Last spring, the Harvard Business School took a step that would have been unthinkable ten years earlier: It welcomed nearly 50 for-hire admissions consultants to its campus, treating them to a private tour and a chance to chat with admissions director Dee Leopold and Steve Nelson, executive director of Harvard’s MBA program. “We were welcomed as fellow professionals,” says Dan Bauer, head of The MBA Exchange, which helps applicants get into top schools.
That warm embrace by the business school marks a watershed for the business of admissions consultants. Not long ago, Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and other schools regarded these hired guns with disapproval and skepticism, and some schools explicitly forbade business-school applicants from using them. They worried that if the practice became widespread, admissions officers wouldn’t know if they were evaluating the work of an applicant — or that of a surrogate. And even if consultants just polished essays and helped clients present the best possible image, didn’t that confer an unfair advantage over students who couldn’t afford paid help?
Those concerns have largely vanished. The Harvard visit was part of a three-day conference in June organized by the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC). The consultants also met with the dean of MIT’s Sloan School and admissions officers from Dartmouth, Yale and Duke. In addition, Columbia, New York University and other schools gave a behind-the-scenes look at their admissions process.
A Thirst for the Most Desirable Candidates
“There had been an us-versus-them mentality,” says one consultant. “Now there’s acceptance. They know we’re not going away.” The new detente is an acknowledgement that any school that wants access to the most desirable applicants had better be extremely comfortable with consultants. Not only do top applicants engage them, but the consultants, with their vast online reach, often touch more would-be students than any admissions department, wielding growing influence over who applies where.
Even $10,000 in consulting fees is a drop in the bucket compared to the total cost of a top MBA program, which can now set students back more than $300,000.
Another reason for the new coziness between schools and consultants: Some consultants had once worked in the schools’ admissions offices. Many others are MBA alums of elite institutions. Among its 40 consultants, for example, Chicago-based The MBA Exchange lists nine MBAs from Harvard, a half dozen from Wharton, and three from Stanford, along with former MBA admissions officials from Columbia, Kellogg, Wharton and Chicago. Rather than viewing consultants as hired guns, schools see them as a “set of helpers,” as the University of Chicago’s deputy dean of MBA programs Stacey Kole says.
In part, the admissions consulting biz is simply riding the swell of students interested in the still widely coveted MBA degree. MBA programs received more than 196,000 applications last year, up from 81,500 in 2005, according to surveys. Exact numbers are hard to come by — partly because students are promised complete anonymity from their consultants, a vestige of the old stigma — but more than a dozen consultants estimate that a quarter to a third of applicants to the top 10 business schools now use their services. At Harvard, Stanford and Wharton, as many as half of the applicants pay for advice. These aspiring MBAs pay handsomely for the counseling, often between $5,000 and $10,000 a pop. A grad-school essay package from Hernandez College Consulting, for example, costs $900 an hour. Some offer “a la carte” counseling: Boston consultant Sanford Kreisberg charges $300 for a mock interview to prep an applicant and $900 for a “one-time sanity check” to critique a completed application before it’s sent.
By and large, applicants who have used consultants say they improve their chances of getting into a top school. Jamal Motlagh, a second-year MBA student at Harvard, says he believes the few thousand dollars he spent for help on his essays paid off. “It’s money well worth it,” he insists. Even $10,000 in consulting fees is a drop in the bucket compared to the total cost of a top MBA program, which can now set students back more than $300,000 (including lost income over two years).
What exactly does an aspiring MBA student get for the thousands shelled out to a consultant? Students are assisted in a process of deep, critical introspection: the writing, editing, re-writing, and soul-searching aimed at helping them figure out their long-term goals, ambitions and passions. “It’s about who you are. Why something’s right for you. Why you’re passionate about it,” says Duffy. “Then, [it’s about] whether a particular program is right for you.”
Shaping The All-Important Essay
At Hernandez College Consulting, where a five-hour package costs $4,500, Josh Stephens, the company’s essay specialist says he thinks of the process as a collaboration. Stephens smoothes out clunky paragraphs and bends flat writing into a narrative arc. Recently he worked with an entrepreneur from a developing country who wanted to hype his big ideas and fantastic goals. Stephens asked him to reflect on how he might help his country after graduation. “That wasn’t a perspective he had thought of,” Stephens says.
Stacy Blackman, of Stacy Blackman Consulting, says she followed a similar process to help a Wharton applicant come to grips with past failures. Laid off four times, the applicant thought he should gloss over the dismissals with phrases like “I decided to move companies.” Instead, Blackman helped him to craft an essay that highlighted his resilience and lessons learned from failure. He not only got into Wharton, she says – he also gained a scholarship.
Gaming the System
Some in the admissions world are still troubled by this kind of coaching. The University of Michigan’s MBA admissions office is putting more weight on applicant interviews. “We want to get more information out of the interview than previously because the essays can be written by somebody else,” says Soojin Kwon Koh of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
Stanford, meantime, informs every applicant that “you cross a line when any part of the application (excluding the letters of reference) ceases to be exclusively yours.” The questions are these: When does “consulting” cross into wholesale repackaging? If Josh Stephens’ client really wasn’t thinking about giving back to his country, was his original essay touting his ambitions a more accurate reflection of his values and personality? “There’s the subtle assumption that the choices you make as you decide what to write about will reflect certain values,” says Sarah McGinty, founder of McGinty Consulting Group and author of The College Application Essay. “It is a tricky area, ethically.” Duffy disagrees, saying coaching and advice are fine as long as the student does his or her own writing.
"The schools first asked, 'Who are these people? Are they trying to cheat the system?'" recalls consultant Stacy Blackman.
In fact, schools have to accept on faith that students and consultants are behaving ethically. They don’t know which essays consultants were involved with; most schools don’t ask. “It’s tough to tell whether an application has been touched,” says Brian Lohr, admissions director at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. Essays alone rarely tip off admissions officers there’s a problem. That insight is more likely to surface when the essay departs dramatically from the picture that emerges from interviews, recommendations, and the writing section of the GMAT.
Then, of course, there’s plagiarism. Lohr recalls one year when his team received nearly identical essays from a pair of international students. “That was a show-stopper for both candidates,” he says.
Crafting a Consultants’ Code
Whatever misgivings admissions officers may have, it’s clear consultants are now a permanent part of the B-school landscape and schools must find a way to deal with them. For these reasons, AIGAC was founded in 2006 to establish an ethics baseline for consultants, including a guarantee that they’re not putting words in students’ mouths. Rose Martinelli, then an associate dean at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and Dawna Clarke, director of admissions at Tuck, helped draft the code.
To better grasp the presence of consultants in the admissions process, in 2008 Booth started asking its students: How did you use consultants? What was the relationship like? To allay students’ fears of stigmatization, the school waited until students were on campus. Kole had always assumed that consultants were “polishing the rocks,” making lesser students seem better. To her surprise, she found that even the most impressive class members used consultants.
That led Booth to view consultants as an inevitable part of the process. Booth drew up an engagement strategy that included hosting online chats with consultants. “We can treat them as the enemy, but we have less influence than if we treat them as friends,” Kole says.
Open dialogue helped reinvent the relationship, but so did consultants’ Internet reach. According to a 2010 survey by AIGAC, consultants’ sites now rank third behind school websites and the Bloomberg BusinessWeek rankings as a source of information for MBA aspirants. Meanwhile, Clear Admit’s blog now reaches half a million visitors a year, and schools are in constant contact. Columbia, for example, reached out to stress its cross-disciplinary teaching model. MIT’s Garcia says he sees interviews with Clear Admit and Accepted.com in the same way he views talking with Bloomberg BusinessWeek and other news outlets.