The Rebel Savant Of MBA Admissions Consulting

Sandy Kreisberg, HBS Guru, in Harvard Square

Sandy Kreisberg, HBS Guru, in Harvard Square

And sometimes, even a positive result, can bring at least some disappointment. One time, a client who paid him $3,600 for advice was accepted into Stanford, but rejected by Harvard. Though you would have expected an elated customer after he got his Stanford acceptance, the client was puzzled. Why would Harvard turn him down? In this case, Kreisberg concedes, he and his client disagreed over how to handle the Harvard essays. In the end, “the stubborn client” went his own way. After getting a ding letter from Harvard, he came back to Kreisberg for an answer. “Lemme say a couple of things, man,” Kreisberg wrote back, forgoing his typical all-capped approach, “You are a super great guy, generous, smart, focused, diverse, and funny…What you needed on these essays was Sandy Kreisberg, the Sandy Kreisberg who usually is 1000 percent certain he knows what HBS wants and kicks his clients silly till he gets it. That did not happen here, and the reason is a mild mystery. Maybe I actually respected you too much to really kick your ass, and call you a jerk and just say, LOOK MAN, MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY, or maybe you just had to be you.”


According to Kreisberg, there are essentially three kinds of customers: Golden, silver, and bronze children. “About three in every ten people who hire me are what I call golden children. They are trying to get into Harvard or Stanford. They work for feeder companies like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Google. They’ve gone to Ivies or near Ivies. They don’t have any obvious problem. They are hiring me for insurance to make sure they don’t screw up. What Her Royal Majesty Dee says about fitting in? They fit in. They don’t have any problems. They hire me to make sure they don’t develop problems.

“The rest are silver or bronze. A lot of kids hire me and I tell them, ‘Look, you are not getting in. I’ll help you become an astronaut, but it’s not going to happen.’ It’s some guy with a 3.5 GPA from Cornell who is working at a non-cost center like compliance at JPMorgan with a 700 GMAT and not much extracurricular stuff. ‘There is nothing wrong with you buddy,’ I’ll say, ‘but there is nothing driving you in. You are working in a backwater. Your grades are just okay. You aren’t going to get in. Your chances are zero.’ I’ve never had anyone come back and say, ‘Hey asshole, guess what?’

So what is Harvard looking for and how does it differ from Stanford or Wharton? “The smart advice about applying to Harvard Business School is number one, be a victim or help victims. Number two, at Harvard essays about your work don’t score as high as non-work essays, although there are always exceptions. The biggest mistake is that people think the essays are the game. They can harm you more than they can help you. The reason why most schools have essays is that it supports their mythology that anybody can get in and that is way not true.

“At Harvard, the most predictive metric is undergraduate GPA. They put a lot of value on it,” insists Kreisberg. “To Harvard’s credit, the school is willing to blink at the GMAT. Someone is at Harvard this year with a 520 (out of 800). I give Dee (HBS admissions director Deirdre Leopold) a lot of credit for it. At Wharton, people have been told with a 680 or a 690 that you have to get that up. The difference between a 690 and a 710 has never flipped anyone at Harvard.”

Stanford, he thinks, is another story. “High performing do-gooders is what Stanford wants and people with connections. You can do a Dr. Phil number on yourself at Stanford and that can make a difference,” advises Kreisberg. “It won’t help you as much at Harvard.” The difference between Harvard and Stanford, claims Kreisberg, is that Stanford puts much less importance on essays and interviews. “The discrepancy between what Stanford says about the importance of the essays and what they actually are is greatest. I have read so many lousy applications at Stanford, but they are written by kids who are just Stanford types. Stanford applicants who slaved over their essays would be puzzled and annoyed at how ordinary many of the essays of other accepted students are there. In fact, they would be outraged at how banal many of them are. The Stanford interview is a marketing program. It makes them feel good. I have never had anyone tell me, ‘Sandy, I blew my Harvard interview and got in.’ People who say they blew it at Harvard never get in. When people call me and say, ‘I blew the Stanford interview,’ I say, ‘forget it.’” And Wharton?  “The interview at Wharton can screw you. If you don’t execute crisply on why you want to go there, why now, and what your goals are, if you get lost walking them through your resume, that can be damaging.”

Ask Kreisberg what he says to those who thought the admissions process was a true meritocracy, not an arm’s race to spend thousands on consultants, and he has two ready answers. “One, I say you may have a point. Two, applying to business school requires you to make some of the most important investment decisions of your life. Going to Harvard or Stanford costs kids a half million dollars by the time the smoke clears. If you don’t believe in yourself enough to hire somebody to help, you deserve the consequences of that decision.”

This is the second part of a series on MBA admissions consulting. The first story in the series, “Suddenly Cozy: MBA Admissions Consultants and Business Schools” was published on Monday. The third part in the series will appear Monday, Sept. 27th.

Other stories in our series on MBA admissions consulting:

The MBA Admissions World, According to Sandy

The Cost: $6,850  The Result: An Invite to a Dream B-School

A Yale Ethics Professor on the ‘Arms Race’ To Get Into An Elite MBA Program

Leading Firms in MBA Admissions Consulting

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.