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An in-depth look into MBA Admission Consulting

May 15th, 2009 · 5 Comments

After I published "A brief survey of the MBA admission consulting market", I had the opportunity to chat with Graham Richmond of Clear Admit, a well-known MBA admission consulting firms.

When I was writing "A brief survey of the MBA admission consulting market", I tried to stay neutral and provide an objective overview. Personally, I had mixed feeling about admission consultants. I consider myself an "education purist" who believes that school is all about learning. The admission process should be based on academic and professionals merits. I feel that admission consultants are helping some applicants to "game" the system and gain an unfair advantage. On the other hand, since I’ve gone though the business school application process myself, I’m also fully aware that business school admission is much more subjective than the admission processes of other graduate programs. Plus, nowadays most leading business schools are run like corporations instead of educational institutions (like it or not.) So, I can understand the role of admission consultants.

After talking to Graham, I feel encouraged and more positive about the MBA admission consulting industry. Given Graham’s rich experience and leadership in this industry, I learned quite a bit about the past, present and future of MBA Admission Consulting.

Additionally, I have also done some research on the various consulting firms as well as media coverage of the MBA consulting industry.

Below is a summary of my chat with Graham, my additional research, and my own comments and observations.

Introduction

Graham is co-founder of Clear Admit. In the mid 1990’s, Graham helped launch MCS Multi-App. Multi-App was a software application that allows applicants to apply multiple business schools at the same time (it’s like "turbo tax" for business school applications.) I actually used Multi-App when I applied business schools. 🙂

Graham attended Wharton MBA program. While he was in Wharton, he was a member of the admission committee. After business school, instead of pursuing one of those typical MBA careers, Graham stayed at Wharton and worked in admission. Later, Graham co-founded Clear Admit.

I have to say that I respect Graham’s decision to choose his own path — clearly he is very passionate about the education industry, and has chosen the career path less traveled. Any MBA graduate would tell you that there is tremendous amount of peer pressure and herd-like mentality in business school to pursue careers such as investment banking, management consulting, brand management, etc. I’m glad to see someone who chooses a different path and has been successful. We need more MBAs to pursue the road less traveled. 🙂

Industry self-regulation

One thing I’m quite concerned about is the lack of regulation. Anyone can become a MBA consultant. There is a fine line between helping an applicant on his application and writing the essays on applicant’s behalf.

It’s interesting for me to hear that Graham along with Linda Abraham and a few other MBA Admission Consultants co-founded the Association of International Graduate Admission Consultants (AIGAC).

According to AIGAC web site, "AIGAC international membership is committed to upholding the highest ethical practices in graduate admissions advisory services". It established Principle of Good Practice for AIGAC members. There’re also certain classifications and qualifications for membership.

Looking at the list of members, most of the well-known consulting firms are members of AIGAC, with two notable exceptions: Sandy Kreisberg and Alex Chu.

Obviously, AIGAC is a self-regulatory organization. It’s natural for anyone to question the self-serving nature of a self-regulatory organization, and how effective it can be. Here is my take on AIGAC:

  • based on my conversation with Graham (who is the president of AIGAC), I feel that he is very sincere in leading the organization, and maintaining the highest ethical standards. I feel comfortable with the direction of AIGAC.
  • AIGAC membership does have some barriers to entry. To certain extent, it helps enforce its principles.
  • AIGAC has been active in meeting with business school officials, and maintaining an open dialog with business schools. Given the explosive growth of the admission consulting industry, I think business schools have recognized that they cannot stop the trend. They have to face the reality, and have an open communications with admission consultants. AIGAC is playing an important role in shaping the relationship between admission consultants and business schools.

Relationship between business school and admission consultants

Before talking to Graham, I did some research regarding business school admission offices’ position on admission consultants. I get the impression that business schools are becoming more receptive to the idea that some of their applicants are using consultants.

Below are some examples of business schools’ views on MBA admission consultants from past to present.

Stanford :

"When we do notice that they used a consultant, it’s a clear violation of the honor code. Applicants state that all of the work submitted is their own work, exactly as if they were submitting an examination or project as a student at Stanford. It’s a big deal."  — A chat with Stanford’s Admission Director, Business Week Online, 2003. Clearly, Derrick Bolton used pretty strong words here. He didn’t make any distinction between ethical and unethical coaching. As long as you used a consultant, you’re violating honor code. 

However, Stanford’s position on this issue has become "softer" to certain extent — "Appropriate feedback occurs when you show someone your completed application, perhaps one or two times, and are apprised of errors or omissions. In contrast, inappropriate coaching occurs when either your essays or your entire self-presentation is colored by someone else. You best serve your own interests when your personal thoughts, individual voice, and unique style remain intact at the end of your editing process." — Stanford Graduate School of Business web site, May, 2009

Duke:

“If someone else has done the work, it’s almost like you are admitting an impostor to the program,” says Liz Riley Hargrove, assistant dean and director of admissions for Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business." — Liz Riley Hargrove, assistant dean and director of admissions for Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. A Booming Business in MBA Coaches , Business Week Online, May, 2007

UCLA:

"On the plus side, there’s the general knowledge that consultants have of MBA programs. Some have even worked for an admissions office and are familiar with how candidates are evaluated.

On the downside, consultants can so finely tune your essays that your own personal voice is lost. Or, even worse, your essays may read like they were written by multiple authors.  Admissions staff reading your application will gain little, if any, insight into the true you. And they may question the authenticity of your work, calling your integrity and admissibility into question."  Thoughts on MBA Admissions Consultants December, 17, 2008.

Graham confirmed that business schools’ attitudes have changed a little bit toward admission consultant. In August, 2008, AIGAC had its first annual conference in Chicago. According to this AIGAC blog post , "the conference’s first day included campus tours of the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business in Hyde Park and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston. As part of these visits, AIGAC members also had the opportunity to meet with admissions officers at each school as well as other administrators from areas such as career counseling and marketing."

Clearly, there are open dialogs between admission consultants and business schools. I believe this is healthy, and beneficial to all parties. In fact, I think organization such as AIGAC could serve as a useful feedback mechanism to business school administrators regarding their admission processes.

However, I do want to say that I’m a little bit concerned about one area of potential conflict of interests — some admission officers have joined admissions consulting firms in the past. I don’t know how much a business school admission officer get paid, but I would guess it’s less than an admission consultant’s pay. As the admission consulting industry grows, I wouldn’t be surprised that more former admission people will join consulting firms. If there is one thing that I would advocate, that would be that there should be some kind of restrictions on admission officers joining consulting firms — for example, admission officers are not allowed to join consulting firms until 2 years after they quit their business school jobs. As much as I trust the integrity of admission folks, I still believe that some rules should be put in place to protect the integrity of the admission process and prevent any potential conflict of interest.

Typical profile of applicants who use admission consultants

I would imagine that "borderline" applicants tend to use admission consultants. But, according to Graham, the applicants are pretty much cross-the-board, representative of the overall applicants pool.

This actually makes sense — regardless of our abilities and track records, it’s human nature to feel insecure about our chances to get into top business schools, given the fierce competition.

Who are the big players in admission consulting?

My previous article "A brief survey of MBA Admission Consulting Industry" has listed most of the major players.

Graham’s firm, Clear Admit, is a major player. I knew about Clear Admit because a while ago I heard that Alex Brown left Wharton and joined Clear Admit. When I applied business school a few years ago, Alex Brown was the senior associate director of admission at Wharton. Although most of the business school admission staff are professional and kind, I have also run into admission people who were arrogant, snobbish, and unhelpful. Alex had always been very open, and helpful. I remember that he was quite active in interacting with applicants in forums and information sessions. It was a surprise for me to learn that he was jumping into the private sector. 🙂

I also want to mention a couple of things about Clear Admit. They offer tons of free information that are very helpful to applicants on their blog. Since I’m into blogging and social media, I have the habit of checking a blog’s traffic stat. Clear Admit Blog has an Alexa ranking of 172,839 and Google Page Rank of 6. These are pretty impressive stats.

Clear Admit also publishes a set of school guides, interview guides, and strategy guides. I reviewed one school guide. It’s much more informative, specific and practical than those guides you’ll see from Princeton Review, Barron’s, etc. Check them out if you’re looking for in-depth business school guides.

Veritas is another big player. Their heritage is in GMAT training. I still remember a few years ago while I was in business school, I started to see advertisements from Veritas. They were aggressively hiring MBA students who have very high GMAT scores. Be quite honest, I was not a big fan of this kind of marketing approach because I believe that someone with a great GMAT score doesn’t make someone a great GMAT coach. But, apparently, their strategy has worked and they’ve become quite dominant in GMAT coaching. They have also expanded into other areas such as admission consulting. Looking at their web site, they have quite a large roster of admission consultants. One star consultant they have is Scott Shrum, who is the co-author of Your MBA Game Plan: Proven Strategies for Getting into the Top Business Schools.

Stacy Blackman also has a sizable operation. According to a Business Week article, Stacy’s consulting firm grew from one-person to 30-coaches in 7 years. I haven’t gotten a chance to talk to anyone from Stacy’s company. Based on information on their web site and media coverage, I get a feeling that it’s positioned as a "premium service" with higher price point.

I cannot conclude this section without mentioning two other important consultants: Alex Chu and Sandy Kreisberg. Alex is a one-man operation. He has been a frequent poster on the business week forum. I have to say that I really enjoyed Alex’s advice when I applied business school — I feel unlike many admission consultants whose entire career is in admission, Alex himself had worked in finance and technology industry. Alex provides very balanced perspective on MBA and career. Although I never talked to Alex, I have always appreciated Alex’s free advice on the Business Week Forum.

Sandy is another well-known consultants. I knew two young individuals who used his services. They really wanted to get into HBS. Sandy flatly told them that their chances were very low. Both individuals still used Sandy’s service. One was wait-listed at HBS and the other didn’t get in. Both of them were "borderline candidates" for HBS. So, I think Sandy’s assessment was correct at first place. This is an example of Sandy’s style: he is blunt, upfront, "tough love", and could sound cynical at times about business school admission process. But, I do think he is a very experienced consultants, and he has good track record.

My final thoughts

Would I use consultants if I’m applying business school this year?

Fortunately, I went though the business school application process during the last recession. It was brutal, but it’s definitely not as bad as the application under the current economic environment. 🙂

If I’m applying business school this year, I’d still not use consultants. That’s just because the way I am. I believe that 1) I can craft a compelling application myself and 2) the price tag for admission consulting is way too high in my opinion.

Would I recommend others to use consultants?

This is a personal decision. Let me draw an analogy. A lot of people want to lost weight. At the most basic level, there’re two ways to lose weights: exercise more and eat less. We all know the principles. But, a lot of people need help to accomplish their goals — from special diet program to home-based work-out program to surgery, people get external help to achieve their goals. Similarly, to get into business school, I think it’s each individual’s choice to decide how much money he/she will spend and how much outside help he/she wants.

Of course, there is an ethical dimension here. I’d like to give consultants and applicants the benefit of doubts. I think admission people are very experienced and skilled in detecting fraudulent applications. Also, admission consulting is a reputation-based business. If anyone gets caught for cheating, the entire business is ruined.

I do think the students from certain background will be better served by admission consultants. For example, I came from a high tech background. I can tell you that many of my friends who work in the high tech industry are not as polished and smooth as the McKinsey analysts, Morgan Stanley analysts, or the Kraft marketing analysts. They might have the “substance” to get into a top school, but they need to learn how to organize, position, and present their "substance effectively. I think the right consultants could be very helpful.

Will admission consulting give the "rich kids" a competitive advantage?

This is a common feedback I got from fellow readers. This is a valid concern, but I think it’s a small advantage that everyone can overcome.

Let me share with you my story of applying college. I came from a humble beginning. In fact, while most of my classmates typed their college application essays on computers, I was using a used typewriter to write my application essays. I had no access to any external help. I couldn’t afford to buy any SAT prep books. I had to borrow SAT books from the local library, return it, and then borrow it again (since I could only renew twice.) But, the adversity made me scrappy, hungry, and determined. I ended up getting into all five colleges I applied for.

If you cannot afford a consultant, focus on other ways to improve your application. There are tons of books, forums, blogs, etc. on MBA applications. Admission Consultant is neither necessary nor sufficient for getting into a top MBA program. I’m convinced.

My main concerns regarding MBA Admission Consulting industry

  • As I said earlier, I think that there is a potential conflict of interest for former admission officers to join consulting firms. I think there needs to be some restrictions/regulations.
  • Who is a good consultant? Who is a bad consultant? There is little transparency in term of the quality of consultants. To help address this problem, I have created Rate Your Admission Consultant Survey — if you’ve used consultants in the past, please fill out this survey to help other applicants! If you know someone who used consultant before, ask them to fill out the survey!

What’s Next?

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5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 GMAT Club // May 16, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    Great Post! I would probably side with you about using Admission consultants for my own application but there are people who don't have time to get all the details or who would like to maximize their chances and want to use them. Looking at the number, there is definitely demand.

    Would be very interested to read about the results of your Admissions Consultants Survey.

    Best Regards,
    BB
    Founder of GMAT Club

  • 2 admissions411.com // May 18, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    I'd like to highlight http://www.admissions411.com to your readers as a resource for unbiased admission consultant rankings. admissions411 compiles business school application statistics from our 25,000+ members for over 80 US and international business schools.

    We have a dedicated page for member-driven reviews of admission consultants. 100's of reviews are provided for over 50 admission consultants. These reviews are unfiltered, raw feedback from prior MBA applicants.

    http://www.admissions411.com/AdmissionConsultan

    Thank you
    Eli

  • 3 GeekMBA360 // May 27, 2009 at 12:15 am

    Thanks for letting me know, Eli. I've already approved your comments, so
    anyone comes to the article should see your comment.

    Just curious — how do you make sure that the reviews are written by real
    applicants, not admission-consultant-turned-fake applicants? 🙂

    thanks,
    Bill

  • 4 anecdotalmba // Oct 20, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. This is an important topic, as the cost of applying to business school is dominated by the decision of whether or not to use a consultant.

    You ask whether admission consultants might give an unfair advantage to the rich, but I think this overlooks the fact that the rich probably stand to benefit the least from their services.

    Why? Wealthy people are more likely to have access to graduates of the top business schools (through work, social networks, etc.), and therefore already have access to personalized advice on the application process. Similarly, people who work in finance and consulting are likely to be surrounded by graduates from the top programs, and stand to benefit less from a consultant than others would.

    As you point out, the fundamental problem is the lack of transparency. There is no way to know whether you're getting a good consultant, but surveys like yours and the ongoing one on admissions411.com are helping to solve this problem. I'd love to see Business Week step in here and do a more comprehensive survey. I suspect we would see prices drop and quality improve if better information were available.

    In my case – I used a consultant and was satisfied with the service, but I wish I had done more homework before I made a decision. I would have gone with a less expensive package.

  • 5 anecdotalmba // Oct 21, 2009 at 2:24 am

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. This is an important topic, as the cost of applying to business school is dominated by the decision of whether or not to use a consultant.

    You ask whether admission consultants might give an unfair advantage to the rich, but I think this overlooks the fact that the rich probably stand to benefit the least from their services.

    Why? Wealthy people are more likely to have access to graduates of the top business schools (through work, social networks, etc.), and therefore already have access to personalized advice on the application process. Similarly, people who work in finance and consulting are likely to be surrounded by graduates from the top programs, and stand to benefit less from a consultant than others would.

    As you point out, the fundamental problem is the lack of transparency. There is no way to know whether you're getting a good consultant, but surveys like yours and the ongoing one on admissions411.com are helping to solve this problem. I'd love to see Business Week step in here and do a more comprehensive survey. I suspect we would see prices drop and quality improve if better information were available.

    In my case – I used a consultant and was satisfied with the service, but I wish I had done more homework before I made a decision. I would have gone with a less expensive package.

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