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Jan./Feb. 2003
Volume 16
Issue 1

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Methods of Document Recognition and Authentication

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Methods of Document Recognition and Authentication

by WES Staff

The authenticity of foreign educational documents has taken on a new meaning in the last year. While those who specialize in foreign-credential evaluation have always made it a priority, the issue has gained new attention. This brochure is designed to share the practices of World Education Services (WES) and our experience with document verification.

Since WES published "Forged Educational Credentials: A Sorry Tale" some 20 years ago, a great deal has changed. For one, computers and printers have become widely available and have made it possible to produce high-quality forgeries. The Internet has made communication with academic institutions abroad faster and more efficient. It is no longer always necessary to wait for months for correspondence to reach its destination and for replies to make it back to us. We can communicate by e-mail or fax and receive replies in a day or two from institutions located anywhere in the world.

This brochure raises the issues related to document authenticity and offers advice on how to ensure that academic credentials are authentic.

The Facts

The majority of international students who come to the United States do so at great expense. Their aim is to further their education and earn skills and qualifications that will help them succeed professionally.

Studying in the United States is neither easy nor inexpensive for most students, and it takes a great deal of grit and determination on their part to meet all the eligibility requirements. Among the thousands of well-qualified applicants, however, there are also those who will attempt to gain admission to U.S. institutions by using fraudulent documents. Through training and experience, international admissions officers and credential evaluators can minimize fraud and protect the integrity of their institutions and students.

How to Recognize International Educational Credentials

One of the key steps in the evaluation of international credentials is establishing the accuracy and authenticity of documents. Documentation requirements are specific to the level(s) of education completed, as well as to the type of program.

Document authentication proceeds from the knowledge of an educational system and its documents, as measured against the evidence of the documents themselves.

Fundamental Questions in Examining Documents

1. Does the institution exist?
2. What is the status of the institution?
3. Does it offer the program that is indicated on the document?
4. Did the candidate complete the prerequisites for admission into the program that led to the credential in question?

Existence of Institutions

The existence of a particular institution must be verified by checking independent sources. This means the institution must be listed in an authoritative source, such as the Web site of the ministry of education of the country in question, a contemporary edition of the International Handbook of Universities or the Commonwealth Universities Yearbook. There are many other publications, and any legitimate institution will be listed in one or more of them.

For non-university institutions, one has to dig a bit deeper and check information published by the educational authorities of the country in question or other publications published by a third party.

A catalog or brochure published by the institution itself can be a good source for information, but it should not be the sole source of information about the existence or status of a particular institution.

While you are checking independent sources to verify the existence of a particular institution, please bear in mind name changes, particularly in systems of education going through reforms.

Status of an Institution

Every country has laws and regulations that govern the establishment, recognition and status of academic institutions within its jurisdiction. It is essential that credential evaluators familiarize themselves with those rules and understand what they mean in each country. For instance, in some countries all universities are public (government) institutions, and private schools can operate but not as universities. In other countries, private universities can operate but may not be authorized to award degrees. Elsewhere, there are both public and private universities that are of equal status.

Instances of recently recognized institutions have to be reviewed carefully, particularly if the institution existed prior to the date it was recognized. Also, be aware of institutions and programs recognized not in the country where they operate. Finally, it is important to note that some institutions that are not recognized by the relevant authorities may offer certain programs that might indeed be recognized. The key to determining the correct status of an institution is knowledge of the rules of that particular country.

Programs of Study

Programs of study evolve rapidly, and institutions are constantly updating old programs or adding new ones all the time. It is important to check whether a given course of study was or is offered at the particular institution. That can be checked in the major publications, such as the International Handbook of Universities or the Commonwealth Universities Yearbook. Many institutions maintain comprehensive Web sites that list and describe the programs they offer.

What are Authentic Documents?

Documents are authentic when they are issued by authorized academic institutions, examination boards or the entities that conducted the teaching and/or examinations.

Ensuring Document Authenticity

1. Request that transcripts be sent directly from the student's academic institution.

2. If the institution is not able to send transcripts directly, send copies of the documents submitted by the student to the institution that issued them and ask them to verify their authenticity.

3. When sending a document for verification, check the address to which you send your request against the address that appears in published sources and do not rely solely on the address that is provided on the document itself.

4. It is best not to address verification letters to any particular individual unless you are certain that the person is still in office at that institution. The letter should be addressed to the officer that issued and signed the document: "Controller of Examinations," "Director of Studies" or "Director of International Relations," for example.

Communicating with a Foreign Institution

In addition to mailing documents to the academic institution for verification, you can expedite the process by faxing your request along with the relevant documents. Replies by e-mail are acceptable, provided that you can verify the name and the e-mail of the individual who replied in any of the reference publications such as the International Handbook of Universities, or in the Commonwealth Universities Yearbook, or the institution's website.

Acceptable Verifications

Documents must be authenticated by authorized officials at the institution that issued them. Verifications obtained from embassies, consulates or other officials that are outside of the academic institution are not usually acceptable unless there is reason to believe that those officials have themselves checked the document for authenticity through their office.

Photocopies or Originals?

That has always been a question for foreign-credential evaluators. Today, more and more institutions abroad are capable of sending documents directly to U.S. institutions, and students should be asked to arrange for their records to be sent directly from the institutions that they attended. As stated above, when an institution is unable to send documents directly to an institution in the United States, the documents should be sent for verification.

How Long Does Verification Take?

The time it takes to obtain a response from institutions abroad varies by country and institution. Some countries take three or more months before they send a reply. Others will respond quickly, in a matter of weeks or days. Students should always be advised to submit their applications early to allow time for the international exchange of correspondence and information.


Documents are most often issued in the official language of the country of origin. However, in many countries, institutions will issue documents in English for students who are bound for the United States. In those cases, students should be required to request that their documents be issued in English by the institutions themselves.

When documents are issued in foreign languages, documents in the original language should accompany any English-language translations. Translations are best done by a sworn translator in the home country and validated by legal authorities.

Translations that are done in the United States vary greatly in quality. Translators cannot vouch for the authenticity of the document that they were given to translate. It is essential that all translated documents be accompanied by the original-language documents from which the translations were made.

Documentation Requirements

To ensure maximum and timely compliance, document requirements must be made very clear from the outset. Candidates must be given clear instructions on what to submit and the deadlines by which they must furnish their documents. When you request documents from students, you need to use language that is familiar to them.

If you need information regarding the status of the academic institution, asking for its "accreditation status" might not always be applicable, since the process, or the concept, of accreditation is not universal. Instead, you need to request information and/or documentation that attest to the institution's recognition by the appropriate educational authority in that country. Furthermore, you need to find out if it is a recognized degree-granting institution.

In several countries, particularly those in which private higher education is newly established, postsecondary institutions are granted a license to operate or are registered with the ministry of education to function as a business. These are not necessarily recognized degree-granting institutions.

Request documents by using terminology familiar to the candidate. For example, academic transcripts are called "mark sheets" in India and are issued, in most instances, by the university, which is the examining authority. As such, it is the only authority that may issue documents.

For university graduates from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, you need to request degree certificate(s) or provisional degree certificate(s) and all university-issued mark sheets with exact paper titles. College-issued mark sheets alone are not sufficient.

Countries That Issue Documents Directly into English

Asia: Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand

Middle East: Cyprus, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Kuwait, Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates

Africa: Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan

Documentation Requirements Specific to Countries or Regions

China: Transcripts and graduation and degree certificates are issued in Chinese by the academic institution.

European countries where the diploma supplement is available: Please request that, if possible, the institution issue postsecondary academic documents according to the Diploma Supplement template developed by the Joint European Commission/Council of Europe/UNESCO Working Party. The diploma supplement may be issued directly in English.

North Africa (Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia): Documents must be issued in French by the academic institution.

Latin America: Degree/certificate (Título/Licenciado); transcripts (Certificado de Notas/Calificaciones) indicating all subjects studied with grades and credits or hours of study.

Russian Federation: For incomplete postsecondary programs, Russian-language academic transcripts Academicheskaya Spravka (academic certificate). For completed programs Prilozhenie k Diplomu (supplement to the diploma) or Arkhivnaya Spravka (archival certificate).

How to Detect Fraudulent Documents

There are several criteria that you can use in the document-recognition process, all of which stem from knowledge of the specific system of education:

Very high grades in a system where grades tend to cluster at the lower end
Uncharacteristic documentation format for the institution or the system of education in review
Inconsistency in typeface elements on the document
Spelling errors
Records stamped "confidential" and yet submitted by the applicant
Colored photocopies (good-quality colored photocopies may easily be accepted for original documents).
Lines, words, numbers, etc. missing from the use of white-out

Finally, when in doubt, do not hesitate to write to the institution or educational authority that issued the credential, and ask for verification and/or explanation to your questions.

Degree/Diploma Mills

Degree or diploma mills are businesses that use the names of non-existent universities to sell documents that are not backed by appropriate study or examinations. They are illegal in the U.S. and in many other countries. Degree mills can be difficult to trace because they usually use mail drops and multiple addresses. Numerous degree mills operate on the Internet where they often pose as institutions of distance learning. Legitimate distance learning providers are recognized in the countries where they are located and their status can be verified by contacting the relevant educational authorities. Evaluators should be suspicious of documents issued by 'universities' with addresses that are office suites or box numbers that cannot be verified in any authoritative independent publication. Most degree mills also claim 'accreditation' by one or more fictitious 'national' 'international', 'worldwide' or 'global' accrediting agencies. Verifying the existence and status of an institution is an essential step when reviewing educational documents.


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