How to Get Into HBS: Play the Piccolo, Not the Violin

This is part three of an ongoing series on MBA admissions consulting at Poets&Quants.

When Janet Stark finally gets around to building her own website, the admissions consultant will run it with the headline, “I’ve been accepted to Harvard over 50 times!” Her students are a bit less open.

Stark, a ‘82 HBS grad and board member of the HBS Women’s Association of Greater New York was reminded of that at a recent gathering of alumni. She greeted guests, shaking hands and exchanging warm smiles with graduates from the world’s top B-school and spotted a recent client. When the HBS ‘10 grad came close, Stark smiled but the MBA walked right past, avoiding her for the rest of the night.

“I can say this laughingly because I know this has nothing to do with me personally,” Stark jokes. She has former clients at top campuses across the country, but her offline presence and thin LinkedIn profile are testament to the fact that consultant-client relationships are under wraps. And despite the snub, she doesn’t mind keeping it that way if it lets her students into school without the stigma.  One of her recent customers, Jamal Motlagh, 26, now a second-year student at Harvard Business School, has no problem with people knowing he hired a consultant.

Like many of her clients, Motlagh came armed with a top-notch undergrad degree from Princeton University, where he majored in Politics and Near Eastern Studies. He also played water polo, reaching the Final Four in his junior year at Princeton. After graduating in 2006, Motlagh joined Microsoft and worked his way up from a junior sales associate to an account executive.

In choosing his target schools, Motlagh had an elite brand-name strategy. He applied to Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Kellogg, and Sloan, B-schools that are among the most selective in the world. When he sent off his application to Harvard, he was one of 9,093 applicants competing for what would be 937 seats in the Class of 2011. The school would accept only 12% of the people who applied. Stanford was even more picky, accepting only 6.5% of its applicants. If estimates of the use of admissions consultants are correct, more than 4,500 applicants to Harvard (roughly half) paid for advice and counsel to help them make the best case possible.

Hiring a consultant is "well worth it," says Jamal Motlagh, a second-year student at Harvard Business School.

Hiring a consultant is “well worth it,” says Jamal Motlagh, a second-year student at Harvard Business School.

Ultimately, those who enrolled in Harvard’s two-year MBA program not only had their “positioning” down, they also boasted exceptional numbers–an undergraduate GPA of 3.67 and a GMAT score of 719 (out of 800). Those averages, however, don’t tell the full story because at least one applicant made it through Harvard’s screen with a GMAT score of 490. Motlagh declined to disclose his undergraduate grades or his GMAT score.

Rather than pay the going rate for a five-school consulting package to all five schools, something that would generally set him back between $7,000 and $8,000, Motlagh wanted to get away cheap. He hired Stark to help only with his four required essays for Harvard, paying her $100 an hour for nearly 20 hours of consulting help. “I figured I’d bang out one or two schools with an essay with her and be able to reuse a lot of those essays,” Motlagh says from Harvard’s campus.

Stark didn’t consider Motlagh an elite candidate, but as a former Nestle and General Foods brand manager, she knew he could be “well positioned.” Harvard’s 900-plus class is carved into 90-student sections that spend the entire first year together. As an admissions consultant and former HBS student, she views each section as a freestanding orchestra, requiring a diversity of players and instruments. To her way of thinking, the bankers and consultants are the violins (ie., there’s a lot of them) and Motlagh with his more unusual background is like a piccolo, the woodwind instrument with a unique sound. “You can’t have an orchestra with all violins,” suggests Stark. Motlagh’s piccolo status was enhanced by the fact that he also was an accomplished athlete, a resume credential that is especially attractive at Harvard. His ethnic name (Motlagh is an Iranian-American), Stark hastens to add, at least helped him stand out on paper.

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