College officials say Turnitin catches plagiarism more efficiently than people.

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, owing to the use of Turnitin for Admissions, an anti-plagiarism database service that compares student essays to an immense archive of other writings. The program is a version of the Turnitin software that already is popular as a plagiarism-detection tool in academic departments.

Around the country, more than 100 colleges and universities have adopted the admissions version of the software, 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 might 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.


Add your opinion to the discussion.