Last spring, the Harvard Business School quietly took a step that would have been unthinkable only ten years earlier: It welcomed nearly 50 for-hire admissions consultants to its leafy campus, treating them to a private tour of the school’s red brick, neo-Georgian buildings and a chance to chat with both Admissions Director Dee Leopold and Steve Nelson, executive director of Harvard’s MBA program. “We were welcomed as fellow professionals,” says Dan Bauer who heads up The MBA Exchange, a firm that helps applicants get into top schools. “It was all civil, cordial and candid.”
That warm embrace by the most prestigious business school in the land marks a watershed for the business of admissions consultants. Not long ago, Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and other top schools regarded these hired guns with disapproval and skepticism. B-school officials often spoke out against the use of consultants, and some schools explicitly forbade applicants from hiring them. They worried that if the practice became widespread, it would be impossible for admissions officers to know if they were evaluating the work of an applicant—or that of a high-priced surrogate. And even if consultants contained themselves to merely polishing essays and helping clients present the best possible image, didn’t that confer an unfair advantage over students who couldn’t afford a paid helper?
Those concerns have largely fallen by the wayside. The relationship between the top schools and the consultants has gone from chilly to positively cozy. The Harvard visit was part of a three-day conference in June organized by the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC). The consultants also met with the dean of MIT’s Sloan School and the admissions officers at the most prestigious business schools in the world including Dartmouth, Yale, and Duke. Columbia, New York University, Michigan and INSEAD even gave a behind-the-scenes look at the admissions process, evaluating three hypothetical candidate profiles for the group.
‘THEY KNOW WE’RE NOT GOING AWAY.’
“There had been an us-versus-them mentality,” says one consultant who expressed surprise at Harvard’s willingness to entertain the group this year. “Now there’s acceptance. They know we’re not going away.” More than that, this new detente is an acknowledgement that any school that wants access to the most desirable applicants had better be extremely comfortable with consultants. Not only do even the top applicants engage them but the consultants, with their vast online reach, often touch more would-be students than any admissions department and wield growing influence over who applies where.
Harvard’s Leopold does not view last spring’s visit as an endorsement of admissions consulting. She says she agreed to meet with them as an efficient way to gain market intelligence about students’ application experiences. “That was the deal we made with AIGAC: Info session for info session,” she says. “Mission accomplished, from my standpoint.” The three-day conference, hosted on days one and two by MIT, marks the third time schools have hosted the consulting group. In 2008, Northwestern and Chicago helped to put on the show, while in 2009 Columbia and New York University were hosts.
The coziness that has evolved between the schools and the consultants also results from the fact that some consultants had once worked in admissions offices at the schools. Many others are MBA alums of elite institutions. Among its 40 consultants, for example, Chicago-based The MBA Exchange lists nine MBAs from Harvard, a half dozen from Wharton, and three from Stanford, along with former MBA admissions officials from Columbia, Kellogg, Wharton and Chicago. (See our directory of leading MBA consulting firms). Now, rather than viewing consultants as hired guns, schools see them as a “particular set of helpers,” as the University of Chicago’s deputy dean of full-time MBA programs Stacey Kole says.
The relationships have led to co-sponsored studies of students, expenses-paid trips for consultants to B-school campuses, cocktail parties at downtown hotels and the occasional dinner. Many believe a line was crossed in 2008 when Wharton’s associate director of admissions, Judith Hodara, was found to be on the advisory board of an MBA admissions consulting firm in Tokyo. As a top official at Wharton with inside knowledge of the school’s admission policies, she was advising the firm on how it could best serve its applicant clients, including those who applied to her own school. Wharton asked her to resign the post to avoid “an appearance of a conflict of interest.” Hodara quit the Japanese firm, subsequently left the school and is now a consultant in Atlanta where her website notes that she has “personally evaluated over 20,000 MBA application files.” (See “A Yale Ethics Professor on the ‘Arms Race’ To Get Into An Elite Business School”).
In part, the admissions consulting biz is simply riding the swell of students interested in the still widely coveted MBA degree. MBA programs received more than 196,000 applications last year, up from 81,500 in 2005, according to surveys. When Rod Garcia took over as admissions director at MIT’s Sloan School in the late ’80s, the school attracted 1,700 applicants. Last year, 4,782 people applied for admission. Over the same period, the number of consultants has exploded. AIGAC alone now has 93 members from 11 countries, though there probably are as many as 300 firms with more than 500 MBA admission consultants around the world. Overall, MBA consultants are now racking up annual revenues of at least $35 million worldwide.
UP TO A THIRD OF TOP-TEN APPLICANTS USE CONSULTANTS.
And consultants have become a much more common part of the process. Exact numbers are hard to come by—partly because students are promised complete anonymity from their consultants, a vestige of the old stigma—but more than a dozen consultants estimate that a quarter to a third of the applicants to the top 10 business schools now use their services. At Harvard, Stanford and Wharton, as many as half of the applicants now pay for advice. These aspiring MBAs pay handsomely for the counseling, often between $5,000 and $10,000 a pop. The top players can charge as much as high-end attorneys. A grad-school essay package from Hernandez College Consulting, for example, costs $900 an hour. Some offer “a la carte” counseling: a Boston consultant named Sanford Kreisberg charges $300 for a mock interview to prep an applicant for a school interview and $900 for a “one-time sanity check” to critique a completed application before it’s sent.
By and large, their clients are happy with the results. Applicants who have used consultants say they improve their chances of getting into a top school. Jamal Motlagh, a second-year MBA student at Harvard, says he believes the few thousand dollars he spent for help on his essays paid off. “It’s money well worth it,” he insists. Besides, even $10,000 in consulting fees is a drop in the bucket compared to the total cost of a top MBA program, which can now set students back more than $300,000 once you toss in their lost income over two years.
TRACE THE EARLY BEGINNINGS TO A HARVARD OFFICIAL.
Today’s consulting biz can trace its roots back to Maxx Duffy a one-time associate director of admissions at Harvard Business School who left her post for personal reasons in 1976. She never thought to sell her insider’s knowledge, but almost immediately friends besieged her. “’C’mon help me. I want to go to Harvard!’” they’d exclaim, and with Duffy’s help, “lo and behold, they were successful,” she says. Before long she started charging for her services, discreetly handing out fliers at GMAT testing centers around Boston. In 1985, she moved to Los Angeles and officially launched Maxx Associates.
In those early days, schools made it clear that students should complete their applications on their own, period, even forcing them to sign statements attesting that they had no help. So, Duffy flew under the radar for many years, never letting former colleagues know that applications were being guided through the door assisted by someone with inside knowledge. A trickle of other admissions officers followed her footsteps in the 80s. By the end of the 90s, the trickle became a flood, with most consultants following the blueprint laid down by Duffy.
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.
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.