CAMBRIDGE, Mass., March 9 -- For some applicants to the nation's top MBA programs, it was a snap decision made in the dark of night after viewing an Internet posting too tantalizing to ignore. Others said that while the message describing how to get an early peek at schools' admissions decisions seemed like a hoax, they wanted to know for sure.
But after learning this week that at least three schools would reject anyone who had tried to gain access to the potentially life-changing news, many applicants said they felt unfairly vilified for what they call a victimless lapse in judgment.
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"For what we did to be considered unethical, you would think it would have to have done harm to someone or gained an unfair advantage to ourselves," said one Harvard applicant in his twenties who works in finance in the Midwest. Like 10 others contacted for this story, he spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared repercussions from other business schools.
Their downfall started just after midnight on March 2. "I know everyone is getting more and more anxious to check status" of applications, read the message posted to a BusinessWeek.com discussion group by someone using the screen name "brookbond."
"So I looked around their site and found a way."
Over the next nine hours, about 150 prospective students followed a simple procedure -- pasting a URL address into a Web browser and typing in a pass code -- in an attempt to learn their fate.
The payoff was minimal -- almost everyone saw only a blank screen -- but the consequences were severe. Harvard Business School, the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business have pledged to reject any applicants who tried to get an early peek at their acceptance or rejection letter.
The incident illustrates both the intense interest in gaining admission to top MBA programs and the schools' increased focus on teaching ethics during a time of revealed lapses in the corporate world.
Harvard Business School Dean Kim B. Clark said Monday that the school would automatically turn down the 119 applicants who tried to learn their fate early, calling their efforts "a serious breach of trust that cannot be countered by rationalization."
Stanford University's Graduate School of Business took a different tack, calling on those who used the software loophole to come forward and explain their actions. Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business said it is conducting an investigation and will announce the results Friday.