The Ghost is in the Details

The problem of ghostwritten MBA applications in Japan.

By Emily Kubo

In March, 2002, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business expelled a student due to graduate in the spring. The unidentified student was purportedly removed because of “material misrepresentation” in his application. In plain English, he had submitted a fraudulent application.

Even more recently, heated debate broke out on Wharton’s official MBA blog over the accusation that an international student in its 2007 MBA class had gotten into the program under false pretenses. (The accuser, an English native speaker, claims to have ghost written much of the student’s application.) Although the details of the accusation could not be corroborated, it does raise an interesting question: How big of a problem is ghostwriting in MBA applications? Although this issue certainly does not pertain only to international applications, there is no doubt that overseas students face greater challenges when applying for Western MBA programs. Differences in cultural and educational background often make essay questions harder to understand and answer effectively, and therefore, arguably could increase the temptation to hire application consultants to write life stories.

Particularly in Japan, where a large majority of applicants are company-sponsored, candidates often face enormous pressure from their companies to get into a top-tiered MBA program. In Japanese culture failure is not easily forgiven—especially when you have taken a precious scholarship spot that could have gone to someone else and your company pays thousands of dollars for you to seek professional advice.

“Test taking comes naturally for a lot of Japanese people—often they don’t need a lot of help in that,” says Tadashi Yokoyama, Chairman of the Board for Princeton Review Japan. “We give them GMAT, TOEFL prep, GRE prep, and the Japanese people understand that they have to score—that is the nature of the university exams here.” However scoring well on tests is no guarantee for a highly coveted spot in a top-ranked MBA program. At highly competitive schools such as Harvard, Stanford, University of Chicago, UC Berkley and yes, Wharton, everyone pretty much has the same good test scores, high GPA, and good work experience. Thus, admission commi-ttees often look for certain individual qualities when making final decisions. On paper such qualities are supposed to shine through in the essays.

For Japanese applicants, writing self-promotional essays is a foreign concept. Although entrance to top schools in Japan is highly competitive, it entirely depends on test scores. Moreover, trumpeting one’s accomp-lishments is not considered a virtue.

Out of this unique environment sprung an industry of counseling services for Japanese applicants. Many are individual Americans who have graduated from reputable western institutions and offer their services through online advertisements or word of mouth. Others are small organi-zations composed of a few application consultants. The most prominent and largest graduate school service provider, which covers close to 80% of the Japanese market, is Princeton Review Japan, providing a compre-hensive offering of test prep as well as application counseling. Every year, on average, 1,600 file into its two-floor Shibuya (Tokyo) office, taking test prep classes and essay classes.

Adam Markus, the Associate Director of Admission Counseling at Princeton Review, also an experienced counselor himself, sees a clear and absolute distinction. “Crafting the essay is a process of looking at someone’s content and analyzing it and telling them honestly whether or not it is effective,” Markus explains. He says that he helps his clients better convey their goals, visions, and their strengths, as well as understand their audience. The typical Japanese did not have the opportunity to express themself in terms of goals, visions and plans. No one has probably ever asked them to really think about, like Stanford does, year after year, what they are most passionate about in life and why, and then expect them to demonstrate that passion in every single stage and aspect of their lives, or like Oxford, ask them to demonstrate their depth of character by talking about a world/current event, a book, or play that has helped form their worldview.

Indeed, for many Japanese applicants, the hardest part of writing the essay is to know what the questions are really asking, or what qualities the admission officer is looking for: “A Japanese applicant does not share the same set of cultural assumptions that an American admission officer does,” Markus explains, “My role as the admission advisor is to give feedback. I help them see their own experience and communicate it in a way that could be impressive to the admission committee.”

Markus gives an example with defining leadership: “Leadership is a fundamental MBA essay question,” he says, “However, Japanese typically have a very narrow definition of leadership as the guy in charge. So helping someone understand that they are a leader, that their leadership came as a result of showing initiative, making a difference, having a new concept that the organization bought into—even if they were not the official leader, can be mind opening. It’s not like I am making up stories at all—they just don’t know how to express that and know that it’s a story of value.” Instead of writing about the genuine achievement story at work that they may have had but did not realize, Markus often gets first drafts of leadership essays about them being leaders of the tennis club because that was when they were officially coined the captain. “Now, that’s a boring story,” he understates.

Another example is helping clients understand the importance of writing about the individual in their essays, “The Japanese tend to have a hard time expressing themselves. So I often read first draft essays, and they are talking about the organization or the group—which is not what the admission is looking for. The admission wants to learn about the person. So, I think it is very legitimate to say to somebody—‘hey, this essay is not focused on you’. I teach them the rules. That is not ghostwriting.”

What differentiates a legitimate counseling service from ghostwriting?

In fact, helping his clients coming to that realization, Markus believes, is an ethical, legitimate process.

As a graduate admissions counselor myself, I often see my role not just as a writing advisor, but as an instrument to bridge the cultural divide. MBA questions, in many ways, are grossly unfair for someone who did not grow up within the same cultural paradigm—for example, in the West we are often encouraged to be individuals, go against the grain, and think outside the box—values that are not necessarily encouraged in Japanese culture. Take Stanford, for example. In its 2006-07 MBA essay set, Stanford asks its applicants to “Tell us about a time when you did something that was not established, expected, or popular.” Stanford admissions ask this question because they view people who sometimes go against authority and mainstream thinking as a POSITIVE attribute, an attribute that often contributes to innovation. When some of my clients have seen that question, they often look at me with understandable confusion—they have followed rules all their lives and obedience is the reason they have been successful.

Besides large thematic problems, counselors also often help clients better convey their ideas through simple changes in language structure. In the Japanese language, the verb comes at the end of the sentence, denoting that the most important idea comes at the very end. This type of narrative structure is often reflected in their essay as well, and they may take a long time to get to the actual point of the story. A counselor’s job also includes telling his/her client to reverse the sentence and narrative structure in order to work well with a western admission officer, “I tell my clients, ‘hey, you take way too long to get to the point—your reader will lose interest,’ ” Markus says. “Or, ‘you need to reverse your sentence so the main idea comes first.’ That is not unethical. It simply makes the essay more logical to a western audience.”

In fact, Princeton Review Japan does not usually edit their clients’ English, because they believe it is not in their interest: “Essays don’t need to be in perfect English because it should reflect the actual English ability of the person,” explains Markus. “We constantly tell our clients not to use rewriting services because it is not in their interest. It should be clear, coherent, and free from spelling errors, but for example, they shouldn’t use big words that they do not understand.”

Although PRJ provides its own unique service for Japanese applicants, many inevitably would rather not put in the effort for the often time-consuming, expensive and soul-wrenching process. The easier way would be then to hire people to write their life stories. Given this temptation, how big of a problem is ghostwriting according to the MBA admissions?

Haas Business School at the University of California, Berkeley, has reviewed its share of fraudulent applications. Besides professional-written essays, they even had applicants send in a “ringer,” a paid professional, to do their in-face interviews. They have also received recommendations from people that didn’t exist.

For Peter Johnson, the Director of International Admissions at Haas School of Business, the issue of ghostwriting goes beyond just getting into a school under false pretenses: “For us, there is also the issue of integrity. We want to be producing people who are going to be leaders in a variety of industries. I personally feel that if someone is capable of lying on their application, [they are] going to lie as a middle manager, [they are] going to lie when they are a CEO, and [they are] going to behave in a way that would reflect poorly on the program and poorly on the company. So we are not interested in having those people in our program.”

As deterrent measures, Haas does verify key data points such as past employment, positions and recomme-nders, as well as ask to see a passport for identification purposes. When it receives polished essays from outside the US, he often refers to the applicant’s GMAT analytical writing score as well as its actual content, which are taken at a controlled testing environment to look for high discrepancies.
Johnson differentiates ghostwriters from legitimate consulting services, however: “I think it’s valuable and okay when consulting services help people sharpen their ideas. For example, a consultant may ask them questions like, ‘you say you want to make the transition from a banking position to marketing for technology companies, you don’t really explain why. You need to explain why.’ That kind of assistance is fine. People often need help in sharpening their message especially when they are communicating in cross cultures.”

Wharton MBA admissions Director Thomas Caleel at the University of Pennsylvania admits that although they have instituted a stringent set of verification processes (which he declines to specify), along with Berkeley as well, hire an outside background verification firm, Kroll Associates, to do the work for them (details cannot be revealed, although Caleel says that Kroll Associates contracts local companies to help them navigate language and cultural barriers to verify data points), it is not always possible to catch the rule benders: “I take the subject of fraudulent applications very seriously. It’s something I personally have no tolerance for. Now in saying that, do we admit people who have ghostwritten applications? I am sure we do.” Although there is no foolproof system against fraudulent applications, Caleel claims that if and when they know for sure that the applicant has submitted a false application, dismissal is swift.

One sign that the applicant might have gotten too much input into their essays, says Caleel, is when he receives an overly polished, well-written application: “But there is no sense of the real individual behind it. Fortunately, that is really enough for us, when we make the decision, to keep them out of the class.”

One unfortunate trend in the prevalence of ghostwriting services is that top US MBA programs like Haas are de-emphasizing parts of the application that they cannot verify: “We find the essays important, but if I were trying to understand you as a candidate, and I have your essays and your interview, I am going to put much more weight on your interview because I know it’s you, describing your feelings to me, but often we find that someone writes wonderful aspirations and career goals in their essays, but when you scratch the surface off in the interview, they have no answers.”

This year one essay question on the application for the Kelly School of Business at the University of Indiana asks: “Suppose you had to choose three people—people alive now or people from another era—to travel with you on a cross-country automobile trip. Who would you choose and why? What would you hope to learn from them?”

Now, given the strangeness of this question, we can probably all use a little help. JI



I appreciate really having had the opportunity to present my views regarding graduate admissions counseling to the readers of JAPAN INC. I think the problem of ghostwriting really extends far beyond Japan and, in fact, is a worldwide problem. It connects more generally into larger problems such as the stealing of intellectual property, academic plagiarism, and the misrepresentation of credentials. This is not to say that these are new problems, but actually the internet is both an enabler of and defender against such practices. It is both easier to cheat and easier to detect cheating as result of the rise of the internet.

People will no doubt continue to ghostwrite applications, but I think given the scope of the problem, such behavior is likely to result only in admission to lower tier schools. I think the days of effectively using templates, recycling your friend's (in Japan, your Sempai's) essays, or otherwise getting around the act of doing hard work to obtain admission to top schools is likely to end as a result of (1) the utilization of google-like technologies to find recycled content (2) the use of content analysis software to compare submitted essays with the GMAT AWA or other standardized test written essays and (3) greater scrutiny on the part of admission committee's as a result of pressure from faculty and other interested parties who will demand the applications become as scrutinized as student's class essays. This will not eliminate ghostwritten applications, but it will no doubt reduce their effectiveness.

Adam Markus

My comments, "For further information about the views of Adam Markus," are my own and do not represent the views of any organization I may be affiliated with.

Adam Markus