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Why Do So Many Teens Cheat?
Fan Yi Mok
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During my first chemistry test at my new high school, I was surprised to find the guy sitting next to me glancing over at my paper. It took me a moment to realize what he was doing.

“No, he’s not cheating,” I thought. “He’s so smart.”

But on the second test there was no denying it. He was clearly looking at my paper.

He wasn’t the only cheater. After the first test, a girl in my class discussed it with me in the gym locker room.

“Did you hear papers rustling during the test?” Anne asked me.

“No.”

“Oh, thank goodness! I had my notebook open under my desk and I was so nervous when the teacher was walking around the room,” she said.

Naively, I asked why she did it. Anne looked at me curiously and wrinkled her brow as she just shrugged it off. Cheating—a typical activity that teen-agers engage in. No need to dwell on it.

I, on the other hand, was shocked and appalled. I couldn’t believe that a person would cheat on one of the first tests of the year. Talk about starting off on the wrong foot. What offended me most, though, was Anne’s indifference.

I soon learned that Anne’s view on cheating was not unique. The student union vice president at my high school was forced to resign last fall after she was caught cheating on a chemistry test.

For many students, what was controversial was that she had to resign, not that she cheated. While riding the school’s escalator, I overheard a student saying he thought the decision was unjust. “I bet that if you ask anyone in this school, they’ll tell you that they’ve cheated before,” he said.

His thinking seems to be that if the majority does something, no matter how dishonest it is, it should be accepted.

And it’s not only at my school. After talking to students from several New York City high schools, I discovered that cheating is an accepted part of our academic life.

One senior told me, “Cheating is bad, but when it comes down to either cheating or going to summer school, I’d rather cheat.”

All the students I talked to felt like the guy on the escalator—cheating’s acceptable because almost everybody does it.

“Everyone cheats every now and then,” said one sophomore.

“It’s not something to be proud of, but like everyone cheats,” said another sophomore.

Why do so many teenagers cheat? For starters, we’re under a lot of pressure to perform. From the time we’re young, many of us are bombarded with the idea that doing well in school is the surest way to guarantee a successful future.

image by Antione Platel

According to a sophomore I spoke with, many students fear that “their parents, friends, or teachers will be disappointed” if their grades don’t measure up. Many also worry about the effect their grades will have on their college acceptance or ability to get scholarships.

Others are simply worried about passing the class and graduating on time. As a friend of mine put it, “Almost all the people I know and have known through school didn’t care about ‘remaining on top.’ They just wanted to pass and get out of school.”

And others feel the pressure to cheat because, to them, grades are indicators of success, accomplishment, and character. They think that by getting high grades, students show the world they can measure up to an ideal.

One sophomore told me he sometimes cheats because he doesn’t want “to be looked upon as a below-average or unintelligent individual” by doing poorly on a test.

Competition is another reason why some students cheat. For overachievers, every digit and grade counts.

In schools like the one I go to, where grades in the 90s are common, many may feel the need to cheat to keep themselves one step ahead. As the guy who cheated in chemistry explained, “In a competitive academic environment, one needs to take every advantage they can get.”

When I transferred to my current high school, I’d expected competitiveness, but I was caught off guard by the attitude toward grades. Earlier this year when transcripts were handed out, I saw my peers scramble to find out each other’s averages, down to the decimals.

People I barely knew casually asked me what my transcript average was, oblivious to a little something called manners. The obsession over grades even made people resentful towards the highest scorer on a test. But it was the amount of cheating that bothered me the most.

I thought it was strange that cheating seemed even more rampant at my new high school, where admission involved sitting through a two-and-a-half-hour written test. I assumed that since my school’s population was filled with skilled test-takers, they would have less of a need to cheat.

But after hearing stories from other schools, I’ve come to believe that cheating goes on everywhere. It probably just seems worse at my school—because everyone is so grade-obsessed, they talk about it all the time.

My friend Sarah, a good student with a strong work ethic, is not someone I would have expected to cheat. But one day, joining me at the usual table during lunch period, she announced: “I just had a quiz in Spanish.” Then she added, with a laugh, “I cheated through that whole thing.”

Her carefree attitude irked me, so I asked her why she did it.

“It’s Spanish,” was her explanation.

Hold on there. What makes it more acceptable to cheat on a Spanish test than, let’s say, a math test? Sarah explained that sometimes people don’t prioritize studying for something like a small Spanish quiz when there are more important things, “such as family issues or a larger term paper or exam.”

Many students who don’t cheat all the time feel that it is “OK” to cheat in certain situations, although how they determine that is complex.

Some people believe that when a test really counts, students won’t cheat because the consequences of getting caught are too high. One friend doesn’t cheat on major exams like the SAT or “major subject tests” because of this.

Students might also cheat in a class that isn’t being taught well, out of spite, or in a class that they view as too easy, uninteresting, or unimportant to bother studying for. Others cheat on the subject that is hardest for them.

Even though I still think cheating is wrong, I too am starting to feel the pressure to take the cheater’s way out. The demands of high school and being a teenager are so overwhelming at times that I don’t get to study for a science or history quiz. Cheating becomes the more appealing option when the other choice is to fail.

Fan Yi was 16 when she wrote this story. She attended Hunter College after graduating from high school.

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