The similarity in essay after essay was striking to Carrie Marcinkevage, then admissions director of the MBA program at Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business.
Through their own investigation that year, she and her colleagues subsequently found that 29 MBA applicants had plagiarized their essays - from the same two sources. That was 2009.
"We realized how ridiculously error-ridden and inefficient that was," said Marcinkevage, now MBA managing director at Smeal. "For every one we caught, who didn’t we?"
The school subsequently began using Turnitin, an Oakland, Calif., based company that specializes in systems to uncover plagiarism.
This year, the service helped Smeal uncover 48 applicants - about 8 percent of the pool - who apparently plagiarized their admissions essays since October, she said. The school uses rolling admissions, and that percentage could drop by May when the last cycle completes, she said. Last year, 7.8 percent of the applicants were found to have plagiarized, she said. On-line essay banks were the most likely source of the plagiarized material.
About 50 percent of offenders are from other countries, which may not hold plagiarism with quite the same disdain as the United States, she said.
"Attribution is not nearly the issue that it is here," she said.
About a third of the MBA applicants overall are international.
Smeal has the prohibition on plagiarism posted on its website with a definition of plagiarism, and applicants - regardless of their home country - have an obligation to follow the rules, she said.
About 6,000 colleges and lower grade schools in the United States use Turnitin to uncover classroom plagiarism, said Chris Harrick, vice president of marketing. More than 100 nationally employ the service to uncover plagiarism in admissions applications, he said. There are other colleges in Pennsylvania and New Jersey but they have asked that their use not be publicized, he said.
Smeal was the first business school to sign on to the service in 2009.
The essays are uploaded and the program searches the internet for matching content, Marcinkevage said. The search is more complex than just searching for keywords, she said.
"It highlights any matching content that it finds and gives you an automatic web link to where to find it," she said.
It also provides a percentage of the text that was found on the internet.
"Some application essays you might see a 20 percent match all from one source or you might see a 50 percent match from 12 different sources," she said.
Her team reviews essays with the highest match number and works its way down, she said.
"We look at all of them, so it’s still a human decision," she said. "But it’s a whole lot faster than searching Google for something that looks familiar."
The admissions team rejects applicants who plagiarize along with all of those who are rejected for other reasons, Marcinkevage said. They are not told plagiarism is the reason unless they inquire about their rejection, she said.
The school receives between 500 to 600 applications a year.
Plagiarism hasn’t dropped in the applicant pool since Smeal has been using the service, she said.
"The pool turns over every year with new consumers," she explained.
But the tough approach has "virtually eliminated plagiarism in the classroom," she said.
"I think there’s a real case to be made for academic integrity here. If you eliminate (a problem) on the way in, you can eliminate it in the classroom," she said.
Marcinkevage said it’s "disheartening but not surprising" to find that much plagiarism. People are pressed for time and taking short-cuts, she said. Sometimes they’re just cutting and pasting as they prepare duplicate applications, she said.
"Occasionally," she said "they’ll leave the wrong name of the school in the essay."