Curiosity Kills MBA Hopefuls' Chances

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His decision came late at night, with his laptop propped in front of him in bed. Instructions on a Web site promised business school applicants like him an early online peek at whether they'd been accepted. Intrigued, he began typing.

A minute later he'd accessed the Harvard Business School's (search) admission site, though all he saw was a blank page. That split-second decision cost the 28-year-old New Yorker a chance to attend the school this year.

And he wasn't the only one to get turned down for doing what he did — using a method detailed in a BusinessWeek online forum to try to get an early glimpse at admissions decisions in top business schools.

In a blanket rejection issued Monday, Harvard dashed the hopes of 119 applicants. MIT followed suit Tuesday, rejecting 32 applicants. Carnegie Mellon (search) was the first to act, delivering the bad news to its "hacker" applicants last week.

The New York applicant said he spent months completing Harvard's rigorous application process. He and two others who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity said they did not consider their actions to be unethical.

Admissions sites of at least six schools were accessed by applicants for about 10 hours March 2 after a hacker posted instructions on the online forum. Some applicants saw blank pages and others viewed rejection letters before access was denied.

The instructions told people to log onto their admissions Web page and find their identification numbers in source material that was available on the site. By plugging those numbers into another Web page address, they were directed to a page where their admissions decision would be found.

MIT's Sloan School of Management Dean Richard Schmalensee (search) likened the hacking to an applicant using the keys to the admissions office to enter at night and see how his or her application fared.

"It seemed to us you would have to have pretty bad judgment or pretty bad ethics not to know you were doing something wrong," Schmalensee said. "If you don't realize you shouldn't do that, something's off."

Stanford hasn't made a decision and urged applicants to explain their actions. Dartmouth said it would meet Friday with ethics professors, deans and admissions officials as part of its ongoing investigation. Duke said only one applicant attempted to get into its site and failed, and that applicant's case was still under consideration.

Lee Metheny, chief executive and president of ApplyYourself, a Fairfax, Va.-based online application and notification program company used by all the schools, said those who accessed the restricted pages did so knowing they were unauthorized.

"These students had a choice. They could have waited until the published date of their decision. They chose to exercise these steps," Metheny said.

Sanford Kreisberg of Cambridge Essay Service, which helps students apply to elite U.S. business schools, said the applicants made a stupid mistake, but added Harvard was guilty of "ethics grandstanding."

He said that while the business world is getting battered by stories of ethical failures — such as fraud or excessive salaries — Harvard can make a point by taking on an easy target.

"They can swat it hard and preen," he said.

But MIT's Schmalensee said the decision was about more than posturing.

"Our mission statement talks about principled, innovative leaders," Schmalensee said, "and we take the principled part seriously."