Wharts and All: Blogging the Full-Time MBA Program at the Wharton School

Friday, March 18, 2005

Busted--Lying on Application [Edit 1]

Many applicants to graduate schools of business lie to improve their chances of admission. They stretch dates of employment to cover embarrassing gaps. They lie about how much they make. They lie about what they do. And irony of ironies, they even lie about the time they had to deal with an ethical dilemma (who'd have thought that merely asking applicants to describe an ethical dilemma would itself generate more ethical breaches?). They do it all to gain an edge in the hyper-competitive business school admissions race.

Until recently, however, there were no systematic means of either deterring or catching dishonest applicants.

Wharton is leading the change. The school's S2S discussion forum features a thread entitled "Busted--Lying on Application" in which a Wharton student (presumably class of 2002) encourages applicants to be truthful lest they end up like one of his classmates who was kicked out of the school just months before he would have graduated. His crime? Lying on his Wharton application.

As a result of that fiasco, Wharton instituted background checks for all matriculating students. These checks are conducted by Kroll, the company whose forensic prowess uncovered millions of dollars that Saddam Hussein had siphoned from his country and stashed throughout the world. Kroll has also helped crack cases involving international kidnapping, Enron, and the Texas A&M University Bonfire Tragedy, which is to say that they'd likely have no difficulty verifying a few facts on a business school application.

As a result of Wharton's policy change, some interesting behavioral changes are occuring in the applicant population as evinced by S2S forum traffic. Wharton's mere publication of the fact that all applicants receive a background check seems to be sufficient to cow most liars into honesty. I get the sense that oft-fabricated details (like dates of employment and salary history) are now being recorded accurately by would-be liars scared into compliance by Wharton wielding the Kroll club.

Occasionally, though, some poor, unethical bastard doesn't learn about the existence of these background checks until after he has submitted his application. He panics and makes a public fool of himself. Thus I bring you this gem of a post made to S2S at 8.13 AM this morning [edit: post has since been deleted, this is the only record of it now]:

Dear Alex,

I put down on my resume that I started at my current company 6 month prior than the correct date. I was terminated at my previous job and I was a little worried about having to talk about that. I had 2 other personal failures in my life (average GPA and droping out of grad school) that I expalined in my essay and I guess I was worried about having to talk about a 3rd one. I learned from these mistakes and done well since then. I got a master degree from a great school with great GPA. I did really well at my new company and was promoted a few times. The only explanation I have for my action is fear. I now really see how I could really have talked aobut what I learned from getting fired. I received a request for an interview and think that I need to come clean. I feel terrible about this. What would be the best approach for me here? I fear that I have no chance at getting into school. I would really appreciate any advice on this matter.



S2S has become a cyber-confessional! Ethically challenged applicants are reading the thread, freaking out about their fibs, and then confessing right out there on the internets! This is pretty fabulous stuff. I doubt it ever happened prior to the Kroll verification requirement. (And you can bet that for every confession on Wharton's public forums there are five applicants coming clean in private missives to the admissions committee.)

Though they probably hate that they have to do these checks, Wharton's policy pays big benefits. By verifying every application, and by changing the depth of the background check every year, Wharton keeps applicants guessing. The class of 2006 needed to verify the employment information they provided on their most recent three jobs. In addition, I believe that 100% of their recommendations were verified. Wharton's class of 2007 is having the most recent two employers verified, and only a random sample of the class is having its recommendations verified. Wharton's class of 2008 will likely undergo a different version of the verification. By changing verification details every year, and by being vague and evasive when answering repeated questions about what information is going to be verified, Wharton makes honesty the only viable application strategy. That's how it should be.

Here are some examples of typical question-and-response patterns from the S2S forums on the topic of verification:
  • Q: Dude, Alex, the verifications are only $65 bux. LOL! What kind of verification can $65 buy anyway? I'm in like Flynn.
    A: $65 is only the amount we charge matriculating students. Some of the cost is borne by Wharton. Cheers. [Whether this is true or a lie is unimportant. Seeds of doubt are sewn, and that's all that counts.]
  • Q: Alex, can you please tell me exactly how many years of employment history will be verified? Which extra curriculars will you verify? Will you review my tax returns? Will you also check claims made in my essays themselves? Your clear explanation of the line between "verified" and "not verified" would be most appreciated as this will allow me to lie with impunity. Thanks in advance.
    A: The verification details change from year to year. If you tell the truth on your application, you will have nothing to worry about. Cheers.
  • Q: I worked for a multi-billion dollar startup that I founded but which has unfortunately since disappeared without a trace as my partners and I were too busy making money hand over fist to do anything like set up an office, hire employees, or--in fact--do any business whatsoever. Should I submit a safety application to a school that won't check these facts?
    A: You won't be the first applicant who has worked for a company that has since gone out of business. You need not worry, unless the company never existed? Cheers.

I'll conclude with another confession I enjoyed tremendously, also from the same thread:

Dear Alex Brown,

I am writing you to clarify a few particular elements of my application that, while not fraudulent or misleading in any way, may be a little ambiguous. In my efforts to portray myself in the truest light possible, I felt a letter clarifying the ambiguous elements in my application was in order.

In my work history, where I list my experience as a Fighter Pilot for the United States Navy, what I really meant to say was that I was an avid "Afterburner" player as a child. I feel this experience of "Virtual Combat in an F-14 Tomcat" instilled in me all of the same attributes and qualities of courage, leadership and teamwork that I conveyed in my essays.

Secondly, when I discuss my experience as a all-star player for the NBA, I am referring to my time in the Norwalk (CT) Basketball Association. This was the name of my YMCA league team, where I was a short, fat and slow shooting guard who wore Converse All-Star sneakers, and in no way should be confused with playing in the National Basketball Association at an All-Star level. Again, my essays about competition and teamwork still apply Also intact is my plan to give back to the Wharton community by discussing my basketball exploits with the inner city youths of Philadelphia, where I will teach them to say no to drugs and stay in school while they stare in awe at the prowess of my two-handed set shot.

Again, my apologies if there was any confusion as to these areas of my application. They were clearly not "material misrepresentations" and my intent is merely to clarify somewhat ambiguous areas of the application. I look forward to receiving your acceptance letter soon.


Bretes. (source)

Edit 1: Bunches of small edits. No real content difference.


Blogger bskewl said...

I hate blogger today. It took me an hour to post this crappy writing, and I can't even edit it currently because the application continues to time out when I attempt to edit it. Waaa.

I'm going to move to my own domain soon.

3/18/2005 11:44:00 AM  
Blogger MBA Boy said...

Blogger has been timing out for me as well. I had to rewrite my 'Matrix Algebra' post twice (alas, it was better the first time). But it's good to see you back on a regular schedule, my brother.

3/18/2005 11:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Move to the Wharton diary site instead.

3/18/2005 12:06:00 PM  
Blogger britchick said...

I regularly hate Blogger. Are we going to get the rest of your Winter Welcome thoughts before the April shindig?

3/18/2005 01:37:00 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

hey, i used a version of the last letter for the wharton comedy show the other day, worked a treat!

3/18/2005 01:45:00 PM  
Blogger bskewl said...

MBABOY: BLOGSPOT anagrams to "POO" plus some other letters. I've got to get out of here.

Anonymous: Hmmm. Don't think that'd work.

Britchick: I know that I've been procrastinating on those, in particular on the "Wharton Women = Whoa" post. So much to say, so many ways to get slapped silly for saying it. I've got a draft that I'm sleeping on.

Alex: Got an MP3 of the routine? Sounds fun and funny.

3/18/2005 03:48:00 PM  
Blogger Atta Girl said...

Quite funny!!! I'm wondering why would people lie about their salaries coz 'compensation received' is no criteria in the admission evaluation process.

3/18/2005 07:06:00 PM  
Blogger bskewl said...

Attagirl: Adcoms definitely factor salary progression into their decisions. They want to see that your company values you and is willing to pay more and more for you as you grow with them.

3/19/2005 06:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


- I love you. My dear rebel, do you realize that you are slowly turning your personality to a wharton evangelist? Be yourself, my dear, because I love *you*, not fanaticalfan. We already have one fanaticalfan and one fanatical is more than enough.

- Reducing the number of employers from 3 to 2 and the coverage of recommenders from 100% to a random sample is not "changing verification details every year". I simply call it "making less verification because 65$ is not enough".

Love you.

3/19/2005 06:09:00 AM  
Blogger bskewl said...

Anon - I agree with you that less verification is being done this year. If next year even less verification is done, and the year after even less is done, then I'll raise a ruckus. I don't think that there's a trend towards less verification (yet), but if one should emerge, I would think that it's a negative.

And I'm rather cynical about the whole verification process as a scare tactic. I think that if they were to eliminate it, people would begin to lie frequently again. I think that the only thing that keeps most people honest is fear of getting caught. I think that Wharton needs to keep applicants guessing in order to keep applicants honest. So far, I think they're doing a good job of keeping applicants guessing.

Don't worry that I'm turning into FF. I've got to have some semblance of balance, though. I can't be critical of Wharton all the time because really, Wharton--like any other school--does some things well and some things poorly. I'd like to make sure I note both as I blog my experience over the next couple of years.

3/19/2005 10:38:00 AM  
Blogger itheabsolute said...

Being truthful is the only viable strategy as far as application is concerned. you can be ethical for once to 'get in' and complete your graduation. you can use your degree to get into good positions to be unethical. all that the application or the school can ensure is a sabbatical from being unethical. ethics is good. but cannot be imposed. and i fail to understand why b-schools are insistent on asking this question and trying to check past. past in many cases is no indicator future. and if someone told ethics will be taught in a classroom then i would not agree too.

3/20/2005 12:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everyone’s been tempted. Applicants, is not an exception. Some of us may have allowed the occasional half-truth to find its way onto our CV. Heck, even C level executives lie. CEO of Bausch & Lomb, Ronald Zarrella, lied about having a Wharton MBA (he had not, as was claimed on his CV, attained an MBA - ironically, Bausch & Lomb had just been listed among S&P’s best companies for corporate governance). CFO of Veritas, Kenneth E Loncha fabricated his academic credentials, including a Stanford University MBA that he never received.

3/20/2005 09:31:00 PM  
Anonymous FANATICALFAN said...

Damn, so the real FF has no balance, and is unloved.. [sniff]

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