Why Do Students Cheat?

When I was getting ready to start college in 2012 and 2013, warnings against cheating were everywhere.  College search sites, scholarship databases, and universities themselves were yelling about how not okay cheating is.  “There are consequences to cheating!” they said.  “Cheating will get you nowhere in life!”  I was warned that there would be cheating all around me, and given tips on how to avoid the peer pressure, and on how to study so I wouldn’t need to cheat in the first place.

But until I actually saw it, I had no idea how much cheating goes on in universities.  I was like, yeah, I’m sure people cheat.  But not any of the people I know.  Most people are too smart to think that’s a good idea.  I would never hang out with anyone who cheats.

But you know what?  I do.  I could name at least a dozen people off the top of my head that I know for a fact have blatantly cheated on exams.  And I’m not just talking about using the textbooks for a take-at-home, online test.  I’m talking about people having test banks and emailing them to each other and actually pulling them up on their phones during class and looking at them while they take the test.  This is the kind of cheating that gets people expelled, and it happens literally every day.

Honestly, it boggles my mind.  But I can understand why people do it.  Here are my theories:

  1. University students are so focused on “success” that their priorities change.  College educations make us more marketable, and raise our societal value so that we can get jobs.  Jobs are important.  But the way we become valuable is by having a true education.  So really, the underlying, basic point of college is to learn.  Makes sense, right?  But learning doesn’t necessarily mean good grades, and grades are the thing that most students focus on.  We get so obsessed with getting good grades that we forget that we are supposed to be learning in the process.  (I know multiple people that freak out if they get anything less than an A, even on assignments that are worth 1% or less of their final grade.)  College becomes something to get through, rather than something to shape us.
  2. Many students are simply not prepared for college work.  One of my friends pointed this out to me when we discussed this issue: both she and I went through college prep programs in high school.  We both had been writing papers, including long research papers, since middle school.  We were both encouraged to challenge ourselves, and so we learned good study habits as well as the subjects we studied.  We were both well-prepared for college, and we were both still challenged enough by our college classes that we had to take a step back and re-learn how to study, or adjust our habits in order to adapt.  So if it was hard for us, how much harder must it be for students who were in a bad school district, or who had teachers who didn’t challenge them, or whose classes in high school were easy enough that they didn’t have to study?
  3. Students, just maybe, really are lazy.  In one of my senior capstone classes this year (I’m in three total — gross, right?), I was baffled to hear people complaining that the work was too hard just two weeks into the semester.  At that point, we hadn’t even started our project, and were turning in practice assignments meant to prepare us for the real one.  The assignments weren’t complicated or long, and the professor (unlike others in that major) was good at explaining how to do each one.  People were just pissed that they had to turn in one a week.  It was like they didn’t take into account that the course was a senior capstone course, designed to give as much real-world experience as possible without actually throwing us into it.  Honestly, I still can’t understand this one.  I want things to be easy as much as the next person, but that’s not how the world works.

Before I started college, I thought everyone who cheats must be dumb.  But I know plenty of incredibly bright people who cheat on a regular basis.  Some of them, I think, are bored by college, or are frustrated by professors, or just don’t think they have time to learn between classes and jobs and family.  I can’t speak for everyone.  But I can speak for me.  I’ll be honest — I’ve been offered test banks, and I’ve been very tempted to say yes.  But in the end I couldn’t do it (not because I’m better than anyone else, because Lord knows I have my share of flaws).  I don’t have a 4.0 GPA, and I’ve been in some classes I was elated to get a C in.  But because I didn’t take those test banks, when I walk across that stage in May, I’ll be able to say truthfully that I earned every single grade I’ve gotten, all on my own.  That’ll feel a lot better than looking at a list of As.



  1. I can see how smart students would cheat if they perceived a class or professor as being truly unfair. At my undergrad university, it was very well known that the chemistry professors would TRY to flunk a large portion of their classes to keep up the perception that chemistry is hard, and that their department wasn’t full of “fluff” classes. In my chemistry 2 class, the average grade for one test ended up being a high C, and the professor actually rounded everyone’s scores down to make it curve around a low C. It was so stupid.
    I spent at least four hours a day studying for that class. I got a 94, but the department changed the grading so that 94 = A minus. You had to get an 85 to get a B. 80 was a C. I can totally understand why people would cheat in situations like that.

  2. Besides the aforementioned issue of test banks, I think another more pernicious problem would be plagiarism – I’ve heard of quite a few notable cases in my junior college (the Singaporean equivalent of the last two years of high school). I guess sometimes students are caught up in the need to appear both academically high-achieving and popular and busy at the same time: I’ve definitely experienced that kind of pleasure, and I try to strike a healthy balance social time and work whenever I can. Thanks for this thoughtful post!

    • I have not heard of any of my classmates plagiarizing, but I’m guessing people are just quieter about that. Or, my school has been cracking down on plagiarism lately, so maybe it is slowing down. Very good point you make. Thanks for reading!

  3. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the TV show Greek, it was on ABC Family several years ago. In one scene the main (super smart) character cheats on a physics exam. Afterwards he’s beating himself up about it and talks about how instead of being a place of learning, college just teaches students how best to get around the system.
    I definitely understand what you’re talking about.

  4. I was offered money more than once to write papers for people (I turned it down). It made me so furious to watch these people get through college just the same as me. I don’t know how you can prevent it happening since it seems like it’s a well-known secret, but it is INFURIATING. It devalues the work you’ve done to an extent because you know those people are going out into the workplace and representing your class, your university, and maybe doing a terrible job… Hmm…!

  5. #4 “I could easily have aced that test if I stayed in last night to study, But the most important part of the university experience is to create relationships that will help me in my career. So I went out last night instead.” I heard comments along these lines countless times.

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