The Revolving Door In Business School Admissions

The appeal of having a former insider guide an applicant through a mysterious process where rejection is the norm can be a reassuring proposition. One of the largest MBA admissions consulting firms, Chicago-based The MBA Exchange, now boasts nine former admissions officers, 23 former student admissions committee (adcom) members, and four former contract professionals who reviewed applications or interviewed applicants for business schools. “While all of our consultants have experience in advising applicants, the added ‘process’ knowledge that ex-adcoms bring to The MBA Exchange helps us fine tune our client service model,” says Dan Bauer, founder and managing director. He adds that former admissions staffers can be especially useful helping applicants with such sensitive issues as academic suspension, alternative undergraduate transcripts, or learning disabilities that “need to be explained, documented or mitigated.”

Consultants with an adcom stint on their resumes get instant credibility with clients. “A lot of times I’m explaining the actual process of an admissions committee,” says Joanne Garce-Rodriguez, who had worked in admissions for Columbia Business School and now is an MBA Exchange consultant. “I know what it is. But in speaking to clients you realize they don’t have any idea what that process is like. It’s extremely helpful when you can describe what happens when an application reaches an admissions committee.”

Not everyone believes that an admissions stint is a prerequisite to becoming a great admissions consultant. “Just because someone has read applications, it does not mean that they are capable of helping applicants construct a standout application – these are two entirely different skills,” believes Jeremy Shinewald, founder and president of mbaMission, an admissions consulting firm.

HOW TRANSFERABLE ARE THE SECRETS AND SKILLS FROM SCHOOL TO SCHOOL?

Others question the relevancy of insider knowledge at one institution to the broader business school world. “Admissions office experience provides insight into the process and enormous insight into a given school’s program at one point in time,” says Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com. “But it doesn’t provide insight into all programs at all times.  It doesn’t teach anyone how to mentor or guide. Is it helpful? Yes. Is it the only way to get an understanding of admissions? No.”

For many admissions officers, crossing the divide can be difficult. Several former adcom officials who are now consultants say they experienced a sense of rejection when making the switch. “The hardest part for me about transitioning to the consultant side was knowing that it was frowned upon at HBS,” says Isiadinso, who worked at Harvard from 2000 to 2002. “When you work in admissions you hear the stories often on the inside about how horrible consultants are and how much of a disservice they do to applicants.

“So of course when I left HBS I had my concerns. The response was never overtly negative. But I was aware that not everyone was happy about it. It was important to me to walk a fine line…making sure that I pursued a genuine passion I had, helping people achieve their educational dreams, and being respectful and not going to the mountain top to share every thing I observed while working at Harvard. I wasn’t going to simply walk away from a career I had a real interest in.”

SNAP JUDGMENTS VERSUS THE CHANCE TO REALLY GET TO KNOW AN MBA APPLICANT

The biggest difference between the two roles? “As an admissions officer, you have to size up a candidate and make a decision on them very quickly,” says Aparna Barnan, a consultant with The MBA Exchange who was associate director of admissions for the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business from 2006 to 2010. “The average admissions officer can’t spend much more than 15 to 30 minutes on a person. Those snap judgments are not always the right judgments. As a consultant, you can really delve into the details. You can get to know them on a personal level and help them put their best foot forward.

“As an admissions officer, you can’t reveal too much,” she adds. “There is only so much time you have to give people and you want to make sure you don’t give anyone an unfair advantage. As a consultant, I can give people the full benefit of my experience. If there is some confusion about how to approach an issue, I can give them fairly good guidance.”

That view is shared by others who have made the switch. “When you are on the adcom side, there is only so much you can say to an applicant without giving everything away,” says Kimberly Raynor-Smith, who had been associate director of MBA admissions at Wharton from 2001 to 2004 and now works as a consultant for The MBA Exchange. “I find it very freeing to speak to them as an advisor.”

NOW ON THE OTHER SIDE, CONCEDES A CONSULTANT, IT’S NOT SO BLACK AND WHITE

Many consultants feel they would be better evaluators after having the experience of helping applicants make their case more effectively. “Now that I’m on the other side of it, I can tell you it’s not so black and white,” adds Barnan. “When I was at Michigan, a lot of us got frustrated by applications from India that lacked depth and failed to show character. When you asked about failure, a lot of Indians would say I got a bad grade or didn’t make it to the top of the class. It was their culture that made it difficult for them to open up. As a consultant, you realize that a lot of the choices people make on an application are driven by culture. I can now get them to dig deeper and offer more substantive responses.”

Having sat through numerous discussions over applicants at Harvard, Isiadinso can marshal important insights on behalf of clients to get the odds of acceptance turned in their favor. “I was struck by how HBS adcom loved being surprised or seeing something about an applicant’s story that wasn’t your usual suspect story or expected path that most people would take,” she recalls. “So we encourage applicants to think beyond their obvious options. Are there interesting things that they could do that fits in with their brand?”

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.