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You messed up… are your MBA dreams done?

You’ve probably heard about Mathew Martoma, a convicted inside trader whose Stanford MBA was revoked when the school learned that he had lied on his MBA application. Martoma’s was a lie of omission- he had been expelled from Harvard Law School, and had conveniently failed to mention that fact when pleading his case to Stanford GSB.

If you have a serious blot on your record- an expulsion, or an arrest, or an accusation- it’s tempting to just sweep it under the rug. It’s not something that you are proud of, but you have moved on, and a past indiscretion should not stop you from following your  MBA dreams now, right?

MBA Dreams

Not quite.

The thing is, if you omit an indiscretion, you could actually be increasing your chances of rejection. Mr. Martoma applied to Stanford before background checks on MBA applicants were common. Now, every top school vets their candidates pretty thoroughly. Even setting aside professional investigative firms, we live in the age of Google. A few clicks can quickly reveal any information you might have left out.

It’s safe to assume that your dream school will find out about your past, and it’s far better to be honest from the outset. Not only are you displaying integrity, you are giving yourself a chance to tell the story on your terms. If admissions officials find out about an indiscretion through a background check or a Google search, they are certain to get the least flattering version- all of the messy details, none of the redemption. If they hear it directly from you, though, you can admit the mistake and focus attention on what you learned from it. For example, if you were arrested for public intoxication as an undergraduate, you can describe how the arrest made you revaluate past choices and change your behavior. Maybe you used the experience to help others struggling with alcohol consumption. Maybe it taught you to be more self-aware, more humble, or more accepting of others’ flaws. Whatever it is, make sure that the admissions committee remembers what you learned more than what you did.


Of course, it is better to simply avoid serious mistakes in the first place. Even the sincerest of apologies or explanations cannot erase some deeds, and applicants who have been arrested, expelled, or otherwise had their reputation impugned have an uphill battle ahead of them. But, if you find yourself in that situation, know that it is not entirely hopeless. It takes a person of courage to admit mistakes, and the admissions committee will recognize and appreciate your effort. And, do you really want to chance ending up like Mr. Martoma, losing your hard-earned MBA degree years after the fact? Be smart, and if you do mess up, own up to it.

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