Ever since Back to School, the shocking 1986 film in which college’s oldest living freshman, Rodney Dangerfield, pays Kurt Vonnegut to write his term paper on, conveniently, Kurt Vonnegut, students at American universities have been cheating on tests, homework, papers—literally anything they can. Over time a fast-paced game of cat and mouse has developed between career-driven students who will do anything to get ahead and the university professors who go to great lengths to defeat cheaters and uphold academic honesty.
The cats are winning. By the end of the 2003–04 academic calendar, nearly all popular methods of hi-tech cheating, including pocket Game Genie Scantron decoders and the Bluetooth wireless true-false bra, had been stamped out. Plagiarism virtually ceased when Internet search technology allowed professors to scour for tracts too similar.
Campus buzz across the country reveals that while universities spend their resources combating hi-tech cheating, students are taking lessons from the ghosts of Cheating Past, embracing low-tech cheating in unprecedented numbers and reminding their stodgy professors what it really means to “walk like an Egyptian”: Cheat.
The ancient Egyptians were arguably the world’s first and best cheaters—and today’s slackers are raiding their tombs for tricks. Just as pharaohs would tattoo secret messages onto the scalps of messengers—the text then concealed by their grown-out hair—students across the country are turning to the tat as the next big cheat.
Scientific equations seem to be the most popular at the moment, students opting for tattoos with the most long-term value and breadth of application. Tattoo parlors consulted for this piece all cite inside-arm tattoos of the quadratic equation as the street favorite, with full-stomach tattoos of the Periodic Table of Elements as the second, though infinitely more painful, most popular option.
“Science is sexy,” says Colin Klein, a college student, “but it’s also very useful.” Klein’s tattoo, a multiplication table that covers his entire body, took 10 years and over $500,000 to complete—you do the math.
But not all tattoo cheaters are in it for the long run. “Down my left arm I got a list of 30 adjectives,” explains Simon Moerder, a student at a well-known American university who’s using tattoos to take the GRE at the end of the summer. “Down my right arm I got another list of adjectives—except they’re antonyms. So when the test people look at my arms, they see art. But when I look at my arms, I see answers.”
Tattoos are expensive, however, so the dusty return of Morse code to Cheat University comes as no surprise. The fast-paced language of beeps and held tones allows for cheap, relatively undetectable in-classroom “team-cheating,” as popularized by the notorious State College High School “Clickz N Cutz” homework gang in 1987. Morse code also allows for transatlantic cheating, an option heretofore forgotten by most cheaters on test day.
“I don’t know how I would have gotten through med school if it weren’t for Morse code,” says Dr. Conrad Boccuti, a recent Harvard Med grad whose real name has been changed so his patients don’t sue him. Medical students are often under intense pressure; Morse code cheating is nearly essential, even after a degree is conferred. “Click click click, clap clap, long-clap—you see, I just told that man over there he has herpes.”
A lot of cheaters complain that their art has lost its sense of mystique; Boston College junior Simeon Criz aims to reclaim exactly that. “Everybody hates magicians because they cheat,” he notes, “but everybody loves cheaters who do magic tricks.” Criz recently designed a deck of playing cards that, instead of diamonds, spades, clubs, and hearts as suits, has A, B, C, D—all possible answer choices for a test.
“When the teacher comes up to me during a test and says, ‘Hey, you’re playing cards when you should be taking the test,” I tell him to pick a card. Then he picks a card. A quarter of the time that card’s got the right answer on it.”
But how long will the new tricks last? University officials remain confident they can thwart the latest wave of cheating, already coined retro-cheating, without attacking students’ personal liberties. “If I see a tattoo made of letters, or that kid with the cards, or an Egyptian, I’ll probably do something,” assures an unnamed college provost. “I’ll probably kill somebody.”
And lastly, what ever happened to the good old-fashioned crib sheet? Does anyone still use them?
“Never leave home without one,” admits Dr. Noam Feldstein, an OB-GYN at a Manhattan hospital who delivers close to a hundred newborn babies each day. “That’s why they call them crib sheets,” he explains. “Right, like I’m going to deliver your baby without a little cheating.”