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I graduated last year from a prestigious university where I was in general a very good student. I am now applying to graduate programs.

The class (upper-level undergraduate mathematics) had moved to an online format due to the pandemic; the first part of the class was in person. (This was 2 years ago.) The exam in question was closed to all aids, such as peer collaboration, the textbook, notes, and the Internet. Moreover, although the exam was available within a 36-hour window as a PDF file, it was stipulated that it be taken within 2 hours. There was no monitoring for compliance with the self-timing or closed-book requirements. These rules were laid out unambiguously, and I signed a declaration of academic honesty, in which I affirmed, falsely, that I had complied with the rules. I consulted the textbook extensively during the exam and took 6 hours to complete the exam (because I was quite literally studying the material during the exam period). I got away with it.

To be honest, at the time, it did not even occur to me that it was morally wrong to do such a thing. I was under pressure from my other classes and I felt that I did not have time to study beforehand. I made the following rationalizations, mostly subconsciously: (1) it was not particularly wrong since I was not copying answers or looking up solutions, but merely "refreshing my memory" with key theorems; (2) I had performed extremely well before, and I could easily have gotten the same grade if I had studied, so I was not obtaining anything that lay beyond my potential (I got a perfect score on this virtual exam just as I had on an earlier in-person exam of similar difficulty); (3) other students would inevitably break the rules; (4) the lack of enforcement was an implicit signal that they were more idealistic guidelines than rules; (5) my other classes had relaxed the closed-book requirement in light of the virtual format.

The incident has begun to weigh heavily on my conscience out of the blue; I had nearly forgotten about it between now and then. In hindsight, it was profoundly wrong for me to have done it. I feel enormously guilty about this incident and can only think of how foolish it was to have minimized it with those self-deceptions. Needless to say, I have no desire to ever again violate the norms of academic honesty. It may sound implausible, but I don't think I realized that what I had done was cheating, and how big a deal it is, until recently.

What should I do? In light of the severity of the infraction and my prospective plans in academia, is it incorrect to remain without raising the issue publicly, as I have until now?

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    In your university, is it allowed to change the grades of (or to file a case against) a student who has already graduated? Feb 22 at 3:46
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    @JoelReyesNoche I can't find any available policy or guideline from my university's online resources regarding students who have already graduated.
    – user153725
    Feb 22 at 4:08

3 Answers 3

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Congratulations on holding such a moral code. It will pay dividends in your life if you surround yourself with honest people. What you did was wrong. And the fact that you regret it and worry about shows that you understand it.

Now do not complicate your life because of the mistake you made. Firstly, you got a grade, more than you deserved. So go back and revisit the course so that your real grades match what you have in your CV. Because this would be bad for your future in multiple ways. This by itself is a penance.

Secondly, there are ways in which you could fix it. You could give free tuition to deserving students. Help them so that they need not teach. This is especially useful as the world is standing back after the pandemic. Or dedicate a part of your savings to an African school. You can come up with many such ideas.

Thirdly, you are too young and you would see many exams in your life, university or otherwise. Much more crucial than this one. So forgive yourself and continue to work on maintaining this moral code. Life is long and mistakes will happen.

Finally, if you are someone who is so obsessed with this that it is mentally having a bad effect on you; then go and confess to your course coordinator. Most probably, he is going to have a laugh and will soothe your feelings and send you off. However, be prepared for any outcome.

Pandemic has shown the world a lot of ugly things. I am sure you can forgive yourself considering these circumstances and the weird openings they provided for such temptations.

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    Thank you for providing a larger perspective. I agree that the best solution is to maintain an airtight personal moral code in the future, both in public and in private.
    – user153725
    Feb 23 at 1:21
  • "So go back and revisit the course so that your real grades match what you have in your CV." This. Do feel the guilt (you should) but don't overeact, don't go to diproportional self-punishments. Also, kudos for feeling the guilt; most of my university mates have cheated heavily on exams.
    – Helen
    Jun 23 at 6:04
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Reflect on it and, more particularly, on your justification at the time.

"Everyone else does that so this is the norm" leaves one with either challenging the norm, their own moral code or living on with the guilt. You might not always come up with the most idealistic answer possible to various questions the life poses - unless you are bent on dying a martyr. But do give it due consideration and figure out what is it that really matters to you. Find your core values and shape yourself into the image of what could exist in a world you would actually love to live in. Be that change you want to see in the world around you.

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  • I certainly have reflected and will continue to reflect a great deal. It wasn't so much the likelihood of others' cheating that served as the basis of the impulse. It was the simple fact that I was taking the test alone at home, with the textbook a few inches away. I am by nature a moralistic, although perhaps not highly moral, person with little inclination toward stealth, so the lack of any sort of barrier made it feel natural and morally irrelevant, whereas it never would have crossed my mind to cheat in another context (nor will it ever again). Anyway, thanks for your comment.
    – user153725
    Feb 22 at 22:36
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(1) it was not particularly wrong since I was [...] merely "refreshing my memory"; (3) other students would inevitably break the rules; (4) the lack of enforcement was an implicit signal that they were more idealistic guidelines than rules;

For all purposes, you could have been the only student taking the exams, so point (3) does not matter at all. Regarding the other points, they are rational externalization of your guilty feelings trying to look for an "easy" way out, since you claimed in the paragraph just above

(because I was quite literally studying the material during the exam period). I got away with it. These rules were laid out unambiguously, and I signed a declaration of academic honesty, in which I affirmed, falsely, that I had complied with the rules.

So you cheated and you are already facing the personal consequences (most of the time we set rules to protect one from oneself, not from the others). You have three choices:

  • you go full honest, and you contact a lawyer (to protect yourself) before writing to the university that you cheated in an exam, leaving them to set the bar about external, independently evaluated consequences;
  • you enroll in another but similar graduate program from another institution (you were a good student, so you can expect to complete your degree in much shorter time than), removing your "cheated" degree from your CV;
  • ignore your guilty feelings.
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    Thank you. I will not forget that phrase anytime soon: "Most of the time we set rules to protect one from oneself, not from the others."
    – user153725
    Feb 23 at 1:18
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    IMHO, the first two choices are detrimental to OP's career and disproportionate to their mistake. Defy practicality.
    – kosmos
    Feb 23 at 4:21
  • @Sensiab it is an hard lesson we all learn, sooner or later! If I were you, the only concern I would have would be about time, "how long would it take to go through a degree again", but I am a senior and in my life I realized how unimportant truly is, to be "young", to finish your PhD as a 25 years old ... so I would go the first way, the worst it can happen is that you are stripped from your degree, but life does not end there, if your goal is to pursue a career in academia, you will find a way, keep your doors very open (both in front and on your back, no hidden skeletons)
    – EarlGrey
    Feb 23 at 6:29
  • @kosmos I am glad you are discussing practicality. Your suggestion of outsourcing guilt through charity, maybe even international charity, is in fact the most practical way. I am sure that a comfortable, quiet life can follow by taking that approach. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford that moral choice, good to you if you can/could!
    – EarlGrey
    Feb 23 at 6:35
  • @EarlGrey The OP can promise to do charity when he can. Which he would be able to if his degree is worthy. It is better than digging your own grave by taking the first route.
    – kosmos
    Feb 26 at 2:35

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