Thursday, August 8, 2013

Off to a great start

I sit on the committee that evaluates the applications for our Master's program and awards points that determine who will be offered a position. We met today to slog through 57 applications for 20 places. We offer applicants the opportunity to write us a letter, telling us what motivates them to study with us. They don't have to, but there are 6 points or about 15 % of the possible points riding on this, so you can make up weak grades with a great letter.

We had 18 students choose to write letters. As a colleague began reading letter six, he realized that he was reading the same sentences he had just read in letter five! We had not given that one full points as it was rather puffed up and was not well personalized, but here was the same stuff about striving for a position in top management (a strange thing, as our program is not for management but for media computing) and ended with a flowery sentiment about knowing that our Fakultät (strange, we have Fachbereiche) only had a set number of places and how they were sure that they could contribute to the program.

We dug out letter five, each grabbed a laptop and started googling. He won - in about 4.5 seconds he turned up a web page on how to write a motivational letter. And there were all the bits and pieces, slightly reworded here and there.

We were pissed.

Here we are sitting in a hot, hot room spending an entire day doing all this work, and they can't be bothered to write a page themselves about why they want to study with us. We contacted the admissions department, we were only allowed to give them 0 points for this part of the application process. I would just as soon reject them with a letter stating why and publish their names somewhere, there is no excuse for behavior like this, especially when the site itself says:
Nicht kopieren!

Lasst euch von den Beispielen in diesem Text inspirieren, aber kopiert sie nicht. Wir haben Rückmeldungen von Hochschulen bekommen, dass bis zu 20% der Bewerber Formulierungen aus diesem Text nutzen. Das lässt euch nicht gut aussehen. Textet also selbst - es ist in eurem eigenen Interesse.

Don't copy!

You can get inspired by this text, but don't copy it. We have heard from schools that up to 20 % of the applicants use sentences from this text. You don't look good that way. Write yourself - it is in your own interest.
Right. This shows that they are not even capable of following directions. Do I want them in our program? No way.

We continued. Guess what motivation letter #12 was like? Yup. A THIRD copy of this self-same letter. S/he was given 0 points as well.

Out of 18 letters, 3 were obvious plagiarisms, or 16,6 %. For a Master's program!! Two plagiarists didn't make the cut, but one had so many other points s/he will be offered a slot. Let me tell you something, dude: I will be speaking about plagiarism at orientation. And I will be watching you.

I had heard that the States was having terrible trouble with people handing in plagiarized letters, or Mom and Dad writing them. I am completely at a loss to understand why anyone would do such a stupid thing, especially in a Germany that has been discussing plagiarism for over two years.


  1. Hi,

    I'm the author if the articles people copied from (there are actually two). We already heard about this phenomenon last year and updated the articles with the warning you quoted. By tomorrow, there will be an even clearer warning - even though I had the impression the existing warning was clear enough. It both pains me and makes me angry that I indirectly hurt some people's chances to enter a Master programme.


    Sebastian Horndasch

  2. As the graduate chair of my physics and astronomy department for several years, I simply rejected students with plagiarized materials (such as a statement of interest). Your post seems to imply that while you would have liked to reject, the bureaucracy of your university prevented this. Is this really the case?

  3. @Aaron Sigut, yes, the administration advised us to only give zero points for this part of the package. My colleagues and I were not completely in agreement on how to proceed, as I flat out wanted to reject all three, while a colleague felt that the other materials presented by one of the students were just what we were looking for. I pointed out that we don't know if all of these materials are actually from the student in question. We have, however, demonstrated a willingness to cut corners. Unfortunately, we made the admissions suggestions, but it is the administration that finally decides how many to

  4. Ich nehme an, dass Sie deutschsprachig sind. Und da ich Ihre Meinung nicht teile, mir Argumentationen in Englisch aber schwer fallen, formuliere ich meinen Beitrag auf Deutsch.

    Motivationsschreiben sind sicherlich eine nette Idee um über den Zugang zu einem Studiengang zu entscheiden. Aber letztendlich sollte es bei den meisten heißen "Schreiben in dem man nicht über seine tatsächlichen, vermutlich eher unpassenden Motivationen die auf emotionaler Ebene liegen redet. Sondern in dem man, wohl wissend in Konkurrenz zu einer unbestimmten Anzahl anderer stehend versuchen muss, vorgeben zu müssen akademisch relevante Gründe dafür zu haben für einen Studiengang ausgewählt zu werden."
    Selbstverständlich werden die meisten auf Anhieb zehn passende Sätze hierfür formulieren können. Aber in Anbetracht der Tatsache, dass man mehr als 10 Sätze braucht, das Werk überdurchschnittlich sein muss um Erfolg zu haben und die Studenten die um ihre Zukunft bangen vermutlich mindestens 3 weitere Anschreiben formulieren müssen, finde ich es nur allzu verständlich, dass Menschen die nicht besonders gut darin sind vorzugeben etwas zu sein was sie nicht sind, resignieren und kopieren.

    Und bitte, Sie hören schon was ich von der Art und Weise wie diese Schreiben verfasst werden sollen um dem Geschmack und den Erwartungen der Prüfer gerecht zu werden halte. Glauben sie nicht ich würde deshalb Plagiarismus im Allgemeinen und bei wissenschaftlichen Arbeiten im Besonderen, gutheißen.

  5. Hello,

    I am a still a student, but after graduation I want to do a voluntary service. Since I am not the only one interested, applicants have to write a motivation letter.
    I understand how many of the applicants have to prepare for the upcoming exams, but still I do not find it fair if those, who do not put much effort into describing their motivation, still get the chance to be the more favored ones since their letters have a better structure, formulation and so on. Maybe they are not even motivated? Maybe this is just something they have to to. Same goes for those applying for a master. This is something they HAVE TO DO so they will have good chances in the future. But one cannot just write into the motivation letter "It's what I have to do." So they copy other people's motivation letter.
    Writing a motivation letter is not that hard if you are really motivated!
    So I find it sad and doubtful that those copying applicants still get away with it.

  6. @noona Ho, oh, I totally agree, but that is now final, since the letter is optional, they only get 0 points for that part.
    @Julia, well, I'd like to see if they are capable of writing complete sentences that don't all begin with "I", even if the letter is about themselves. I much prefer an honest-sounding letter than one that sets my bullshit-bingo detector off. And I'd kind of like to get to know the people wanting to join the program. If I had my druthers, I'd take 1/3 people who have worked after their bachelor's (they know why they are coming back), at least 1/3 women, someone with business smarts, someone with design smarts, 2-3 who can do the maths, at least a quarter hot-shot programmers, and one person good at organizing parties. But we have to follow a pseudo-quantitative points system.