Suddenly Cozy: MBA Consultants and B-Schools

by Greg Spielberg on

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.

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  • http://accepted.com Tanis Kmetyk

    Good article on a great new site, thanks.
    However, there was one point that I feel compelled to clarify: Soojin Kwon Kwoh from Michigan Ross was quoted as saying: “because the essays are often coached and can be written by somebody else…”
    A professional admissions consultant would never write an essay for someone. Period. Particularly if the consultant is a member of AIGAC, which has a strict vetting process. Potential clients should make sure that their consultant is part of our organization.

    Now, whether or not that “somebody else” evoked by Ms. Kwoh is a friend, a family member, an acquaintance or other, is another story entirely.

    Cheers-
    Tanis Kmetyk
    accepted.com

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/jbyrne/ John A. Byrne

    Tanis,
    Yes, indeed. That is a very good point. Thanks for making it.

  • http://www.maxxassociates.com Maxx Duffy

    For the record, I would like to clarify that I never stated nor implied that I had “inside knowledge.” Once you leave an Admissions Board, there is no such thing as inside knowledge; every year is different regarding an applicant pool and only those on the Admissions Board have “inside knowledge.”

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/paulbodine/ Paul S. Bodine

    “Cozy” is not at all the word I would use to describe the atmosphere at the AIGAC conference in Boston. Many of the admissions directors in attendance were forthright in their concerns regarding consultants. There was some tension in the air, but a healthy tension that in my opinion benefits both “sides.” The emerging relationship between consultants and admissions will never be comfortable, let alone “cozy,” but it can and should be constructive and productive.

    –Paul Bodine
    paulsbodine.com

  • http://www.accepted.com Linda Abraham

    Another point completely ignored by this article is that undergraduate universities and colleges all have advisers and offices, sometimes deans, that provide the same kinds of services admissions consultants provide, not to mention, the vetting, editing, coaching provided by friends, family, and colleagues as Tanis points out.

    And of course there is the relationship — need I say cozy — between MBA career management centers and corporations. B-school career management centers spend an enormous amount of time, effort, and money making their graduates look as good as possible. The corporations then have to distinguish between all the shiny new MBAs. Somehow they manage.

    Best,
    Linda Abraham
    Accepted.com

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/taymans/ Greg Spielberg

    Hi Paul,
    Thanks for sharing more about the AIGAC conference. I think the relationship’s evolution is a fascinating. In reporting, the term “cozy” came up multiple times, so I thought it was fair to play off that description.
    Best,
    Greg

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/taymans/ Greg Spielberg

    Hi Linda,
    Stacey Kole touches on the similarities between consultants and guidance counselors, and Shelly Kagan does as well over at the ethics sidebar.

    Rod Garcia at Sloan made an interesting point, too. He says students who have worked with consultants come in much more polished and prepared for job interviews two years down the road. I wonder if anyone else has found this to be the case.
    Best,
    Greg

  • http://www.expartus.com Chioma Isiadinso

    Hi Greg,

    I have heard the same message from many of my clients who say that the introspection and time spent figuring out their personal brand helped them navigate the career process while in business school, especially staying true to what their passion is. While consultants help applicants focus their stories for admission, the longer term benefit that can come from all the probing and digging consultants do is a more savvy, focused individual.

    Cheers,
    Chioma

  • http://accepted.com Tanis Kmetyk

    Chioma and Greg, I totally agree. Many clients tell me that working with me forces them to stop and take stock of what they are doing and where they want to go at a time when most 28(ish) year olds are too busy juggling their increasingly challenging careers. The result is that the applicant arrives at business school with a clearer message, a more polished presentation style and in my case –as I work primarily with non-US clients– eye-opening insight into the American communication style not to mention an understanding of what will be expected from them at b-school.

    Cheers-
    Tanis

  • http://www.mbacrystalball.com Sameer

    Hey Greg,

    Good article. Interesting to see that the top MBA programs [pleasantly surprised to see Harvard Business School and the Indian School of Business (ISB) joining in] are reaching out to the admissions consulting community and viewing them as partners more than adversaries.

    – Sameer
    MBA Crystal Ball

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/jbyrne/ John A. Byrne

    Thanks Sameer!

  • Vivek

    If everyone wants to spend 5–10k on such services what will a student who cannot afford do. This will be a big disadvantage for someone who is really deserving. I guess the school will loose out on the true talent. May be the schools should come up with more innovative ways of trying to know the applicant. they should get back to video introductions etc. I believe one can easily recognize the essay from self written to consultant assisted just y talking to the individual. But how much time can one school invest in finding out the actuals for an applicant.

    Since there is so much importance given to ethics and morals in B schools, we can have a questions relating to Consultant help on the application.
    If one admits taking the help then good, if one gets caught without admitting then there is no place for him in the schools.

    Vivek

  • SR

    As I see this, it becomes a bit scary for the one’s who choose/consider going without the polish/finesse that a admission consultant would provide.

    Most professions (with some exception) have little writing essays/communication focus and all of my advisors/mentors cannot hold a candle to a good admissions consultant – therefore, I fear that schools will start to become more and more acclimatized to this “better” style and cohesion in essays – so much so, that in time, admission consultant is defacto necessary for the mba!

    The less ad-hoc and occasional it becomes, the more risky it is for the ones who do not choose to go down the path of an admissions consultant. That is the biggest risk!

  • http://www.gurome.com Anurag Mairal

    Great article Greg! Our advisees often are amazed at not how good their applications looked after the process, but how valuable the process was for their future career. In fact, in some cases, the candidates chose to forgo or delay the MBA plan to accelarate their entrepreneurial plans, for instance.

    SR and Vivek: Working with a consultant does enhance the polish of the application. But frankly, admissions officers care a lot about the clarity of thought, authenticity, and honesty in the essays. Applicants who do not work with consultants can still improve their applications substantially if they dig deep and present their story in a clear, concise manner.

    John: Kudos for building a high-quality platform for the exchange of ideas at Poets and Quants (P’s and Q’s?)

    Anurag Mairal
    Gurome

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/taymans/ Greg Spielberg

    Vivek,
    It will be interesting to see how the MBA application evolves over the next few years. Some schools are adding more social media components and others are drawing from soft-skill surveys that can help them assess students’ future potential rather than just past accomplishments.

    You raise an interesting point about admitting to the use of consultants. Booth’s practice of opening up dialogue with students is a nice evolution, but what do you think the benefit is of admitting use on the application itself?

    Best,
    Greg

  • Rusty

    It is unfortunate that top business schools now use consultants to help give students a leg up on the competition. Undoubtedly some of the brightest and most passionate applicants cannot afford to hire these consultants, which means top tier schools will be catering to the rich more so than ever. These consultants should be offered to all types of applicants, not just those who can afford them.

  • Vivek

    @ Greg :By admitting that one has taken the help of a consultant, the points one get for the structure and finesse can be deducted and only the content can be given importance. By doing this people who do not use a consultant will be on the same playing field as the ones who do use it.

    on the other hand,I don’t agree to the correlation of GMAT AWA and admission essays. I have scored max on my AWA both the times i took my GMAt, but when i look at my admission essay, it lacks the punch/structure..

  • http://SkipOneMeal.org Nishant

    Congratulations Grieg on writing such an insightful article!
    Quite a bit of research has been put in, in putting up all the details altogether…

    What is alarming however is to know that about one third of the top applicants use the services of a consultant. Was it not the quality of experience, the kind of grit, the efforts, the kind of vision which took people to the Harvards and the Stanfords?
    The concerning part is most of the consultants would never know the international applicant, his background, his mindset, his vison.

    When a current HARVARD student says “even $10,000 in consulting fees is a drop in the bucket compared to the total cost of a top MBA program, which can now set students back more than 300,000 once you toss in their lost income over two years.” I would just like to mention its not just the money.

    To give an example, the current home minister of India(perhaps the cleanest of rather corrupt politicians from Indian), and past Finance minister of India is a HARVARD MBA. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P._Chidambaram) That kind of obscene money($10,000 )can only be earned by unscrupulous ways. We should know that years of experience of an honest candidate can go it vain if he cannot afford the kind of money.

    Because efforts can be personified, visions can be glorified when some thoughts & some words are modified. I believe that B-Schools may one day ask a mandatory disclosure from from prospective students about the help they took for essay editing or start putting in more weightage to AWA section of the GMAT.

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/taymans/ Greg Spielberg

    Nishant,
    Thank you for your thoughts. Vivek also recommends that schools force students to disclose whether they have worked with a consultant, so you’re in good company! I disagree, however, that $10,000 “can only be earned by unscrupulous ways.” Best, Greg

  • http://SkipOneMeal.org Nishant

    Well Greg,
    $10,000 in the US or elsewhere could be possible but converting it to Rupees it means half a million rupees, a tough task!
    The salary of president of India is US$ 3,100. ( http://dfl.wageindicator.org/home/india/salary-of-mrs.-pratibha-patil-president-of-india ) A code of ethics if provided can’t explain how one can repay the debt incurred while applying to a top B-School, until and unless one has a handsome side-income.

    Having said that, I feel that admissions consulting is unethical only if there is a nexus between B-Schools and Admissions consultants.
    http://poetsandquants.com/2010/11/21/leak-of-whartons-interview-questions-raises-ethical-issues/
    More an more international students are opting for admissons consultants not because they are inept, but because they don’t really know the true-picture or the landscape!

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/redpoet/ Red Poet

    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.

  • http://www.accepted.com Tanis Kmetyk

    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!

  • 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.

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/cheetarah1980/ Elizabeth Abunaw

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • http://twitter.com/TutorNerds TutorNerds

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

  • http://www.MBAIvyLeague.com/ MBA Ivy

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

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