Published Jan 20, 2004

Many a business school applicant has been tempted to re-use one school’s essay in an application to another school. I know I sure was. I had to decide: would I?

There are three questions about re-using essays, two practical and one ethical:

  1. Practically, does essay re-use really result in output by the applicant that is both better and more quickly created than writing two separate essays?
  2. Practically, does essay re-use give the application committee essays that are useful tools with which to judge the applicant?
  3. Ethically, is essay re-use in any way inappropriate?

Let’s take each of these in turn.

  1. In some cases, essay re-use is clearly more efficient. Even in the relatively small number of applications I filled out, there were two cases in which schools shared exactly identical essay questions. Why answer the same question in the same way twice simply to use different words? Neither essay will be as well-edited as could a single essay written in the same amount of time and then revised in half the time taken to write an essay.
    In other cases, two essays will only share content in that it’s desirable in each essay to communicate the same message, and that message is one among many differing messages in the two essays. In this case, one or two paragraphs may be shared between essays. There’s a lot of work required to integrate disparate paragraphs into unrelated works, so there’s much less efficiency here. Quality, however, still reigns here; one paragraph, expressing a message, well-refined, is clearly a significant addition to any essay.
    Verdict: from the applicant’s point of view, re-use results in a better essay, possibly produced quickly.
  2. It’s not clear that the product of essay re-use provides as good a judgment tool for admissions committees as original essays do. The main issue is the quality of fit of the re-used essay to the question asked. It’s tempting to the applicant to re-use work that only marginally answers the question at hand, simply to save time. Now, a bad essay may aid a committee in eliminating a candidate, and that can be convenient, but such an essay is unlikely to be tremendously informative.
    On the other hand, a re-used essay that is a good fit (for instance, when two schools share the same topic, as mentioned above) can be an excellent tool, clearly showing what an applicant is capable of. With extended time to plan and polish the work, a re-used essay can be a great addition to an application.
    Verdict: For a good applicant, a re-used essay will probably add value to the application, but, for a marginal or poor applicant, the re-used essay will probably be of little use to the admissions committee.
  3. Ethics is a tough one. Normative standards are based on, well, norms, and those can vary from individual to individual and group to group. What’s the normal norm here? Well, in the work world, re-use is often prized. Applying the same creative across multiple media is common in advertising. Automakers frequently use similar components in multiple vehicles; nobody ever suggested it was unethical for the same engine to be used in the Volkswagen Jetta and the Audi A4.
    Verdict: Ethics check out ok.

So re-using essays seems like a reasonably good approach all-around. In two cases, I re-used essays to answer identical questions; in three other cases, I re-used paragraphs in other essays. We’ll see if it all works out well.