Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Essaying Your Way Into B-School

I was fortunate in that, when I applied to business school in the way back of 1978, people pretty much wrote their own application essays.

At least I did.

And from the applications I reviewed as a second-year at Sloan/MIT, I’m going to assume that most other folks did, too.

The process back in those relatively laid back, low stakes days, was pretty straightforward. You answered a pretty straightforward question of the “why do you want to go to business school” variety, making sure that your answer was neatly typed – no strikeovers, no big gobs of whiteout, no typos, no flying letters because your ancient typewriter was out of kilter. A new ribbon to make sure that things were legible. Then cross your fingers that the admissions committee would buy your brand of BS. (One app that I rejected included an essay in which the applicant claimed that, during one summer in college, he had run strategic planning for GM. Now that I think of it, that may explain what had happened about then to the auto industry.)

Life for B-school applicants these days is apparently much harder, and your life, and those of your children, and your children’s children, is no doubt ruined if you don’t get into The School Of Your And Everyone Else’s Choice.

So an industry has sprung up – all part of the vaunted Knowledge Economy – in which consultants “assist” applicants with their B-school applications, and in which – for those who may not be able to afford consultants – there are books of successful essays to model yours on. (Or, if you’re so inclined and don’t mind scanning or keying in, borrow wholesale and hope that The School Of Your And Everyone Else’s Choice doesn’t use turnitin or some other plagiarism checker.)

And now there is wordprom – or, as their clever little logo has it, ɯordpɹom – which the founders hope will replace those costly consultants and the limited and generic essay anthologies with a vast catalog of successful essays. A catalog that prospective MBA-ers can search, based on school, program, question, class, admissions round, country, industry, gender, reapplicant, other.

I mean, why bother with a general purpose “my three weaknesses” essay when you can call one up that was used by just anyone from anywhere when you can whistle one up that worked for a female from France who worked in the insurance industry and wants to go to Wharton.

I can see that folks would really glom on to that “other” search category: show me Nebraskans, classics majors, clog dancers, golfers. (Results: two Nebraskans, one classics major, no clog dancers, 472 golfers.)

Founded by a married couple (with MBA’s) and a couple of techie buds (one of them managed engineering for an online casino): lets applicants buy essays from people who were recently admitted to top business schools. Operating since August, the website has collected essays from more than 400 contributors, all either recent MBA graduates or current students. The website started selling the essays about two weeks ago, and “dozens of people” have downloaded them so far—about 90 percent of them from the U.S. (Source: Business Week)

Each downloaded essay will go for $50. (There’s an intro price of $25 per.) Contributors are paid when their essays get downloaded. (Lucky fellow, that HBS banking golfer.)

Gili Elkin, half of the co-founding couple, also does work for:

…Aringo, a boutique essay-editing and admission-consulting.

Which I guess positions her pretty well to figure out how to replace essay-writing-editing and MBA admissions consulting.

Anyway, since it’s no longer possible to admit that you just want to work for your own company and make a lot of money, Wordprom is wrapped in higher purpose:

“I thought it would be a way to make the admissions process accessible to everyone and everywhere,“ [Elikin] said. “Yes, you can buy a book for $10 maybe, but I don’t believe the examples are comprehensive enough to serve everyone.”

This is put even more nobly on Wordprom’s site:

ɯordpɹom’s service allows talented people from all around the world (regardless of their financial abilities) to prepare themselves before applying to top schools…Talented applicants who cannot afford consulting services are either not applying to top schools or applying without the insights that could strengthen their application.

Oh, how mission-driven, how purpose-filled to help those talented applicants without the scratch to pay consultants $250/hour. And part of their profits will go to help “underprivileged kids…pursue their dreams.” (My heart is bursting. I almost want to go buy a couple of essays just to help those underprivileged kids.)

Business schools, needless to say, don’t especially like the idea – so tempting to applicants to cut and paste rather than soak up the wisdom; so dangerous to admissions committees who just don’t want to be hornswoggled by plagiarists. The dean of London Business School goes so far as to say that:

…the idea of selling admissions essays was “prima facie unethical.”

Elkin’s rejoinder is that the essays on Wordprom:

…are supposed to be used for “inspiration” purposes only.

It says so, right there, in black and white on their website.

Users who download them must sign a “terms of use agreement” that prohibits users from plagiarizing, she says.

And plagiarists will find themselves banned from Wordprom (and, presumably, from the B-school they tried to cheat their way into) and possibly even subject to some unspecified action or other.

I don’t know why searching a database full of essays seems so much more unsavory than thumbing through a book to see how smart people answered questions. Is it just knowing that a lot of people are just going to cut, paste, and lightly personalize “their” essay of choice?

I can see the next step is putting a bit of the old AI in to play. Applicants can pick an essay, answer a few demographic questions (or, better yet, have then gathered from Facebook), and have the essay repopulated with the you or you. Sort of like those personalized books for kids that plunk your kid’s name in, the street you live on, the color of your dog, etc., so that, voila, you’ve got a fully personalized book. (Never too young to start promoting narcissism.)

Am I the only one who wishes that Elkin had set her Stanford MBA brain to something more useful and meaningful?

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