Watch out, would-be fibbers. In the wake of last year's cheating expulsions at Duke's Fuqua School of Business (BusinessWeek.com, 4/30/07) and May's scandal over alleged cheating on the GMAT (BusinessWeek.com, 7/1/08), business schools are scrutinizing applications harder than ever. And so-called résumé puffing, or exaggerating your work experience and qualifications—even slightly—to appear more desirable, could cost you an acceptance letter.
In recent years, admission officials at several top business schools, including the University of California at Los Angeles' Anderson School of Management and Duke, have found a growing number of lies and half-truths in the résumés they review. To be fair, it's hardly an epidemic: Administrators contacted by BusinessWeek estimated that, annually, just under 1% of business school applicants are caught faking it (though the actual number of fibbers could be much higher).
But as applicant pools widen and competition intensifies, résumé puffing is becoming a serious issue, says Mae Jennifer Shores, assistant dean and director of MBA admissions at Anderson. "These candidates are going to great lengths—sometimes too great—to differentiate themselves," she explains. "We [the admissions staff] have essentially become watchdogs."
A SHARPER EDGE
Unlike buying live GMAT questions or plagiarizing an entrance essay, résumé puffing is something of a national sport. In fact, of 8,700 job applicants recently polled online by CareerBuilder.com, nearly 10% admitted to stretching the truth. During a separate survey of 3,700 hiring managers, roughly half said they had caught a lie on a résumé (BusinessWeek.com, 7/25/07). Of those, 28% considered the applicant anyway.
These numbers are "understandable," says Stan Walters, a leading lie-detection expert and author of The Truth About Lying, a layman's guide to lie-detection. When you're applying for a competitive position, he explains, "you naturally want to pump up your image." Late comedian W.C. Fields was more direct: "Anything worth winning is worth cheating for."
For less confident applicants, this edge is especially enticing. Top MBA programs attract premium prospects, most with sky-high GMAT scores and several years of experience. Accordingly, people with fewer credentials and personal insecurities "don't feel they're good enough," says Liz Riley Hargrove, associate dean for admissions at Fuqua. Albeit risky, résumé puffing is a quick fix: The difference between a "junior" and "senior" title, for example, is just two keystrokes.
INFLATING AND INVENTING
During her 15 years at Fuqua, Hargrove has encountered a variety of embellishments. Some applicants inflate their job responsibilities. Others invent extracurricular activities. A few even write their own letters of recommendation and forge a professor's signature. "They're willing to gain an advantage by any means possible," she says. "And that includes making something up."
If caught, these prospects face harsh penalties. Options are school-specific, but most include: a phone call from the admissions department (asking for an explanation), a harsher examination of other application elements (GMAT scores, transcript, interview answers, etc.), and/or application dismissal. Adds Bruce DelMonico, director of admissions at Yale School of Management: "We take these things very seriously."
And with good cause. Part of the role of a business school, says DelMonico, is to train Corporate America's next wave of talent.
Accepting people who have knowingly lied—in any capacity—is a dangerous investment. Just ask Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose own dean of admissions, Marilee Jones, was forced to resign last year after officials exposed her doctored education credentials. For weeks, the MIT brand was sullied by embarrassing press coverage.
Fuqua's Hargrove calls résumé puffing "unfortunate," and Anderson's Shores agrees. Yet both confirm it's tough to track. Who's to say, for example, that an applicant was treasurer, not secretary, of his business fraternity? Or that he spent five hours assisting a professor each week, and not 20? Short of calling every source, on every application, from every candidate, "we can't make sure information is 100% accurate," says Yale's DelMonico.
But they're getting close. At Duke, recommendation letters are now cross-checked at random, via personal phone calls. At UCLA, candidates submit contact information for all (alleged) extracurricular and volunteer activities. At Yale, applications pass through Kroll, a third-party verifier. After running a full background check, the service confirms each applicant's employment and education history, and résumé discrepancies are flagged for staff review. (Michigan State's Broad College of Business employs similar software.)
The goal, says Yale's DelMonico, is to "encourage veracity." If you haven't graduated summa cum laude or logged three years at a top-tier investment bank, be honest about it: According to Fuqua's Hargrove, most applicants who are caught embellishing "could have been accepted on their own merits." After all, a résumé alone won't get you into business school. But puffing one could shut you out.
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