I tend to romanticize the college application process. I remember how much effort I put into my essays and personal statements, my carefully considered sources of recommendation letters, my nervous interviews. Ultimately, I only applied to one college because I knew it was where I wanted to go. Of course, this also raised the stakes a bit in terms of the application.
My oldest son went through the same process, albeit with a little less worry than I did. Despite his lack of obsessiveness over the process, everything he did was original. It was his own. He asked me to read and offer criticism on his essay, but his thoughts, ideas, and writing were his. It turns out that this approach is less common than one might think.
A few weeks ago I suggested that college admissions offices could benefit from a service like Turnitin, verifying the information that students submitted in their applications, after Adam Wheeler's fraudulent application to Harvard made headlines. The idea was that schools should be admitting students of the highest integrity, not those who might lie and cheat to get ahead.
Turns out, there is such a service. It's called Turnitin for Admissions. Go figure.
The same folks who brought us the Turnitin that looks for potential plagiarism in research reports and essays also have a product that can look for copied personal statements and essays in college admission documents. It's not able to verify lists of personal achievements, but, unfortunately, its rate of detection simply among the essays and personal statements is high enough to both be very disturbing and to flag a lot of students whose ethics are sufficiently questionable that they might copy what are supposed to be highly personal, compelling essays.
Turnitin recently completed a beta test of its Admissions product using "a comparison of 452,964 personal statements collected during the 2006-2007 admissions cycle from an application service that receives approximately 500,000 applications per year." They don't specify, but you can probably fill in the blanks on which service from a "large English-speaking country" they used. Regardless, in this half a million applications, Turnitin for Admissions identified over 1 million matches in 2/5ths of the submitted applications to Internet sources, previous applications, and essays included in the main Turnitin database.
Yes, that's right, 2/5ths. Almost 200,000 of the 500,000 essays contained evidence of plagiarism and/or non-original content. This was over 3 years ago. 36% of these contained "significant matching text." As Turnitin summarized,
It is therefore safe to assume that more than 70,000 applicants; the 36 percent of statements with significant matching text (containing more than 10% matching text); that applied through this system did so with personal statements that were not their own work. The number of Internet sites that matched personal statement/ essay providing services leads one to question the additional 130,000 applicants whose personal statement contained a match (they may have borrowed or purchased all or part of their personal statement). It should be noted that iParadigms’ matching technology is configured to eliminate most random matches from teh similarity reports. Our research has found that the odds of writing the same 16 words (not including the stop words: and, the, of...) in the same order as another person (by chance) is less than one in one trillion.
It's no wonder then that the Penn State MBA program announced today that it was adopting Turnitin's technology for admissions screening. In their joint press release with iParadigms (the parent company of Turnitin), Carrie Marcinkevage, MBA Admissions Director of the Penn State Smeal College of Business explained,
<blockquote>"For the last five years we've been seeking a way to universally screen essays, without success...This year we did see cases of plagiarism, ironically in our ‘Principled Leadership' admissions essay. Our strong focus on Principled Leadership and the Smeal Honor Code makes it important for us to maintain integrity in the admissions process. Penn State already uses Turnitin for student assignments and sees the use of Turnitin for Admissions as a natural extension of the technology."</blockquote>
It won't be long, I expect, before far more schools adopt this tool. A lot of applicants will be in for a very rude awakening in the next couple of years when, crazy though it sounds, they actually have to start writing original application essays, from scratch, just like in the good old days.