This fall, David Marin arrived on the campus of one of the world’s best business schools as a new MBA candidate. It’s something that Marin never foresaw. He had spent four years with Teach for America and intended to get a master’s in education. But while studying for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), he had a change of heart. Marin’s reassessment somehow led him to the GMAT. After scoring a 760 on the test, he started scouring websites to piece together info on what the best business schools in the world were looking for.
David Marin is a pseudonym because in common with other applicants who get consulting help he does not want his real identity known. “Most MBA applicants, students and grads are shy even to their best buddies about having had some professional guidance and support along the way,” says Dan Bauer, managing director and founder of The MBA Exchange. “It’s kind of like asking someone to tell the world if they’ve worked with a psychologist or orthodontist.” “
Despite Marin’s high GMAT score, Marin felt ill prepared for his quest to get into an elite business school. Though he had a magical credential on his resume, his experience at Teach for America, he didn’t know that many people with prestige MBAs. He hadn’t worked at a Goldman Sachs or a McKinsey where he could turn to a colleague for help. In fact, he had no business experience whatsoever. And he didn’t especially know how to present and package himself for a highly ranked school.
There was one other matter. “I’m an introvert,” he concedes.
COACH, MENTOR, THERAPIST.
Ultimately, Marin concluded he needed help. The former teacher hired Los Angeles-based Stacy Blackman Consulting, which assigned him one of its 30 consultants for one-on-one counseling after he purchased a multiple-school package of advice at a cost of $6,850. As Marin would soon discover, his consultant, John, would become more than just a helpful voice over a phone line or a few lines of advice in a late-night email; John would become his coach, his mentor, even his therapist.
They started with a two-hour telephone conversation about why Marin wanted go to business school in the first place. They pared down his list of dream schools: Harvard, Stanford, and Sloan, were out. Harvard’s extensive use of case studies and class discussion wasn’t a good match for a self-described introvert. Stanford and Sloan were thought to be too engineering driven. Kellogg, Chicago, and Columbia were in. Those schools were thought to be more favorable to non-traditional MBA candidates and they didn’t demand the kind of class participation that might have been a huge hurdle for someone who was not an extrovert.
Marin’s consultant had an intimate knowledge of each school’s strengths and weaknesses. When he didn’t, he could quickly get inside information from colleagues. John spoke at length with David about his core skills and passions. They traveled through his life journey, from high school days to college. Marin compares the experience with the GMAT, where “You pick up any of the books that have the key terms and key concepts, and you can study that.” This wasn’t the same preparation. There was no content to study, just the need to produce feedback.
The conversations led to more specific back-and-forth sessions when it came time to develop a strategy for answering the essay questions on each of the schools’ applications. Chicago’s Booth School of Business, for example, required that he answer what became a fairly challenging question: “Describe a time when you were surprised by feedback that you received. What was the feedback and why were you surprised?”
Like many frenzied applicants who become obsessed with every detail, Marin over-thought the question. How far should he go back? Should it be positive or negative feedback? How would he authentically represent how he grew from that feedback?
John probed. “Just tell me about any time you’ve gotten feedback?” he asked.
Marin tried to avoid the one example that was most meaningful, the one he was still wounded by. The one that made him cry.
“YOU WANT TO THINK YOU’RE SUPERMAN.”
“It’s difficult to confront what – to get a true image of one’s self,” he says, using second and third person still. “You want to think you’re Superman.”
After prodding, Marin went back to 2005, his first year teaching in a low-income area in the south. The school superintendent had just hired the school’s first local principal, who had only two or three years of experience—not much more experience than Marin had at the time. One of Marin’s management strategies was to telephone parents to get to know them and to engage them more deeply in their children’s education. He called some parents at six one evening, then at seven, and then again at eight. At first he thought they weren’t home, but in fact, they had been avoiding his calls.
The next day, one of the parents complained to the new principal, contending that the late calls were rude and insensitive. His boss called him into his office and started screaming. The feedback was “one-sided and demeaning,” recalls Marin, who was forbidden from calling parents ever again. Even though the management technique worked well in the past and was important to Marin, he took his beating from his boss and said nothing to defend the practice. Instead, Marin broke down as soon as he arrived home.
After two weeks, David approached his principal again, this time offering a compromise and some paperwork that let his boss keep full control. “I approached him with a form detailing when I would call parents, and he ended up signing off on [it],” Marin says, adding that the for the rest of time, the principal signed off on every paper. “I don’t think I ever would have dared talk that out.” If not for his consultant, Marin believes he would have taken a safer route with the essay, writing something that would have been more generic, less compelling.
“He helped me reflect on the situation and come to terms more than I had in the past,” Marin says about the Blackman consultant. He’d never met John, never even seen him, yet worked together to get to the heart of the most influential feedback Marin had ever gotten.
Ultimately, Marin got several acceptances, though he was turned down by Columbia Business School. All told, Marin figures he spent 15 hours on the phone with his consultant. That works out to a whopping $460 an hour for advice. Does Marin think it was worth it? You bet. He’s in class today at one of his dream schools.
Return to main story: “Suddenly Cozy: MBA Admissions Consultants and Business Schools”