50 Shades of MBA Admissions Grey

February 28, 2014 | by Matt Symonds

It’s quite possible that you’re faced with the dilemma of what you ought to say in your MBA application versus what you should leave out. At Fortuna, we have often seen candidates with some element of their profile of which they’re not proud, and their first instinct may be to leave it out of their application. While many of us have personal stories that we prefer to keep to ourselves or discuss only with people we trust, when is this information material to an MBA application?

For example, what would you do if you and your friend started a new business that turned out to be a major flop? Or perhaps you were written up for underage drinking or trespassing in college and you were convicted of a small offense? Would you be considered “lying” if you check a minority box for an ethnicity with which you have very tenuous links?
Dina Glasofer, former Senior Associate Director of Admissions at NYU Stern had a client whose father was born in Africa but the candidate himself was Caucasian. A friend advised him to categorize himself as a minority on his business school applications to increase his chances of being admitted. Dina explains, “Our advice to him was to only check a specific minority if he truly identifies himself as a particular ethnicity.”

The answers are not always clear-cut, but as former directors of admissions, we have advice to share if you’re concerned about an aspect of your personal history, and how this could be perceived by your target school(s).

Here are 3 common concerns for applicants:

1. Poor undergrad grades or gap in professional career. Address any issues that may have impacted your undergraduate grades or contributed to a gap in your career. It’s best to be upfront about anything that an admissions officer would question. With a good explanation, this will help admissions understand the extenuating circumstances. For example, we have worked with candidates who’ve had a drinking or drug problem, or experienced a period of severe depression, which affected their studies or career at some period. Their first instinct might be to brush it under the carpet and avoid addressing such issues. The problem is that the admissions officer will be left speculating: why were her grades so poor that year? Why did he have six months of unemployment? And if there are no answers and no explanations, it will certainly work against the candidate.

Caroline Diarte Edwards, former Director of Admissions at INSEAD states “It’s much better for candidates to be honest, especially when they can demonstrate that they have learned from the experience and emerged as a wiser, more mature person. Schools are much more likely to be forgiving if candidates are upfront and humble about their mistakes. Admissions officers are human too.”

2. Professional dismissals or start-up failures. You might question what to do if you left a professional role, or were laid off. Were you fired for performance issues? Or perhaps simply unlucky to be made redundant due to cutbacks? Again, these questions might be pondered by the admissions committee and therefore are better addressed upfront. Explaining things clearly as well as what you have learned from that experience is far more valuable than trying to hide it.

The same goes for an attempt at an entrepreneurial start-up that failed. Lisa Bevill, former Director of Admissions at IE Business School, affirms “It’s absolutely OK to fail. Often major personal growth and a lot of learning come from failure. As a side tip, it’s never a good idea to put the blame for your failure on your former boss, business partner or colleagues. Take ownership yourself.”

3. Evidence of poor ethics. Admissions committees are likely to be pretty tough as regards to any issues that suggest poor ethics in an academic institution or in the workplace. So if you’ve been kicked out of another school for cheating, or have any type of criminal record, you’re unlikely to be admitted.
But issues that are more personal in nature, for example, a short probationary period for drinking in a dorm room, would be unlikely to bar you from admission. In this kind of situation, if it’s not on your official record, then there’s no reason to draw attention to this, especially if you were not suspended from school. Just to be sure, you can check with your undergraduate institution to see if a specific incident is on your official record.

From her former role as Acting Director of Admissions at Wharton, Judith Silverman Hodara says “I generally advise students to address any issues that they think the admissions committees will want to know about – because if they somehow find out and you’ve NOT told them, the ‘sin’ of omission is much greater than the initial digression. As an applicant, if you’re asking yourself ‘Should I or should I not share this?’, then you most likely should.”

Mark Twain is famous for saying ‘If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything’. Of course it’s not always easy to uphold. However, challenges overcome can also build character and integrity – two key attributes of all leaders. Business schools understand that your track record may not be perfect, but by explaining your story in an honest and humble way, candidates can present a more authentic and often more compelling application. And this for sure can increase your chances of admission.

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