MBA duo sells successful Harvard, Stanford, essays online. B-schools frown as plagiarism becomes talking point

Ori Elkin at the centre and Gili Elkin extreme right

The story has been updated and re-published with a quotes from Carrie Marcinkevage, admissions director at Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business,

A company started by an MBA couple, has caught the b-school community in the US by storm. Wordprom, the company, is in the business of selling business school essays online. Started in August last year, the company already has 4000 essays on its website, all for grabs at $ 25 each.

However, with the ethics dilemma rooted so deep in its existence, the company’s founders Gili Elkin (a 2008 Stanford School of Business graduate) and Ori Elkin (a 2007 Haas School of Business at University of California) have as much defending to do as much as selling their essays.

PaGaLGuY caught up with Gili Elkin for a quick chat on what the venture is all about and how much do ‘morals’ predicament trouble its founders?

Incidentally, Wordprom is not the first company to try this business. Last year a group of Harvard Business School students started a similar enterprise as a school project, but it did not do much after the initial euphoria.

Why did you start Wordprom.com?

As past applicants we are aware of the time and efforts it takes applicants to reach a level where they understand what the schools are looking to see in an application. When I was asked in a Stanford essay why I was interested in an MBA and why at Stanford my first draft was about the great weather in California. Only after reading dozens of MBA essays in a book I understood that I needed to start seriously thinking about my career goals.

I understood what traits schools were looking for and with that in mind I sat down to write my stories. I understood which part of my own life I needed to emphasise and how to tell my stories to make them interesting and memorable.

But you were in MBA consultancy before this?

As MBA consultants for several years now (Aringo.com and Veritas), we are aware of the large amount of money that applicants spend only to understand what they should focus on in their applications and what is the best way to market themselves.

On one hand, admitted applicants (students and alumni) are looking for the most efficient way to share the knowledge they gained and help future applicants. On the other hand, applicants are always looking for examples in order to save time and money invested in the application process. I believe that MBA essays samples will save a lot of consulting time and save applicants money. I certainly believe that five MBA essays samples are worth much more than one hour of consulting service (which is around $250 US).

These days, many applicants are using consulting services through their application process. However, since the consulting services are extremely expensive, they provide an “unfair” advantage to those who have financial means. Since I believe that all people need to have an equal opportunity to apply to schools, I thought of a way to make the admission process accessible to everyone everywhere and not depending on their financial statuses.

But aspirants have been referring to books for years now?

There are several books on amazon.com that include examples of MBA admission essays for a fairly low price. However, I don’t think that they are accessible to everyone in the world and I don’t believe that the examples are comprehensive enough to serve everyone. In fact, I believe that because of the inaccessibility of people to enough examples of essays and because of the financial inability of people to pay for consulting services, many people that would otherwise apply to schools, give up on that idea because of the unfair advantage other people have.

Did the idea go well initially?

The majority of students and alumni were very enthusiastic to help and about the whole idea. Students and alumni offered to help and collect essays through their networks. After two weeks we had collected hundreds of essays and launched the main store.

How does it work. Do you approach students for the essays or the other way round?

As Stanford and UC Berkeley grads and consultants for many years, we used our wide networks of alumni and students and contacted them directly asking them to provide feedback about our venture and to submit essays through a site that was developed especially for that cause (a site that was launched two weeks before we launched the main store). Some were skeptical about the idea; only a few raised concerns about the confidentiality of personal details; and only a few raised the issue of plagiarism and the schools’ view (I would say that all of them numbered to 5% of the thousands of people I contacted). 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 help to create a mass of essays.

How do you view ‘plagiarism’ in your business?

In a recent article on Businessweek, I read about schools’ concern of plagiarism. I never had an intent to establish something that would encourage people to act in an unethical way. We state in our Terms of Use and on our main web site that copying of any part of the application is prohibited and we will provide schools with access to the database so they could use Turnitin software to detect plagiarism.

Furthermore, I believe that unethical people will always find their unethical ways and I don’t think that our site is what will encourage them to do so. On the contrary – I believe that people will stop copying from books because of their concern that the essays are also on our web site and the fact that we provide access to schools (which are using Turnitin software).

What action do you take if you knew an aspirant plagiarised?

If a user plagiarises an essay, and wordprom.com finds out about it from a school, the user would be banned from the site and wordprom would take any other action that is in its ability against the user. We will cooperate in any way with schools to prevent plagiarism and we will do anything and everything to keep the use of our site ethical. That is for sure!

It is very hard to change the status quo but I hope (and believe) that in the future people and schools will look at our service as an integral part of the application process as they view the consulting services today.

You still face competition from books in your business?

There are dozens of books that have been selling MBA essays samples for many years. There are consulting services that provide free MBA essays samples for their clients. Alumni and students are providing applicants with their essays in order to guide them and help them understand what their school was looking for. We are the only online marketplace for MBA admission essays as far as I’m aware of.

How do b-schools view your service?

I predict that most schools would not support such an idea. Schools have always argued against consulting firms. A few years ago schools stated that they would deny admission from anyone who used consulting services. Today when schools understand that admission consulting is a ‘trend’ they guide consultants to help with applications in an ethical manner.

I’m aware of the fact that essays do not reflect whole application and some candidates are admitted despite of their essays, however we do not intend to provide a full picture of the application. We explain to the users that this is only a part of the application.

I understand schools’ view and respect it. However, I don’t believe that the site will make it harder to distinguish between candidates. I think that our site will increase the number of applicants for each school and especially to top schools (more people will believe that they have a chance after they better understand the admission process). If the pool of applicants will be bigger, I believe that the pool of students will be stronger. I hope that eventually the bigger demand will increase the number of programs and more people will have the opportunity to study.

We also plan to contribute a portion of our profits to underprivileged kids for obtaining high education or enrichments classes.

Is there a trait among successful essays?

Should be sincere and reflect the real life experience and career aspirations of the applicant. This is what I advise my clients. I ask them to write about their strong passion in life.

Any plans to extending this to other countries?

We plan to scale our service to other schools in different countries, additional programs,

undergraduate degrees, other documents and additional kinds of services.

PaGaLGuY take on this

The ethics issue is actually a significant component in the admission process or in the business of selling and buying MBA essays. But there is a thin line in what we would call prep work and plagiarism. Founders of Wordprom say that their services will help reach a larger pool of students and inculcate confidence in them while going about the admission process.

Could be, however essays are only part of the admission process at b-schools and almost never has an aspirant bagged or lost a seat only because of the essays. Schools like to evaluate an aspirant’s personal approach on a given subject, rather than lifted ones. With plagiarism software easily available, it is not difficult to pick the offenders.

Plagiarism is a growing menace world over and b-schools globally have been chucking applications of people who send across ‘copied’ work. If aspirants buying such essays or even picking up books that contain them, are able to intellectually understand the purpose of the essays and its finer points, great, otherwise it is a sad beginning for those aspiring to be great managers in the future.

Update

Carrie Marcinkevage, admissions director at Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business, has been firm about plagiarism in b-school essays. Her school brought to the fore 29 cases of plagiarism for a required essay on the topic of principled leadership. For years there have been essay books and online essay banks searchable by topic. Though intended for inspiration and guidance, they are too often copied, either in parts or entirely, and used by new applicants as their own. For the company selling the essays, the challenge is the responsibility they do or do not take for potential misuse, however this responsibility is rarely taken. As the recirculation of essays and essay fragments grows, the value of the individual essay diminishes. How can we know your story if its not your story? In the end, it will be the schools, and not the essay companies, who must manage the authenticity of their process and their applicants.”

Read Next