College Essays About Ethics

THE COLD WAR MIGHT be finished, but there’s a new arms race underway. Eager to get into America’s most-selective colleges, high-schoolers are beefing up their résumés with more and more extracurriculars, hiring consultants to help with college applications and doing everything they can to boost their grade-point averages. 

For many, a 4.0 GPA is no longer good enough; students take honors or Advanced Placement courses that give them “weighted” GPAs of 4.5 or higher. Given this pressure, it’s no surprise that some students cheat.

Use this fictional ethical dilemma with your Scouts to explore the gray area between helping a friend and cheating on his behalf.

The Dilemma
Since he was a child, Bronson McLean has dreamed of attending Princeton University. He has decorated his bedroom with Princeton paraphernalia. His school locker sports Princeton Tigers bumper stickers. And he even persuaded the other members of his Boy Scout patrol to call themselves the Tigers instead of the Sharks.

Bronson has a 4.24 GPA, great SAT scores and a solid résumé. But he lacks one thing: the ability to write persuasively. When he learns that the Princeton application requires a 500-word essay on “an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world,” he panics. He has no idea what to write about and knows that, even if he did, he couldn’t effectively communicate his thoughts.

With time running out, he approaches fellow Tiger Patrol member Josh Walser (who has already been accepted to an in-state public university) with a simple proposition: Write the essay, and I’ll give you $100. Bronson hates to cheat, but he believes he has no choice.

For Discussion
In trying to solve his problem, Bronson has created an ethical dilemma for his friend as well as for himself. To clarify the discussion, invite your Scouts or Venturers to put themselves in each character’s place as they answer the following questions:

For Josh, the Friend

  • Would it be cheating if Bronson used an essay you wrote as his own? Why or why not?
  • Would it matter if he had asked you to write the essay because you’re his friend instead of offering you $100? Why or why not?
  • If you accept Bronson’s offer, are you being complicit in his cheating? After all, you’re not the one trying to get into Princeton. Why or why not?
  • If you turn down Bronson’s offer, how might that affect your friendship? Should that matter in your decision? Why or why not?
  • If you turn down Bronson’s offer, he hasn’t technically cheated yet — although he might find someone to write his essay. Should you still turn him in? Why or why not?
  • If you do decide to turn him in, whom should you tell? Your Scoutmaster? Your principal? The Princeton admissions office? Why did you pick that person or entity?
  • If you decide not to turn him in, are you being complicit in his cheating?
  • How much help could you give Bronson without it being cheating? Would it be OK to brainstorm ideas with him? To edit his rough draft? Would it make any difference whether he paid you for that help?

For Bronson, the Princeton Hopeful

  • Let’s assume you haven’t cheated since seventh grade. Does that make having Josh write your essay less ethical, more ethical or neither? Why?
  • Would it be less ethical, more ethical or neither if you had asked him to write a term paper for your senior English class instead of college admission? Why?
  • Does cheating in high school or on your college essay really matter once you get to college? Or do you start with a clean slate as a freshman? Why or why not?
  • Given how selective Ivy League schools are, you might assume that other applicants are also cheating. Should that make a difference in whether you pay Josh to write your essay? Why or why not?
  • Should the fact that the essay is about values matter? Why or why not?
  • Should the fact that you’re a Scout matter? Why or why not?
  • Should the fact that Josh is a Scout matter? Why or why not?

Next Steps
Challenge your Scouts or Venturers to devise a solution to this dilemma that doesn’t involve cheating but still gives Bronson a decent chance of getting in to Princeton. Invite them to reflect on times when they’ve faced a situation similar to Bronson’s or Josh’s.

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Imagine having to type and sign your name under this (redundant) sentence at the end of your personal statement:

I certify that this essay is original work prepared by me, the author.

Well, you need not imagine it—many scholarship and grad school applications include just such a statement for you to sign. Though it may seem almost absurd, by definition, that a student’s personal statement would need to be endorsed as being personal and original, growing concerns about academic integrity have made such a testimony necessary in the eyes of many.

The evidence that many students cheat in college is overwhelming. There are popular “self-help” handbooks published on the subject, and a growing number of classes in high school and college where teachers ban cell phones so that students can’t text message test answers to each other (there are other good reasons to ban cells in classes, too). As cited in the article "Educators blame Internet for rise in student cheating" in The Seattle Times, one survey of 70,000 students conducted by the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University found that 95 percent of high school and college students “admit to some form of academic cheating.” Other surveys report far less shocking but equally troubling results, usually settling on figures of about 50 percent of students who note that they have participated at least once in academic cheating.

Given the temptation and habit built into a culture where many students do cheat, and given the high stakes involved when applying for a scholarship or to grad school, it is not unreasonable to think that some students practice some form of cheating even in their personal statements. In this context, unethical practices range from exaggeration to poor source citation to outright plagiarism.

Lies, Exaggerations, and “Creative Truths”

One of the most famous cases of lies in a personal essay, which eventually led to a lawsuit by the writer of the essay, was in the news in 1998 (see the article "Judge Vindicates Princeton/School Blew Whistle on Lying Student"). Princeton University alerted the medical schools one of its graduates had applied to that he had made false claims in his personal statement. The graduate and would-be doctor then sued Princeton, but the judge threw out the case after testimony was over and before the case had gone to jury. During the course of the trial, the graduate admitted to telling several lies and “creative truths” in his application. In his personal statement, he misidentified his race, lied about winning a prestigious scholarship, and falsely claimed that “a family of lepers had donated half their beggings” to support his dream. (This last claim is particularly creative, in that it is highly difficult and unsavory to check up on its veracity.) In the article cited above, Dean Nancy Malkiel at Princeton testified that the school had an obligation to inform the student’s target medical programs: “It’s up to us to see to it that the people entering the medical profession are competent, confident and trustworthy.”

And then there are “optimistic exaggerations” with just a whiff of truth. I once worked with a student on his personal essay, pausing with interest over a comment that he had “started a foundation” to help the unfortunate in a particular third world country meet their technological needs. (Impressive, certainly, but also so exact and unusual that I questioned him about it.) Because this student was applying for a prestigious national scholarship, where humanitarian service is especially valued, I knew this essay detail would capture the attention of the selection committee if the student reached the interview stage. Well, it turns out that he had indeed spent a semester in the third world country he had cited—again, impressive—but the “foundation” he spoke of was really just him kindly sending a rebuilt computer to his former supervisor in that country upon his return to the States. He had plans to send more hardware and start an organized effort, but in fact it was much more of a noble dream than a reality.

My example isn’t meant to belittle the student—in fact, his application otherwise was impressive and he quickly retracted his original statement after some discussion—but to represent how tempting it can be to exaggerate with the hope of impressing, and to note just how harmful a trumped up claim can be to one’s credibility. I’ve seen creative exaggeration on resumes submitted as part of an application as well: “I served as an institutional sanitation engineer” really translated to “I was a school janitor”; “I was President of the Nancy Club” really meant “I traded old Nancy and Sluggo comics with some of my friends on facebook.” I genuinely believe that students who write like this don’t necessarily mean to lie; they just aren’t sure if the truth sounds impressive enough. And in the case of the “Nancy Club” —well, there’s simply no way to dress it up, and it just doesn’t belong.

Clearly, students making exaggerated claims and telling “creative truths” in their personal essays only hurt their ethos and raise their audience’s doubts. Usually these kinds of claims are highly transparent as well, and the only person who is in a position to defend or explain them is the writer. Seasoned readers easily sniff out the exaggeration or, worse, may even ask the student about the claim in an interview, only to receive a fumbling response or a downright, regrettable lie.

To state the obvious, then, tell the truth about yourself. A good rule of thumb is to assume that anything you write in a personal essay or on an application resume could come back to haunt you in a follow-up interview. Be prepared to back up any claim you make with verbal evidence, even beyond that provided in your essay, and don’t put yourself in a position of having to retract something just because you hoped to make it look more impressive than it actually was.

Plagiarism

As a writing tutor who helps students wrestle with issues of source citation on a daily basis, I know that well-meaning students are sometimes genuinely puzzled about ethical source citation practices. The nuances of this issue are many, especially when one cites internet sources; however, the underlying ethic should be clear—when you use someone else’s original ideas or words directly, you must cite your source. Unfortunately, so many students are habitually guilty of “sloppy thinking” in this area that professors have to give the issue special attention, even though they’d much rather not. I once had a student copy an entire page from another student’s paper during a rough draft session without her knowledge, then hand the paper in as his own. When I compared the two papers and pointed out that he had actually plagiarized much of the material, he tried to claim that he had simply failed to cite the other student’s paper. I’ve also had students innocently claim that if material appears on the web it need not be cited because, by definition, it’s common knowledge. Such appalling reasoning induces premature aging and weary hearts in teachers.

In regards to citation practices within personal essays, the first principle you must understand is that citation within a personal essay is indeed a common practice. You need not worry that it will look odd to cite sources within your essay, especially when you apply for, say, a Goldwater Scholarship or a National Science Foundation Fellowship. In these instances, parts of the application are akin to a scientific literature review, so failure to cite your sources professionally could actually be a kiss of death.

The second principle is that the same rules for citation are relevant as applied in your college papers—i.e., you must cite sources in the following circumstances:

  • When you use statistics or data generated by other authors;
  • When your quote verbatim or paraphrase in a way that your wording closely resembles the original source;
  • When you borrow another author’s interpretation, argument, theory, or hypothesis;
  • When you wish to enhance your credibility or argument by comparing it to the published work of another.

In such circumstances, always cite your source, following the maxim that it is better to be safe than sorry. Further standards and mechanics to follow when citing sources in personal essays are detailed in the "Citing Sources" section of Chapter 2 of this handbook. For much more extensive advice on source use, you can refer to Chapter 5 of Style for Students Online.

Avoiding Plagiarism and Using Samples in This Handbook Responsibly

If you’re not convinced that plagiarism is practiced by students applying to graduate school, just visit one of the many websites where papers and personal statements are sold to students, such as 123helpme.com. At schoolsucks.com, one of the oldest websites devoted to this mission, a search for the keywords “personal statement” turns up hits including personal essays written for students seeking graduate study in nursing, philosophy, education, and criminal justice. For about $30-40 a pop, foolish (and apparently wealthy) students can purchase one of these personal statements and potentially plagiarize from it, fundamentally cheating both themselves and their readers. Success in such a venture is, of course, perhaps unlikely and certainly unethical, and the idea that material from someone else’s personal essay can simply be transplanted into your own reflects badly on the quality of the original and even more badly on your own self-image.

Even harder evidence that plagiarism occurs in personal essays is provided by way of a Penn State's blog site, in a 2013 article entitled "Smeal rejects 48 MBA applications over plagiarism. This article details how 48 plagiarized essays were  rejected during the first and second rounds of the Smeal College of Business's MBA admissions cycle, thanks to MBA Managing Director Carrie Marcinkevage and a plagiarism-checking service called TurnItIn.

Acknowledging the above, I do offer many sample personal statements in this handbook for your considered study, and that is exactly how you should use them—for study. Chapter 4 offers both examples and brief reviews of those examples, while Chapter 5 includes both essays that won national scholarships and those that did not win but are nevertheless effective. These essays were written by students from across the country and abroad, and I adapted them for print with the permission of the essay writers, aiming for a diversity of samples and voices. When studying these examples responsibly, you’ll realize that strong personal essays are so good that they, quite simply, cannot be copied; they succeed by persuading as argument, by achieving individuality, and—most importantly—by being personal.

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