ApplicantLab: A Cheap, Virtual Alternative To A Pricey MBA Consultant?

ApplicantLab Founder Maria Wich-Vila on a video equating what matters to admission officials by using Mallow’s Hierarchy of Needs


While at UC-Irvine, however, she also discovered that she could tap into the school’s computer science department for some cheap labor. “The school will bill out their computer science students for a cut rate in exchange for work experience,” she says. “I connected with that resource and that is how I found my coder who built 90% of what you see today. She was terrific.”

Each year, she says, she spends hundreds of hours updating the product, adding new modules and videos, making all kinds of tweaks and improvements in the platform. Sometimes, she found her explanations not “digestible enough” or not “elaborate enough.” An early version of the “career vision” module required that users immediately jump into writing exercises. “Something wasn’t connecting with people so I took a step back and created an interactive quiz with bite-sized tidbits, back and forth with humor.”

There are hundreds of videos in the platform that range in size from just a few minutes to 40 minute-long sessions. Her advice on Wharton’s team-based interview is culled from chats with students who have been through the exercise as well as basic research. This year, for instance, applicants who were invited to Wharton’s team exercise were asked to come up with a new orientation for incoming MBA students. Wich-Vila looked into how Wharton organized earlier versions of its MBA orientation and then interviewed students who had been through the process to help prepare applicants who would have to tackle that question this year.


She devotes three and one-half hours of video on perspectives of her alma mater. “Stanford may be the hardest school to get into, but Harvard has the harder application,” she says. “I have my own process for how to attack the HBS application. It is broken down with samples from other people in the past. I take all the top schools’ essay questions and dissect them. Instead of me spending an hour on the phone, it’s all in the videos. I treat the videos as if I have an imaginary person on the phone that I am giving a consultation to.”

In her videos, she comes off as a smart and ebullient kindergarten teacher, the kind of person that young boys would likely develop a crush on. She wears glasses, ties back her hair, and dresses in business casual attire. She’s animated, fun-loving and approachable, comfortable in her own skin. Her eyes roll, often sliding back and forth, her head tilts this way and that, and her arms swing wildly to emphasize a point, always with a gleaming smile on an angular face. Her explanations never strike one as preachy, largely because of her irrepressibly breezy way of delivering information, tossing off phrases like ‘Oops, that’s a record scratch moment,” to “hold on!”

In one of the clips, she compares what admission officers look for in candidates to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At the top of the hierarchy, instead of Maslow’s self-actualization, she puts leadership potential and at the bottom, academics (mainly math). In between is whether or not you will be easy to place into a job and whether you are a good and likable person (EQ).


“Schools,” she advises, “are not simply looking at academics. Basic academics get your foot in the door, but a 790 GMAT from someone with a boring work profile will never, ever get in over someone with a 690 who has moved mountains. Once you prove that you can handle the academics — well, that’s just the first step.

“THEN you need to prove:

– Basic “EQ” / people skills

– Post-MBA employability

– “Leadership potential” (an often-used term that we describe in detail in the ApplicantLab — we help you find your best leadership stories)

“The more competitive the program you’re applying to, the higher the burden of proof is at the top of the pyramid. And — once you prove the “basics” lower down in the pyramid (eg. “Yes, I can handle the coursework”), then the other 3 factors will come more into play.”


Depending on how an applicant fills out each module, the advice changes. It’s almost always delivered in a chatty, informal way, with bold and capped letters, and plenty of asides. Here’s an example after completing the module on strengths and weaknesses:

“At first glance, it appears that based on a preliminary glance at your profile, there may be one or more elements of your profile that will persuade Admissions Committees that you’ll be comfortable in their MBA classes.

The important thing to know is that different elements of your profile CAN BALANCE EACH OTHER OUT.

In other words, a low GPA can be balanced by a high GMAT — and vice-versa. Lack of quant coursework in college can be balanced out by analytical experience at work.

Sometimes, people come to me, overly-worried about, say, a low GPA. They’ve been freaked out by things they’ve read on message boards, and are worried that IT’S ALL OVER.

The good news here is that you can RELAX.

Why? Because your profile seems to have at least one element that tips the scales toward allaying AdComs’ fears.”


All in all, ApplicantLab covers all the basics, particularly for newcomers to elite graduate school admissions. Why didn’t a long-standing admissions consultant come up with the idea first? “Most admission consultants don’t have a background in tech development,” explains Wich-Vila. “And besides, I didn’t wake up the next morning and tada it was there. It took a long time to develop the product. That is part of it. A lot of admission consultants are very good at a lot of things but don’t have the background in tech they would need to do this.

“And secondly, why would they want to kill the golden goose? I spoke to the founder of one firm who told me, ‘Maria, I am really terrified right now.’ I said, ‘Why don’t we offer a hybrid product with a lower price point with ApplicantLab and four hours of one-on-one consulting?’ He said, ‘If people really like an online product, it could replace what we are charging $7,000 for. It could damage my core business. Why would I cannibalize it with something digital?’”

That said, Wich-Vila says many of her customers also use admissions consultants. Betsy Massar, a fellow Harvard MBA and founder of Master Admissions, a leading MBA admissions consultancy, has even recommended ApplicantLab to both prospective clients and would-be customers. “For the cost-conscious, it is a tremendous value,” says Massar. “For those who are working with me one-on-one, the Lab gives them a great understanding of the admissions process across the board. It is a great way for them to get a sense of how to think about each school and what kind of prep they need to do before we do more personalized work. And finally, there’s Maria. She is the queen of video. Fun to watch and is pretty spot on with her advice.”


Besides the basic access to the platform for $299, Wich-Vila also sells an essay review service for $180 in which she will tear through an essay draft, going through it with colored highlighters, and then record a video with her comments that will be sent to the client. A red highlighter is put through sentences that she would consider “terrible,” while a gray one would indicate a suggested deletion.

Why video instead of in person? “What I found was that people would say can you repeat that? I was spending several minutes repeating myself. Now people send me their materials and I highlight my suggested changes all on a screen, record a video and talk about it. So now they can just rewind the video.”

She also goes to the videotape for a $250 “resume sanity check” service. “In that one, someone sends a resume and we go into their ApplicantLab account and see what they put in. They will get a video dissecting the resume and then go into the career vision and see if it lines up with the resume.”

What’s next for her? Simply spreading the word and overcoming the skeptics. As one user, admitted to Columbia Business School with a scholarship this year, wrote to Poets&Quants: “I always had a deep-rooted skepticism for any form of online coaching/advice. Online advice, I felt, could never be personalized and would provide generic results. Applicant Lab, however, dashed all my inhibitions.”

Not bad for someone who came up with a killer idea while lying immobile on a couch.


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.