The Shrinking MBA Application

Linda Abraham, founder of Founder Linda Abraham says that accusations of inauthenticity in MBA applications merely reflect “the profound ignorance of the accusers”

A very long plane flight gave me the time to organize the thoughts that have been swirling through my head for months in response to the shrinking MBA application, innovations in the interview process, and various articles and posts about the widespread changes and experimentation in this year’s MBA application.

I applaud the schools for experimenting. I respect admissions officers. The ones I know are dedicated professionals who work hard to attract and then select the most talented, diverse classes they can.

At the same time, I am disappointed by some of their motivations for these experiments and concerned about the impact of the shrinking MBA application on their ability to make informed decisions.

For example, Niki da Silva, the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management’s Director of MBA Recruitment & Admissions, wrote in a recent Ask the Expert column on

“The combination of an increasing influence and prevalence of admissions consultants, and the volume of blogs/message boards advice on presenting a profile that Schools are looking for have contributed to an environment that has become difficult to get an authentic picture of an applicant.”

In a Poets and Quants article, citing a Bloomberg Businessweek interview, Wharton Vice-Dean of Innovation Karl T. Ulrich said:

“Over the last 10 to 20 years, because of blogs and the applicant community and discussion forums, people have developed a really good sense of what the admissions process looks like, down to what kinds of questions are asked and how they manage the interview,” he said. “So in some ways that was one of the reasons we wanted to try some other approaches, because it had become kind of a game in which everyone knew the rules. We wanted to get the applicants in an unscripted environment, with a more dynamic kind of interaction. That was one of the main goals.”

Inauthentic Applicants or Disingenuous Critics?

On some level, as one of the older admissions consultants around, I should be flattered to be among those triggering this wave of experimentation and innovation. However I find the credit to be at best a left-handed compliment for a few reasons:

  1. The admissions consultants I know are urging, nagging, teaching, questioning, and doing everything in their power to encourage applicants to be genuinely at their best in their applications. Certainly a brief examination of Accepted’s articles, blogs, webinars, or my book would reveal that urges both self-reflection and integrity in the application process.
  2. While I agree that message boards display some applicants’ I’ll-write-whatever-will-get-me-in approach to the application essays, that attitude preceded online forums and the growth of the admissions consulting industry. And blogs are as varied as their authors. Most top business schools have excellent admissions blogs. Really mandatory reading for applicants to those programs. Student blogs can also be valuable sources of information about school culture and the b-school experience. Blaming “blogs” and more informed candidates for inauthenticity is perplexing at best.
  3. If essays are no longer authentic or informative, schools should do away with them entirely.
  4. MBA programs advise, polish, spruce, transform, and coach their students to the Nth degree when those students apply for jobs. Why is that advising OK? Why aren’t schools (or future employers) concerned about genuineness then?
  5. If inauthenticity is corrupting the admissions process, class quality should be declining. Yet every year, schools, and frequently admissions officers, delightfully declare the ever-improving quality of their classes. We need a reality check — dare I say authenticity check — either on the claim of soaring class quality or on the complaint of a process allegedly sullied by blogs, information, and admissions consultants.

Is the plethora of information really contributing to inauthenticity? Or are admissions committees today simply dealing with a more informed applicant body that is working hard to present itself well? As a result, admissions committees find it harder to distinguish between the clueless and the clued-in because there are so many more applicants with access to information – so many more clued in?

And what about the role of professional consulting and advising? Admission officers’ used to say “We can tell when applicants use consultants.”  Those comments just made the commenters look silly as more and more clients were accepted to MBA programs. Clearly admissions staff couldn’t “tell.”

I proudly plead guilty to making admissions committees’ job harder by helping applicants present themselves well and as distinct individuals. I recognize that Accepted’s blog, articles, ebooks, webinars, MBA interview feedback database, and other resources as well as our one-on-one MBA admissions consulting are contributing to “this problem.” However, accusations of inauthenticity and fabrication aimed in this direction merely reflect the profound ignorance of the accusers. Nothing more.

  • Thank you.

  • Arturo

    Linda’s comments are right on! I will be paying a very high tuition to get into an MBA so I can become a better candidate for a higher position. Now suddenly paying for advisory is outrageous. So maybe employers shouldn’t employ MBA graduates because they have been trained to get those positions.

    My MBA adviser helped me bring out my unique and outstanding qualities for my essays. Instead of following clichès and explaining how studying in NYC would be a great cultural experience, I focused more on sharing my personal achievements, goals and aspirations.

  • Well Said.

  • pengyou

    Sorry but I believe you have a distorted view on the pool of applicants.
    1/ “applicants devote less than one percent […] to that effort”, it isn’t less than 1%, more like 2 to 5% which is not so small, do the math.
    2/ It’s not about priviledged Richie Rich families, reality is different. I know a bunch of people who still haven’t paid back their undergrad loans and are now requiring higher investments, there’s also a lot of people who had decent wage for 3 years but not enough to support two full years sky high tuitions and life/food/transport with no income. People will have a tendency to cut corners in order to limit their dependency on loans.
    3/ You are comparing a tangible investment with an untangible investment. It can make sense for someone with limited resources to invest, and borrow, to cover tuiton fees as he can expect a ROI of some sort. For consultancy doesn’t guarantee that you will get admitted anywhere, it is more a nice thing to have than a necessity if you have limited resources. Remember that you are supposed to get in B-School without the help of a consultant.

    Admission consultancy is a no-pain for priviledged people. relative to the application pool. If schools find a way to get rid of them, I don’t see where that would be a bad thing.

    Too bad to see that P&Q is nothing more than a soapbox for admission consultants.

  • Media Mentions

    actually there’s a pretty interesting exposé that Finweek did on CEOs with and without MBAs and produces some interesting and unexpected results. Going off your brilliant blog post, I’d like to share the article with you as well (

  • Dan Poston – UW Foster

    For many, the MBA admissions process is about FINDING the right candidates with a trained eye for talent identification. Too often, the MBA admissions process simply separates the informed and coached from the uninformed and uncoached. That approach wastes vast amount of talent. We need to do more to MAKE better MBA applicants, not just find them. Blogs, information on the internet, and admissions coaches can give us more informed candidates. Business schools, too, must do more not less to help prospective students know and develop more of the qualities the admissions office seeks before applying. Preparation and education for a professional career in business does not begin in a business school classroom. If we leave this effort entirely to others, some candidates have a terrible disadvantage. Childhood experiences, family examples and connections, K-12 and college advisors and experiences, first jobs, experiences in religious, social or community organizations, internet sources, the MBA application process itself, and advice candidates receive from both admissions coaches and school admissions staff, or any subset of these options, can all help prospective MBA candidates develop the level of professional skills we seek in applicants. My MBA program at the University of Washington makes a vigorous effort through application workshops, admissions coaching sessions, and very direct pre-MBA career advising to help prospects develop into strong MBA applicants. As a result, rather than just finding great candidates, we make them. Some candidates are years in the making, some months, but many become fantastic applicants and MBA students. Yes, with our help many candidates are accepted to other schools, but we reap a large share of the people we help and the world gets more talent. The more applicants can learn about presenting themselves well before the MBA program, the farther they can go during our programs to build great professional networks and enhance the knowledge, skills and attributes needed to succeed after our programs.

  • Peng,

    MBA Over 30’s point was much more about leveling the playing field by providing information and resources that the less privileged would not have access to if it weren’t for the articles, webinars, chats, and reports provided free by admissions consultants. According to his blog, he has not paid for a consultant, but he did make extensive use of consultant sites.

    Todd’s response to you about the cost of consulting compared to the cost of an MBA is also 100% on point. Most people who use our services spend approximately 1% of the cost of their TOTAL MBA expense on our services. If applicants can afford the MBA expense what they are paying for our services is peanuts.

    The real question is whether one feels the benefits of using a consultant outweigh expense. That is always the question in business. And frankly it is frequently the question in life. Paying for a consultant is like making any other educational investment. I addressed that question at some length in the article linked to earlier in this paragraph.

    Peng, your point about shifting elites could be applied to any graduate degree. Certainly to any scholarships for professional education. The people who receive the scholarships and then have the tools to excel professionally, become the new monied elite.


  • Dreamer

    Though I agree with this article, i disagree with the leveling the playing field sentiment. I think you are always compare to your cohort. They re not going to compare an applicant from a bulge bracket bank or MBB with an engineer. So while yes people from more traditional background have an advantage in how to present themselves, they are also measure against their peers.

  • R. Todd King

    This isn’t about underprivileged high-school kids applying to college, pengyou; business school applicants already have a college degree and a career. A majority of applicants who pay “the high cost of such consultancy” devote less than one percent of their total business school cost to that effort. Your argument is equivalent to a home buyer complaining about the cost of installing a sprinkler system.

  • pengyou

    Sorry Linda, while you do make a point here, I think you are really missing something big.

    I would agree with you if all these services were available to everyone. The privileges are simply shifting from an elite to another, from those who had insider information to those who have money.

    MBA tuitions are very expensive, but even before they know if they will be admitted anywhere, applicants have to spend a lot of cash on the basics: application fees, GMAT, and others (language certificates etc.)
    At the same time, applicants who are not particularily wealthy will start saving every penny to support the cost of 2 years skyrocket-high tuitions and living expenses.

    Now what you say is that admission consultants are leveling the playing field, well that’s only true for those who afford the high cost of such consultancy. To me it simply brings more unfairness to an already unfair selection process. I strongly support schools who try to find other ways to get a real sense of who their applicants are.

  • Thanks. Some schools’ essays have definitely shrank in length over the last 10 years. Stanford used to have length “guidelines” of 3.5 -7 pages. But no limits. HBS actually used to have 300-word limits on most of its essays, but it asked more questions. I think overall you are correct that essays are fewer and shorter.


  • disqus_CVwKBvsOt2

    I really appreciated this article. I’m almost finished with my applications and the most surprising part of the process has been the essay word limits. I can appreciate that the limits force applicants to be concise and maintain only the most valuable material. However, it is challenging to develop a cohesive narrative in 500 words or less.

    The reason the word limits surprised me is that I’ve purchased multiple “guidebooks” on the admissions process (most published in the last 1-3 years), and the sample essays were significantly longer than the essays I completed this year. It was difficult to provide the level of detail I saw in the “model essays” in my actual applications due to very different length constraints.

    If shorter essays limits is a persistent trend, these guidebooks will need to updated to stay relevant for applicants. For those who can’t afford consulting services they are a great resource, but only if they are on track with the reality of the current landscape.

  • Thanks, again.

  • Thanks, MBAreapplicant84. I appreciate the feedback. And no, we certainly can’t change your profile. Only you can do that. We can only advise.


  • MBAreapplicant84

    Fantastic article Linda! I completely agree with MBAover30, in my experience, all the information I have received from blogs, forums, and consultants has only helped me better present myself. In no way has it changed my profile.

  • MBAreapplicant84

    Fantastic article Linda!

  • Thanks for the feedback, MBA Over 30!

    I agree with your two points. While you are 100% correct that admissions consultants cannot improve applicant profiles, we can assess competitiveness and fit as well as advise applicants on how they can improve their profiles.


  • OUCH! Like a hot knife in soft butter…and accurate. Great post Linda. I’d also like to add two other points to the discussion:

    1) On the issue of there being more “clued in” applicants: people who are working at Big 4/MBB consulting firms, top investment banks, Teach for America, or who have attended Ivy League + Stanford + Chicago + Berkeley + Duke + Northwestern et al. institutions for undergrad have been sharing this information for decades among themselves anyway–not to mention performing complete GMAT makeovers by investing thousands of dollars into test prep courses. Admissions consultants and blogs simply LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD by making the information readily available to any and everyone–not just those who are coming out of pedigreed networks pre-MBA. The sad thing is that if the playing field were not leveled as such, I doubt that many of the same statements about “getting help” and being “overly packaged” would have been made by school officials, because people who went to HYP or work for McKinsey would never DREAM of over-packaging themselves, right? Only people who went to state school would do that. LOL

    2) Admissions consultants and informative blogs cannot improve your profile. They can only better inform you on how to present it.