Do you ever have a sneaking suspicion that someone you consider a friend doesn’t consider you a friend? If you haven’t, you are not alone. A recent study examining the reciprocity and directionality of friendships was published this past March. The study started with the premise that friendships are usually assumed to be reciprocal. If I think you are my friend then generally, you think of me as your friend. It was a small study of 84 undergraduate students so may have limited generalizability, however, the results demonstrate a profound inability of people to perceive if their friendships go both ways. So if I consider you a friend that does not necessarily mean you consider me a friend. In the study they discovered that although 94% of the time students expected the friendship to be reciprocal, it was only reciprocal 50% of the time.
What does this have to do with medical school admissions you may ask? Everything. Letters of recommendation can make or break an application. They are one of the only places in the application where it becomes apparent what others think of you. This study emphasizes that we have difficulty perceiving what others think of us. You might be surprised to know that there are occasional negative letters of recommendation or even just plain bland letters of recommendation. It is obvious that sometimes the applicant really does not know what the letter writer thinks, or doesn’t think, of them. So when a student is asking a professor, mentor or advisor for a letter of recommendation it is important to always ask, “Do you think you can write me a strong letter of recommendation in support of my candidacy for medical school?” Always give the letter writer a way out since you don’t really know what they think of you unless you ask them.
Almaatouq A, Radaelli L, Pentland A, Shmueli E (2016) Are You Your Friends’ Friend? Poor Perception of Friendship Ties Limits the Ability to Promote Behavioral Change. PLoS ONE 11(3): e0151588. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0151588
“Stop copying me!” was a familiar refrain in my house growing up. My siblings would purposely annoy me by imitating me, usually in a confined space like the car where you couldn’t get away. Friends and peers would also copy you in more subtle ways – like buying the same outfit or throwing their birthday party at the same place. When we were kids imitation definitely did not feel like flattery, it was annoying. Unfortunately, imitation is not something easily outgrown. Both Vladimir Putin and Senator John Walsh have been accused of plagiarizing their theses. Plagiarism happens in our private lives, on the public stage, and unfortunately is also quite common on the smaller scale of admissions personal statements.
This is a disturbing but not new trend. Plagiarism is not just dishonest but a disservice to both the applicant and the school. The personal statement is meant to be “personal”. In general, admissions committees are not looking for the next Hemingway. They are looking to hear about “YOU”, your experiences, and your personal reflections on those experiences. It should be authentic and sincere. When writing a personal narrative I cannot think of a single reason to use someone else’s words or ideas.
Can you accidentally plagiarize?
However, it is understandable that the personal narrative may feel like a new or uncomfortable format for some applicants. They may seek out examples online or review other people’s personal statements for inspiration, a general idea of how to format, or to overcome writer’s block. It is possible for people to unintentionally plagiarize due to lack of knowledge about plagiarism or even to self plagiarize (yes this is possible). There are programs available for applicants to check their own personal statements for plagiarism, but in general, if you have not used any other sources while writing it really should not be an issue. I strongly encourage applicants NOT to read other personal statements when writing theirs to avoid any unintentional imitation. If you need guidance in writing you should contact your English teachers, pre health advisors, or other trusted or virtual advisors.
I can tell you from first hand experience that it may be difficult for admissions officers to pick up on subtle or minor instances of plagiarism, however, it is very easy for an experienced reader to sense when an applicant is not using their own words or ideas or even embellishing accomplishments. I can personally attest to having read at least a handful of residency personal statements that I instantly knew were plagiarized. Just as the internet has made it easier for applicants to “imitate” or “borrow” ideas, it has also made it easier for admissions officers to confirm their suspicions.
You will get caught.
Just in case you are wondering, there are tools specifically developed for academic institutions and admissions committees to check for plagiarism. Turnitin for admissions is a product specifically used by admissions committees. In a report conducted by Turnitin they reviewed 452,964 personal statements submitted to an online application service for institutions of higher education. They uncovered that 44% of the personal statements contained matching text and 36% of those statements contained significant matching text (more than 10% matching text) when compared against their database.
Where are students plagiarizing from?
49% came from internet sources, 29% came from other student documents, 2% came from proprietary subscription content (newswires, periodicals, ebooks, academic textbooks), and 20% came from other personal statements. A review of approximately 5000 residency applications across 5 specialties (using Turnitin) in one institution identified about 5% of personal statements contained plagiarism. Although the use of such tools is not without controversy it seems the demand for them has come from the intuitive knowledge and frustration of admissions committees that applicants are submitting “borrowed” material.
So let’s be clear about what constitutes plagiarism. Plagiarism is defined as deliberately using someone else’s language, ideas, or other original materials without acknowledging the source. Many universities have clear policies and guidelines regarding plagiarism and a quick google search could clarify what is and what isn’t generally considered plagiarism. This guideline from the University of Regina gives a good example of what personal statement plagiarism looks like. The US Dept. of Health and Human Services office of research integrity has an online guide to avoiding plagiarism. There may be many compelling forces behind plagiarizing an admissions personal statement including lack of time, lack of personal insight, poor mastery of English, or fear of not standing out. Some of it is the same motivator behind the copycatting we did as kids. Unfortunately, just like when we were kids, most of these reasons reflect a lack of maturity which does not bode well for success in higher education or medical practice.
This blog post is a revision of a prior blog post published by me on afutureMD.com in July 30,2014.
I just returned from several jam packed days learning from my peers at the 2016 IECA Conference in Boston. I was inspired by these 5 pearls of wisdom on how to excel as an educational consultant and feel they apply equally well to excelling as a college or medical school applicant.
- “The days of a great product running your business are over.”, Matthew Smith
Building a successful consultant business is about relationship building. In today’s world that means being online and learning to communicate through social media. If you have expertise, share that expertise. Be generous with your knowledge. Build value in your business by building trust. As a medical school applicant you are the “product”. Build relationships and work on your communication skills to showcase that product. Jamie Dickenson reminded us that, “It is one poor frog who does not promote their own lily pad”. There is an inherent discomfort in self promotion, both as entrepreneurs and as applicants. We need to engage people with confidence because if we can’t communicate confidently about what we are selling then no one will be buying.
- “We traffic in a world of stories.”, Robert Carlton, College Match Point
The true joy of educational consulting lies in the stories we help students tell. There is nothing more captivating than a personal narrative. How privileged we are to help people reflect and tell their stories. Stories help us connect and create meaning. David West from Syracuse University challenged applicants to think about, “Who is the person you dream of becoming? What do you want to achieve?” This is the storyline we should all be thinking about.
- “The harder we try to make everyone special, the less special we all become”, Ellen Braaten
The bell curve dictates that most of us are average, that is the statistical truth. We shouldn’t be aiming to become more special or the best, but rather, should be working towards developing resilience and self awareness. Instead of focusing on “specialness” try focusing on passion, curiosity, zest and optimism. Johannes Haushofer published a CV of failures inspired by an article by Melanie I. Stefan in Nature who encouraged scientists to, “Compile an ‘alternative’ CV of failures. Log every unsuccessful application, refused grant proposal and rejected paper. Don’t dwell on it for hours, just keep a running, up-to-date tally. If you dare — and can afford to — make it public. It will be six times as long as your normal CV. It will probably be utterly depressing at first sight. But it will remind you of the missing truths.” Lets build resilience by identifying our lessons in failure.
- “Daydreaming leads to inspiration.”, Daniel Levitin
Let your mind wander so it can connect unrelated ideas and create new ones. Information is free and easy to access. Collaboration and creativity takes time. If you are feeling stuck or stagnant take a nap, take a walk, listen to music, exercise or meditate and you just might just have a new idea. In today’s information highway boredom is a gift.
- “A piece of writing is never finished it is only submitted.”, Sidonia Darby, Smith College
No applicants’ story is ever complete when their application is complete. The personal statement merely catches a moment in time. No story is ever truly perfected but should merely demonstrate the road traveled so far. Which leaves me to wonder, “What will our stories be at the next IECA conference?”