It’s that time of year again. Accepted MBA applicants are facing what is commonly referred to as the “business school background check.” Most top MBA programs have some form of a pre-matriculation process in place for confirming the personal and professional profiles of applicants. Typically, schools enlist the scrutiny of sophisticated verification agencies like Kroll and ReVera.
MBA candidates hail from all types and sizes of companies—ranging from Fortune 50 giants to family businesses to bootstrapped startups. Furthermore, applicants come from a range of countries with a wide array of business practices, compensation systems, and legal and regulatory requirements. As a result, background verification has become more extensive and intensive in recent years.
WHO SHOULD BE CONCERNED… AND PREPARED?
It is more important than ever for applicants to anticipate and prepare for this final step in the admissions process. Many admits believe that only those who were explicitly dishonest or stretched the truth on their applications have reason to plan ahead for background verification. However, even candidates who have been completely transparent but have some non-traditional work experience with minimal or no documentation may carry a burden of proof on aspects of their applications.
For example, an MBA applicant who worked for a company that lacked an official HR department, had non-standard compensation elements like cash or deferred salary, or is no longer in business should take steps to make sure he or she can meet this burden of proof. Furthermore, a candidate who is or has been self-employed should be ready to submit supporting documentation.
Marina Glazman, Director of Background Verification Services at admissions consulting firm The MBA Exchange, notes several examples from her past five years of experience advising admits: “An entrepreneur based in Dubai may not have incorporation documents for his or her venture since the UAE doesn’t impose taxes on corporate income outside of specific, regulated industries. ‘Entity formation’ is unneeded for emerging companies. So, this entrepreneur would lack the entity-formation paper trail that a verification agency might be seeking. Or, an employee of a small company in Latin America might have received a portion of his or her stated salary in cash rather than by check. Or, a U.S. applicant who worked at a startup may have accepted deferred salary before the startup received funding. Each of these scenarios — and others that we see every year– creates challenges for an MBA admit in providing verification of employment or compensation.”
WHAT CAUSES VULNERABILITY?
”Vulnerability during the background verification process manifests itself either through a discrepancy, or through an absence of information,” notes Glazman. “Any input that appears to conflict with other information provided, or insufficient data to support information provided, can raise a red flag. Often, but not always, these issues can be attributed to honest errors, oversights or gaps easily resolved by the applicant through brief explanation or appropriate documentation.”
Having such vulnerability does not necessarily lead to the worst case scenario of rescinded admission. However, an applicant may be required to take specific steps for timely resolution. In more serious cases, where the information discrepancy or void is severe, difficult to explain, or takes extended time to resolve, the admissions committee may lose confidence in the candidate before allowing him or her to enroll.
WHEN SHOULD YOU START PLANNING FOR VERIFICATION?
Many applicants do not think about background verification until they receive an acceptance from a business school. Some even wait until they are contacted by a verification firm. However, for applicants with non-traditional, documentation-light, or entrepreneurial backgrounds, planning ahead can help reduce stress, avoid surprises, and ensure a smooth path from admission to matriculation. For other applicants who hope such discrepancies will go unnoticed, being ready to respond promptly, confidently and convincingly, if questioned, is critical.
PROFESSIONAL GUIDANCE AND SUPPORT CAN HELP
Whether for advance planning or real-time response, having a professional advisor with a proven process for dealing with background verification can be a huge advantage. Since launching its Countercheck™ support service in 2011, The MBA Exchange has partnered with applicants in preparing for and/or responding to challenges regarding background verification. Peace of mind and positive outcomes confirm the wisdom of working with a pro.
Background verification is a reality of the MBA admissions process. When and how to prepare for such scrutiny is a choice that serious candidates make sooner rather than later.
Author Dan Bauer, a Harvard MBA, is the founder and CEO of The MBA Exchange, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm.