Harvard MBA startup to sell classmates' admissions essays

March 30, 2012: 2:28 PM ET

Six Harvard MBAs have persuaded their classmates to cough up the actual essays they wrote to get admitted to Harvard for free, so they can sell them to applicants.

By John A. Byrne, contributor

(Poets&Quants) -- Sitting down at a blank computer screen and figuring out how to write a compelling essay is one of the most challenging parts of an MBA applicant's journey to business school. There are a number of essay services and admission consultants willing to help with the process.

But now a group of six Harvard Business School MBA students are launching a business that gives applicants a peek at actual essays written by recently successful candidates. Their goal is to create a database of successful essay sets and then allow potential applicants to buy them based on key criteria such as career experience, age, and whether international or domestic applicants wrote the essays.

The startup, called MBA Bee, comes out of Harvard's newly revised MBA curriculum in which student teams are given seed money by the school and then required to create a new product or service development project. The goal is to create a business model from concept to launch, though the venture's business is not endorsed by Harvard.

Turning free essays into profits

The students have persuaded their classmates to cough up the actual essays they wrote to get admitted to Harvard for free, though they are open to a possible revenue-share agreement to help them build out the business and expand to other top business schools. To protect the confidentiality of the students who hand over their essay sets, MBA Bee deletes certain identifying details from the documents.

The idea came out of a brainstorming session during which the students recognized that access to information among applicants varies widely, says May Lam, 27, a first year student who had worked in private equity before going to Harvard. Applicants from consulting and financial backgrounds tend to have far greater access to colleagues who have already been through the process and may be willing to share their application essays and offer other advice.

International, military, and other non-traditional applicants are far less likely to have access to friends or colleagues who are MBA graduates willing to allow them a peek at their essay sets. "You can find piecemeal single essays and you can also go to admissions consultants to get help," says Lam. "But we felt there is a big need in the market for essay sets so applicants can see how successful applicants told their stories from start to finish."

Spreading MBA intel to nontraditional applicants

The group decided to call their business MBA Bee because the name conveys the notion of "spreading the pollen of knowledge" to all business school applicants, says Lam. "We want to lower the barrier between the people who have the knowledge and the people who desire it. For them, it's a lot more like shooting in the dark. Once you see a couple of essay sets you will see some underlying themes that will help you present your best candidacy."

And sometimes, adds May, applicants from industries that typically feed the application pipeline come up short, too. "What's interesting is that people assume that if you come from one of these traditional feeder industries, you have a lot of access," she says. "Even then, it's not the easiest. You have to be relatively close to people because you are asking people for their personal lives on paper."

Essay-peddling competition

The group has some competition. Since 2004, the editors of The Harbus, the business school's student newspaper, have put together "65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays." The second and most recent edition of the book was published three years ago and reproduces essays from successful applicants to Harvard.

But Lam and her teammates figure they have a leg up on the book because they're reproducing essays in a more timely fashion online and they're also packaging them in full sets largely for non-traditional MBA. "What you're getting [in the book] is one essay somebody wrote and you don't see how they fit into their entire set of four," says Lam. "Quite frankly, when we looked out at the marketplace, we didn't see any other businesses offering what we plan to offer."

Harvard currently requires all applicants to write four essays: 1) Tell us about three of your accomplishments (600 words); 2) Tell us three setbacks you have faced (600 words); 3) Why do you want an MBA? (400 words), and 4) Answer a question you wish we'd asked (400 words). Joint-degree applicants are asked to answer an additional question: How do you expect the joint degree experience to benefit you on both a professional and a personal level? (400 words).

First step: Enlisting the enlisted

MBA Bee is first targeting the military market. Today, the group launched its first website, ArmedForcesMBA.com, where it is selling separate sets of essays for $100 each from successful Harvard applicants from each of five services: the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines Corps, and Navy. An introductory offer on the site cuts the price in half to $50 for a set of essays.

Why start with military applicants? "The barrier for gaining these essay sets is pretty high," explains Jack Lysinger, 32, a first-year student who had been a submarine officer in the U.S. Navy for more than nine years. "Military personnel are raised in a culture where they are taught to help others before they help themselves. I thought they would be more willing to give up their essays to help other people."

As an incentive to students to turn over their essays, Lysinger says the group plans to donate a significant portion of its profits to charities related to students with non-traditional backgrounds. "As a proof of concept, we plan to donate a portion of profits from ArmedForcesMBA.com to the wounded warrior project," he says.

In an FAQ section on the site, the team of students tends to disavow the use of their service to plagiarize essays. "It is not to anyone's advantage to copy and paste sections of someone else's essay," the statement reads. "Those who plagiarize will simply find themselves in the reject pile."

"We do think this is a very big market," says Lam. "For people who apply to business school, there are a lot of services they will go out and seek and use."

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John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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