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It was billed as a way to get to know MBA applicants better. But NYU Stern School of Business’s new applications process, which asks candidates for contact details of referees who will talk to the school directly about the applicant, has the additional aim of ensuring that prospective students are not writing their own glowing reviews for bosses and colleagues to sign off.

“There are definitely ways in which we can see when something looks suspect,” says Isser Gallogly, Stern’s associate dean of MBA admissions and programme innovation. “Every individual has their own writing style so if we spot similarities, that is cause for concern.”

Most business schools do not like talking about the problem. But many are clamping down on ghostwritten applications in a variety of ways — and data suggest their efforts are paying off. About 40 per cent of respondents to a 2014 survey of business school applicants by the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, the professional body, said at least one manager asked them to draft their own recommendation letter. This year the same question found 29.2 per cent had been asked.

Students ghostwrite their references not from a desire to cheat, but because of a lack of time, according to Nick Barniville, associate dean of graduate programmes at ESMT Berlin.

“MBA applicants suffer from the same problems as everyone else looking for a reference from a busy employer,” he says. “The referee will often ask the employee to draft a reference for edit and sign-off.”

But such ghostwriting is obvious to anyone reading an application when the form, style, grammatical flow and paragraph structure are similar across two references, Mr Barniville adds.

References are only half the problem. Schools are also unhappy about a more pernicious form of ghostwriting, in which applicants pay outside agencies to write their application essays — and many have been trying to stamp it out for years.

Typically business schools ask for a 500-word essay, sometimes several, to explain why an individual has chosen that school and what they hope to get out of their studies.

The AIGAC was formed in 2006 to deal with such ethical issues, Scott Shrum, secretary of the board, says. Persuading someone else to write your application essays or your reference letter never pays, he claims. “If applicants are interviewed and their English is difficult [but their application] essays were perfect, the admissions team will see it immediately,” Mr Shrum says.

It is easy to find companies to ghostwrite MBA essays. A Google search throws up dozens of names, although all but one of these companies declined to comment on their practices. Leeds-based Essay Writer, which claims to be the UK’s largest online provider of custom dissertations, charges £183 for a 1,000-word master’s level essay with delivery promised in seven days.

Most clients are international candidates with limited skills in the application language, according to David Burton, the general manager. Others are mature applicants or students who have not written for a long time.

“Often they do not want us to write a whole piece but want help getting into a piece or feedback on how to enhance it,” Mr Burton says.

Ghostwriting essays and references might be unethical, but if you are caught, your application would not necessarily be rejected, according to Mr Barniville.

Most schools take a tougher line, insisting on an automatic rejection if ghostwriting is discovered, according to David Asch, quality services director for the accreditation body EFMD.

“Most university regulations say that the applications process must be honest, so if you mislead you can be sent away,” he says.

Technology has helped in the battle against ghostwriters. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and SDA Bocconi School of Management both insist on video essays in which applicants answer three questions about themselves within days of submitting their written application.

Many admissions committees use verification services, such as Re Vera, to conduct background checks to ensure that the applicants are representing themselves accurately.

Brilliantly written essays that do not match first-round standardised business school test scores, such as the GMAT verbal subscore, serve as a red flag to admissions committees, Susan Cera, a director of Stratus Admissions Counseling, says.

“Admissions committees reach out to applicants with quick and easy questions via email and look at the writing in the email response to see if it matches what is in the essays,” Ms Cera says.

She adds that the only effective policy is zero tolerance. “We recently heard of a top MBA programme rescinding an offer the month before the programme was going to start,” she says.

Software detectives

Online essay checkers, such as Turnitin, Grammarly and Plagscan, have made the job of spotting ghostwritten pieces considerably easier for admissions teams.

Advanced systems, such as Slate by US education software specialist Technolutions, read the metadata embedded in a document to show if a letter of recommendation meant to have been written by a referee was in fact created on the applicant’s computer.

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