UCLA rejects 52 MBA applicants for plagiarism

February 2, 2012: 10:42 AM ET

All told, UCLA's Anderson school found that 52 MBA candidates were lifting whole paragraphs from other, unattributed sources in their essays. And they are far from the only B-school dealing with the problem.

By John A. Byrne, contributor

(Poets&Quants) -- Andrew Ainslie had a hunch.

Like many of his business school colleagues, the senior associate dean of UCLA's MBA program had watched the fairly significant rise in admission consultants over the years. Some now estimate that as many as half the applicants to Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton now employ consultants to give them an edge in polishing their applications to business school.

"We've had a concern for a while that there has been increasing use of these so-called consultants who help applicants with their applications," said Ainslie. "Many of these consultants are ethical and do the right thing. But quite a few of them either write the essays themselves or pull them out of catalogs."

So for the first time, UCLA's Anderson School of Management decided to put all the essays submitted by applicants to a test. It would use software from a company called Turnitin to scan the essays and see if they contained passages that had been used before in other essays or somewhere on the web.

"So our initial hypothesis was that the same essays would show up and be recycled by the consultants," added Ainslie. "What we actually found is just wholesale copying of massive chunks of stuff from websites or … of articles or Wikipedia. Essentially, they [some MBA applicants] are just plagiarizing."

The upshot: UCLA's business school rejected a dozen applicants for plagiarism during its first admission round, which ended Oct. 26. And then it rejected another 40 applicants during its second round, which ended Jan. 11. All told, the school found that 52 MBA candidates were lifting whole paragraphs from other, unattributed sources in their essays.

In one case, said Ainslie, as much as 85% of an applicant's essay was completely stolen from something published on the web. The only thing that was changed was the name of a country. In another example, one MBA candidate turned in a word-for-word copy of an essay written in 2003 for admission to Boston University's business school. It was published on Bloomberg BusinessWeek's website as an example of a successful essay. Yet another applicant actually took words from the Anderson School's own website and plugged them into his submitted essay citing "exceptional academic preparation, a cooperative and congenial student culture, and access to a thriving business community."

Rather than confront the applicants with the issue, UCLA is choosing to simply turn them away. "We just reject the application," Ainslie said. "I don't want to enter that conversation. All I would be doing is to allow them to compound one lie with another lie. I'm sure they'll have stories for us."

UCLA isn't the only school to suspect trouble. Two years ago, Penn State's Smeal College of Business uncovered 29 out of 360 essays that contained material copied from the web. Ironically, the essays were written on the topic of "principled leadership." Smeal is one of several other business schools using the Turnitin software to root out plagiarists.

This year, the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business began putting more emphasis on its in-person interviews because of concern that consultants might be too involved in helping MBA candidates produce essays beyond their ability.

"There is a consultant for everything," said Soojin Kwon Koh, admissions director at Ross. "It's hard to know who you're getting anymore. At least the interview is probably the most accurate picture that you'll get of how someone will be when he or she are in class or sitting in an interview for a job."

Asked if there was a dividing line beyond which an applicant would be immediately rejected for admission, UCLA's Ainslie said, "We're drawing a pretty conservative line. A minimum of 10% has to be plagiarized. If someone takes six lines out of a Tennyson poem and attributes it to Tennyson, we're happy with that. But if 10% or more of the essay is plagiarized and not attributed, we're turning down the applicant."

So far, added Ainslie, between 1% and 2% of the applicant pool has been found to plagiarize material in their essays -- well below the 4% to 5% rate at some undergraduate institutions that have used the software. "So as bad as it sounds, it looks like we're seeing less of this," he said. "We're making it a lot harder for people to pass off someone else's intellectual property as their own."

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John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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