Plagiarism by university applicants soars

18th February 2011 at 00:00
Ucas detection software flags up 30,000 copied personal statements - up by one-third

The number of pupils plagiarising personal statements in their university application forms increased by one-third last year, despite the deterrence of a new hi-tech copying-detection system.

Ucas describes the 600-word statements as a chance for sixth-formers to "stand out from the crowd" in the increasingly competitive race for higher education places.

But last year nearly 30,000 applicants failed to take that advice on board and sent in personal statements that the Ucas "similarity-detection service" flagged up as copied.

The software showed that at least 10 per cent of each flagged statement was identical to other applicants' statements or to online examples.

In each case, the universities and colleges applied to were immediately informed of the plagiarism so that they could take appropriate action.

Hundreds of statements even shared identical opening lines, with a quote from Coco Chanel about the importance of fashion among the most popular choices (see box, left).

"The personal statement is one of the most important parts of the online application process," a Ucas spokesman said. "It gives applicants the chance to stand out from the crowd, which is why it should be an individual, and personal, piece of work."

Ucas first trialled its Copycatch software in 2007 on the personal statements of more than 50,000 applications to study medicine, dentistry and veterinary science at Oxford and Cambridge.

It identified plagiarism in 5 per cent of the statements and, according to Ucas, many applicants borrowed phrases from the same free website.

In 234 applications to study medicine, candidates wrote that it was "burning a hole in my pyjamas at age eight" that sparked their passion for the subject.

The resulting publicity combined with warning letters to all UK schools may have had an effect. The following year, when the software was used on all Ucas applications, the proportion of copied statements dropped to 3 per cent.

It fell further to 2.8 per cent in 2009 when 20,086 statements contained plagiarism, but rose to 29,228, or 3.85 per cent of applications, in 2010.

Alan Vincent, joint general secretary of the Association for Careers Education and Guidance, said it was possible that a "large proportion" of the careers teachers he represented were not aware of Ucas's plagiarism crackdown.

"I guess this (increase in plagiarism) says something about applicants' access to the web," Mr Vincent said.

"But if this is a response to the growing pressure on pupils to secure university places, it is ill-conceived because the detection process is there.

"It is one thing to look at good practice on the internet - that is understandable. But it is another thing to then lift the material."

The plagiarism figures are revealed in The Ucas Guide to Getting into University and College, which goes on sale this week.

SOUNDS FAMILIAR .THE TOP 10 OPENING LINES

Using its Copycatch software, Ucas compiled a list of the most common opening sentences used in personal statements in 2010.

1. I am currently studying a BTEC National Diploma in . 464

2. From a young age I have always been interested in . 309

3. From an early age I have always been interested in . 292

4. Nursing is a very challenging and demanding career . 275

5. For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with . 196

6. "Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only" . 189

7. Nursing is a profession I have always looked upon with . 178

8. For as long as I can remember I have been interested in . 166

9. I am an International Academy student and have been studying since . 141

10. Academically, I have always been a very determined and . 138.

  • Original headline: Attack of the clones: plagiarism by university applicants soars

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