It was billed as a way to get to know MBA applicants better. But NYU Stern School of Business’s new applications process, which asks candidates for contact details of referees who will talk to the school directly about the applicant, has the additional aim of ensuring that prospective students are not writing their own glowing reviews for bosses and colleagues to sign off.
“There are definitely ways in which we can see when something looks suspect,” says Isser Gallogly, Stern’s associate dean of MBA admissions and programme innovation. “Every individual has their own writing style so if we spot similarities, that is cause for concern.”
Most business schools do not like talking about the problem. But many are clamping down on ghostwritten applications in a variety of ways — and data suggest their efforts are paying off. About 40 per cent of respondents to a 2014 survey of business school applicants by the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, the professional body, said at least one manager asked them to draft their own recommendation letter. This year the same question found 29.2 per cent had been asked.
Students ghostwrite their references not from a desire to cheat, but because of a lack of time, according to Nick Barniville, associate dean of graduate programmes at ESMT Berlin.
“MBA applicants suffer from the same problems as everyone else looking for a reference from a busy employer,” he says. “The referee will often ask the employee to draft a reference for edit and sign-off.”
But such ghostwriting is obvious to anyone reading an application when the form, style, grammatical flow and paragraph structure are similar across two references, Mr Barniville adds.
References are only half the problem. Schools are also unhappy about a more pernicious form of ghostwriting, in which applicants pay outside agencies to write their application essays — and many have been trying to stamp it out for years.
Typically business schools ask for a 500-word essay, sometimes several, to explain why an individual has chosen that school and what they hope to get out of their studies.
The AIGAC was formed in 2006 to deal with such ethical issues, Scott Shrum, secretary of the board, says. Persuading someone else to write your application essays or your reference letter never pays, he claims. “If applicants are interviewed and their English is difficult [but their application] essays were perfect, the admissions team will see it immediately,” Mr Shrum says.
It is easy to find companies to ghostwrite MBA essays. A Google search throws up dozens of names, although all but one of these companies declined to comment on their practices. Leeds-based Essay Writer, which claims to be the UK’s largest online provider of custom dissertations, charges £183 for a 1,000-word master’s level essay with delivery promised in seven days.
Most clients are international candidates with limited skills in the application language, according to David Burton, the general manager. Others are mature applicants or students who have not written for a long time.
“Often they do not want us to write a whole piece but want help getting into a piece or feedback on how to enhance it,” Mr Burton says.
Ghostwriting essays and references might be unethical, but if you are caught, your application would not necessarily be rejected, according to Mr Barniville.
Most schools take a tougher line, insisting on an automatic rejection if ghostwriting is discovered, according to David Asch, quality services director for the accreditation body EFMD.
“Most university regulations say that the applications process must be honest, so if you mislead you can be sent away,” he says.
Technology has helped in the battle against ghostwriters. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and SDA Bocconi School of Management both insist on video essays in which applicants answer three questions about themselves within days of submitting their written application.
Many admissions committees use verification services, such as Re Vera, to conduct background checks to ensure that the applicants are representing themselves accurately.
Brilliantly written essays that do not match first-round standardised business school test scores, such as the GMAT verbal subscore, serve as a red flag to admissions committees, Susan Cera, a director of Stratus Admissions Counseling, says.
“Admissions committees reach out to applicants with quick and easy questions via email and look at the writing in the email response to see if it matches what is in the essays,” Ms Cera says.
She adds that the only effective policy is zero tolerance. “We recently heard of a top MBA programme rescinding an offer the month before the programme was going to start,” she says.
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Online essay checkers, such as Turnitin, Grammarly and Plagscan, have made the job of spotting ghostwritten pieces considerably easier for admissions teams.
Advanced systems, such as Slate by US education software specialist Technolutions, read the metadata embedded in a document to show if a letter of recommendation meant to have been written by a referee was in fact created on the applicant’s computer.
Source: Paul Bateman
Google Books and Wikipedia are the tools of my trade. I give the illusion of depth, the impression of analysis. It’s always enough to score a 2:1 (at least)
In recent months, I have written thousands of words of coursework for more university courses than I can remember. I’ve covered everything from literature and international relations to conservation and the Renaissance. But my name is not attributed to a single essay I’ve produced. I will receive no academic credit for my work and it won’t help me to graduate.
Why? Because I am a freelance ghostwriter. I work primarily through agencies (as any academic knows, there are many operating in the UK), bidding for contracts to complete students’ university assignments.
Sometimes I work through the night to complete an assignment on a tight deadline. On other occasions I work slowly, gathering material and considering my arguments with careful deliberation. And yet I don’t have a library card, nor access to any university’s cache of e-books and journals. Google Books and Wikipedia are the tools of my trade. I give the illusion of depth, the impression of analysis. It’s always enough to score a 2:1 (at least).
It all started six months ago, when I was made redundant from a well-paid office job. I cast around seeking conventional work, yet nothing appealed. In truth I was tired of sitting beneath strip lights filling out spreadsheets, answering emails. I was initially hesitant to get involved: was it all a scam? Besides, what kind of student would be tempted to use this service? During my own studies at Oxbridge I never once thought of cheating. I enjoyed what I did and was good at it.
The agencies are surprisingly thorough in hiring writers, which surprised me. I had to provide evidence of my qualifications as well as samples of my writing. I was asked to provide a breakdown of the areas in which I felt comfortable writing (but that has never stopped me taking on essays in areas that are not immediately familiar). It was also a prerequisite that I had graduated from Oxbridge or another Russell Group university. We are told that we are the best, the pick of the crop.
I’ve seen all sorts of assignments as a freelancer. The agencies maintain sophisticated databases of available work, and there is often more demand than we can handle. If you perused their lists, you would be shocked. They feature everything from first-year undergraduate assignments on Dickens (so easy! Who would need to cheat?) to PhD theses on molecular biology – not to mention the odd MBA on business ethics.
I stay away from applied fields – it is my only ethical standard as a ghostwriter. I will not help a nurse to qualify on false pretences: who knows, it might be my parents who find themselves in their care.
Some clients provide vague briefs, such as an essay question and suggested reading. That’s easy. Other times you can be sent a full package of primary data, segments of chapters and comments from the student’s supervisor. While some clients are in a hurry or lazy, others have difficulties with their English and cannot complete their assignments to the required standard. I suppose they are afraid to fail.
I can make up to £150 for a standard essay of 2,000-3,000 words – an evening’s work. Longer items can fetch up to £2,000.
I know all the tricks universities use to identify plagiarism and have learned how to dodge them. Now that software can identify the percentage of text that has been lifted from other sources, bespoke personalised essays – as opposed to generic ones – are the norm. I’ve also edited students’ clumsy plagiarism, hiding their tracks with my own well-hidden watermarks.
I operate on the assumption that the student I’m working for will have little or no personal interaction with academic staff. This means there is only a small likelihood that the lecturer who sets and marks the questions will be familiar with the student’s style of writing. Helpfully, clients will also specify what grade they require – after all, a third-rate student would attract suspicion if they submitted a first-class essay. These students ask for a 2:1, or merely a pass; sometimes it helps to leave a sentence in rough shape or drop in a spelling error. Personalisation is the key.
I don’t justify the work I’m doing on ethical grounds. While what I do is not illegal, it does enable others to break rules and suffer the consequences if they are caught. The agencies maintain the image of legitimate businesses: many do not even refer to “cheating”. You are simply “helping” with an assignment (making up, as one agency argues, for the university’s failure to provide adequate tuition). While I’m happy to acknowledge that I am dependent on clients’ continued cheating, this doesn’t mean I am not conscious that my job is a symptom of an illness, a fracture, in our universities.
If you asked me whether I enjoy my work I’d say – on the whole – “yes”. Of course I’d prefer to write honestly for a living, but in this market words are a slight commodity. For now it beats getting the train to work.
On the opening page of each assignment, I always remember to add that oh-so important line: “I confirm that this essay represents entirely my own work.”