So what exactly does an aspiring MBA student get for the thousands he or she shells out to a consultant? The consultants say that students are assisted in a process of deep, critical introspection: the writing, editing, re-writing, and most of all the soul-searching aimed at helping them figure out their long-term goals, ambitions and passions. “It’s about who you are. What you want. What you think. Why something’s right for you. Why you’re passionate about it,” says Duffy. “Then, once you’ve figured all that out, determining whether a particular program is right for you.” (See “The Cost: $6,850 The Outcome: A Seat At A Dream B-School.”)
AN INTIMACY NOT SEEN SINCE THE MOVIE GHOST.
It’s also very much about the essay. mbaMission, a New York-based consulting firm, says its clients brainstorm with a senior consulting team that includes seven Harvard MBAs to develop “compelling, comprehensive statements that highlight your unique attributes.” Consultants also help build the framework of the essay. “As your essays take shape,” mbaMission explains on its site, “we will fine-tune each draft, focusing on sentence structure, grammar, style and flow.” It’s an intimacy not seen since Patrick Swayze helped Demi Moore with pottery in Ghost.
At Hernandez College Consulting, where a five-hour package costs $4,500, Josh Stephens, the company’s essay specialist (and Princeton English major) says he thinks of the process as a collaboration. Stephens smoothes out clunky paragraphs, recommends synonyms and generally bends flat writing into a narrative arc. He also plays snake charmer, coaxing a more compelling narrative out of a basket of whatever facts and snippets the applicant presents. He recently worked with an entrepreneur from a developing country who wanted to hype his big ideas and fantastic goals. Stephens asked him to be more reflective: How might he help his country after graduation? “That wasn’t a perspective he had thought of,” Stephens says, declining to give any specifics.
Stacy Blackman, of Stacy Blackman Consulting, says she followed a similar process to help a Wharton applicant come to grips with his past failures. Laid off four times, including once during the application process itself, his instinct was to hide, glossing over the dismissals with phrases like “I decided to move companies.” Blackman instead helped him to craft an essay that highlighted his resilience and how the lessons he learned from failure would shape his future at school and after. She says he not only got into Wharton, he also gained a scholarship to offset the cost of his tuition.
CROSSING THE LINE AT STANFORD.
A few in the B-school admissions world are still troubled by this kind of coaching. At the University of Michigan, the MBA admissions office is putting more weight on applicant interviews. “We want to get more information out of the interview than we might have previously because the essays are often coached and can be written by somebody else,” says Soojin Kwon Koh, director of admissions at Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
Stanford, meantime, informs every applicant that “you cross a line when any part of the application (excluding the letters of reference) ceases to be exclusively yours in either thought or word.” The concerning questions is this: When does “consulting” cross the line into wholesale repackaging of a candidate? If Stephens’ client really wasn’t thinking about giving back to his country, was his original essay touting his own ambitions a more accurate reflection of his values and personality? “There’s the subtle assumption that the choices you make as you decide what to write about, and what you start to say, will reflect certain values and point of view,” says Sarah McGinty, founder of McGinty Consulting Group and author of The College Application Essay. “It is a very tricky area, ethically.” Duffy disagrees. She says coaching and advice is fine as long as the student does his or her own writing.
In fact, schools have to accept on faith that students and consultants are behaving ethically. Not only do they have no way of knowing how much an essay reflects the work of the consultant, they don’t even know which essays consultants were involved with. Most schools don’t ask and applicants have little incentive to volunteer the information. The truth is, “it’s tough to tell whether an application has been touched,” according to Brian Lohr, admissions director at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. On their own, essays rarely tip off admissions officers that there’s a problem. That troubling insight is more likely to surface when the essay departs dramatically from the picture that emerges from interviews, recommendations, and the writing section of the GMAT.
One telling sign is a highly refined essay paired with a weak GMAT Analytical Writing Assessment. The AWA gives students 30 minutes to analyze an argument (a lower-priced newspaper is siphoning off readers; to compete, we should drop our prices, too) or an issue (employees should keep private, personal lives separate from the work place). Though writing under pressure is often seen as a draft, a terrible AWA and a beautifully crafted essay is, “a pattern we pick up on,” says Kelly Wilson, assistant dean of MBA admissions at McDonough School of Business. Similarly, if Wilson is interviewing a student who lacks strong English language skills, she’ll make a note so that the essay reader can cross-reference. “It’s a consistent issue we face,” she says. Booth’s deputy dean, Stacey Kole, says she’s seen fantastic essays paired with a recommendation explaining the student’s lack of writing skills. That’ll raise some flags. Then, of course, there’s plagiarism. Lohr recalls one year when his team received nearly identical essays from a pair of international students. “That was a show-stopper for both candidates,” he says.