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(PHOTO: ERIC VON SEGGERN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

The Macroeconomics 101 of Cheating

• October 25, 2013 • 10:45 AM

(PHOTO: ERIC VON SEGGERN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

This is why you cheat on an exam you really don’t need to cheat on.

The scheme to cheat on the final exam was hatched in the midst of the tissue that connects all harebrained and ill-advised ventures: booze. 

Five of us, strangers before that semester’s upper-level Advertising course, were tasked with creating our own mini ad agency for a fictional client. This meant spending hours before class, spit-balling ideas, researching target demographics, arguing over whether our mascot should be human or an inanimate object. It also meant drinking a lot of pre-class Jäger shots, because this is what one does if (a) he/she has decided to spend thousands of dollars pursuing a major that’s pretty worthless; and (b) is attending Michigan State University in any capacity.

During one brainstorming session, Henry mentioned the frustration he felt while preparing for an upcoming final.

“I’m just having such a hard time with Macro,” he said. “I’m taking that too,” Carol replied. “Me too,” said Grace. “Yeah, it sucks,” Dennis chimed in. We discovered that afternoon that all five of us had a common enemy, and it’s name was Macroeconomics 101.

The reason for our slow realization was that Macro was required by so many majors, nearly 1,000 students took the course each semester. This meant splitting it up into 70-person sections throughout the week, with the final test being the only time the entire group of students was brought together. Hundreds crammed into a giant auditorium, a dozen Teacher’s Assistants patrolled the aisles, and IDs were to be checked when tests were turned in. “The whole she-bang,” as noir-inclined folks would say. 

The test was scheduled for Friday at 3 p.m., so conversation quickly morphed into general commiseration over statistics and logistical plans about car-pooling to the test. And then Dennis spoke up.

If you’ve never had the chance to cram for a test with the test itself as a study aid, I highly recommend it.

“Guys, my test is scheduled for 10 a.m.”

There wasn’t one Macro test happening that Friday. There were two. Almost immediately, the plan formulated.

THREE OF US, SELF-dubbed The Extraction Squad, went to the early 10 a.m. proctoring of the test. This part of the team included myself, the raven-haired and rail-thin Carol, and balding-and-goatee’d Dennis. We staggered our entrances a few minutes to disguise our collusion. Dennis sat toward the front of the auditorium; Carol and I near the back. While Dennis was taking his test in earnestness—he was in the position of being unable to profit from the caper due to his early test-taking slot; in return, his role also virtually had no risk associated with it—Carol and I mimed filling out the Scantron sheets while keeping an eye on his movements. We were waiting for his signal.

When dealing with a crowded test-taking environment such as that, the “turning in” portion of the process takes on an aura similar to that of a building collapse. The brains turn in their tests early: the first cracks in the facade. A few more start to stagger up, massing ever so slightly, the foundation rumbling. And then, quickly, comes the deluge of finishers. With a class of hundreds, that means a period of time where complete chaos reigns. All TAs are needed to check IDs, students are scattering like cockroaches struck by a floodlight. It was during this pandemonium that Dennis walked straight to the lone TA who was left to guard against cheating. He held out his test, pointed to it, and asked some multi-part question. The TA neglected his primary duty to help a student in need. The coast was clear, for the moment. Dennis had done his job.

From the two ends of the room, Carol and I folded our tests into our pockets with a magician-like prowess. We stood up, turned into our respective aisles, merged with the scores of students who’d finished, and simply walked out. Through two sets of heavy metal double doors, through the bustling hallway, through the building’s glass doors, to the street, and into the waiting car where the other two members of the team were waiting.

Yes, we had a getaway car.

The rest of the plan worked just as perfectly. We made a quick stop at Kinko’s before heading to base (in this case, one of my compatriot’s crappy Cedar Village apartment) to split up the bounty, have a quick shot of whatever booze was lying around, and get to cramming. And if you’ve never had the chance to cram for a test with the test itself as a study aid, I highly recommend it. We all aced it.

WHENEVER I THINK BACK on it—which I do quite often, seeing as it was easily the most daring thing I’ve ever done—what I can’t get over is: Why the hell did I do it?

I didn’t need to cheat. Macro 101 wasn’t difficult. I was cruising through it with a low-A average. I knew the material. Even if I had a Phineas Gage-like incident the day before the exam and completely bombed it, I still would’ve easily passed. The risk far outweighed the reward. But not once during the process did I hesitate.

One obvious reason is that there was a sixth party in the room that day: groupthink. When the plan was introduced—and, in my memory, there was no Brains of the Operation—no one wanted to be the person that put a halt to it. Maybe it was because we didn’t know each other well enough to speak up, or maybe none of us thought the plan was going to progress past the talking stage. But while the logistics certainly didn’t require all five of us for the plan to work (one brave soul could have easily pulled off what we did), the feeling was “everyone’s in, or it’s off.” And since no one wanted to be the party that poisoned the well, it kept on moving simply out of group inertia, the same ensemble momentum that can lead a terrible long-lasting marriage or the Third Reich. Camaraderie, after all, is simply peer pressure’s older cousin.

Or maybe it was because when the rewards of cheating are split among many, one is more likely to participate. Despite my own lack of benefit, a few in our group were definitely in need of the ace-up-their-sleeve to avoid failing the course. And while altruism never crept into my decision-making process, the fact that I was helping other members of my peer group certainly had to sway me, even subconsciously. If I wasn’t actually gaining added points on the test, I could have figured for some grander payoff in karmic quantities. I was raised Catholic, after all, and “doing good for unseen or unproven rewards down the line” is kind of the whole thing.

Then again, it could have just been the exploitation of a known weakness. The whole plan was such an easy and obvious way to “beat the system” that it felt like we had to do it. If they were going to proctor two tests, and those were going to be the same exact exams, and they were not going to check IDs when you pick up the test, they deserved to be taken advantage of. It was simple weakness being weeded out. Darwinism through underhandedness.

But probably, if we’re being honest here, I most likely did it for one of this oldest and truest reasons of all: to have a story to tell.

(Note: All names have been changed to protect the identity of the thieves. And also because, honestly, I don’t remember. Did I mention the amount of drinking during those days?)

Rick Paulas
Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.

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