“Fraud and falsehood only dread examination. Truth invites it.”
The B-school world has a dark underside, fraudulent applications. The Graduate Management Admissions Council (the organization that administers the GMAT, the standardized test for entry to B-school) regularly deals with outrageous efforts to steal test questions, submit someone else’s work, and impersonate test-takers. At Darden, we require admissions interviews and have discovered impersonators. Perhaps the corruption of applications contributes to the findings of widespread cheating in MBA programs. The latest development along these lines is the following email, received by a faculty colleague here at Darden, offering to pay for each successful admissions essay to Darden that this person had written. This is evidently a clearinghouse operation that buys and resells successful essays on MBA applications. My colleague said, “Perhaps I shouldn’t be, but I was astounded.” The letter stated:
We are collecting successful admissions essays for top MBA programs, including University of Virginia – Darden – and will pay $XX for each main essay (main personal statement greater than 500 words), and $XX for each minor essay (secondary essay answering a specific question less than 500 words) that we accept for our admissions essay section. … Essays will be used anonymously.”
It all seems so straightforward: a company is buying the essays of students who have been successfully admitted to Darden and other B-schools and is republishing them for download over the Internet. Most forms of publishing are defended as free speech by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It’s a commercial transaction between consenting adults. Isn’t this just like publishing child-care advice or recipes? You can almost hear the publisher say, “I can’t be held responsible for what the downloaders do with these essays.”
This doesn’t pass the smell test. Someone has something to hide. The tip-off is the statement, “Essays will be used anonymously.” Samuel Johnson had it right: fraud and falsehood dread examination. Note the absence of ownership of the work: unattributed prose is easily adopted as one’s own. This publisher is enabling plagiarism, the nefarious copy-and-paste behavior that we’ve heard about at the primary, secondary, and even collegiate levels of education—it is now at the doorstep of B-schools.
The MBA admissions function is a talent-discovery process. Admission to a top B-school is a ticket into a very bright future. The competition is quite high. So is the temptation to cheat. But let’s be clear: representing someone else’s work as your own creates a fraud.
Fraud is costly and corrupts the talent discovery process. Who is hurt by the trade in admissions essays? Everyone: graduates, schools, employers—and most especially, applicants. Possible fraud in MBA applications evokes a classic problem of asymmetric information in economics, what Nobel Laureate, George Akerlof, called the “lemons” problem. In essence, in the used-car market, sellers know more about the condition of the cars for sale than do the buyers. Good used cars are mixed up with the bad cars (the “lemons”). The buyers know this, and in defense discount the value of all used cars, rendering the used-car market less efficient. The sellers of good used cars are harmed. So are those buyers who ultimately wind up with the lemons. The results of the trade and submission of others’ application essays is the same: good applicants are harmed because it is harder to distinguish them from the rest. And schools, recruiters, and alumni are harmed when they wind up embracing the lemons.
Darden may be less-exposed to the risks of such fraud. We require specialized essays in response to questions that are unique to Darden. And we change the questions each year. Every admitted student will have been interviewed in-person with a mandatory photo ID check. The next step may be computer-based comparison of essays. But many other B-schools don’t have the resources to take the measures we take.
Students and recent graduates have an obvious self-interest in avoiding this. Every school is continually trying to raise the bar on the quality of its students. To the extent that you support the distribution of your successful admissions essays, you heighten the possibility that your own school will admit less-talented students (who are unethical to boot) rather than the high-potential candidates of integrity who will build the franchise of the school.
Applicants, too, have an obvious self-interest in the ability of schools to fight fraud. Good students want to be only with other good students. When you go to class, you want to be stimulated by those around you. Essay fraud heightens the possibility that you’ll be sorely disappointed. Almost by definition, the people who download and resubmit these essays will lack some or all of the following: imagination, initiative, integrity, communication skill, intelligence, and self-confidence. Do you want such classmates?
Don’t get involved with this offer. As a seller, no amount of money can adequately compensate you for the ingenuity you put into your essays or for the social impact of plagiarism. As a downloader, think about what you are admitting about yourself. You will regret plagiarism the rest of your life. And you will pay for it not only in cash to the publisher, but also in the doubts about whether you deserve your achievements.
Make no mistake about it: at Darden, we do not consider acceptable the sale and resubmission of others’ essays. Darden students and graduates know that this behavior is inconsistent with Darden’s values and aspirations. Our Mission Statement affirms that we seek to produce “action-oriented graduates who embrace an enterprise perspective and lead with integrity, vision, judgment, determination, and social responsibility.” We have a community of honor: Darden and the University of Virginia embrace one of the most successful honor systems in the world. We emphasize ethical behavior not as an ancillary topic but as something central to the attainment of business leadership. The kind of people we admit and graduate produce admissions essays that are original and independently-prepared. As Samuel Johnson might say, such people know that truth invites examination and are ready for it.
Posted by Robert Bruner at 11/24/2007 09:41:18 AM