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Business Schools

Clearing Up an Application Blemish


What do you do if you've got a legal or academic problem in your past? Here's some advice for B-school applicants

During the height of the fall admissions frenzy, schools admissions consultant Linda Abraham typically gets deluged with questions ranging from everything on how to craft a compelling admissions essay to when one should apply in the application cycle. This fall, she's gotten a rash of inquiries on a topic that usually comes up infrequently: how to handle an academic or disciplinary blemish on your record.

"It's a question that has come up repeatedly, and people are really struggling with how to handle it," said Abraham, an admissions consultant for Accepted.com. In just the past month, students have called her asking her advice on everything from how to deal with a former driving-under-the-influence conviction to a previous expulsion from school, she said.

"Our advice is, always deal with it forthrightly, succinctly, take responsibility, and move on," Abraham said. "What is more difficult to deal with is academic discipline, especially if cheating is involved."

The numbers themselves aren't huge. Abraham says that she's gotten about 10 inquiries concerning black marks this year, while in most years it might come up once. Though its unclear what's behind all the skittishness, Abraham believes one factor is the publicity surrounding MBA applicants' use of Scoretop.com, a Web site that allegedly gave users a look at current questions being used on the GMAT business school entrance exam. More than 80 MBA applicants had their GMAT scores canceled (BusinessWeek.com, 9/9/08) because of their involvement with the site.

Indeed, recent ethical breaches, including a 2007 cheating incident (BusinessWeek.com, 5/22/08) ] at Duke's Fuqua School of Business has increased sensitivity to any hint of academic dishonesty. At the same time, more and more business schools are using background checks to verify the information (BusinessWeek.com, 8/26/08) submitted by students on their applications. In addition, schools are being more pointed than ever before with applicants, often directly asking them if they have been convicted of a felony or have been academically disciplined by their undergraduate institution

"There is a general sense of caution in the industry, and I know that every school is hoping applicants are feeling that as well," said Carrie Marcinkevage, director of MBA admissions at Pennsylvania State University's Smeal College of Business.

Yet determining what is appropriate to disclose on your business school application can be a difficult matter. For example, does a student need to report a ticket he received for drinking in public back when he was an undergrad? And what about that failing grade a student received in a course freshman year in college? Obtaining a straight answer from admissions officers on how to handle an uncomfortable incident in one's past can be difficult, especially if an applicant is wary of bringing up the incident with the admissions office before applying. To help clarify the situation, we've spoken to several admissions officers from schools around the country. Here's their advice.

Go for full disclosure, whenever possible:

Every school has a different policy on whether students must list previous academic violations or a criminal record. Also, wording about disclosures can vary widely, depending on the institution. For example, the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business asks students on their application: "Have you ever been convicted of a DUI or do you have any charges pending against you for a crime other than a minor traffic violation?" Other schools, such as Penn State's Smeal, don't ask applicants to list any previous felonies on their application.

Follow the directions as straightforwardly as possible, admissions officers said. If a school doesn't ask students for that type of information, the onus is still on the applicant to address in their application any incidents that could have the potential to raise eyebrows, such as a hole in an academic transcript or an incident that involved cheating, said Smeal's Marcinkevage. She recommends students do the "man in the mirror test" and spend time reflecting on their past. "Picture yourself on the other side of the admissions process and imagine if someone found out about this incident in your past. Would they feel duped?" she said. "If you have any inkling of that, then absolutely, it's something you want to bring up ahead of time."

Use an embarrassing situation to your advantage:

If you have an embarrassing incident in your past that you can't avoid mentioning in your application, try to make the best of the situation by taking advantage of the optional essay, something offered by most business schools, said Brian Lohr, director of MBA admissions at University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business. He once received an application from a student who had been dismissed from his first undergraduate institution because of a fraternity cheating prank. The applicant mentioned the incident in the application and later elaborated on it in an optional supplemental essay. That essay became a vehicle for the applicant to talk about how he learned from his past mistake, moved forward ,and matured, Lohr said. "It was all of the things that you want to hear from someone who has made a mistake," said Lohr, who extended the applicant an offer of admission because of his candor. "The bottom line was he asked for a chance and I think that was really great."

Beware the background check:

With more admissions offices conducting background checks, students will come out looking better if they are as honest as possible about their past, said Randall Sawyer, director of admissions at Cornell University's Johnson School of Graduate Management. His school uses a background check to verify certifications, employment information, and salary, a device that is being used by an increasing number of business schools. "It's far better to disclose fully than to disclose selectively," Sawyer said.

At Babson's F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business, the school has a provision in its application that states that the admissions office can run a background check on any applicant or admitted candidate. Students should make a point of noting in their application any information that could turn up in such a search, said Dennis Nations, the school's director of MBA admissions. "If we have to find out about it down the road, it puts us in a difficult position and raises questions about how forthright a person is and do we want them in our community," he said.

Address cheating incidents:

Students should be as forthright as possible when it comes to any incidents that involved cheating, said Cornell's Sawyer. Admissions officers can sometimes be forgiving, depending on the individual circumstances of the incident, and tend to make their decisions in these situations on a case-by-case basis, Sawyer said. For example, a student applied to the Johnson School last year who had been accused by a professor of cheating with her roommate on a computer science paper. The student made a point to sit down with Sawyer and explain to him that she had misinterpreted the professor's instructions, worked out a solution with the school, and was embarrassed by the incident. Being direct and forthright worked in her favor, Sawyer said. "I said, 'Good, I'm glad you told us,' and based on her personal contact with me, I was fairly certain it wouldn't happen again," said Sawyer, who extended an offer of admission to the student.

Not all students are quite as fortunate, especially those that have been involved in widespread cheating incidents or been kicked out of their schools for disciplinary incidents. A former student at Duke's Fuqua School of Business—one of 24 either suspended or expelled by the school for their involvement in the 2007 final exam cheating scandal at the school—applied to Cornell last year, but was denied admission because of the student's previous record, Sawyer said.

Don't Assume Disqualification:

One misconception held by many students is that they will ruin their chances of getting admitted to a school if they are forthright about about a problematic past, said Kellee Scott, senior associate director of admissions at University of Southern California. "When they do put down these things, it's something that is looked at, but it's nothing that keeps a person from being admitted to a program," she said. Admissions officers said repeatedly that they are willing to offer students a second chance.


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