we have these issues covered.

    On false positives, we verify by hand the exact sources and ensure that the material has truly been plagiarized. Turnitin’s tools are very user-friendly and allows us to look at the source material copied as well as the applicant’s material. Sometimes, it’s merely an issue of a well-known saying, a cliche or a quotation being used in both locations, in which case we do not treat it as plagiarism. Furthermore, if only one or two sentences are the same, we give the applicant the benefit of the doubt.

    What concerns us is if entire paragraphs–or even worse, entire essays–have been lifted. These are the people excluded from further consideration.

  • Alois de Novo

    Claremont McKenna is interesting. See: http://biggovernment.com/cjohnson/2012/02/01/did-top-liberal-arts-college-falsify-sat-data-to-legitimize-racial-preferences/

    Apparently, they were trying to adjust out the adverse effect of affirmative action admits on their SAT averages/medians.

    This seems to me a permissible as long as affirmative action is considered an acceptable practice.

    Somebody needs to tell Bob Morse at USNews that he’s a racist.

  • Matt

    @anon, @hbsguru

    I initially had the same worries as you, but I’ve used turnitin as a student, and I recall that it gives attribution to the source of the suspected plagiarised material. So if, for example, an entire class is required to use a particular book among their sources for writing a paper, one can see the exact overlap in the papers (i.e. where common material is cited) and deduce the reason for the suspected plagiarism. Turnitin will show you the precise text that is repeated, not just percentages of overlap. It is actually quite easy to differentiate between plagiarism and innocent overlap.

  • Clint

    I’ve always wondered what gives turnitin the right to redistribute a students intellectual property without their consent. And why it should be ethical for universities to accept that material redistributed without permission.

    Turnitin’s business relies in large part on a third party (instructors) submitting to them intellectual property which is not their own (belongs to the author/student) in a money-making scheme to effectively redistribute portions of those works without the original authors consent. How is this not a form of piracy?

    Forget for a second whether its legal, is it truly ethical? Academic institutions have an ethical responsibility to protect intellectual property rights. To be clear plagarism is wrong, no matter how you slice it, and academic institutions should do everything in their power to find instances of plagarism and punish it.

    My only beef with this is that in pursuit of academic honesty, universities as a whole are trampling on the intellectual property rights of their students. Aren’t efforts like this tantamount to telling students “do as I say, not as I do?”

  • Wow – disheartening to hear about the unethical practices of some people claiming to be “admissions consultants.” The B-school admissions process is complex and grueling. I think there’s a lot of value in seeking out someone’s opinion to help you navigate the process and increase your odds of admission.

    But there’s definitely a line that no admissions consultant should cross – trying to get unqualified, unethical applicants into B-school.

    The last thing the world needs is more cut-throat business people who are willing to set aside moral integrity for personal gain.

  • Original

    What I think is it seems to be a rare case of honest approach of the entire idea of sustainability and quality. It will be great to have a little more context about the other criteria for admission – on plagiarism is just great news!

  • It seems to be a rare case of honest approach of the entire idea of sustainability and quality. It will be great to have a little more context about the other criteria for admission – on plagiarism is just great news!

  • McNulty

    As with most, I read the headline and my eye was immediately drawn to the photo and accompanying caption before reading the story.

    For a moment the caption led me to believe that the Dean was actually copying good essays and selling them.


    Anon makes some real good points about due process and false positives of this “so-called” system. If you are reviewing an app which is a disaster anyway, and turns up positive for plagiarism, sure, ding the kid, but if you are reviewing an application which is solid in all respects in terms of gpa, gmat, and would have been on-track for possible admit, I would querry the applicant during interview and see what the issue is. Among other things, that is a good way to check the ‘checker’ technology.

    More about the various ways college adcoms scam USNEWS data and rankings. New York TImes http://t.co/EXURJRyv

  • Alois de Novo

    I’d rather punish people who hire admissions consultants.

  • anon

    No issue with punishing plagiarizers, but I feel that suspected offenders should be allowed to offer an explanation given the number of false positives these things generate.

    My bigger issue is how it handles work from the same student. I didn’t catch it in the article, but when a school runs your essay through the service is it then added to the database? So lets say Stanford runs my goals essay through the service first and finds no plagiarism. Fine. Then UCLA runs my goals essay through and it shows a potential match against what was submitted when I applied to Stanford. They won’t be exactly the same, of course, but I bet a majority of applicants have some overlap in goals essays that could get flagged. How is that handled?

  • Assaf

    I wish all other top schools use stronger tools to really examine the applicants essays..when looking to the market you’ll see tons of admission consultants where the rich kids pay for their services and get accepted. essays and application MUST reflect you in reality. in this chance I must hail IMD admission assessment day process..it is the most powerful and accurate tool so far!!

  • Glad to see UCLA taking a stand here. Such blatant plagiarism is a strong indicator that these individuals would be likely to cross other ethical boundaries for self-serving purposes. Best to nip it in the bud.