The Rebel Savant Of MBA Admissions Consulting

Sandy Kreisberg does most of his consulting on the phone or the computer

“It was one of the few times in my life that I got some place early,” says Kreisberg. “I missed the Nifty 50, Xerox, Microsoft, bottled water and the housing boom. But with this, for once in my life, I got to something early.” Many of his first customers were from California, early adopters to the web, and most of them wanted to get elite MBAs. As the number of applicants to prestige schools swelled in the 1990s, the industry came into its own. Today, Kreisberg is one of some 500 consultants specializing in the MBA market alone and billing at least $35 million a year.

CHIPPING AWAY AT THE ICE PACK.

He works out of his home in a third-floor condo in Cambridge, just an 11-minute walk from the Harvard Business School campus. It is a good thing that he has never been married nor has children. From June until January of every year, the peak season for MBA applicants, Kreisberg barely leaves his apartment, working his Dell desktop computer and his telephone from 9:30 a.m. until 1:30 a.m., seven days a week. He eats a bowl of Whole Foods chicken soup for lunch. Each day begins with what Kreisberg calls emergencies, urgent emails from clients who need immediate help. “I try to chip away at the ice pack, editing four, five or six essays in the morning,” he says. “Depending on what time of the season it is, I may have to return a few phone calls. Leaving the house is a huge mistake. It’s possible that from the beginning of August to January, I spend less than two hours a day outside, a day and a half around Thanksgiving to visit friends, and two days off at Christmas.”

The typical assignment begins with a conversation about the client’s resume and ambitions. Unlike some consultants, Kreisberg is blunt, quick to assess if a candidate has the right stuff to get into a Harvard, Stanford, or Wharton. “I say people like you get in or don’t get it. I’ll ask them for their three big accomplishments. And then I can’t stop myself. I’ll say here’s how you spin that. Here’s what you do. That accomplishment sounds like the other one. What else do you have? Your accomplishment sounds more like a mistake.”

Kreisberg says he will not write an essay for anyone. “They absolutely have to do the first draft and every draft,” he insists. “People often just want me to interview them and write the application. You get some international kids who think that is the game. In the words of Richard Nixon, that would be wrong. Besides, it takes too much time, it’s not fun, and it actually doesn’t work.”

Instead, a client will take a stab at the essays after some direction from Kreisberg and then the emails go back and forth—sometimes on a daily basis. Typically, there will be three to a dozen drafts of each essay. “The most common mistakes people make are they don’t explain themselves,” he lectures. “They aren’t aware of how they are coming off. They are not specific enough. They are talking in a Victorian diction. They are telling the school high-minded truths. Whenever you pick up an essay and they start quoting Aristotle, you know it’s over.”

BITCH SLAPPING YOUR RECOMMENDERS.

The handholding doesn’t end with highly polished essays. Kreisberg gets deeply involved in an applicants’ choice of recommenders and how those letters are best crafted for effect. Many of his clients have access to the letters written by their recommenders. “I read them and in 15% of the cases they are damaging because the person either covertly doesn’t like my client or the person can’t execute. I’ll tell them to go back and tell this guy, ‘This ain’t helping me.’ In your own diplomatic way, you’ve got to go back and bitch slap the guy. A lot of times the guy just hasn’t closed the sale. Here’s what the guy has to testify to in a letter of recommendation: ‘I have been in this business for X years. I have worked with Y people. This schmuck is in the top 2% of Y because of his leadership, his initiative, his technical skills, and the impact he’s had on this organization.’ The guy has to be willing to say that. Sometimes, the recommender says ‘I have to write recommendations year after year. How can I possibly say that?’ Well, Harvard expects you to be able to say it. That’s their definition of leadership.”

Then, there is the interview. Each year, HBS invites about 1,800 of its 9,500-plus applicants for an interview. About 60% of them are admitted to the school, with the remaining 40% getting dinged. “This is an important rule,” he says sternly. “Harvard interviews 10 people. Two people destroy themselves in the interview. One is a natural failure, not meant for the case method. Another one just blows it. They are down to eight. Harvard then takes six of those eight people and the interview becomes a piece of the final decision.”

Whether guiding a person through a mock interview or demanding more specificity in an essay, Kreisberg, of course, can never guarantee a positive result. “What consultants really do is to stop you from screwing up,” he says. “Consultants can stop you from failing more than they can add ten inches to your height.”