Plagiarism or just a great example of the new way things are done?
Not content with copying their coursework from the Internet, students, it seems, are now plagiarising their university applications.
A study by the British university admissions clearing house Ucas has found that 5% of student applications had borrowed material to write their personal statements which accompany their applications, according to the BBC. And we’re not just talking lifting a few choice phrases here and there: whole histories are being created. The study found that in these statements, which are supposed to reflect the character and motivations of the applicant:
- 370 sentences contained a statement beginning: “a fascination for how the human body works…”
- 234 contained a statement relating a dramatic incident involving “burning a hole in pyjamas at age eight”
- 175 contained a statement which involved “an elderly or infirm grandfather”.
That’s a lot of burnt pyjamas and infirm grandfathers.
But actually upon closer inspection, I don’t think this is a simple case of lazy and insecure students lifting their statements from elsewhere. Students are merely leveraging the same tools that elsewhere are being lauded as the foundations of citizen journalism, collaborative writing and Web 2.0. Finding their applications being weeded out and discarded not on their academic qualifications but on vague and ill-defined “personal statements”, they’re searching for ways to press the right buttons.
Online of course makes this much easier. A website called Studential.com, for example, allows students to swap stories and information about applying for university, on doing interviews and writing personal statements. It’s not clear who runs Studential, since there’s no ‘about’ page and the domain registration is hidden, but it appears to be an individual. But it’s clearly the source of at least some of “pyjamas” material, since one successful applicant to the University of Bristol began their personal statement in just that way. They then posted the statement in its entirety to the website and have since elicited dozens of positive comments. (The same applicant then posted this on another website forum seeking help on writing personal statements”:
Here’s how I started mine:
Ever since I accidentally burnt holes in my pyjamas after experimenting with a chemistry set on my 8th Birthday, I have always had a passion for science.
Maybe that will give you some inspiration..
Clearly it did. Of course, there’s no condoning folk copying other people’s work, and in particular copying personal anecdotes. (Unless all these folk really did burn holes in their pyjamas on their 8th birthday.) But in other ways it reflects two things, one positive, one negative:
the online world favors cooperation and collaboration. Student applicants in a very competitive environment are happy and willing to share their experiences and their material. This is a real community.
the online world doesn’t necessarily favor originality, creativity or individuality. We have too much prior information, too much of an idea of what the benchmark and received procedure are, so what we do create tends to be bland and unoriginal.
Did these students feel they were plagiarists when they copied the pyjama episode? Or did they just feel that this was what worked, what was required of them, and then gave it? The system was asking them to come up with a personal statement that pressed the right buttons, and the pyjama button seemed to work.
I’d say the problem is with the personal statement approach, not unoriginal students desperate to do whatever gets them into medical school.