For sale: MBA essays from successful applicants

October 3, 2012: 2:15 PM ET

A new startup is peddling more than 200 essays at $50 a pop for many top schools, including Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management.

By John A. Byrne

(Poets&Quants) -- Before bootstrapping a start-up that would sell the essays of admitted MBA students from the world's best business schools, Gili Elkin met with Derrick Bolton, the admissions director for Stanford's Graduate School of Business.

After all, it was Bolton who extended Elkin the invitation to come to Stanford's MBA program in 2006. She was an impressive candidate, a former lawyer who worked as a tax manager for Ernst & Young. After earning her MBA, Elkin tried her hand at entrepreneurship and began work as an MBA admissions consultant for Aringo, an admissions firm. In the four years she has worked with Aringo, Elkin says she has counseled dozens of applicants to top business schools.

What she may not have known was that Bolton is no fan of the admissions consulting business -- and he certainly wouldn't be supportive of Elkin's idea to launch a sort of eBay for MBA admissions essays. Wordprom.com, as Elkin imagined it, would essentially match sellers and buyers of business school essays that won a candidate admission to a top MBA program.

"I explained my vision and how my service would provide everyone with equal opportunity to apply to business schools," says Elkin. "I explained that we are only bringing online a service that is already out there for many years. There are books that sell essay examples and applicants are using these books. I explained that this service will save applicants' consulting fees and eventually create a bigger pool of applicants and therefore a stronger pool of students."

Affordable window into MBA admissions or cheap disruption?

Bolton is far from the only admissions director who doesn't like the idea. To many, the very notion of selling business school application essays on the Internet is akin to the unethical sale of college term papers. Their easy availability could encourage applicants to copy and cheat -- and disrupt a school's ability to assess candidates on the pure merits of their applications.

Sure enough, Bolton wasn't buying it then, and he isn't buying it now. As he explains to Poets&Quants: "First, the purpose of the essay is for structured individual reflection. Reliance on another person's essay not only shortcuts that process, but also creates a temptation for misuse or plagiarism. Second, this kind of service preys on applicants' anxiety. It equates admission to an essay contest and offers a Potemkin solution. Finally, we have admitted many compelling candidates despite, rather than because of, the essays. This service has no way to determine whether an essay was effective, neutral, or harmful."

Elkin doesn't see it that way. "People from all over the world are now able to download essays for a fairly low price," she insists. "They can get a better sense of what schools are looking for. The application process will look more realistic for them, more accessible and possible."

Launched on Sept. 12, wordprom.com boasts more than 200 essays for many top schools, including Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. It also offers essays from admitted students at several of the most prominent international schools, including INSEAD, London Business School, IE and IESE Business Schools in Spain and HEC-Paris.

Each essay goes for $50, though there is currently an introductory offer that cuts the price in half to $25. For the first 500 people who contribute essays, there's a 50% share of all the revenue that their essays rack up.

The names of the students who wrote the essays are disguised, using pseudonyms that range from Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon to HarrisHBS and HaasGold 2011 (Elkin says she put her own essays on the site, though it's not possible to tell which are hers.). In many cases, there are multiple versions of essays written on the same question. Wordprom is selling six different copies of Stanford's "What Matters Most To You?" essay, purportedly written by Stanford MBAs from the classes of 2013, 2012, and 2008.

The site's search engine allows a user to access essays by school, question, round (first or second), country (U.S., Israel and Belgium), industry (consulting, finance or health care) and gender. If you want the essay of a class of 2012 graduate versus a class of 2013 student, you can easily find it on the site.

The big difference between books filled with MBA essays that have sold for years in bookstores and on Amazon.com (AMZN) and Elkin's website is that a user can target the school and even the background of a candidate whose essays won him or her acceptance. What's more, applicants would gain access to the most recent essays -- not those that are dated.

The limitations and benefits

With schools mixing up the questions they ask candidates, it may prove difficult for wordprom to stay on top of the most recent changes in MBA applications. All of the Harvard Business School essays, for example, are already dated because HBS ditched all of them in favor of two new essay questions. The site is selling four different examples of Harvard's discontinued question about learning from a mistake -- all from class of 2013 students.

There's also no guarantee that the essays were very meaningful in helping a candidate gain admission. In fact, as Bolton points out, any individual essay could have had a neutral or even less positive effect that was outweighed by an applicant's overall application. So it's possible that users could buy a so-so essay that really didn't matter all that much in the candidate's acceptance. Even so, getting a glimpse at the essays can give an applicant a sense of assurance that he or she is on the right track in crafting their own answers to application questions.

The way Elkin sees it, five MBA essays at a cost of $50 a pop "are worth much more than one hour of consulting, which is around $250." "Since consulting services are extremely expensive, they provide an 'unfair' advantage to those who have financial means. I thought of a way to make the admissions process accessible to everyone everywhere."

Elkin, the CEO of wordprom, is one of four co-founders, including her husband, Ori, a 2007 MBA from UC-Berkeley's Haas program. They gathered the initial batch of essays from alumni and students. "Some were skeptical about the idea," she concedes. "Some raised concerns about the confidentiality of personal details; and some raised the issue of plagiarism."

Undaunted, Elkin forged ahead. "I made hundreds of phone calls and Skype meetings and connected with thousands of students and alumni through social networks in order to ask for feedback and to help create a mass of essays," she adds. "Luckily, the majority of students and alumni were very enthusiastic to help. After two weeks, we had collected hundreds of essays and have launched the main store."

Dealing with plagiarism

Elkin says she is not naive enough to think that business schools will like what she's doing. Elkin says that she'll provide schools with access to wordprom's database of essays so that they can use the software program Turnitin to ferret out plagiarists. UCLA's Anderson School rejected 74 applicants, roughly 2% of its applicant pool this past year, due to Turnitin software detection. Elkin says that if schools contact the firm and identify applicants who have been caught, wordprom will ban them from the site.

She also points out that the website's terms of use clearly state that users are "expressly prohibited" from copying the essays into their own applications. "Plagiarism, submission of fraudulent essays based on documents purchased on this site and any other prohibited use of the documents is unethical and may lead to a denial from admission," according to the site.

Ultimately, says Elkin, she can't prevent unethical behavior that might result from her service. "I believe that unethical people will always find unethical ways and I don't think that our site is what will encourage them to do so," she says. As for admissions director Bolton, Elkin says "We met once and got to an understanding. He told me he understood why I must pursue my business and I told him I understood why he must object."

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About This Author
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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