Plagiarism in College Entrance Essays – How Serious Is It?

Three students applying to Vanderbilt last year were found to have merely cut and pasted large sections of their college entrance essays out of popular magazines online. The plagiarism was so blatant, they hadn’t even bothered to change the font styles or the light green color of the lettering on the original website. Eighteen students applying to NYU who needed to write an essay about the effects of war on their community were found to have not just copied from each other, but to have copied wholesale from a popular teen newspaper on the subject. When asked about it, they claimed that since the source hadn’t published a byline, that they thought it was fair game. The open source argument is in fact a very popular one. When the copied text comes out of Wikipedia especially.

It used to be that everyone was aware that intellectual property belonged to someone. You couldn’t lift another person’s creation without ascribing credit because it was immoral to do so. Everyone was completely aware of this part of the whole morality discourse. Today, when colleges confront applicants about what they’ve done, it appears to be news to them that plagiarism is a no-no, and that there is a moral debate that surrounds it. What we’re seeing with college entrance essays today is all part of how life is changing with the Internet today – an intellectual wild West where copyright, intellectual property and original creation appear to be concepts borrowed from a more primitive time. These essays are picked up the way an mp3 would be off a friend’s player in today’s age of DRM-free music.

It is not as if children who grew up in the Internet age were not told in school how important it was, not plagiarize. Internet age or not, everyone grew up in the current school system, and they know what plagiarism is. It might be a good idea if the graduate school class on research methods were to be moved to freshman year and made compulsory. When children claim that knowledge is common, they are just using a specious way of mixing up the truth. Knowledge may be common. But the laws of nature have never changed – real understanding, real knowledge comes from a great struggle with it. If that doesn’t happen in the writing of college application essays, then they’re as good as not done.

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