The $25 million bribery case that has made headlines this week is the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department. Some 33 parents, including several MBAs from Harvard, Stanford, Kellogg, and Michigan, have been charged with paying an admissions consulting firm to take SAT and ACT tests for their children and to bribe college coaches and other insiders to get their children into the most elite undergraduate schools in the country (see Harvard & Stanford MBAs Snared In College Admissions Scam).
The inevitable question: Does this happen in elite MBA admissions? Admission consultants, after all, play an even bigger role in elite MBA admissions than they do in undergraduate admissions. More than 400 consultants work in the MBA space in the U.S. alone, and some estimate that fully a third of all applicants to top 10 schools now use a paid consultant. Does anyone cheat?
Of course, they do. It’s commonly accepted that many schools have a “dean’s list” of favored candidates, typically the children of big donors or connected parents. “It happens but it is different,” says Sandy Kreisberg, a prominent MBA admissions consultant known as HBS Guru. “At every – school, there are X number of alums/donors who by dint of contributions, status, relations with the school, could have a REAL influence on any candidate they wish to get behind. I would say, for those Bigfeet, they usually sponsor one or two kids a year. Sometimes none.”
‘I’D LIKE TO BELIEVE IT CAN’T HAPPEN IN THE MBA WORLD, BUT I DON’T’
And in the past, there have been several instances where cheating on the GMAT was widespread and publicly exposed. In one instance, the FBI charged that a single person took the GMAT and the GRE 212 times for other applicants in a two and one-half year period along, roughly once every four or five days. All told, the exam sitter and his friends were accused of taking a total of 590 exams for mostly business school applicants from January of 2001 to July of 2003 (see He Conquered The GMAT & Went To Jail For It).
“I’d like to believe that it can’t happen in the MBA world, but I don’t,” says Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com, an admissions consulting firm. “The MBA world had the ScoreTop scandal about 10 years ago so it’s definitely not immune to admissions scandals. An admissions site, ScoreTop, had different levels of membership in which the most expensive level had access to live GMAT questions, which were copied or memorized by paid test takers on behalf of Scoretop. That cheating scandal in 2008 led GMAC to void the scores of 84 test takers, some of whom had already been accepted to business school or have graduated. “It wasn’t quite as brazen as the college admissions scandal, but clearly, it gave some an advantage that had nothing to do with merit or ability,” adds Abraham.
Another leading MBA admissions firm, mbaMission, says that every year it turns away candidates who want to cheat their way in. “In terms of cheating, I am certain that there is GMAT fraud,” says mbaMission founder Jeremey Shinewald, “and a few times a year we reject large sums offered to us to commit application fraud for very obvious reasons. It definitely happens at the MBA level – we would be naive to think that the MBA system is incorruptible. We obviously turn these applicants away.”
IN SEARCH OF THE ‘BIONIC APPLICANT’
But there are major differences at the graduate level that make what the FBI uncovered highly unlikely. For one thing, many of the candidates whose parents bribed officials did so leveraging athletics as a pathway for admission. Most of the college officials who were indicted in the undergraduate scam were coaches who could tell admissions they wanted a specific student accepted into the school. While being a varsity athlete may give you a leg up on some applicants, no business school has a set of coaches who are specifically recruiting players for their teams.
Do people lie to get into MBA programs? “During my time in admissions, I have heard of a one-off ‘faked credentials’ of applicants, who might have in the past ‘borrowed’ their story from their spouse, or submitted falsified testing data,” says Judith S. Hodara, a former admissions official at Wharton and a co-founder at Fortuna Admissions, a top MBA admissions consulting firm. “I do not think that the schools talk about it too much because it does not reflect all that well on their processes. As a direct result, many schools looked for fail-safes, both in the ways that the standardized tests are administered, and spot checks on employers letters of recommendations.
“While I would not discount the possibility that this would never happen, I think that part of what happened on the undergraduate side was the many points of entry for the families involved in the deception. With their hired admissions counselor, they rigged the test taking, the essays and the extra-curricular activities, particularly athletic, to create an almost ‘bionic applicant’ who would appear foolproof to the admissions committees. Because of the combination of elements, they were successful. In MBA admissions, there are not quite as many points of entry.”