Out to beat the cheats

The body that runs the business school entrance test is taking action to stop plagiarism.

Do business school students cheat more than their peers in other subjects? Judging by the latest anti-plagiarism measures taken by the Graduate Management Admission Council, which runs the gold-standard entry test for business schools, you could be forgiven for thinking so.

From next May, all candidates for the GMAT, which most serious applicants have to pass to get a place on an MBA course, will have to present a high-tech palm scan alongside their score to certify that they took the test.

The move comes after the Council shut down the website Scoretop.com in a $2.35m law suit. The site claimed to offer prospective test-takers a look at "real, live" GMAT questions. Eighty-four students subsequently had their test scores cancelled.

It has often been assumed that cheating is more of a problem with business school students because of their "bottom-line mentality" – the tendency to prize success above ethics.

"The cheat, though erring on the wrong side of the law, could be seen as showing great entrepreneurial acumen," says Mike Bryon, author of How to Pass the GMAT. "These students would probably go on to run a very good business and get a lot from their MBA," he adds, tongue in cheek.

Good GMAT scores matter, so why wouldn't students try anything for success? Results are tied to the MBA rankings system, so students with better scores can choose from better business schools. If you add into the mix high competition for places, personal and family pressure, not to mention the costs of taking the GMAT ($250/£147) and the MBA itself, it is perhaps understandable that the council is having to fight cheating.

"An MBA provides such an incredible return on investment that I am not surprised some people are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to get an advantage in the admissions process," says Dr Simon Learmount, deputy director of the MBA at Judge Business School, Cambridge University.

The majority of American business schools demand the GMAT. But schools in Britain and mainland Europe have been slower to catch on. Some British business schools see the GMAT as outdated and too American. Others, like Cranfield School of Management and Nottingham University Business School do take scores into consideration, but only alongside other factors, such as business experience, communication skills and a good first degree.

But the security clamp down might lead more British schools to embrace the test. Edinburgh University Business School, for instance, has just admitted its first cohort on the basis of GMAT scores. "There are so many colleges and universities issuing degrees that the field is very uneven," says Inger Seiferheld, MBA programme director at Edinburgh. "The GMAT gives you a second check on the standard of the student and their degree,"

Business schools such as Edinburgh and Nottingham, when they do ask for the GMAT, look for a score of around 600. These schools say that the GMAT is not a difficult exam. But Bryon, a leading expert on the GMAT, says that the test can be difficult for those who have not had an American education, and those who lack grounding in old-fashioned algebra and geometry.

He adds that to score very highly is difficult as the test is "adaptive": the more answers you get right, the harder the questions become. London Business School, thought to be the best in Europe, reckons the average mark for its 2008 cohort will be above 700.

But since most British business schools have only a loose attachment to the GMAT, cheating on the test is bound to affect them less. "We only use the GMAT as an indication that the candidates can hack the MBA," says Séan Rickard, director of the MBA at Cranfield School of Management. "If students found some way to cheat they'd have other hurdles to get past."

Rickard says that the bigger issue is coursework, where the ability and temptation to plagiarise is a growing problem. The programme Turnitin is used by many schools – including Cranfield – to identify phrases in essays that have been lifted from uncredited sources. "Because students know everything is checked, they've got to be stupid to cheat. And we're not interested in stupid people, so we don't get a lot of it," says Rickard.

Nottingham University Business School spends an entire induction day teaching good academic practice and laying down the law on plagiarism. This is particularly aimed at international students from, say the Far East, where referencing and plagiarism are approached differently. "It's not seen as trying to pass off somebody else's words as your own; it's seen as paying respect to that authority," says Professor Stephen Diacon, director of MBA programmes at the school.

Though Nottingham has access to Turnitin, and uses it as a deterrent to cheating, it prefers to trust academics to recognise uncredited sources, and identify noticeable changes of written style. "We really think that the front line of defence is the judgement of academic staff and we don't want to automate that," says Diacon.

'You get at least five mock tests'

Varun Sajwan, 28, is studying full-time for an MBA in finance at Nottingham University Business School.

"I did pretty well on the GMAT, and to be honest, yes, it's hard. I'd been working in business for four years. To get back into the books you have to work doubly hard.

Considering the competition for these top 100 business schools, if you don't get a good score, there's no chance of any of them entertaining your application.

That said, many top universities would consider an applicant without a great score if they have work experience of more than six years. Work experience holds a lot of value, especially if the applicant has shown good leadership skills.

Back home in India, you get at least five mock tests so you can hone your skills. That's not cheating; it's just preparing yourself for the time constraints and seeing what the GMAT looks like.

If I realised that I didn't have the aptitude for an MBA, I wouldn't cheat – I'd rather not do the MBA at all."