Background checks in MBA admissions are more common for some schools than others, but their overall use is growing. Some programs vet every admitted applicant, while others randomly select a percentage of candidates. Still others delve further only when something seems to raise a red flag. The process usually takes place in the spring, after all application rounds have passed and candidates begin sending in their deposits.
Last season, one of our clients shared, “I am a little worried about the background check process. How detailed is the search? How do they verify earnings for example?”
Two former MBA Admissions Officers on the SBC team–from Harvard HBS and Duke Fuqua–replied to concur with the following. “It depends on the company the school hires; but, they will verify undergraduate degree and GPA as well as dates of employment, positions held and salary with the HR departments and/or direct supervisors.”
Another former MBA Admissions Officer on the SBC team added, “I have had a client who exaggerated his salary (without me knowing!) and freaked out after having been admitted by Wharton because the background company was asking him to show proof. Ultimately, he was able to explain it with a bonus that his employer verified.”
“Bottom line: if you were honest and can explain or document any discrepancy, you should be okay. Note: this applies to almost any inconsistency the background check companies discover.”
The vast majority of people shouldn’t stress over this verification process. Business schools aren’t on a mission to grill candidates about every last detail of their applications. They simply want to ensure that applicants have honestly represented themselves, their experience and their accomplishments.
Why do schools need to check your background?
Sometimes applicants are screened because their profile is unusual or difficult to verify. If their work experience included time in a startup or at a failed startup, in a small family firm or at a company abroad, and the admissions office simply needs to clarify and confirm the details.
Typical reasons for rejecting a candidate include:
- ethical lapses
- questionable behavior
- not disclosing a layoff or firing
- evidence of plagiarism
- not disclosing a criminal conviction
Willful deception or lying by omission will jeopardize your admission. Minor discrepancies such as being off by a month when listing your employment dates likely won’t. Most schools give applicants a chance to explain any plausible mistakes.
Though we can’t share specific examples due to confidentiality issues, we have had clients fail who have had problems with background checks. In some cases, an offer of admission was revoked following the background check. In one situation, the student had already started school and was escorted out due to an omission on the application. It wasn’t because of a lie. Rather, this person failed to include information the program would have wanted to know about during the application process.
What are they looking for in background checks?
Business schools can investigate application details that include everything from recommenders, employment and education history, extracurricular and professional involvements, leadership roles and even authenticate anecdotes from application essays.
If you’re on the fence about whether to include or explain something in your application, chances are you probably should mention it. When the issue is something like poor academic performance or a gap in employment history, it’s always best to come completely clean. The admissions team isn’t looking for perfection in applicants.
Major failures can translate into a story about lessons learned and self-improvement. These can actually help your candidacy if you show how you’ve become a wiser, more humble person because of them. However, if the incident you’re wondering about including is personal in nature and does not appear anywhere on your official record, you may decide not to draw unnecessary attention to it.
Just stay calm
If you learn that your admission is conditional pending corroboration of your professional, academic or personal background, your best option is to cooperate quickly and completely to facilitate the verification process. The schools just want to make sure all applicants are who they say they are.
Make sure you’re meticulous about presenting the facts, haven’t exaggerated or lied, and have explained any lapses in judgment that could come back to haunt you, and you’ll have nothing to worry about.
For more on this topic, read Pro Tip: Don’t Lie on Your MBA Application in The Wall Street Journal.