Explaining Blemishes on the B-School Application

For many prospective business school students, past indiscretions might mar an MBA application. The good news: There are ways to minimize the damage.

By Francesca Di Meglio 

You might be worried that your past””from freshman year’s low GPA to the night you were caught drinking alcohol with that fake ID””is going to haunt you on your business school applications. Although some mistakes and indiscretions are harder to overcome than others, you can probably still get into a top business school. “Admissions committees are not looking for perfect applicants. They are looking for compelling applicants,” says Alex Chu, founder of MBA Apply, an admissions consultancy. “You can be compelling without being perfect.”

Some experts say these types of experiences can help you. “If you handle it right, it can boost your application,” says Stacy Blackman, president of Stacy Blackman Consulting in Los Angeles. For example, one of Blackman’s clients earned acceptance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School (Wharton Full-Time MBA Profile) despite an incident involving plagiarism during his undergraduate education. He owned up to it, says Blackman, and showed what he had learned from the experience and how he had changed as evidenced by his participation in student government.

Making your case with the admissions committee isn’t always easy. Skeletons that might fall out of your closet, says Chu, tend to fall into the following categories: low GPA, a gap in work history, misdemeanors, poor choice of recommenders, and work-related violations. Academic violations, such as cheating or plagiarism, and felonies can be deal breakers for many schools. In fact, most experts contacted for this story agree that plagiarism and academic violations are more disconcerting than underage drinking and misdemeanor crimes. Your moral standards and character, after all, will be at the heart of your ability to lead both at school and later in business. And as the public scrutinizes business schools more closely in the wake of the financial meltdown, these issues become all the more important for administrators at top programs. Still, admissions committees, for the most part, consider each incident on case-by-case basis.

Owning Up Honestly
Knowing whether to bring up past indiscretions in the application is a dilemma facing many MBA candidates, who often discuss their decision-making process or share their stories on’s Business School Forum.The schools and admissions consultants say honesty is almost always the best policy, particularly when it comes to criminal charges, employment gaps, or academic shortcomings that have entered the public record through transcripts and the like.”If you don’t address a certain issue, we don’t have much choice but to think the worst,” says Mary Miller, assistant dean of admissions at Columbia Business School (Columbia Full-Time MBA Profile).

Admissions committees are sure to see anything, such as a low GPA or an academic violation, which will appear on your transcript. “Any time something appears on your transcript that we would question, you need to address it,” says Peter Johnson, executive director of admissions at the UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business (Haas Full-Time MBA Profile). Your decision is less clear-cut when it comes to crimes, such as a DUI, which will not appear on your academic transcript. For those incidents, you have to consider whether it would ever come up in a background check conducted by either the business school or a potential employer.

While the background checks business schools implement usually verify only the accuracy of what you have shared with the school, corporate recruiters might delve deeper. Do a Google search of your name and be aware of any personal information that is on the Internet, suggests John Roeder, director of MBA admissions at the Owen Graduate School of Management (Owen Full-Time MBA Profile) at Vanderbilt. It takes seconds to search someone’s name online, and anyone from a business school to a potential employer might do it.

Scandal at Your Employer
Lately, aspiring MBAs are aiming to enter business school after their employer””be it a bank or other company””gets embroiled in scandal. This adds a whole new dimension to (and reason for answering) the optional essay on business school applications. Even if you are coming from a department that had nothing to do with your company’s troubles, you must still explain that in the application, especially if the administrators at the school will be seeing your employer’s name in the headlines. Tell us about it, says Johnson, if your bank is being questioned by the Securities & Exchange Commission, for example. Chu warns that you will be caught in a catch-22: On the one hand, you want to show you had an impact at your workplace, but on the other, you want to show that you had nothing to do with the inappropriate activity. Your goal, as a result, will be to walk a very fine line in your explanation and keep things brief and to the point.

And if the errors in judgment were yours and yours alone? Constantly looking over your shoulder is the last thing any aspiring MBA wants to be doing. But if you don’t come out and admit to your mistakes, you will create the impression that you’re trying to hide something, says Johnson. “This suggests a pattern of behavior we’re not looking for at business school,” he adds.

To err on the side of caution, you should tell all. Sooner or later, someone will find out your dirty little secret, and it’s best if you can explain it in your own words up front. If a particular issue doesn’t come up in response to a direct question on the application, then you can write about it in the optional essay, which most schools include for applicants. More importantly, you must choose your words carefully.

Explain Succinctly
Short and sweet should be your goal, say experts. Briefly state the issue without giving too much detail and then take responsibility for your actions. “Provide basic information and do a good job of showing what you’ve learned,” says Jim Holmen, director of admissions and financial aid at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business (Kelley Full-Time MBA Profile). “Offer proof that this is not an indicator of your potential.”

Time and experience can undo some of the damage, says Roeder. That’s why the more recent the incident, the more difficult it will be to show that the problem has been resolved and you can put this behind you. Whether it’s been one year or eight since your less-than-stellar moment, you have to do penance””and actions speak louder than words. If you have some sort of violation, take your punishment and go out of your way to demonstrate that this will never happen again. If you had a DUI, for instance, you should never drink and drive again, and you might want to talk to high school students about the dangers of alcohol. Those with a low undergraduate GPA should take additional academic courses in their weak subjects. “I want to see an A, not a B or a B+, but an A,” says Miller. “Make sure it’s as good as it gets.”

When you sit down to explain yourself in the application, refrain from blabbing on or making excuses, two of the most common mistakes, say experts. “It’s a delicate balance between telling too much and not telling enough,” says Miller. “While it’s important to acknowledge certain things, we’re looking for maturity, resolution, and proof that you accept responsibility.” Whatever you write should be truthful, succinct, and credible. For instance, if you had a low GPA throughout your four years of college, don’t blame it on a bout with mono during your freshman year. “You had mono one year,” notes Johnson. “What happened to the other three?”

Brief Your Recommenders
Reasons for your lapse in judgment or poor academic showing might include something as simple as a lack of maturity or focus. “Do not try to come up with something more clever than the truth,” says Johnson. More importantly, you have to show the business schools to which you are applying that this is no longer an issue and it never was a true reflection of you.

These issues are less likely to come up in the admissions interview, but you should be prepared to discuss anything in your application at that time. What some applicants fail to consider, says Miller, is the possibility of a recommender bringing up one of these issues in the letter of recommendation. To avoid this, tell your recommenders how you approached the subject in the application and share an outline of how you’ve resolved the problem and changed. Ideally, your recommenders will be validating what you’ve already written to the business schools.

Making mistakes and experiencing failure are a part of life, and something every good leader must face and from which he must learn. Business schools know this better than anyone. Your job as an applicant is to show that you realize this little truth as well. Unless you’re a dangerous criminal or have no morals whatsoever, you can probably overcome the challenges of the skeletons hiding in your closet. Deal with the problem directly and truthfully, says Miller, and keep some perspective: “It doesn’t have to ruin your life.”


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