ApplicantLab: An Evolution in MBA Admissions Consulting
About eight years ago, admissions consultant and Harvard MBA Maria Wich-Vila set out to single-handedly disrupt the MBA admissions consulting industry. She told the Harvard Business School’s student publication, The Harbus, what led her to this choice:
I was a VP of Admissions for LASO (the Latino Students Organization) when I was at HBS. We would work with the admissions office to organize diversity events, and at these events I’d meet people who would ask me for help with their essays. I began doing it to try to level the playing field, since frequently these prospective students couldn’t afford admissions consultants, just like I couldn’t when I was an applicant. Then, after graduation, I just kept providing admissions advice, pro-bono, via word of mouth: people would send me their friends, co-workers, younger siblings. I’d work in startups during the day and then would help people with their essays, recommendation strategy, interviews, etc. on nights & weekends.
Then, when my son was a newborn, I had a lot less time to give advice and started having to turn people away. I began searching for books or blogs to refer prospective applicants to, but found that they tended to be way too generic to be useful. Meanwhile, the “affordable” admissions firms didn’t usually offer high-quality service, and the top-notch firms charged exorbitant prices. I looked at how interactive, computer-adaptive technology was transforming the test-prep industry, and saw an opportunity for an analogous product on the admissions-advice side. I put on my product-manager hat and asked myself, “How can I use technology to truly scale great advice? In sum, how can I replicate myself?”
Has Maria Wich-Vila disrupted this industry yet? Perhaps not. But anyone who manages an admissions consulting firm should be quite concerned about the impending competitive threat from Wich-Vila’s new startup, ApplicantLab.
Her firm provides an interactive online platform that guides candidates through the confusing MBA application process so thoroughly that it offers the potential to replace admissions consultants. What’s more, the experience of taking a test drive through the ApplicantLab platform feels in some ways reminiscent of test-driving the very first iPhone in 2007. At that moment, it became obvious that phone manufacturers like Nokia—that failed to shift to touchscreen displays and build widescreen video playback and Internet communications capabilities into a single device—faced an unfair fight from Apple’s iPhone. A fight that they would never win.
Similarly, in the not-too-distant future, all graduate admissions consulting services may rely on expert systems similar to the ApplicantLab platform. The rich capabilities and value provided by a platform like ApplicantLab present such overwhelming competitive advantages that there is no way that a traditional admissions consultancy will be able to compete unless they offer clients their own version of this new technology.
Read on to understand how applicants to MBA programs can benefit from Wich-Vila’s disruptive innovation.
ApplicantLab’s Value: Priced to Sell
ApplicantLab’s pricing structure is radically different from that of a typical admissions consultant. Even before we explain how the ApplicantLab platform works, candidates need to understand this pricing differential because it emphasizes the remarkable value provided by the platform.
Typical Fees Charged by Admissions Consultants
Our previous guide (Is an MBA Admissions Consultant Worth It?) pointed out that the fees charged by many MBA admissions consultants are substantial. As of September 2019, many consultants in the Poets & Quants directory charge about $8,000 for a three-school application package—which is only about half the number of schools to which some consultants recommend applying. Moreover, most of their rates range between $299 and $450 per hour. Some firms’ rates even parallel the billable hourly rates charged by law firm partners, ranging anywhere from about $500 to $900 per hour.
Given that the total cost of attending the top MBA programs in the United States now exceed $300,000 after factoring in lost salaries, it may be true that $8,000 amounts to only about a 2.6 percent drop in that bucket. It may also be true that a candidate who gains admission to a top-ten school with the help of a consultant may earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more during their lifetime than they would have earned if, without consulting support, they ended up at a school ranked at the bottom of the top forty. From that perspective, the $8,000 seems like a wildly successful investment—an almost inconsequential amount compared to the enormous return on this investment in admissions counseling.
But to many applicants, this amount of money may be staggering and ultimately beyond their reach. In our updated List of MBA Scholarships, we point out how student loan balances have soared 150 percent since 2009 to reach an all-time $1.4 trillion high, with an average university graduate now carrying a crushing burden of almost four loans with an average outstanding balance of nearly $35,000. And no matter how compelling the economic utility arguments, many students cannot afford under any circumstances to pay a consultant almost $10,000 to help them gain entry to a top school.
What’s most disturbing about this situation is that it places a barrier that potentially impedes some of the most deserving and talented applicants from access to the best MBA programs. Everyone suffers, because candidates who might otherwise turn into future business leaders and bring innovations to market that society badly needs—like Duke University MBA and Apple CEO Tim Cook—may find themselves excluded from top-quality graduate management education. This barrier can especially hinder deserving applicants from underrepresented minorities that typically have less ability to pay consultants’ expensive fees, resulting in fewer opportunities among these groups.
The ApplicantLab Pricing Difference
In a market almost exclusively comprising premium-priced packages, Wich-Vila has the temerity to offer her platform’s subscriptions under an audacious pricing structure. She offers ApplicantLab under a freemium pricing model combined with a token payment for premium content. What does that mean?
As described by this Harvard Business Review article, freemium pricing involves blending “free” with “premium.” Users receive basic functionality without charge, but can access richer features after they buy a subscription. This model has experienced popularity in the software industry for decades, often among firms aggressively trying to capture market share. Today it’s the dominant business model among online startups as well as iPhone and Android app developers, as anyone who has used LinkedIn, Tinder, or Dropbox knows.
“Because free features are a potent marketing tool, the model allows a new venture to scale up and attract a user base without expending resources on costly ad campaigns or a traditional sales force,” writes Harvard Business School professor Vineet Kumar.
Free access to ApplicantLab doesn’t provide a full featured, time-limited version; the free version excludes many of the platform’s features. Nevertheless, the free version includes what arguably seem like the most important functions within the site for candidates who are just beginning their MBA application process. It also provides a vast amount of insider knowledge and advice from the perspective of a savvy, experienced admission counselor. If one were interested in all possible candidate scenarios besides their own, one could easily spend an entire weekend reviewing all of the videos, narratives, and documents included with the free version. And if all one does is use the free features, one should still receive a formidable competitive advantage over the majority of MBA candidates who aren’t working with an admission consultant.
Users might not realize at first that the free version includes such broad coverage because many of the site’s features are adaptive. That means some of the contextual functionality only appears once a user has completed prerequisite steps. Repeatedly, just when we thought we had seen everything offered by the free platform, more features seemed to suddenly appear.
ApplicantLab only charges $299 to unlock the rest of the platform’s features. That amount only constitutes about 3.7 percent of the $8,000 many consultants charge. Applicants who have already been invited to interview at their schools of choice can buy the interview preparation component of the platform separately for only $49. As we’ll see below, these payments seem like token amounts when compared to the total value the platform offers.
Poets & Quants currently lists Wich-Vila in their consultants directory, quoting a $1,999 estimate for a three-school application package. That might seem confusing to some readers because that’s not the cost of an ApplicantLab premium subscription. Should a premium user decide that they still need personal coaching, Wich-Vila’s firm offers those services but estimates that for a three-school package, ApplicantLab would only charge about a quarter of most consultants’ fees.
Why? For one thing, the ApplicantLab online platform enables consultants to monitor clients’ progress more efficiently, which slashes much of the time a consultant would need to provide expensive, time-consuming one-on-one feedback and corrections. But more importantly, the software also performs two essential functions within a typical consulting engagement as well as or better than $450-per-hour consultants can.
Origins of the ApplicantLab Platform
Wich-Vila realized two characteristics about graduate admission consulting that led her to develop the ApplicantLab platform.
The first characteristic was that most clients—even those with strong qualifications —lacked a practical understanding of how the MBA admission “game” was played at the best business schools. Despite excellent college grades, GMAT scores, and work histories, many of these applicants faced a significant risk of rejections from top schools. Often that risk was because they were competing in a game where they did not understand all the objectives or rules. Moreover, many such candidates didn’t have an accurate “blueprint” for what admissions committee members, or “adcoms,” considered essential hallmark attributes of a winning, “must-admit” application.
Wich-Vila recognized that most of the billable time spent working with clients was typically allocated to just two functions. One was discovery, where the consultant sought a sufficient understanding of the client’s situation, identifying strengths, and diagnosing weaknesses. The other function was client education, where the consultant needed to explain inside information about the MBA application process that the client needed before the team could craft a winning application. These two functions could consume more than three-quarters of the time spent working with clients.
The second characteristic that she realized was that technology had progressed to the point where functions like these could be performed as well as or better by software programs than by human consultants. By around 2010 it had become technically feasible to combine online video from sites like YouTube and Vimeo with forms, graphics, and documents into a secure, integrated online platform.
Thinking of ApplicantLab as an Expert System
One effective way of conceptualizing how ApplicantLab works would be to think of the platform as an expert system. This kind of software provides recommendations that typically require analysis and advice from a human authority.
Expert systems are not new. They comprised some of the first successful applications of artificial intelligence technology. By the late 1980s, expert systems had fallen out of favor because they failed to satisfy the expectations of corporate customers. However, because of recent advances in technology, expert systems appear poised to stage a comeback.
ApplicantLab provides a sequence of video presentations, readings, and exercises that walks users through the steps they need to take to develop compelling applications to MBA programs. The service includes strategy development as well as components such as resumes, essays, recommendations, and interviews. And like a modern expert system, ApplicantLab only provides resources that are directly relevant to the user. Because the software first asks questions about the user’s situation and tailors the content it provides, users save time by focusing only on content relevant to their personal situation.
For example, the “Strengths & Weaknesses” section recommends ways in which a user could strengthen their application. In the most frequent case, where an applicant is working, the software asks for the applicant’s two closest employment fields along with their years of experience. The software also asks users to indicate up to 17 potential concerns they might have about their academic performance, employment history, and other factors that might affect the strength of their application.
Clicking on the “Where do I stand?” button reveals a “Lab Report” diagnosis. It lists the candidate’s advantages and challenges. The platform then ranks the candidate along four scales: their quantitative and academic record, their emotional quotient and people skills, their post-MBA employability, and their ability to prove leadership to an admission committee. Then the platform offers strategies to address the user’s concerns.
ApplicantLab’s Career Vision Focus
But where ApplicantLab offers its most remarkable contribution, perhaps, is in the way that the software focuses the user’s attention to their career vision. That’s crucial because an applicant’s vision drives the most important elements of their application. As Wich-Vila explains on video, the vision dictates the most effective arguments to justify the candidate’s reasons for seeking an MBA. It also identifies which “brand trait” strengths a candidate can emphasize to demonstrate their probability of long-term career success. And because MBA programs do not train middle managers, admission committees define long-term success to mean suitability for a CEO or another chief officer role that demands leadership ability over technical skills.
She also explains the three reasons why admissions committees place such a critical emphasis on an applicant’s career vision. First, they need assurance that an applicant will be happy with the degree; satisfied alumni build and maintain powerful university brands. Second, they need confidence that the applicant can develop effective career plans, since recent research demonstrates that career plans often change not long after graduation. And third, they’re staging a preliminary test of the candidate’s ability to get hired, which will involve selling future employers on their career vision.
Some applicants may find this module to be a bit shocking. Wich-Vila emphasizes that some post-MBA career objectives cannot appear in an MBA program application because if an admission committee spots them, they will reject the candidate—no matter how exceptional their GMAT scores, college grades, or other qualifications.
For example, she explains that the career vision likely to be the most damaging would be a candidate’s assertion that they want an MBA so that they can change both their job function and industry immediately upon graduation. Besides questioning the candidate’s maturity and judgment, a committee will fear that they won’t succeed and end up as a dissatisfied alumnus. To prevent that result, they’ll reject the applicant instead.
Almost as damaging is a short-term objective to launch a startup immediately upon graduation. Admission officers know that this outcome rarely happens because MBA graduates only have about six months before they must begin paying back their student loans. Furthermore, the more extreme case of a candidate’s asserting they want to start a business upon graduation in a field where they have no experience will certainly result in a rejection.
The Overwhelming Value of ApplicantLab
ApplicantLab offers much more value than we can adequately profile in this brief guide. For example, given that the resume is often the first document an admission officer will review in a candidate’s file, we were especially impressed by the way the platform emphasizes resume writing and design considerations because as the saying goes, “One never gets a second chance to make a great first impression.” Moreover, in her resume editing video presentation, some of the techniques Wich-Vila applies to demonstrate targeting job promotions while cutting unnecessary language struck us as ingenious.
The only suggestion we could offer might be that ApplicantLab’s media visibility would benefit from hiring an experienced Silicon Valley public relations firm. We only found five stories in Google News that mentioned ApplicantLab. Apart from a record in the Poets & Quants admissions consultants directory and profile reviews on the GMAT Club website, it’s not clear how anyone might learn about the system except by word-of-mouth.
But as for the ApplicantLab platform itself, we can’t imagine why any applicant to a top MBA program would fail to take advantage of such a remarkable—and disruptive—innovation in the process.