In Search Of Higher GMATs In China

AJ Warner (right), founder of Touchdown! Admissions Consulting

AJ Warner (right), founder of Touchdown! Admissions Consulting


But for Chinese who want to attend a highly ranked business school, the GMAT is merely the first of many hurdles—and that is why Warner estimates that as many as 60% to 70% of the applicants from China who want to get into an M7 school use either consulting help or group help with firms or websites, such as Chase Dream, that help bring candidates together for group lessons and mutual support.

Warner, 46, got into the business of admissions consulting by accident. He was in his second year of the MBA program at the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business when he was asked by a Korean student to help a half dozen of his friends in Seoul. Warner’s classmate knew he was on a full-ride scholarship at McCombs so assumed he had crushed the GMAT and the process of getting into a great school (in fact, he scored a 690). Warner, who gained one of two leadership scholarships awarded by UT each year, began helping more friends of friends by phone and then continued doing it as a hobby after graduation when he began a full-time job for Deloitte Consulting out of its Dallas office.

He met his future wife, Yanping Zhou, who had been born in China, at business school and married her shortly after graduation. Four years later, after being a Deloitte road warrior, his wife wanted to move back to China. Warner was burning out on the travel so he agreed and they packed up and moved in 2005, just before the Olympics. His part-time hobby became a full-time gig. A long-time grid iron fan, he set up Touchdown Admissions Consulting, becoming its chief consultant. He picked the name because, he says, “in football, a touchdown means success. When you score it, you are excited. I work together with my clients as a team, and then when they score, we all succeed.”


An outgoing 46-year-old who says he is passionate about life and family, he works from a 15th floor office in the Haidian District of Beijing. And when the pollution in the city isn’t so bad, he can see Beijing Olympic Park in the distance. Unlike many U.S. admission consultants who largely do their work via phone, email and Skype, Warner often meets his clients in face-to-face sessions, seeing them many times over the months of an engagement. In fact, the consultant has brought clients out for a round of karaoke where he can easily be tempted on stage for an enthusiastic version of “Hotel California.”

Warner says he speaks enough Mandarin “to get in trouble, but not enough to get out of trouble.” He has been stuck at the advanced beginner level for many years. But his clients also speak English and must be fairly fluent to even hope to have any chance of getting into a highly ranked U.S. school. In the past ten years, he has worked with hundreds of Chinese MBA applicants and, with his team, nearly 1,500 candidates for specialized business master’s programs.

Warner says the outsized coaching and consulting fees that some Chinese pay to get their children into elite universities, with some reportedly paying more than $100,000, do not apply to the MBA consulting business in China. “Because the MBA is an optional degree, people aren’t willing to pay as much to get help for those degrees. In China, a college undergraduate degree is required for a good life. You have to have it. That’s why people will pay outrageous amounts of money. For the parents, the money doesn’t mean anything. They will pay whatever is necessary to get their kid into Harvard or Yale as long as you can guarantee results.


“The Chinese are very big on results. It’s all money-backed guaranteed consulting for undergraduates and for specialized master’s degrees. For the MBA, I don’t do that. I have to fight with people because they want to apply to Harvard and Stanford and then want a money back guarantee. I keep saying, ‘No, I am not going to do that. My time is valuable and you must pay me for my time.’ But for college application and business master’s, it’s a money back guarantee.”

At the start, it was slow going. “In the beginning, it was all about building credibility,” he says. “People didn’t know me so getting those first few clients was a real challenge. There is a lot of mistrust in China. People are just slow to trust, but after the first two years things took off, and I have grown mostly by referral.”

It helped that Chinese interest in American MBAs was also growing—at least until the Great Recession hit in 2009 which gave him the impetus to put more focus on admissions consulting for specialized master’s degrees in business in finance, accounting, and marketing. About three years ago, MBA applications from China began picking up. “People felt there were job opportunities in the U.S.,” says Warner, “so we started growing more and more.”


Once Chinese clients surmount the GMAT and TOEFL difficulties, Warner says he provides the most value in drawing out a more compelling life narrative from typically circumspect Chinese. “I listen to their stories and help them identify which ones would be most interesting to share in their essays,” he says. “Because of cultural differences, they’re not sure what they should share about their backgrounds. A lot of times in China people like to look at successful role models and they try to step by step copy what they’ve done rather than look at themselves and try to find what’s unique about them.

“They really don’t know what Americans want to know about them,” adds Warner. “Every Chinese applicant thinks they would be interested in knowing that they were a vice president in the Student Union or that they were good at taking their employees out to dinner and making sure everyone was happy. The deeper you dig, the more likely you are to find a great story.

Another inevitable hurdle for many Chinese applicants is the admissions interview. “When we first start,” concedes Warner, “most of them are awful—just awful. They are totally ineffective in the interview. They don’t know what to say. They don’t know how to start the interview and they don’t know what to share.”

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