What Happens When You Cheat or Plagiarize: A Guide for High Schoolers

A student is cheating at school by knowing the test answers ahead of time.

Constantine Pankin / Shutterstock.com

Cheating can take many forms, from copying a friend’s homework to peeking at your neighbor’s answers while you’re taking a quiz to stealing the answers to the final exam from your teacher’s desk. You may let someone else copy your homework when they’re in a hurry (in which case you’re complicit in their cheating) or find a way to change your grades online. Even stealing an idea, whether it comes from a classmate or a published source, is cheating if you don’t cite your sources properly. This type of cheating is called plagiarism, and it also includes copying someone else’s words and passing them off as your own. Citing your sources properly is imperative to avoid a cheating scandal.

As stated by Carl E. Pickhardt: “The psychological formula for cheating at school is simply this: cheating = sneaking + lying + stealing. You sneak to conceal what you are up to. You lie about what you have done. And you steal credit for performance you did not earn. So there are three ethical violations in one when you cheat by plagiarizing papers, copying homework, procuring answers on tests, or altering records.” This trifecta of ethical violations can have a number of consequences:

  • Your self-esteem may suffer. Taking the easy way out implies that you’re too busy or too lazy to actually do the work or worse, that you believe that you could do it, but you don’t think you’d get a good grade. Regardless of the reason, none of these are great indicators of healthy levels of self-esteem and self-respect, and missing those characteristics can lead to an unhappy life. If you’re cheating for the grade inflation, read the next bullet point carefully.
  • You will be academically unprepared for the future. When you cheat, whether it’s on a math test or a paper, you don’t learn the material that is necessary to complete the task. While this may seem trivial, it can come back to haunt you later on. If you sailed through calculus in high school by cheating but are required to take upper-level math in college to fulfill requirements, it’s unlikely that you’ll pass those classes without once again resorting to cheating. Then, when it comes time to apply the math to real-world problems, you’ll be unable to do so. This can affect your grades, GPA, future job prospects, and your competency at the jobs you do get.
  • You will be living a double life. If you were to ask a group of people on the street what they felt about cheaters, the consensus would be that people don’t like cheaters. Resorting to cheating, especially if it was a recurring or long-term event, is something that you have to hide from your peers and your superiors. Everyone may think that you’re good at biology, but if you’ve cheated your way through the class, you’re facilitating that lie. Avoiding certain topics of conversation is doable, for a time, but you’ll have to be extra careful to not slip up and expose yourself. Who wants to spend all of their time censoring their own conversations?

It may seem easier to cheat off your neighbor than to actually study for a test or peek at their answers when you’re unprepared for a pop quiz. Between the pressure not to get caught and the knowledge that you’ll get a decent grade, you may even feel a rush of adrenaline as you cheat. The self-satisfaction may go so far as to release dopamine, creating the feeling of a high. (This can be addictive and lead to cheating in the future; it’s best not to start cheating at all.) You won’t gain anything from cheating (see above), and if it happens once, it’s likely to happen again. If your cheating habit continues as you age, this can lead to (more) problems with school, work, family, and relationships. Next time you think about cheating on an assignment or test, consider the consequences:

  • You will get caught. With plagiarism checkers and internet searches in general, it’s not hard for teachers to find out if you’ve copied someone else’s work. This is especially true when you’re not the only cheater in the class; picking up on overused phrases in multiple students’ assignments is one way that teachers weed out the guilty. As is finding students who have the same suspicious patterns of answers. If you get a question wrong because your neighbor did too, and you write in the same answer, you’re a goner! The confrontation that comes after you’re caught cheating will be uncomfortable and humiliating. It’s best to avoid it by doing your own work honestly.
  • You’ll lose respect from your teachers, family, and friends if you get caught. Not only respect, but you’ll also lose trust. Trust, like respect, is quickly lost and hard to gain back. This takes time, and you’ll likely stay on the radar for much longer than is comfortable.
  • You will get in a lot of trouble.
    • Depending on the severity of the cheating and the length of time for which the cheating has been occurring, the consequences may be different. The first time, you may simply get a warning and a zero on the suspected assignment, but after that, you may have to deal with an automatic failure of the class in question, academic probation, suspension, or expulsion. None of these look good on a résumé or college application, even if you are given the opportunity to explain the situation.
    • If you are suspected of cheating on the SAT or the ACT, several things may happen. One, you may be asked to retake the test, free of charge, to see if your scores come out comparable to the previous time (when you were suspected of cheating). If you score within a certain range of the suspicious scores, your scores will stand. If not, your scores will be canceled. Two, if you weren’t allowed to complete the test due to suspected cheating, you can complain and appeal to prove your innocence. If the College Board or ACT accepts your appeal, you will be permitted to retake the test and your initial testing fee will be refunded. Three, if you are accused and found guilty of cheating, your test scores will be canceled. If your scores are canceled, the colleges to which these scores have been sent are not notified of the reasoning behind the cancellation, but you will have to retake the test (and not cheat) to have scores to send to your prospective schools. The College Board announced that new anticheating security measures will be implemented soon.
    • If you’ve already asked a teacher to write a letter of recommendation but get caught cheating in their class, it’s a safe bet that you’re no longer going to get that letter. Quite frankly, you wouldn’t want that teacher to submit a letter after a scandal anyway; they’re bound to have negative things to say about your academic history.
    • Colleges can rescind their offers of admission after the fact if new information becomes available. Academic dishonesty is taken very seriously and if you are reported, your offer from your dream school could be taken away.

Here’s the short of it: cheating is bad. It hurts no one but yourself. Don’t do it. Earning a B the old-fashioned way is going to serve you better than earning an A dishonestly.

About Megan Clendenon

Megan C. is obsessed with Cincinnati-style chili, Louisville basketball, and Scandinavian crime fiction. She has lived in six different states and held 12 different jobs since beginning her undergraduate degree at Carleton College in 2008. The wanderlust abated somewhat in recent years, as Megan settled in Texas from 2013 to 2016 to finish a master’s degree in geosciences, write a thesis on the future horrors that stem from climate change, and get married. During her free time, you will find Megan sitting on the couch, cheering for her Louisville Cardinals, planning future adventures abroad, and snuggling with her dog, Tiger. She currently lives outside of Washington D.C.

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