Cropped view of a multiracial group of young men and women sitting in a row at a table, writing with pencils on paper. They are taking a test or filling out an application. Focus is on the hand of the young man in the middle in the gray shirt.

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One semester, Alyse C., a recent college grad, was struggling in one of her marketing classes. “I just wanted to do well enough on the exam that I could pull my grade up to a C or something,” she says. She found some tips online about how to hide her notes and see them during the test. “Of course, my teacher caught me. He didn’t embarrass me in front of the class, but he took my exam away.”

After the exam, Alyse’s professor spoke to her, and they went to the dean. Alyse says she feels very lucky to have gotten just a warning and an F, and she says she never did it again. “It wouldn’t have been worth getting kicked out of school,” she says.

What cheating could mean for you

“The consequences depend on severity and whether it’s a first or multiple offense,” says Paul Sopcak, Coordinator, Student Conduct, Community Standards and Values at MacEwan University in Alberta.

Students passing notes

Consequences range from a written warning to expulsion. “Then there are numerous other consequences that result from being accused of academic misconduct related to mental health, costs (to redo a course), motivation, loss of identification and/or satisfaction with the institution, loss of a sense of community, etc.,” Sopcak says.

Despite the massive consequences cheating can have (e.g., failing the class or getting kicked out of school), it happens quite a bit—almost 35 percent of students across Canada surveyed in a recent Student Health 101 poll copped to cheating at some point in their academic career.

The problem is, cheating doesn’t always feel as black and white as Googling answers under your desk or paying someone to write a paper for you. “There’s an important difference between being accused of dishonesty rather than negligence, and this has an effect on the willingness of accused students to learn from the incident,” says Sopcak.

Why students cheat—and how to avoid it

Considering the consequences of getting caught cheating, why do so many students do it? “Cheating on exams is rarely premeditated,” says David Rettinger, Executive Director of the Center for Honor, Leadership, and Service at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. “It’s more commonly a crime of opportunity”—that is, students find themselves in a situation where the answers are available, and they take advantage of it.

Another major reason students cheat? Lack of time management, Sopcak says. It’s not hard to see how this happens. Many students are dealing with an intense class load, the pressure to keep their grades up, and a part-time job to help with the cost of their education. These intense pressures could make anyone feel stressed and even desperate. Nichelle M.*, a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts, says it’s the intense stress of wanting to do well that has led her to cheat in the past. “Usually it’s when the work of other classes hasn’t left me enough time to study for the exam,” she says.

Most students who cheat don’t usually set out with the intent to be dishonest—like Nichelle, they find themselves in a situation where cheating seems like their best or only option. “Often, students who cheat haven’t set aside enough time to complete a paper,” says Jessica Waters, Dean of Undergraduate Education at American University in Washington, DC. “[They] start researching online at 2 a.m. and find themselves copying and pasting material to cobble [it] together. This is a recipe for disaster.”

Unfortunately, no matter how understandable a little cheating might seem, it’s still a serious risk to your academic career.

How to avoid the temptation to cheat

Sopcak recommends avoiding misconduct by “getting informed about and then taking advantage of the support and services your institutions offer,” including time management workshops and resources.

One of the best ways to keep yourself out of a situation where you’re tempted to cheat is by practising better time management. Here’s how:

1. Check your syllabi at the beginning of the semester and flag any due dates that fall close together.

“I had four tests in one day, and I had stayed up all night studying for three of them,” says Alex Z.*, a first-year undergraduate at Sage College of Albany in New York. “By the time I got to the fourth subject, it was 3 a.m. and I needed to go to sleep—I panicked that I was going to fail and I copied an answer from my notes on the test.” If you’re worried about this happening, block out specific days to study for each of the tests in the weeks leading up to them. This way, it’s already in your calendar and you can tackle studying one subject at a time.

2. Give yourself plenty of time to research.

When it comes to papers (even the short ones), “set aside enough time to thoroughly research, write it carefully, and then have time to check that you’ve properly attributed and cited any resources,” says Waters. “When in doubt, cite!”

3. Ask for help.

If you do find yourself in trouble, whether it’s a time crunch or struggling with the material, ask for help—the earlier, the better. If you’re utterly overwhelmed, let your professors know as soon as possible. They may be more sympathetic earlier in the process (e.g., allowing an extension on an assignment, a recommendation to get accommodations, an appointment to go over material you don’t understand well, etc.) rather than to an eleventh-hour plea. “Most professors are kind and understanding, and so much stress and struggle can be avoided if you say something—communication is key,” says Tiffany K., a fifth-year undergraduate student at the University of Victoria.

Students taking a test

Citing sources to avoid plagiarism

It’s also important to ensure you know when and how to cite sources properly, since not doing so could be considered plagiarism. If you’re unclear on proper citation conventions—how to document sources and ideas in your work—visit your school’s writing lab, speak with a peer tutor, or consult your instructors. The Purdue Owl is also an excellent resource.

What to do if you get caught

The first thing to do is make sure you understand your institution’s academic integrity policy and related procedures, says Sopcak. Then, “take advantage of the opportunity to be heard” and speak with your instructor about the incident. Don’t forget to seek out services your institution offers. “Many institutions have an Ombudsperson or a Student Advocacy Office. Come clean and treat it as a learning opportunity. The institution and your instructors want to see you succeed and will do a lot to help you reach that goal,” Sopcak says.

If you’re allowed to remain enrolled in the class, make sure you’re 100 percent clear on what behaviours are considered cheating and exactly what put you in the position to cheat in the first place.

Above all, be honest. ”If you try to lie, make excuses, or make up stories to hide your tracks, it’ll only make things worse,” says Isra A., a fourth-year undergraduate at Texas Women’s University.

Ultimately, the consequences just aren’t worth it—no matter how easy or justifiable cheating seems. “I did it once and realized that you can never feel good about yourself or your accomplishments if you cheat,” says Lynne M.*, a fourth-year undergraduate at Cuesta Community College in California. “I have never done it again—I would rather try and fail and be proud of my efforts than cheat.”

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Article sources

Paul Sopcak, PhD, Coordinator, Student Conduct, Community Standards and Values, MacEwan University, Alberta.

Jessica Waters, Dean of Undergraduate Students, American University, Washington, DC.

Best College Reviews. (2012). Cheating in college: The numbers and research. Retrieved from https://www.bestcollegereviews.org/cheating/

Dillion. W. (26 June, 2006). Study examines why students cheat. Ames Tribune, as printed in USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/2006-06-26-cheating-study_x.htm

Grasgreen, Ali. (16 March, 2012). Who cheats, and how. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/03/16/arizona-survey-examines-student-cheating-faculty-responses

Iowa State University News Service. (15 June, 2006). Why do some students cheat? They rationalize it, ISU research finds. Retrieved from http://www.public.iastate.edu/~nscentral/news/06/jun/rationalizing.shtml

Talk of the Nation. (19 July, 2010). Cheating in college is widespread—but why? National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128624207

Young, J. R. (18 March, 2010). Cheaters never win, at least in physics, a professor finds. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/cheaters-never-win-at-least-in-physics-a-professor-finds/21895