Suddenly Cozy: MBA Consultants and B-Schools

Last spring, the Harvard Business School quietly took a step that would have been unthinkable only ten years earlier: It welcomed nearly 50 for-hire admissions consultants to its leafy campus, treating them to a private tour of the school’s red brick, neo-Georgian buildings and a chance to chat with both Admissions Director Dee Leopold and Steve Nelson, executive director of Harvard’s MBA program. “We were welcomed as fellow professionals,” says Dan Bauer who heads up The MBA Exchange, a firm that helps applicants get into top schools. “It was all civil, cordial and candid.”

That warm embrace by the most prestigious business school in the land marks a watershed for the business of admissions consultants. Not long ago, Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and other top schools regarded these hired guns with disapproval and skepticism. B-school officials often spoke out against the use of consultants, and some schools explicitly forbade applicants from hiring them. They worried that if the practice became widespread, it would be impossible for admissions officers to know if they were evaluating the work of an applicant—or that of a high-priced surrogate. And even if consultants contained themselves to merely polishing essays and helping clients present the best possible image, didn’t that confer an unfair advantage over students who couldn’t afford a paid helper?

Those concerns have largely fallen by the wayside. The relationship between the top schools and the consultants has gone from chilly to positively cozy. The Harvard visit was part of a three-day conference in June organized by the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC). The consultants also met with the dean of MIT’s Sloan School and the admissions officers at the most prestigious business schools in the world including Dartmouth, Yale, and Duke. Columbia, New York University, Michigan and INSEAD even gave a behind-the-scenes look at the admissions process, evaluating three hypothetical candidate profiles for the group.


“There had been an us-versus-them mentality,” says one consultant who expressed surprise at Harvard’s willingness to entertain the group this year. “Now there’s acceptance. They know we’re not going away.” More than that, this new detente is an acknowledgement that any school that wants access to the most desirable applicants had better be extremely comfortable with consultants. Not only do even the top applicants engage them but the consultants, with their vast online reach, often touch more would-be students than any admissions department and wield growing influence over who applies where.

Harvard’s Leopold does not view last spring’s visit as an endorsement of admissions consulting. She says she agreed to meet with them as an efficient way to gain market intelligence about students’ application experiences. “That was the deal we made with AIGAC: Info session for info session,” she says. “Mission accomplished, from my standpoint.” The three-day conference, hosted on days one and two by MIT, marks the third time schools have hosted the consulting group. In 2008, Northwestern and Chicago helped to put on the show, while in 2009 Columbia and New York University were hosts.

The coziness that has evolved between the schools and the consultants also results from the fact that some consultants had once worked in admissions offices at the schools. Many others are MBA alums of elite institutions. Among its 40 consultants, for example, Chicago-based The MBA Exchange lists nine MBAs from Harvard, a half dozen from Wharton, and three from Stanford, along with former MBA admissions officials from Columbia, Kellogg, Wharton and Chicago. (See our directory of leading MBA consulting firms). Now, rather than viewing consultants as hired guns, schools see them as a “particular set of helpers,” as the University of Chicago’s deputy dean of full-time MBA programs Stacey Kole says.

  • Adrian Defta


    It always puzzled me how the billing model is so disconnected from the results
    your coach provides.

    If I pay by the hour – there is no way I can understand upfront how much will I
    end up paying. Moreover, if the result is me being dinged, I lost a ton of
    money with zero results.

    If I pay by school, one problem gets solved – I know exactly how much I will
    pay. However, the second remains – what if I will not get into my school? I
    will lose the money.

    Don’t you think that the fee should incentivize both the coach and coached
    person to work together towards the common goal – to get an admission?! At
    least for me it seems pretty obvious that the coach should take a hit if no
    result. Most of the services these days came with the “money back
    guarantee”. How come we don’t have such a model for coaching?

    Yes, some would argue that it is not entirely up to the coach if the student
    gets admitted or not. This is completely true! However, the coach should be
    able to see if he/she can help the student and what are the chances. More and
    more coaches take almost impossible missions and fail. Who loses in this case?
    The applicant. First, he loses money. Second, he will have to wait another year
    to apply to other schools.

    Don’t you think the time has come to shift this mentality from billable hours
    to money back guarantee price model?

  • Not all consultants charge exorbitant fees, myself included, yet I have an excellent success rate getting clients into the best Ivy League programs around.

  • visit http://www.tutornerdsadmissions.com for Business School Admissions Consulting, MBA admissions consulting

  • SP08

    You wrote this a couple of years ago, but you basically nailed it for me. These firms are unethical, and it is for me quite a shame that B-Schools are accommodating them. I surely do not have $10,000 lying around to give a consultant. This is pay to play and a great argument for affirmative action. Money and influence win again.

  • joe walsh

    I just applied to the recent admissions cycle and am one of the 30% of candidates that did hire an admissions consultant (MBA Exchange). If anyone could not technically afford the services, it was me with my incredibly low non-profit income. But I hired them anyways, and am incredibly glad that I made that decision.

    I was accepted to every single school I applied to (top 10 programs) and was given scholarships as well, the lowest of which was $20K. So the fee more than paid for itself.

    The other great benefit I received which I wasn’t expecting is that my consultant really pushed me to take the time and do the extensive research I needed to figure out where I actually wanted to go after business school, and as a result, I am now incredibly clear about where I am heading and will be able to get the most out of my 2 years.

    I hesitated for almost 6 months before finally biting the bullet and hiring a consultant. It is definitely a personal choice, and I’m sure each person’s journey will be different. For me, it really paid off.

  • I am applying to several top MBA programs this year and will not be using the assitance of a consultant because I cannot afford to do so at this time. However, I do not feel that I am at a disadvantage to applicants who have chosen to hire a consultant.
    I would hope that most applicants are aware of the basic qualifications needed to gain admission to a top program. We all know that the GMAT, GPA, and work experience are important factors. Because we are all adults and not high school students a certain level of self awareness should be expected. All applicants should be able to identify the weaknesses in their profile that may need to be explained and counteracted. Understanding your unique candidacy is the first step in the application process and one shouldn’t need a consultant to do that. I do believe that consultants offer a valuable service. However, with a little effort the guidance they provide can be secured for free. Most consultants give free general and school specific advice on their websites. Online forums such as P&Q, Beat the GMAT, and GMAT Club are filled with current students and alums who are willing to share valuable insights into all of the top schools and how they navigated the application process. I have learned so much about coaching recommenders, writing clear and detailed career goals essays, and ways to reach out to the schools before I even submit an application.
    A person’s network is another resource that can do the same job as a consultant. Many of us have friends who are either currently enrolled in top programs or are alums. Why not reach out to them as proofreaders? They will be able to tell you whether your essays answer the question, show you in the best light, and form a compelling story for admission. Ultimately, I believe the hard work resides with the applicant. We are the ones who have to do the introspection and determine why we want this degree from these schools. We need to mine our histories to figure out what brought us to this place. A consultant can’t tell someone why they want to make the switch from Engineering to consulting or from sales to non-profit. Sure, a consultant can help put you on the path to this introspection, but anyone who researches the application process will quickly learn that this type of self analysis is critical and will find ways to embark on that process by themselves using the free resources at their disposal as guideposts. In my opinion a consultant offers these resources in a one stop shop that’s more convenient than assembling a ragtag army to join your MBA or BUST campaign.

  • Easy Answer

    It seems to me that an easy way to address any problems with these consultants would be to ask the applicants during the interview whether they have used a consultant and, if yes, to what extent. The interviewer presumably is an expert at evaluating applicants based on their rhetorical skills and ability to think extemporaneously. If an applicant has had more “advanced” help on his/her application, that fact would most likely present itself during the answering of the question – “The, uh, consultant, uh, provided me, uh, sound advice and, uh….” An applicant with nothing to hide about the assistance provided by the consultant would/should be able to speak easily about the process. The only loophole I see is that applicants could simply lie about using a consultant but that could be said for any answer provided by the applicant.

  • Glad to see that this conversation is still alive, because it is an important one. Yes, working with a consultant can yield a more polished application, but there are options for people who cannot afford a consultant or simply don’t want to go there. There are many free resources, including this website, that share the same type of information I share with my clients in terms of how to clarify your message, how to build an essay, which points to play up (and down) and so on. It takes longer, sure, but it is entirely possible. You may not get the slickness that working with a consultant can bring, but perfect grammar and a slick story doesn’t get you in; strong fundamentals do. Believe it or not, I take immense pleasure in being able to tell a potential client that I cannot bring any value to the work they have already done on their own!

  • Money equals merit in the United States.

    So .. if you can’t afford to pay these consultants, maybe you don’t get into the “top” schools, even if you had good numbers and experience. And if you don’t get into the “top” schools, you will be at a disadvantage for being employed by the “top” firms. So the people who can pay to play get ahead; and the rest, regardless of qualification, get the occasional crumb, but are otherwise locked out of the upper echelons of professional society, and the financial benefits that come with it. Then the folks at the top reproduce, and the cycle repeats itself.

    This is a great illustration as to why affirmative action is necessary — and I’m not just talking about “race-based.” Economic status should be heavily considered.