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.