“Do you want to know who gets into Harvard Business School and how it works?”
Sandy Kreisberg asks the question as if he’s about to divulge Coca-Cola’s secret formula to a rival company spy. In Darwin’s coffeehouse off Harvard Square, the long-time MBA admissions consultant leans across a table with a serious air. He reaches into a satchel and pulls out a thick folder bulging with more than 100 resumes from clients who applied to Harvard Business School last year.
Leafing through the files, he picks up one stained with coffee and covered with his illegible scrawl. “2.9 GPA. GMAT 690. Harvard College. This person didn’t get in, and the reason is low GPA.”
Kreisberg shows another. “3.9, 760, and worked for one of the hot companies. You want to know what the hot, hot companies are? Disney, Apple, Google. A high GPA, a premium GMAT, a hot company, and he was rejected. Go figure.”
The reason why Kreisberg, the self-proclaimed HBS Guru, has all these files is that he grilled more than 100 applicants to Harvard last year in mock interviews, helping candidates prepare for the real thing with the school’s admissions staff. About 70% of those 100+ candidates are in this fall’s entering class. Kreisberg claims he interviewed more applicants to Harvard than anyone in the admissions office of the school last year. A spokesman for Harvard disputes the claim. Asked for more comment on Kreisberg, the spokesman says, “I think we’ll pass on that one.”
He has never taken the GMAT, never applied to a business school, and never worked in an MBA admissions office. Yet, Kreisberg has an obsessive knowledge of how the admissions office of the world’s best business school works. He reads every admissions announcement for what it doesn’t say as much as what it says. Every client who wants into Harvard is another data point to him, another tea leaf to read to gain some useful insight to help a customer. Roughly 80% of the more than 1,500 MBA hopefuls he has had as clients apply to the school. Kreisberg claims to have gotten in a third of them, enough to fill more than five 90-seat sections over the years. Another 200 clients have gone to Wharton, he says, while 100 have gotten acceptances from Stanford. So he has a lot of data points.
LIKE A DOCTOR LOOKING AT YOUR X-RAYS.
“I can tell who they like,” he says. “I can tell what it takes to be an acceptable oddball. Man, I’ve got a real feeling for whether you’re getting in or not. And after going through a resume and asking a few questions, I say, ‘here is the verdict.’ I feel like a doctor looking at your X-rays at that point. I can tell whether this is cancer or not.”
In a business largely populated by earnest MBAs and fusty one-time academic administrators, Kreisberg is the rebel savant of the profession. With his thin graying hair, rimless spectacles and wiry build, he looks a little like an intensely demanding high school English teacher–but few principals would likely have him. His consulting style can be argumentative, abrasive, and occasionally off-putting. Even the seven pages of highly favorable testimonials on his website caution would-be clients of the need for a thick skin. Confides one anonymous customer: “Sandy won’t coddle your ego, and it is difficult to hear that essays you thought were great wouldn’t interest an ad comm (admissions committee) at all. But frankly, I didn’t pay Sandy to make me feel good.“
It’s not that Kreisberg is an angry, middle-aged man who despises what he does. In fact, he insists that he was put on this earth to do exactly this and nothing else. It’s just that subtlety eludes him. “I’m the guy who gives it to you straight,” he says. “I’d like to consider myself the Jack Welch of the profession, though some think of me as Howard Stern.” (See “The MBA Admissions World According to Sandy.”)
More often than not, his blistering critiques come via emails in screaming all-capped letters. To one 20-something whose application essays wandered, he wrote: “THIS IS HIGH SCHOOL, JERK-OFF STUFF. DON’T SEND ME THIS AGAIN. THIS IS CRAP. AND STOP WORRYING ABOUT THE FUCKING WORD COUNT.” After numerous drafts, the client got into Columbia Business School.
To another client whose writing lacked clarity, Kreisberg snapped: “THIS SOUNDS HARSH MAN, BUT I AM ON YOUR SIDE. GET OFF THE SOAPBOX, STOP BEING SUCH AN INTELLECTUAL, PRECIOUS, CULTURAL WALLFLOWER, AND JUST BANG OUT WHAT THE HELL YOU DID.”
“I was a little shocked in the beginning by his harsh comments,” says Kreisberg’s client, who does not want to be identified, “but soon realized that his honest opinions were much more helpful than the diluted and vague suggestions I was receiving from friends.” In the end, the ‘wallflower’ made it into Harvard Business School.
TOUGHER ON EMAIL BUT NO BABY ON THE PHONE.
Kreisberg makes little apology for his willfully un-ingratiating manner. “I don’t think subtlety is valuable,” he says. “I just get caught up in the writing. My own mojo takes over. It’s a shortcoming of mine. It would be very hard to say these things in person. I am tougher on email than I am on the phone, but I am no baby on the phone. There probably is a kind of person who shouldn’t hire me, the person who wants to hear things through a filter. If that’s your personality, don’t ever hire me.”
But many do hire him and many are even gleeful with the result. Invariably, the thank you letters and emails go something like this: “We pulled off the biggest caper of all time!” gushed a client who was accepted by Stanford. Or from a successful HBS applicant: “I really don’t think I could have achieved it without Sandy’s intense help.”
That help doesn’t come cheap. Kreisberg charges $2,600 for a full-service package of help “for ultra-devoted types who want to maximize their chances for their number one school.” All of it is due in advance, up front. On average, he’ll spend five to ten hours with a client. Do the math and the $2,600 flat fee comes to $260 to $520 an hour. If a customer applies to three schools, the bill is tripled to $7,800. The largest consulting fee he has ever charged was $10,400 for a four-school package of advice. For people who haven’t used him Kreisberg but want him to look over a completed application, there’s the $900 “sanity check” which includes an email critique and a brainstorming phone call. He charges $300 for a “ding report” that assesses why an applicant was rejected, and $300 for a mock interview to prepare a candidate for the real thing with an admissions staffer or a school alum.
A BETTER YEAR THAN A HARVARD PRESIDENT.
In any given year, Kreisberg figures, he has as many as 250 clients and pulls down more than $300,000 in income. As he jokingly puts it, “When Neil Rudenstine was president of Harvard University, I made as much as him. That was a satisfying symmetry. And let me say this: As Babe Ruth said about being paid more than Calvin Coolidge, I was having better years than Neil. After Larry Summers became president and blew the whole president’s salary out of whack, I’m no longer making as much as the president of Harvard.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Kreisberg’s consulting practice is that after more than 1,000 clients, and millions of dollars in fees, he has only once held an in-person session with a customer who insisted on practicing his mock interview with Kreisberg present. Clients pay him thousands of dollars every year and never see him in person. “Baby, that’s the Internet,” he smiles. “I found it amazing in the beginning, too.”
When Kreisberg, now 64, began to dabble in admissions consulting in the 1970s, he was something of a pioneer. He started advising friends and family shortly after earning a master’s in English Literature at Harvard in 1971. The first HBS applicant he helped in 1974 was a bust. “She had a real hard case to make,” recalls Kreisberg. “She was a lawyer trying to get into business school, and as a rule, they do not like practicing attorneys. They figure you already have a profession.”
For eight years, from 1980 to 1988, he taught expository writing to Harvard freshmen, while trying to gain his PhD, which he never completed. “I wasn’t driven. I didn’t have a passion for scholarship.” Instead, he earned a law degree from Boston University and for a few years was a litigator at a city law firm, hunched over a desk shuffling paper. He hated the job, preferring his moonlighting helping applicants. It wasn’t until 1995, after his cousin built a crude website for Cambridge Essay Services, that Kreisberg made it a full-time pursuit.