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The MBA World, According to HBS Guru

Sandy Kreisberg, aka HBS Guru, has a reputation for telling it like it is–or at least how the highly opinionated Sandy sees it. Here are some compelling excerpts of our interview from “The Rebel Savant of MBA Admissions Consulting”:

COKE IS HARVARD, PEPSI IS STANFORD, AND WHARTON IS DR. PEPPER

“Harvard and Stanford are like Coke and Pepsi. So Wharton has to be Dr. Pepper. Wharton is willing to go older and give more credit to applicants for what they call seasoning. They will take people who have five or six years of managerial experience which is almost a negative at Harvard and Stanford. Harvard wants younger people because they are cuter: more adoring, more susceptible to the school’s transformational process, more impressionable, and more trainable. Recruiters want younger people for the same reasons.”

THE LIMITS OF WHAT A CONSULTANT CAN DO FOR YOU

“The number of applicants at HBS and Stanford for whom a consultant can turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes’ is way smaller than most applicants and both schools would admit. The process, contrary to the mythology spread by the schools, is more pre-determined than anyone cares to admit. A consultant can stop a good many ‘yes’ kids from becoming ‘no’s’ and that is one real value. A consultant can turn some ‘maybe’s’ into a ‘yes.’ And that is about all a consultant can do.”

BRAIN SURGEONS ARE RARE IN THIS BUSINESS

“The real difference is between not having a consultant and having a consultant. Most consultants with any kind of track record can help most applicants get the basics down and not mess up, and that is the critical part. If you need a hernia operation, well, most surgeons can do that, and it is way better than walking around with a hernia. Sure, we all like to think of ourselves as brain surgeons doing operations no one else can do. That may be true in rare cases, but mostly it is hernias.”

WHY ADMISSIONS OFFICERS DON’T TELL THE TRUTH

“Admissions officers are constrained by culture and legal reasons,” says Sandy Kreisberg, aka HBS Guru and head of Cambridge Essay Service. “They can’t tell the truth in public. They say it’s like they’re putting together a symphony orchestra and that they’re looking for a first violin or someone who plays the tuba. That’s baloney. It’s a convenient imprecision. They are looking for people who will support their brand, people who have already succeeded.”

CLIENTS MOST LIKELY TO ANGER HIM

“About 80% of your problems come from 10% of the people. The reason I wouldn’t like a client is because he is obsessive. He’s doing stuff like asking if he should list his high school GPA in parenthesis. Or, he’ll say, ‘Sandy, did you know the word count on Google Docs is different than Microsoft. One counts a dash and the other doesn’t.’ Or, the client who I’ve helped with seven drafts of a post-interview thank you note which I advised the person not to write in the first place.”

WHY HE WOULD FIRE A CLIENT AND RETURN THE MONEY

“I fire about two a year. Someone who pisses me off. Someone who keeps annoying me or refuses to follow directions. Someone who says I need this is an hour. Or someone who says, ‘I showed this to my friend’s roommate who went to Harvard and he says you’re crazy.’ Or, ‘my recommender needs this in 20 minutes.’ Things like that. Let me tell you something: It feels great. Not for emotional reasons, just knowing you have the confidence to get rid of someone who is causing you inefficiency, who is taking up your time and making you unhappy. The first time I did that I said, ‘Boy, was that a good move.’”

THE COZY RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CONSULTANTS AND BUSINESS SCHOOLS

“It went from under the radar to denial. Then, what happened is that it went from ‘there are too many of them and too many people are using them’ to an arm’s length acceptance. For the time being, the schools have accommodated. Admissions directors talk to consultants. They agree to be interviewed for their websites. There is a benign explanation that goes, ‘Yeah, sure, the advice I’m telling you in the advice on the website. The not-so-benign explanation is, ‘Mr. Consultant, I know you advise hundreds of people so keep my school in mind if somebody asks where should I go.’ The people at Harvard and Stanford just have to select people. But once you get outside the top ten or so, it becomes acquisitions, not admissions.”

WHY PEOPLE HIRE HIM

“People don’t hire me to get them into the University of Maryland’s business school. They hire me to put a spit shine on a shoe that is already shiny. My model is you hire me to make your dream come true. My model is one night in paradise. If you really want to get married, go someplace else. People hire me for their dream school. ”

THE INTRACTABLE PROBLEM OF THE ELITE MBA ADMISSIONS GAME

“A problem admissions officers face is that kids who work for Boston Consulting Group or McKinsey or Morgan Stanley have a whole bunch of people who give them free advice. So the schools have to distinguish between that and some other kid who doesn’t have access to that kind of advice. It’s an intractable problem.”

HARVARD OR BUST? NOT REALLY

“What happens is, a lot of people who aren’t getting into Harvard hire me for Harvard. They go through the application experience and then they say, ‘okay, let’s do Columbia early decision or Michigan or Duke. And you get a lot better result.”

HOW WOULD YOU RANK THE BEST BUSINESS SCHOOLS?

“Where the most people apply is the ultimate ranking. If I were to rank business schools, the Harvard/Stanford duopoly would be at the top. So let’s just say Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia, Sloan, Kellogg, and Chicago. Then, Tuck, UVA and Duke.”

WHERE WOULD HE GO FOR AN MBA?

“Harvard, just because it’s bigger and there’s more chance of finding mistakes like myself. Seriously, I’ve been to Harvard. You meet great people there. Eight of my ten closest friends can be traced back to Harvard. That is it’s ace in the hole, baby, and that will never, never, never stop. If they divided the class on the fist day and told half the kids to disappear and show up at commencement and the other half to go through the program, the recruiters wouldn’t even care. Selection is everything. Admissions is everything.”

Other stories in our series on MBA admissions consulting:

“Suddenly Cozy: MBA Admissions Consultants and Business Schools”

The Rebel Savant of MBA Admissions Consulting

The Cost: $6,850  The Result: An Invite to a Dream B-School

A Yale Ethics Professor on the ‘Arms Race’ To Get Into An Elite MBA Program

Leading Firms in MBA Admissions Consulting

  • Bradley

    Sanford – When you are personally ranking schools I understand your top 7, but you would closely follow that with UVA and Duke? What about those programs leads you to this conclusion? Why not Michigan, Stern, Yale, etc? Just wondering because I’m planning to apply to schools I considering higher on the list and not to UVA or Duke but would be open to the idea.

  • Jason

    It’s so refreshing to hear this. Finally someone telling it how it is! People have a hard time handling the truth. I have several co-workers–who happen to all be shooting for the Top-3 Bschools. Unfortunately they fall into the “no-so-unique” category: 1) male 2) White/Asian/Indian 3) and scored an avg 700-720 on their GMATs and 4) hold a job in a finance/eng/tech field. While the scores are great, I don’t think they realize that there’s nothing there to really seperate them from the other thousands of male White/Asian/Indian techs/finance/engineers who scored between 700-750 on their GMAT. Brilliant essay or not, the question people fail to ask themselves is, why would they be choosen over the next guy? What do you bring to the table that the other person doesn’t.

    I’m suprised how the name brand matters to them more than the actual school itself. Just apply to Harvard’s school of government instead. Easier to get into, still prestigious, and you get all the name brand glory too.

    Food for thought.

  • Tim

    This article (and the other one about HBS Guru) is one of the most interesting, and helpful articles I’ve read regarding the admissions process. I’ve been researching schools for the better part of a year and am so sick of all the redundant, meaningless information put out for applicants’ consumption. Everything is: “just tell your story” and “at X school, we are so collaborative.”

    Please continue to provide “real” (and interesting) info on MBA programs and admissions issues. There’s very little helpful info out there, and even less people providing it.

  • Thanks, John, that was fun and helpful, I hope, and keep up the great work.
    Just some asteriks,

    *****As I told you, one third of the people who hire me
    are getting into HBS most likely anyway, and are buying insurance; some larger group
    are maybes, and I can optimize their chances, about 20 percent really have marginal chances of getting in and are basically going to Lourdes. But that sometimes makes people feel better, too.
    Way more than one-third of the people who hire me get into HBS. It is more like 45-60 percent. As noted, one-third were probably getting in if they did nothing, and just buying insurance.

    *****Of the 100 kids for whom I do mock HBS interviews, man, 70 percent get in, which is not surprising, since the natural number would be 60.

    *****I also do a thriving business at Columbia, Wharton, and Stanford as well.

    Sanford Kreisberg
    http://hbsguru.com