Two years ago, the Oakland-based firm developed a service for admissions decisions, allowing large numbers of essays to be reviewed quickly and creating a database of students’ essays. The service shows sections of essays next to the possible source and calculates a percentage of possibly copied material. It is left up to schools to determine whether the plagiarism was minor, accidental, or serious enough to reject the applicant.
“If you are a very selective institution, or a very prestigious institution, and you have a huge number of people vying for just a couple of slots, admissions people want to make sure they have all the information to make the fair decision,” said Jeff Lorton, Turnitin for Admissions’ product and business development manager.
Internal testing of the database, using past essays, showed plagiarism ranging from about 3 percent to 20 percent of applicants, Lorton said.
Colleges want “to be proactive in discouraging dishonesty,” said Richard Shaw, Stanford’s dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid.
So Stanford will test Turnitin on the 7 percent or so of its 36,000 applicants who make it past other hurdles to be offered admissions, Shaw said. If plagiarism is detected, students will be allowed to respond but probably will face revocation.
Other schools are skeptical about using Turnitin on prospective freshmen, especially because the company charges large campuses several thousands of dollars a year.
Rather, plagiarists can be discovered when admissions officers notice mismatches between strong application essays and weak grades, interviews, and SAT or ACT writing samples, said David Hawkins, public policy and research director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Schools also fear wasting time on false positives triggered by cliches and platitudes, he said.
And experts say it can be easy to tell when several applicants repeat the same material or, more glaring, when they don’t change electronic typefaces from their sources.
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