Potential B-school students are advised to learn from the real world of business. That includes the bad episodes as well, such as the incident last year in which RadioShack (RSH) Chief Executive David Edmonson was forced to resign over résumé inaccuracies. And while most B-school applicants are honest in the application process, the prevailing attitude at many admissions offices is a variation of the Reagan-era mantra, "Trust, but verify."
For many students, that means opening up to a background check, something that's becoming more common throughout the business world. And while few applicants out-and-out lie on their entry forms, the occasional misstep does get caught. And often, the one who has overseen the catching is Brian Lapidus, vice-president for strategic development at the background screening division of risk-consulting firm Kroll (MMC) in Nashville.
Lapidus was a still-wet-behind-the-ears MBA student at Vanderbilt's Owen Graduate School of Management when he interned for Kroll in the early part of this decade. After reading a BusinessWeek.com article about B-school candidates lying on their applications, he proposed that Kroll use one of its core competencies, background checks, to win over MBA admissions committees as new clients (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/12/2003, "Doctored Résumés, Poisoned Applicants").
In that first year, Kroll attracted five schools to the new market (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/7/03 "Why Kroll Is on a Roll"). Today, the sector is growing, and the company works with business, medical, nursing, dental, and pharmaceutical schools to verify that applicants are telling the truth. Prices vary, depending on the needs of the school.
"There's a need for these services because applicants aren't always honest about their capabilities, to increase their chance of getting admitted," says Lapidus. For instance, he says, there was the time that an applicant referred to himself as the director of human resources for a particular company, when he was actually the executive assistant to the director. He didn't get admitted to the school in question.
Kroll is the most-mentioned company doing background checks for B-schools, though not every school identifies who's conducting background checks and how they're doing it. One way or the other—either outsourced or in-house—most B-schools these days conduct some sort of background check on potential applicants. Students—who discuss the issue in online forums—seem to take the checks as a routine part of the application process (see BusinessWeek.com Forums, "Background Verifications by B-Schools").
At Rochester's Simon Graduate School of Business the admissions committee internally conducts fact-checking on about 20% to 25% of the nearly 700 applications it receives annually. A small number, about 1% to 2%, show inconsistencies that require further investigation, says Rebekah Lewin, director of admissions at Simon.
Cases that seem to be a real problem are turned over to the school's human-resources department, which has experience conducting background checks. The only time any part of the fact-checking is outsourced is when international candidates have to prove their degree is equivalent to an American Bachelor's degree. In those instances, the applicant must pay for help from World Education Services, a credential evaluation organization.
For the eight years that Lewin has worked at Simon, there has always been some sort of protocol for confirming the validity of applications.
She adds that B-school candidates should think of this part of the process as another way that the school gets to know them. "It's a good thing for graduate schools to best assess and select candidates who will have a positive impact on the world around them," says Lewin.
The Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania began working with Kroll in 2004 to conduct background checks on those who matriculate. Students pay $60 to $70 for the background check, and they're aware of this charge from the start of the application process.
The Honor System
The decision to conduct checks on employment history and recommendations came about "in the spirit of fairness and integrity in the process," says Thomas Caleel, director of MBA admissions & financial aid at Wharton. Caleel says the policy allows the staff two years to revoke admission if necessary. The admissions committee has only revoked the acceptance of a few applicants who falsified information, says Caleel, who adds that those candidates still would have been admitted if they had simply told the truth.
Nevertheless, a few B-schools are continuing to take applicants at their word. The admissions staff at Babcock Graduate School of Management at Wake Forest University, for example, considered formal background checks, and even talked to other schools about their process and policies. In the end, however, the administrators decided against it. However, applicants must sign the honor code before turning in their application.
"We try to give candidates the benefit of the doubt in the admissions process," says Admissions Director Stacy Poindexter Owen. "However, at the first sign of a 'red flag,' we follow up by contacting undergraduate institutions, recommenders, and employers. Any contradictory information results in denied admission."
Liars get caught even at schools that don't enlist a company like Kroll or have a formal policy about fact-checking. Most applicants don't have to worry, as long as they abide by the rules. "Follow the school's instructions and be honest about who you are and what you've done," advises Lapidus—or risk losing your spot in the next class. "There's no such thing as a little lie on an application," says Caleel. Honesty, obviously, remains the best policy.