Assembling an Ethical Application

Mar 4, 2014
Tags: Admissions Process, Applications, B-School

Submitted by Carrie Marcinkevage, MBA Managing Director, Smeal College of Business, Penn State University. 

Globalization continues to help us challenge and evolve what “ethical business practices” truly mean. In the grad school application process, however, there are some easy ways to stay on the right track, and some equally temptingly easy ways to falter. What follows are five things you'll need to avoid to ensure an ethical application:

  1. Plagiarism – In North American and European educational systems, the definition and penalties for plagiarism are strict. Most often, applicants copy pieces of a sample application essay and paste it into their own, or they copy from job descriptions and company websites to describe their ideal careers. Any time you copy and paste into your own essay without putting it in quotation marks and listing your source material, it’s plagiarism. In most educational institutions, it violates intellectual property laws – laws that govern the ownership of ideas. That knowledge can be owned is a foreign concept to many cultures, however it is central to how these institutions view their products – research and knowledge – and to the process of innovation they encourage. Beyond the legality, copying from elsewhere robs the admissions committee of the opportunity to hear your voice, to get to know you. Instead they get to know bits and pieces of other people. No matter how good you may think the other author’s writing is, if it isn’t authentically you, it shows.
  2. Resume Misrepresentation/Exaggeration – Like employers, admissions teams look for quality work, career progression, and consistency. However, puffing up a resume with accomplishments, jobs, degrees, or timelines that aren’t your experience can damage your credibility. You’ll be asked about that $2M savings you made. If it was only $2, you’ll have a very difficult time explaining it. Additionally, once enrolled you will be working closely with your school’s career services team to improve your resume. If misrepresentation is discovered during this in-depth process, you and your school will have some difficult decisions to make. Show your accomplishments and put your best foot forward, and stay true to your experience.
  3. Recommendation Falsification – Some recommendation letters have clearly been written by the applicant, not the recommender. These suggest that the applicant didn’t know nor have a strong enough relationship with the recommender to deserve the recommender’s own effort. Sometimes the recommender asks the applicant to write it, and he or she will sign off. It's truly best when the recommender writes the recommendation from his or her own direct experience. Rather than writing it, help your recommenders by meeting to discuss your goals and sending a summarizing email about your aspirations and qualifications. After that, let the recommender do the talking.
  4. Consultant Overuse – Consultants can be helpful to the application process. S/he can see you as an objective outsider, and has experience helping your frame how you describe yourself in ways that best match your target schools. Be careful, however, that you do not cross the line of having a consultant write materials for you, or edit so heavily that it’s no long your voice. Authenticity is key.
  5. Test Fraud – Many unfortunate cases abound of fraudulent GMAT, GRE, TOEFL, IELTS, and other testing. Not only can this behavior lead to a ban from all institutions and testing, but it’s not truly in your best interest. If you are admitted to a school without the qualifications to make you successful there, you may find yourself struggling with academics, language, student engagement, and the all-important job search. Ensure you’re at an institution where you fit best academically, culturally, socially, and in all aspects that can help you succeed.

Why do we care?

More and more business literature calls upon our future leaders to be more responsible – fiscally, socially, and environmentally. Part of being responsible to those areas and constituents is having integrity, character, and trust in how you approach your leadership. Business schools are at the forefront of shaping our future business leaders. Therefore, we believe we have been entrusted with helping future leaders develop those competencies. It’s important to us to graduate leaders with integrity and principles. But the foundation of character is not developed in business school, it is lain long before. It is developed in early school years, in friend and family formation, in college, and in first work experiences. 

In two short MBA years full of academic and employment pressure, it is difficult to take someone who has shown a lack of ethics during the application process and convince or teach change. That means filtering for ethical behavior on the way in, not teaching it on the way out. We care because we want ethical MBAs. Therefore, we want ethical applicants.