I have a confession to make: I plagiarized my MBA admissions essay.
Well, not really. But I did go undercover and hire a black market admissions consultant to write a typical Ivy League business school admissions essay for me.
This is my story.
Exposing Admissions Fraud
I was reading through various topics that students were discussing on graduate school admissions message boards late one evening.
One particular section caught my eye—it was dedicated exclusively to people with questions about the written application components that many schools require. I wasn’t surprised to see it since it’s the most challenging part of the application for many students.
As I scrolled through the seemingly endless number of posts where students would ask others for feedback on their essays, I kept seeing mentions of “consulting services” that would “give you professional feedback” for a price. “Interesting,” I thought. “But do any of these consulting services take it a step further?”
I dug a bit deeper and soon uncovered entire conversations dedicated to full service consulting agencies that will write any of your application components for you. It was late, but I had to know more. I started looking through the websites of the various consulting services and quickly learned that there are three tiers of services out there for students: those that will only edit your original work, those that will consult with you and write a first draft to get you started, and finally what I’m calling, “black market admissions consultants”.
What Is a Black Market Admissions Consultant?
A black market admissions consultant is an individual, or quite often, a company that offers students a “full service” approach to admissions consulting. As I looked through their websites I was shocked by the total transparency with which they operate. They explain in no uncertain terms that they can write your admissions essays, personal statements, resumes, and even letters of recommendations for you.
I found one that looked interesting. It claimed to offer “original and polished” content written by former university admissions staff, assistant professors, and talented, versatile writers based in the United States and United Kingdom.
The price for a fully written, 500-word personal statement? Just $160.
“Too good to be true,” I thought to myself. How could a good, original piece of work cost so little? Especially when I saw many other services charging twice that. Still, they came highly recommended on the admissions message boards. I had to try it.
￼I clicked on the ‘Contact Us’ button. I didn’t hide my identity since after all, I’m the right age to be applying for an MBA. I’m 29 years old, studied business for my undergraduate degree, and it’s something I’ve legitimately been considering for a while now.
“I need to submit a written personal statement along with my MBA applications but my writing skills aren’t very good. Would you be able to write it for me?” I typed into the form. I asked how the process worked and about confidentiality, since I’m sure that is a concern for anybody using a service such as this.
I clicked ‘Submit’.
The next morning I was greeted with a response from Sarah, whose name I have changed to protect her identity. Her response was extremely detailed and well written - a good sign that this wasn’t a scam.
“Yes, we can write it for you,” she said outright, before describing how the process works.
It seemed easy enough: I’d place the order and send payment up front, from there I’d have a Skype call with one of their writers who would ask about my background, professional experience, and every other detail they needed to write a compelling essay on my behalf.
￼She assured me everything was 100 percent confidential. I could go through the process anonymously by reaching out under a different name and email address, and I could even send payment through a friend’s PayPal account.
“Your concern is understandable,” she said. “We’re talking about grad school here and we know the stakes are pretty high.”
I placed my order and sent payment the next day.
The Undercover Meeting
I was nervous about my meeting with their senior writer, Michael, whose name I have also changed.
Before our call I prepared my thoughts for the components of a basic MBA admissions essay: my reasons for applying, the specialization I want to pursue, my previous academic and work experience, and finally, my career objectives.
It was surprisingly difficult. It was at this point that I began to see why students would actually use a service like this. I had lots to say, lots of unique experiences, but had no idea which ones were the right ones to include. I also only had 500 words so each of them had to count.
By the sound of his voice, I’d guess Michael is American and in his early 30s. He was polite, well organized, and professional. We went through the outline of the admissions essay together and he began asking me questions that he thought would lead to a compelling essay.
￼He told me the key was to be specific, since one of the main problems people have is that they are vague in their essays. He said they really need to include the “how and the why,” rather than “just the what”.
I expressed concern that just listing off my accomplishments could come across as overconfident and asked if I should phrase things to him in a more subtle way. ￼
“One of the keys to writing these things is to say things with nuance or finesse them a bit,” he said. “You want to communicate the underlying idea without saying it so explicitly.”
Michael was surprisingly candid during our conversation. I asked him to describe his usual clientele. “It’s usually people applying for the higher end schools that come to us,” he said. “I feel like people with higher GPAs care more and therefore are willing to invest a little bit of money for a professional service.”
I learned more about the company that Michael, a graduate of an Ivy League school, started a few years ago. “One of us ￼worked in the admissions office for a while, another did private consulting, and a couple of us were just writers,” he said. “We realized it was a pretty lucrative business and there’s a niche for us to fill. There’s definitely demand.”
The call ended at the one hour mark as promised. Michael told me to expect the finished product in five to seven business days, and made sure to let me know that revisions were free if I wasn’t completely happy with it.
Overall, I found the experience to be quite pleasant. I was surprised at how comfortable and natural the whole experience was from start to finish. I can definitely see why they call themselves a “boutique” firm with a “personal touch”.
The Essay Arrives
Five days later, as promised, the essay arrived.
I read it over and was impressed with both the accuracy and level of detail in which they were able to recount the points that I made during our one hour meeting. It seemed to cover all of the different areas required in the essay outline, and had spots to insert “[NAME OF SCHOOL]” where needed. It wasn’t completely correct in some areas, probably just a result of “broken telephone” more than anything else. A couple of minor edits quickly resolved the issues.
But still, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed. I liked the overall composition of the essay but found the writing style too verbose. It lacked the poetry that I had been hoping for. Where was my personality? I couldn’t find it in the essay. I guess an hour long conversation wasn’t really enough time to capture it.
Maybe my expectations were too high - skewed upward not only by the exciting “black market” nature of the task, but also by the excellent service their team provided throughout the process. How could it have possibly lived up to the hype?
Despite being disappointed by the finished product, I remind myself that I’m probably not the target market for services like these. I enjoy writing and tend to gravitate toward creative challenges like these with excitement. However, if I was one of the many frustrated students I saw on the admissions message board that night asking for assistance, I can understand that a service like this would be a life saver.
Curious to see the final essay? You can read it in our ebook here. (page 21)
Stop Admissions Fraud at Your School
Want to learn more about admissions fraud? Watch the webinar with Andrew and Carrie Marcinkevage, MBA Managing Director at Smeal College of Business (Penn State).
Carrie's become the unofficial spokesperson on fighting admissions fraud. Her research has been covered by New York Times, USA Today, and Bloomberg.
She'll share her years of experience fighting back against application fraud and give you tips on how you can stop it at your school.