In the midst of commencement season this past May, one University President apparently decided that it was too much trouble to write his own speech. He stole chunks from someone else’s.
That didn’t go well. (tl;dr: He resigned within days.)
We speak regularly about ethics in MBA apps, and we’ll drill down a bit more specifically today on the topic of plagiarism.
You were probably taught about what is plagiarism back in college. There are lectures you get in your first year where the librarian or English teacher walks through how to cite sources and what’s an appropriate amount of paraphrasing or what have you. When it comes to writing your MBA essays, it may seem like none of that even applies, since you’re answering questions about your own life, and not researching someone else’s work to digest it.
However, plagiarism still occurs, and cheating in a wide number of forms, including people paying for someone to write the entire essay. Not even sure how that could work out, given what we’ve seen of those essay farms on the internet, but yeah, apparently that’s what some people try.
But that’s rare. That type of plagiarism, we’re guessing you don’t plan on doing.
However, plagiarism might still occur, inadvertently.
Most applicants don’t decide to plagiarize. That final result usually comes about based on a number of smaller, incremental bad choices.
One way that inadvertent borrowing of ideas happens is from reading other people’s essays — which is why we don’t tempt fate, and don’t provide any sample essays to read.
If you read someone else’s essay and you think that it’s “good” you’re likely to want to crib parts of the “good” essay into your own. It’s pretty natural for that tendency to arise — especially if you’re feeling totally stuck and unsure of where to even begin.
Plagiarizing someone’s witty social media post is also pretty lame, and that’s more in the category that we’re talking about today. Say you read something on Twitter that makes you chuckle, and you switch over to Facebook and post it yourself. That’s victimless plagiarizing, perhaps, but it’s still stealing. If you’re a comedian, this is taken incredibly seriously. Stealing jokes is the most unethical thing of all you could do.
The schools built in plagiarism detectors to their online applications because of this very problem, so even though you may be sitting disbelieving us that it’s an issue, it really does happen. Apparently quite a lot.
Is it “plagiarism” if you borrow someone’s approach to an essay question? Like, what if the question is (making this up) What is your favorite color and why?” — and instead of writing about “blue” someone writes about “the sky” and very creatively never names the color at all. And you read that essay and go “Dang, that’s slick” and you decide to do the same thing, but you write about “fire.”
Is that plagiarism?
No, not technically, but it seems like you’re stealing.
Lots of times, cutting corners and sneaking shortcuts doesn’t result in consequences. “No harm, no foul” as they say. It’s also true that there are no unique ideas in the world (or so they say) so is it ever possible to write an MBA admissions essay that wasn’t already written at some point before? No, not likely.
But copying someone else’s ideas, and especially copying someone else’s words — like maybe you brother got into bschool three years ago and he’s shared his essays with you now… That’s not what the schools have in mind when they ask you to write about what matters most.
And anyway, these things do seem to have a way of being found out.
Like back to our University president.
Apparently that esteemed leader of that institution just didn’t have his head in the game or his heart in the school any longer. Because besides lifting a paragraph from a Navy General’s speech for his address to the graduates, this happened too: He messed up the name of the school when he offered his congratulations to the students.
Maybe there was some guilt lurking in the unconscious that caused him to slip up?
Live a guilt-free life. Pay your taxes. Don’t cheat on your partner. And write your own essays for business school.