Suddenly Cozy: MBA Consultants and B-Schools

ADMISSION OFFICIALS HELPED TO DRAFT A CONSULTANTS’ CODE.

Whatever the misgivings admissions officers may or may not have, it’s clear that consultants are now a permanent part of the B-school landscape and that schools will have to find a way to deal with them. Tuck was one of the first to engage. In 2005 it hosted the first Conference for International Educational Consultants. Twenty-five consultants showed up for Tuck’s pitch about what made the school unique. A year later, a handful of consultants, including Graham Richmond, co-founder of Clear Admit, made presentations at the Graduate Management Admissions Council conference in San Francisco. “It was like going behind enemy lines,” Richmond recalls. Five months later, the counselers founded the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants to establish an ethics baseline for members including a guarantee that they were not putting words in student’s mouths. Rose Martinelli, then an associate dean at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and Dawna Clarke, director of admissions at Tuck, helped draft the code.

Martinelli had worked with Richmond in the admissions office at Wharton early last decade, and in 2006 and 2007 collaborated with Clear Admit to run surveys on the consultancy’s website. As part of the partnership, Booth paid the fees for Slover Livett, a Chicago-based audience research firm, and Clear Admit provided access to its readers.

To get a better handle on the invisible presence of consultants in the admissions process, in 2008, Booth started asking students about the dynamic point blank. How did applicants use consultants? Who did they use? What was the relationship like? To allay students’ fears of being stigmatized, the school waited until students were comfortably on campus before firing off questions. Kole had always assumed that consultants were “polishing the rocks,” making lesser students seem better. To her surprise, she found that even the most impressive class members worked with consultants. That led Booth to views consultant as an inevitable part of the process, similar to the school guidance counselors who worked with undergraduate applicants. Booth drew up an engagement strategy that included hosting online chats with consultants. “We can treat them as the enemy, but we have less influence than if we treat them as friends,” Kole says.

Open dialogue helped reinvent the relationship, but so did consultants’extensive reach on the Internet. According to a survey by AIGAC last year, consultants’ sites now rank third behind school websites and the BusinessWeek rankings as a source of information for MBA aspirants. “[Schools] can use us as a marketing tool to reach more people than they would going out on the road,” says mbaMission founder Jeremy Shinewald. “We’re part of the communication channel for them in a way that’s very cheap and easy.” MbaMission serves up “exclusive” interviews with admissions directors from the country’s top schools, and its joint newsletter with Manhattan GMAT reaches tens of thousands of inboxes. Meanwhile, Clear Admit’s blog now reaches a half million unique visitors a year, and schools are in constant contact. Columbia, for example, reached out to stress its cross-disciplinary teaching model. MIT’s Garcia says he sees interviews with Clear Admit and Accepted.com in the same way he views talking with BusinessWeek and other news outlets.

SOME SCHOOLS NOW FOOT THE BILL FOR CONSULTANT VISITS.

Schools outside the top-tier are including consultants in their marketing budgets, too. Recently, the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad foot the bill for a round-trip flight and accommodations for Andrea Guido, an mbaMission senior consultant. In 2008, Indiana’s Kelley School of Business paid the way for a group of consultants to come to campus. The visit are meant to put Kelley on the radar screens of consultants in the hope that they might recommend the school to applicants.

It’s a vast change from the chilly reception consultants received a mere ten years ago. “Initially,” recalls Stacy Blackman, “the schools asked,  ‘Who are these people? Are they trying to cheat the system? Are they trying to get unqualified people in?’ We were the enemy trying to do something bad. But that has come full circle. It’s gotten very, very good.”

This is part one of a three-part series on MBA admissions consulting. The second story in our series will be published on Thursday, Sept. 23rd.