It’s no secret that some B-school applicants cheat. In 2012, UCLA’s Anderson School of Management rejected 52 aspiring MBAs for application plagiarism. A year later, Pennsylvania State’s Smeal College of Business turned away 48 applicants for the same reason. At the time, Smeal’s MBA Managing Director Carrie Marcinkevage said 10% of the 481 Round 1 and Round 2 applicants plagiarized their application essays. At Anderson, the dean of the MBA program at the time, Andrew Ainslie, predicted the number of plagiarists was much lower — around 1% to 2%.
Both schools turned to Oakland, California-based Turnitin, a plagiarism detection software company. According to research published today (June 6), Anderson and Smeal are still in the minority of schools taking measures to catch cheaters. The research, conducted by Kira Academic, a Toronto-based admissions interview video platform, surveyed admissions officials at 50 North American business schools, including Smeal. Of the schools surveyed, only 17% reported using some sort of plagiarism identification software.
According to the study, Kira found that the vast majority of admissions offices believe plagiarism occurs in MBA applications, but few are doing anything about it. Some 84% of respondents say admissions plagiarism and fraud, in general, is a problem — yet only 30% report having a “process in place to protect and prevent” it from occurring. Even fewer (24%) say they have a set definition within their admissions offices for what constitutes fraud.
What’s more, of the 70% of admissions offices that don’t have any sort of process in place to address plagiarism and fraud, only one in five plan to implement one. This discrepancy is likely because of the fact that only half of the respondents believe plagiarism is a problem in their school’s applicant pools. Meanwhile, 88% of the admission officials believe it’s happening at other business schools.
ADMISSIONS OFFICES HAVE FOSTERED A CULTURE OF FRAUD DENIAL AND COMPLACENCY, RESEARCHER SAYS
Andrew Hastings, Kira Academic’s research director, says over the two years he and his team have been researching fraud, one theme continues to arise. “It’s a strong word, but the word would be ‘denial,'” Hastings says on a phone call with Poets&Quants. Kira’s research, he says, reveals at least a third of the surveyed respondents believe fraud is happening — just not at their schools. “I can assure you that’s not the case,” Hastings continues. And the schools aren’t just in denial — he even sees some defensiveness. “It reflects on their school’s reputation,” Hastings explains. “And as we know, schools are very much into protecting their reputation. Reputation is almost everything in higher education.”
Hastings believes the denial and defensiveness has created a culture of complacency — illustrated by the study’s findings that few schools are employing plagiarism identification software. “As a result, nothing is getting done about it,” Hastings says. “We know that very few of them actually have a process in place to deal with fraud.”
The problem got some attention late last year when Fortune reported that only 40 business schools had adopted some sort of anti-cheating software, among them Smeal College, UCLA’s Anderson School, and Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.
CHINESE AND ELITE STUDENTS MOST LIKELY TO FAKE THEIR APPLICATION MATERIALS
The influx in Chinese applications is a major contributor to the problem, Hastings says. “We know that applications from students in China is growing significantly,” says Hastings. “We know that Chinese applicants represent one-third of international applicants in the U.S. And we know that business and management is the number-one choice of Chinese applicants studying in the U.S.”
Referencing a 2011 New York Times article, Hastings says 90% of Chinese applicants to U.S. colleges and universities admitted submitting false recommendations. What’s more, research has shown that 70% of the same population admitted to not writing their own personal essays, and half falsified school transcripts. “When you see these, frankly, staggeringly high numbers and you see enrollment from this country is only going up significantly every year, I’d say the issue is growing. It has to,” Hastings says. “And if you look at (the fact that) only 17% of the schools are addressing it, that’s a huge problem. It’s a huge gap.”
It’s not only international applicants faking application materials. Hastings says he did his own investigating and hired a service to write some personal statements. During the process he asked the company what type of applicants use its services. “I was almost certain I was going to hear international applicants or students who have low GMAT scores and poor communication skills. But it was the opposite,” he explains. “The consultant said, ‘It’s mainly top applicants using us.'” Top applicants are obviously competing for spots at elite schools and are more willing to pay for polished essays, Hastings says. “You would think it would be the opposite case, but actually it’s these top applicants who are doing this.”
NEW FRAUD PROTECTION BEING IMPLEMENTED AT SCHOOLS
Hastings took his investigation a step further and asked the admissions team at Smeal College to run his plagiarized essay through Turnitin. “It came through with flying colors,” he recalls. “I didn’t even write this essay, but I would have gotten through a traditional system.” One prominent MBA admissions consultant tells Poets&Quants that some schools soon will begin implementing more advanced fraud protection software. On a panel earlier this year, the consultant said adcoms from Columbia Business School, Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, and MIT’s Sloan School of Management claimed to either be in the process of implementing or have already implemented a program called Slate.
A product of Technolutions, Slate was created more than a decade ago exclusively for higher education admissions offices, and a few MBA programs have been using the software for a few years. Slate’s differentiator is the ability to track document metadata — unseen information and data attached to electronic text files. According to Technolutions’ website, Slate can automatically flag statistically significant metadata similarities. For example, if an applicant wrote his or her recommendation letters and then sent them to their recommenders to submit on their behalf, the software could find statistical similarities in the applicant’s personal essays and recommendation letters — essentially, that they came from the same place.
According to the admissions consultant who spoke to Poets&Quants, Columbia has already implemented Slate. Columbia Admissions Director Amanda Carlson has so far been unable to comment. A spokesperson from Tuck said the school has not yet used the software for an admissions cycle and administrators are still discussing how exactly to use the software.
PLAGIARISM STEMMING FROM ADMISSIONS CONSULTANTS?
Interestingly, 62% of the respondents in the Kira study believe applicant plagiarism is occurring as a result of MBA admissions consultants. In October, Hastings blogged about his experience with a “black market admissions consultant.” For $160, Hastings was able to purchase a 500-word personal statement. A simple Google search reveals many companies that will happily do the same. As Hastings explains in his post, some consultants will simply edit a personal essay, while others will actually write them for applicants.
Betsy Massar of Master Admissions says it’s “unfortunate that admissions officers point the finger at consultants,” noting there is a stark contrast between reputable consultants like herself and others and bogus pay-for-essay sites. “Consultants that I know, including my colleagues at the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC), abide by principles that expressly prohibit writing essays for students,” Massar says. “In fact, if any potential client suggests that is what they are looking for, all the professionals I know would run in the other direction.”
Hastings agrees that the professional and established consultants of AIGAC are not the consultants he and MBA admissions offices are concerned about. It’s the plethora of options Massar referenced as “We-write-MBA-essays-for-you.
To crack down on plagiarism and fraud, Hastings says interviewing is a simple solution. “Fraud is a complex problem with a very simple solution,” he says. “And that solution is interviews.” Hastings suggests any sort of interview, whether by phone or in person. “It’s much harder to cheat your way through an interview than have someone write your essay.”
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