B-School Admission Essays, For a Fee

As competition heats up and people seek all sorts of help on their business school admission essays, everyone—from helicopter parents turned editors to top-dollar consulting services—are adding their two cents to MBA applications. But now at least some contributions may be going well beyond two cents. Two professional essay writers have told Bloomberg Businessweek that their companies have written application essays for MBA candidates who may have passed them off as their own. One of those essay writers says his clients have gotten into top programs.

Blake Reynolds, owner of Perfect Words, which is in New York, and David Burton, general manager of Essaywriter in Leeds, England, defend their businesses, saying some applicants need help expressing themselves. "My clients are not lazy or trying to be unethical," says Reynolds. "They work in industries where the hours are really long and writing skills are not emphasized … I think I'm helping people. People who go to these lengths will get the most out of business school."

Bloomberg Businessweek could not determine if any clients of the two firms turned in the ghost-written essays as their own. Neither Reynolds nor Burton would release the names of clients, and efforts to find clients of essay-writing services through online forums were unsuccessful. Burton says that using the essays as part of an application would be fraudulent and that he discourages it, but both men concede it's a possibility.

It's one that worries admission officials at some business schools, who have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to plagiarism or fraudulent work. "Every competitive admissions process involves an element of trust," said Megan Washburn, a spokesperson for Northwestern University's Kellogg School of a Management (Kellogg Full-Time MBA Profile), in a prepared statement. " We recognize sometimes that trust is breached and [we] will pursue any such case to the fullest extent."

Foreign Language Difficulties

Clearly, essay writing for hire is a booming business. With 2,500 writers working for the company and a website easily found in a Google search, Essaywriter writes both admission essays and school assignments for people in a variety of subject areas. Burton says his mostly international candidates have language challenges, while others are more mature applicants or students who have not written in a long time.

Having started out as a tutor, Burton says he is helping his clients learn in a different way by providing them with further research and sample essays. He added that the company hires professional writers and academics to write for clients and that it uses technology to make sure all writers are turning in original work and not plagiarizing anyone. Once the essays are in the hands of clients, they use them as they see fit, Burton said.

"I can't tell you that every student who uses our services does not use the work as his own … It would be fraudulent to pass the work of someone else off as your own," he says. "It's not fraudulent to give an example of your work to someone, who you think is honest."

Reynolds recently distributed fliers around Wall Street and posted ads for his business on the Businessweek.com B-school forums (which have since been removed for violating the terms of service).The pitch: His essays will help applicants get into top business schools.In an interview, he said he has been writing MBA admissions essays for clients for eight years and has helped them get into some of the most elite U.S.programs including Kellogg, Harvard Business School (Harvard Full-Time MBA Profile), and Columbia Business School (Columbia Full-Time MBA Profile).

Writing That's Too Polished

Bloomberg Businessweek attempted to contact six business schools Reynolds claims accepted his essays, but only half responded to our request for comment. Kellogg's Washburn said suspiciously well-written essays get carefully reviewed by the admissions team. "It is our hope that all applicants will represent themselves accurately and transparently in the admissions process," she wrote. "As such, we in no way endorse the practice of hiring admission essay-writing services, and we are careful to vet essays that appear to be overly crafted." In a statement, Columbia declined to comment on Reynolds' statements but noted that the essays—whoever writes them—are just one part of the big picture that admissions committees are considering. "We look at each candidate holistically, and every one of the admissions criteria is very important, " wrote Ethan Hanabury, senior associate dean for degree programs at Columbia Business School, in an e-mail. "Not one element carries more weight than the next."

Deirdre Leopold, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School, called using ghost-written essays "unethical" and said doing so is not a strategy for success: "Anyone foolish enough to 'buy' essays is advised to think a few steps ahead," she wrote in an e-mail. "How do they plan to 'fake' an interview with one of our admissions officers? Are they purchasing essays in order to camouflage a lack of English fluency—something that is essential for success in our program? As for this consultant's claims of achieving great success for his/her clients, let the buyer beware."

The runup in business school applications during the recession has created a windfall for essay writers. At Essaywriter, Burton says, 60 percent of the essays his company churns out are for MBA students, and the numbers are always increasing. Reynolds says Perfect Words wrote MBA application essays for 17 clients in the fall of 2010 alone. Burton says his clients pay about £150, or nearly $240, for an admissions essay, whereas Reynolds says his clients pay between $800 and $3,000, depending on the volume of application essays the client requests.

Why the Market Is Growing

Bill Crittenden, senior associate dean and dean of faculty at Northeastern's College of Business Administration (Northeastern Full-Time MBA Profile), says mounting pressure to get into top programs will only improve the market for essay writers and others who claim to help people buck the system.

"Among [applicants], there's a sense that to succeed, they have to get into select programs," Crittenden says. "There's more pressure on them to meet the [candidate] profile that they think is accepted at these schools, so they're seeking these services."

About 5 percent to 7 percent of applications raise red flags with the admissions committee at Northeastern every year, Crittenden says. If the application raises serious questions—for example, if the committee sees too many inconsistencies between the admission essays and the verbal and essay parts of the GMAT exam scores—the applicant will most likely be rejected, he explains.

Formerly Controversial

Unlike essay writers, admissions consultants provide a broad range of services, from advising on GMAT preparation and choosing programs to preparing for interviews and providing feedback on essays. At one time controversial, many consultants are now viewed by admission committees as legitimate businesses with a role to play in the application process. But even those who do not write essays outright for clients often do far more than just correct grammar and punctuation.

When Shashikant Kejriwal decided to apply to several top U.S. MBA program this year, he turned to IndusMinds Consulting, in his native India, for a "sounding board." What he got was two consultants who spent hours brainstorming ideas and helping him select the five or six points he highlighted in his essays. Most essays went through three drafts, with IndusMinds offering suggestions for revisions after each one. But the work, says IndusMinds founder and lead consultant Biplav Misra, is all his own. Misra is opposed to writing essays for clients, which he says is "a huge risk and not worth it."

Although Crittenden says that most admission consultancies help applicants with their essays in an appropriate way, he adds that even some of them don't always know where to draw the line. "Where we get into the gray area," he says, "is when admission consultants get involved in writing or materially improving the content of a candidate's essays."

Spotting the Illegitimate

For applicants, the question becomes how to distinguish between legitimate consultants and those who help too much. In the U.S., certain admission consulting firms have formed a professional alliance, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC), to help clients and business schools know they adhere to certain standards, says Graham Richmond, the organization's president, who added that these reputable firms are not to be confused with essay-writing services.

Admissions staff at top business schools know when candidates are cutting corners, says Richmond. "I'd like to think the process is good enough that these folks who are behaving in an incredibly unethical way get weeded out."

Jim Flower, an MBA applicant who employed the services of AIGAC member Veritas Prep, an admission consultancy and test-prep company in Malibu, Calif., says he is appalled that some candidates go so far as having someone else write the essays for them.

"I'm nervous enough for the interview, and I'd be paranoid that I'd get caught," Flower says. "They seem like idiots for doing this. I feel like you'd be worse off for trying to pull a fast one."

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