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.

‘THEY KNOW WE’RE NOT GOING AWAY.’

“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.