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The irony of plagiarized ‘self-introductions’

Lack of proper writing training forces students to turn to yet another private tutoring

“I’m a talented individual who is very diligent.”

“From a very young age, I was very interested in cars. I wish to become a car engineer.”

Bluntly praising one’s qualities and telling life experiences that do little to stress one’s abilities or academic prowess are only some of the pitfalls students can fall into while writing self-introductory essays, South Korean education firms that offer lessons on composing essays say.

They offer a service that a growing number of students are turning to in their arduous struggle to enter college, as universities have begun placing more emphasis on test takers’ writing skills.

Education authorities have been moving to highlight nonacademic aspects in the college admissions process as part of their efforts to alleviate the students from the burden of intense test competition.

But a glaring problem with the new approach is that students have been left without any training from their earlier education in how to write such essays, leading to the bitter irony of some students plagiarizing other people’s life stories or getting private tutors to write their personal introductions.

There have been complaints that Korea’s high school curriculum is overly focused on preparing for multiple-choice tests like school exams and the annual college entrance exam known here as the “Suneung.”

In a hasty response to such criticism, the ministry revised the curriculum so that each high school student could select an essay class in school, starting last year.

But with no formal textbooks developed by the government yet, essay-writing education is still predominantly conducted in the private sector.

“Throughout my middle and high school days, I’ve never even learned how to write. Yet I suddenly have to write an essay about my life for college. So, naturally we have no choice but to turn to private education,” said a high school senior at a Seoul-based school. 

Students and parents listen to a lecture by the Seoul Education Research and Information Institute on how to write self-introductory essays for college applications at Soongsil University in Seoul on Aug. 23. (Yonhap)
Students and parents listen to a lecture by the Seoul Education Research and Information Institute on how to write self-introductory essays for college applications at Soongsil University in Seoul on Aug. 23. (Yonhap)


Lee Man-gi, an official from local education firm Uway which offers lessons on how to write these essays, said a lack of storytelling ability causes many students to have trouble writing self-introductory essays.

“There is a huge disparity among students’ ability levels to write, and they have trouble identifying which life experience is worth mentioning. This is what our institute instructs the students on” he said.

In addition, he mentioned that the immense academic workload piled on students restricts them from having varied experiences outside of studying.

“Their club activities, the books they’ve read. ... There isn’t too much discrepancy among Korean kids. Yet they have to write something that stands out. This is why they seek help,” he said.

Meanwhile, the ability to write good essays is becoming more important.

According to the 2016 college admissions guidelines announced by the Korean Council for University Education last month, the percentage of extraordinary admissions has increased in this year’s admissions process.

Extraordinary admissions happen through a process conducted between August and October, basing the evaluations more on general schoolwork and extracurricular activities than the Suneung.

In these admissions courses, self-introductory essays and interviews are an important part of the grading process.

According to Rep. An Min-suk of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, there have been 7,623 cases of suspected plagiarism among self-introductory essays submitted in the admissions process for the 2015 school year.

“Admissions fraud strips other people of their rightful opportunities, and must be severely dealt with,” said An, urging the authorities to crack down on students, teachers and anyone involved in such cheating.

But according to Lee Seok-rok, an admissions officer for Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, the occurrence of plagiarism is actually trending down.

In light of the rampant plagiarism of essays, the KCUE in 2012 announced guidelines for colleges to weed out copycats in the admissions process. Most major schools, including HUFS, adopted a system to identify similarities in essays to pick out those who copied and pasted others’ work.

“I think more students are now worried that copying other’s essays will eliminate their chance of getting accepted at universities,” said Lee, pointing out that HUFS only had three cases of suspected plagiarism last year. Sungkyunkwan University, Korea University and Seoul National University had the most plagiarism cases of all universities with 541, 424 and 422, respectively.

While less students are copying others’ work, more students are paying for the wisdom of others.

A recent report by a local daily showed that university students who were accepted at top-tier universities via nonscheduled admissions often teach high schoolers how to write essays and do interviews. According to the report, one sold his self-introductory essay for 50,000 won ($42) to each student wanting to know his “secrets,” and was paid about 150,000 won per essay for correcting them.

These lessons for self-introductory essays have formed a profitable market, with local private education firms offering classes as well.

With so many students feeling clueless about how to effectively explain who they are, admissions officers advise them to just stick to the basics: persuade the reader why one needs to pick him or her.

“School records just show results of students’ work. Self-introductory essays give students a chance to explain the process of their school lives, and allow them to explain why he or she belongs (at the university),” said HUFS’s Lee.

By Yoon Min-sik
(minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)

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