The Shrinking MBA Application

MBA Admissions: A Contest?

I also hear another increasingly common complaint — a cliché really — the lament that the application process has morphed into an “essay-writing contest.”

Would anyone prefer a GMAT contest? A GPA contest? Or perhaps a beauty contest?

The admissions process isn’t a contest at all. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Yes it’s true not all applicants will be accepted to their dream school, and those who don’t may not initially feel like winners. But the GMAC’s MBA alumni satisfaction surveys reveal incredibly happy, overwhelmingly satisfied graduates. In fact 95 percent of alumni who graduated between 2000-2011 rated the value of their MBA degree as “good, excellent, or outstanding.” And it doesn’t seem to matter ten years later if the alumni got into their first-choice school or not.

The application process is a matching process. Kind of like dating. Schools and applicants initially try to attract the others’ attention.  Ultimately both have to agree they’re a match, or the relationship is over.

In order to match, the parties have to get to know each other. Schools put out brochures, web sites, videos. They host receptions, get-togethers, and admit weekends, and they attend fairs and multi-school events.  Clearly schools try to present themselves as attractively as possible to as many applicants as possible. Applicants present themselves through every interaction with a school, but the formal application clearly is the most significant element.

What’s REALLY Changed

Here is what really has changed as a result of forums, blogs, and yes the growth of the admissions consulting industry: the schools are no longer the sole source of information. It’s high time the schools adjust to this reality without blaming forums, blogs or even admissions consultants. This genie isn’t going back in the bottle.

Admissions directors: As representatives of institutions that value innovation and excellence, proudly proclaim that you are innovating because you are seeking the best way to get to know applicants and thereby create the ultimate in diverse, stimulating classrooms and communities. You don’t need to blame or credit blogs, forums, me, or anything else for the pursuit of excellence and a commitment to innovation.

But are the schools, with their shrunken applications, really getting to know the applicant? They can evaluate applications and decide who is qualified without any essays, interviews, or alternative presentations; they really just need transcripts, test scores, and a resume for that.  Do they have enough qualitative material to make informed, holistic choices when they get to the selection part of the decision process?

Stay tuned. I’ll explore that question in a separate post.

By Linda  Abraham, president and founder of, co-founder and past president of the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and author of MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.



  • Thank you.

  • Arturo

    Linda’s comments are right on! I will be paying a very high tuition to get into an MBA so I can become a better candidate for a higher position. Now suddenly paying for advisory is outrageous. So maybe employers shouldn’t employ MBA graduates because they have been trained to get those positions.

    My MBA adviser helped me bring out my unique and outstanding qualities for my essays. Instead of following clichès and explaining how studying in NYC would be a great cultural experience, I focused more on sharing my personal achievements, goals and aspirations.

  • Well Said.

  • pengyou

    Sorry but I believe you have a distorted view on the pool of applicants.
    1/ “applicants devote less than one percent […] to that effort”, it isn’t less than 1%, more like 2 to 5% which is not so small, do the math.
    2/ It’s not about priviledged Richie Rich families, reality is different. I know a bunch of people who still haven’t paid back their undergrad loans and are now requiring higher investments, there’s also a lot of people who had decent wage for 3 years but not enough to support two full years sky high tuitions and life/food/transport with no income. People will have a tendency to cut corners in order to limit their dependency on loans.
    3/ You are comparing a tangible investment with an untangible investment. It can make sense for someone with limited resources to invest, and borrow, to cover tuiton fees as he can expect a ROI of some sort. For consultancy doesn’t guarantee that you will get admitted anywhere, it is more a nice thing to have than a necessity if you have limited resources. Remember that you are supposed to get in B-School without the help of a consultant.

    Admission consultancy is a no-pain for priviledged people. relative to the application pool. If schools find a way to get rid of them, I don’t see where that would be a bad thing.

    Too bad to see that P&Q is nothing more than a soapbox for admission consultants.

  • Media Mentions

    actually there’s a pretty interesting exposé that Finweek did on CEOs with and without MBAs and produces some interesting and unexpected results. Going off your brilliant blog post, I’d like to share the article with you as well (

  • Dan Poston – UW Foster

    For many, the MBA admissions process is about FINDING the right candidates with a trained eye for talent identification. Too often, the MBA admissions process simply separates the informed and coached from the uninformed and uncoached. That approach wastes vast amount of talent. We need to do more to MAKE better MBA applicants, not just find them. Blogs, information on the internet, and admissions coaches can give us more informed candidates. Business schools, too, must do more not less to help prospective students know and develop more of the qualities the admissions office seeks before applying. Preparation and education for a professional career in business does not begin in a business school classroom. If we leave this effort entirely to others, some candidates have a terrible disadvantage. Childhood experiences, family examples and connections, K-12 and college advisors and experiences, first jobs, experiences in religious, social or community organizations, internet sources, the MBA application process itself, and advice candidates receive from both admissions coaches and school admissions staff, or any subset of these options, can all help prospective MBA candidates develop the level of professional skills we seek in applicants. My MBA program at the University of Washington makes a vigorous effort through application workshops, admissions coaching sessions, and very direct pre-MBA career advising to help prospects develop into strong MBA applicants. As a result, rather than just finding great candidates, we make them. Some candidates are years in the making, some months, but many become fantastic applicants and MBA students. Yes, with our help many candidates are accepted to other schools, but we reap a large share of the people we help and the world gets more talent. The more applicants can learn about presenting themselves well before the MBA program, the farther they can go during our programs to build great professional networks and enhance the knowledge, skills and attributes needed to succeed after our programs.

  • Peng,

    MBA Over 30’s point was much more about leveling the playing field by providing information and resources that the less privileged would not have access to if it weren’t for the articles, webinars, chats, and reports provided free by admissions consultants. According to his blog, he has not paid for a consultant, but he did make extensive use of consultant sites.

    Todd’s response to you about the cost of consulting compared to the cost of an MBA is also 100% on point. Most people who use our services spend approximately 1% of the cost of their TOTAL MBA expense on our services. If applicants can afford the MBA expense what they are paying for our services is peanuts.

    The real question is whether one feels the benefits of using a consultant outweigh expense. That is always the question in business. And frankly it is frequently the question in life. Paying for a consultant is like making any other educational investment. I addressed that question at some length in the article linked to earlier in this paragraph.

    Peng, your point about shifting elites could be applied to any graduate degree. Certainly to any scholarships for professional education. The people who receive the scholarships and then have the tools to excel professionally, become the new monied elite.


  • Dreamer

    Though I agree with this article, i disagree with the leveling the playing field sentiment. I think you are always compare to your cohort. They re not going to compare an applicant from a bulge bracket bank or MBB with an engineer. So while yes people from more traditional background have an advantage in how to present themselves, they are also measure against their peers.

  • R. Todd King

    This isn’t about underprivileged high-school kids applying to college, pengyou; business school applicants already have a college degree and a career. A majority of applicants who pay “the high cost of such consultancy” devote less than one percent of their total business school cost to that effort. Your argument is equivalent to a home buyer complaining about the cost of installing a sprinkler system.

  • pengyou

    Sorry Linda, while you do make a point here, I think you are really missing something big.

    I would agree with you if all these services were available to everyone. The privileges are simply shifting from an elite to another, from those who had insider information to those who have money.

    MBA tuitions are very expensive, but even before they know if they will be admitted anywhere, applicants have to spend a lot of cash on the basics: application fees, GMAT, and others (language certificates etc.)
    At the same time, applicants who are not particularily wealthy will start saving every penny to support the cost of 2 years skyrocket-high tuitions and living expenses.

    Now what you say is that admission consultants are leveling the playing field, well that’s only true for those who afford the high cost of such consultancy. To me it simply brings more unfairness to an already unfair selection process. I strongly support schools who try to find other ways to get a real sense of who their applicants are.

  • Thanks. Some schools’ essays have definitely shrank in length over the last 10 years. Stanford used to have length “guidelines” of 3.5 -7 pages. But no limits. HBS actually used to have 300-word limits on most of its essays, but it asked more questions. I think overall you are correct that essays are fewer and shorter.


  • disqus_CVwKBvsOt2

    I really appreciated this article. I’m almost finished with my applications and the most surprising part of the process has been the essay word limits. I can appreciate that the limits force applicants to be concise and maintain only the most valuable material. However, it is challenging to develop a cohesive narrative in 500 words or less.

    The reason the word limits surprised me is that I’ve purchased multiple “guidebooks” on the admissions process (most published in the last 1-3 years), and the sample essays were significantly longer than the essays I completed this year. It was difficult to provide the level of detail I saw in the “model essays” in my actual applications due to very different length constraints.

    If shorter essays limits is a persistent trend, these guidebooks will need to updated to stay relevant for applicants. For those who can’t afford consulting services they are a great resource, but only if they are on track with the reality of the current landscape.

  • Thanks, again.

  • Thanks, MBAreapplicant84. I appreciate the feedback. And no, we certainly can’t change your profile. Only you can do that. We can only advise.


  • MBAreapplicant84

    Fantastic article Linda! I completely agree with MBAover30, in my experience, all the information I have received from blogs, forums, and consultants has only helped me better present myself. In no way has it changed my profile.

  • MBAreapplicant84

    Fantastic article Linda!

  • Thanks for the feedback, MBA Over 30!

    I agree with your two points. While you are 100% correct that admissions consultants cannot improve applicant profiles, we can assess competitiveness and fit as well as advise applicants on how they can improve their profiles.


  • OUCH! Like a hot knife in soft butter…and accurate. Great post Linda. I’d also like to add two other points to the discussion:

    1) On the issue of there being more “clued in” applicants: people who are working at Big 4/MBB consulting firms, top investment banks, Teach for America, or who have attended Ivy League + Stanford + Chicago + Berkeley + Duke + Northwestern et al. institutions for undergrad have been sharing this information for decades among themselves anyway–not to mention performing complete GMAT makeovers by investing thousands of dollars into test prep courses. Admissions consultants and blogs simply LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD by making the information readily available to any and everyone–not just those who are coming out of pedigreed networks pre-MBA. The sad thing is that if the playing field were not leveled as such, I doubt that many of the same statements about “getting help” and being “overly packaged” would have been made by school officials, because people who went to HYP or work for McKinsey would never DREAM of over-packaging themselves, right? Only people who went to state school would do that. LOL

    2) Admissions consultants and informative blogs cannot improve your profile. They can only better inform you on how to present it.