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Articles / Applying to College / How Will Admission Officials Respond to Essay Plagiarism?

How Will Admission Officials Respond to Essay Plagiarism?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | Jan. 7, 2009

Question: What are the consequences of plagiarizing a college admissions essay and getting caught? I was just wondering what would happen if a college admission officer notices that two essays that he has read are very similar, even exactly the same. What would he do about those two applicants? Would he contact them both, just one of them, or not consider their applications at all? I would really like an answer to this question.

In the old days before most of us dwelled at least part-time in cyberspace, if two similar essays were submitted to the same college, they would probably come from the same--or neighboring--high schools. While I can't speak for every admission official, my best guess is that most would begin by wondering how stupid a student could be to copy the work of a competitor applicant. However, the admission folks would not be able to tell which kid was the guilty (and stupid) one, so they'd then contact the students' guidance counselor (or counselors) to ask about the individuals involved. In some instances, the counselor might be able to shed light on the situation right away ("Leon has never had an original thought in his life") but, in most cases, the counselor would meet with the students and wait for one of them to confess (or at least to appear guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt). I suppose there could be some occasions where there is even mutual guilt. ("I'll write your essay for fifty bucks. In fact, I already have a good one in my files.")


Now, of course, thanks to the Internet, it's possible for strangers who live thousands of miles apart to share (or steal) all sorts of information, including college essays. Even so, admission officials who spot potential plagiarism would mostly likely still go straight to the school counselors with their concerns, regardless of the distance that separates them.

Occasionally, similar essays may be truly coincidental. If, for example, Brandon and Brendon are both starters on the same state-championship basketball team and both are also fairly simplistic writers, I can imagine that their "Winning the Big Game" essays might sound strikingly alike. So the only crime committed would be boring admission folks to death. ;-) Again, that's something that a school counselor should be able to clarify.

I hope you know that college administrators take plagiarism very, very seriously, and this begins even before students are admitted. So I also hope that your question is a theoretical one and doesn't spring from any actual occurrence.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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