Sep 25, 2010

Harvard to More Closely Scrutinize Applications for Fraud

The Boston Globe reports that Harvard University will more closely scrutinize applications for fraud in the wake of a recent scandal in which a former student allegedly submitted falsified application documents.

University President Drew Faust told the Globe that Adam W. Wheeler’s case led Harvard to make changes in admissions processes to prevent a repeat of what became a huge loss in financial aid, research grants, and prizes. Using what were later found to be doctored transcripts, SAT scores, and letters of recommendation, Wheeler was admitted to Harvard as a transfer student.

Without going into detail, Faust said, “We are going to be making appropriate adjustments, which we don’t describe because they’d be easier to undermine.”

According to Faust, the case highlighted the challenges faced by all colleges dealing with increased opportunities for dishonesty made all too easy by existing technology. Harvard plans to respond by implementing its own “technological measures,” starting this year to help guard against such fraud.

Harvard isn’t alone in the recognition that students cheat on applications. The University of California system now conducts random spot checks, asking about 10 percent of applicants to “verify activities, grades, or facts from personal essays.” Other colleges have been known to check claims they find suspicious or inconsistent with the rest of the application.

Turnitin, a web service used by high schools in Fairfax County as well as by Georgetown University and the University of Maryland to check papers for plagiarism has another approach. In 2009, Turnitin added admissions essays to the list of documents available for review.

The Turnitin for Admissions (TiiA) website boasts of “patented, award-winning plagiarism software technology” that will “help discover plagiarism, recycled submissions, duplicate responses, purchased dcouments, and other seemingly transparent problems.” Content subject to review includes essays, personal statements, and reference letters.

In a study conducted by Turnitin, 452,964 personal statements collected during the 2006-07 admissions cycle from an application service that remained nameless (its initials are CA) showed 1,033,813 matches in 199,963 personal statements. Further analysis showed that 44 percent of the personal statements contained matching text and 36 percent of those statments contained “significant” matching text. And most of the matches were found from popular application “support” websites including,,,, etc.

While a full list of TiiA clients is not readily available, Penn State became the first college or university to reveal that the admissions office has purchased the service. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that about 25 universities and 20 application services are “testing” the service.
Photo courtesy of TankGirlJones

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