Should I Hire an MBA Admissions Consultant? Best Practices for Getting into Business School
Few topics seem as controversial among applicants to MBA programs as the use of graduate admissions consultants. These consultants help optimize the chances of acceptance for their clients, typically candidates applying to highly selective business schools.
Only some people who have hired a consultant to help with business school applications seem happy with them, but one would never gather that impression from reviewing the consultant ratings at Poets & Quants. When we sorted the site’s MBA Admissions Consulting Directory by consultants with the highest number of “candid reviews,” in just the first four pages alone, we counted over 1,000 five-star ratings. Satisfied clients who received substantial scholarship awards wrote several reviews that caught our attention.
Our research disclosed that in some circumstances, there are strong arguments for hiring consultants. However, the most compelling arguments didn’t seem to be the reasons often cited by many of the consultants themselves.
These days the fees some consultants charge for support with applications to only three MBA programs can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $20,000. Are they worth that kind of expense? To answer that question, this article doesn’t provide a comprehensive guide to MBA admission consultants but rather seeks to spotlight some specific factors and perspectives MBA applicants would be wise to consider when determining whether to work with one.
|Featured MBA Programs|
|Maryville University||Master of Business Administration||View Full Profile|
|Rice University||MBA@Rice Online MBA||View Full Profile|
|University of Miami||Online Master of Business Administration||View Full Profile|
|University of California, Davis||Online MBA (MBA@UCDavis)||View Full Profile|
|Texas A&M International University||Online MBA - Management||View Full Profile|
|Grand Canyon University||Online MBA||View Full Profile|
The Limits of Information in Applying to Business School
Best practices in applying to MBA programs are not secrets. Free websites like BSchools can provide candidates with useful information to help with their applications on various topics ranging from essay writing to managing recommenders.
However, those of us who worked at business schools counseling students on their academic decisions know very well that for some candidates, more than information is needed for them to win admission to a top MBA program. And what websites like BSchools cannot do is provide advantages that can only accrue from a relationship with a competent advisor. For MBA applicants, a good advisor should offer capabilities like analytical skills, objectivity, practical judgment, leadership, editing ability, and emotional intelligence. They should also serve as collaborative team players who can offer encouragement and emotional support when necessary.
For some, family and friends can adequately fill such roles. If the candidate works for a company that hires a lot of MBAs (e.g., investment bank, management consulting firm), their network of professional colleagues who hold MBAs provides ideal choices.
However, not everyone—especially right out of college—might be fortunate to work with many MBAs. Furthermore, friends and family tend to lack objectivity in cases where they have close relationships with the candidate which can create “blind spots” while reviewing application essays and mock interview rehearsals.
Even where they recognize weaknesses in the applicant’s profile, some amateur advisors who prioritize harmony within the relationship might avoid sharing inconvenient truths that some applicants need to hear. These include candidates who want to attend business schools like Harvard, Stanford, or Wharton even though they don’t have WOW (“walk on water”) profiles; they also include applicants who want to attend a top-20 on-campus program despite issues such as a low GMAT score.
Professionals with the experience and the authority to encourage candidates like these can prove valuable; they may push a person to retake the GMAT or consider a more realistic selection of schools. These professionals can save such applicants from investing tremendous time and effort only to be met with the heartbreak of widespread rejections, or “dings.”
Former admissions board member at Harvard Business School and former director of admissions at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Public Policy and Management, Chioma Isiadinso says that two of the top three reasons for these “dings” include unrealistic applications to schools where candidates had a low admission probability, as well as poor fits with these schools’ programs.
Backgrounds of Admission Consultants
Accordingly, some candidates could benefit from a professional relationship with an advisor who offers the requisite skills and experience. The backgrounds of most MBA admission consultants appear to fall into three camps:
- Former admission committee members at business schools
- Graduates of highly selective MBA programs
- Communication specialists
Former Business School Admission Committee Members
In 2023, Poets & Quants featured a list of the Top Ten Perfect-Scoring MBA Admission Consultants from their directory of 567 active MBA admission consultants who previously worked as deans and admissions committee gatekeepers at business schools. The analysis is based on verified client reviews at Poets&Quants. Clients wrote 1,233 assessments of their experience with 212 admission consultants at 59 different firms. Given the cozy relationships between business school officers and admission consultants, this career trend growth does not seem surprising.
Gone are the days when an adversarial relationship existed between consultants and admission committees. Today, many schools closely collaborate with admissions consultants, viewing them as helpful influences who can encourage the right candidates to apply. Moreover, this Fortune article suggests that the “revolving door” between academia and private consulting firms seems reminiscent of similar career shifts among many who enter the private sector after government service in Washington, D.C.
Not all former gatekeepers hold MBAs from top business schools. And some argue that former school administrators don’t necessarily make the best consultants. After all, admission consultants serve in roles much like psychotherapists—positions very different from quasi-bureaucratic job functions as university executives. But there’s no denying that former gatekeepers possess first-hand, insider knowledge of how admission committees arrive at their admission decisions. This closely guarded know-how can provide valuable advantages for some clients.
Graduates of Highly Selective MBA programs
Most MBA admission consultants are graduates of elite business schools, the same kinds of programs their clients want to attend. Almost all consultants who lack experience working in admission offices hold MBAs. Most of these consultants also have substantial business experience, which makes them well-suited to help candidates present accomplishments from their work experience in their resumes, essays, and interviews.
A few consultants are rhetorical experts who focus on editing resumes and essays to deliver maximum persuasive impact. Many in this group also coach clients on their interview presentations.
Do Most MBA Candidates Use Admission Consultants?
While researching our first essay guide, the BSchools editors were surprised to learn the extent of the involvement of admissions consultants in editing and selecting topics for candidates’ essays. Data associated with published application essays suggests that many students who won admission to the full-time programs at the world’s most popular M7 business schools—including Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton—relied on help from these consultants.
Published estimates report a range between 22 and 45 percent of candidates who hire admission consultants, depending on the applicant group. This 2015 Fortune article reported that MBA admissions consultants “typically see a quarter to a third of the applicant pool of the top 10 business schools.” Another recent survey concluded that more than 20 percent of all MBA program applicants hire consultants.
The Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC) is an industry group representing over 180 graduate admissions consulting firms from 13 countries. In 2019, AIGAC released a report that showed how consultants advise candidates to target the right schools for them. It reported that 36 percent of students applied to a school not previously considered, and 32 percent worked to earn a higher GMAT score before applying by recommendations taken from admissions consultants.
However, some criticized the findings as biased because it’s in the best interest of this association to report higher than actual results.
Nevertheless, anecdotal reports support even higher estimates. For example, this discussion forum comment from an MBA student at Northwestern University mused, “Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person who didn’t use an admissions consultant.” Another comment from a Harvard Business School student mentioned:
”Recently, I had dinner with fellow HBSers where we talked about if we used a consultant or not. There were 10 of us there, and only one hadn’t used a consultant. The others either externally hired someone or used an internal resource (since their companies sent a lot of people to b-school).”
The Efficacy of Consultants
Are consultants effective? Obtaining credible data from clients seems hard to come by, and attempts to audit the performance of consultants have been met with skepticism.
However, Kira Talent—a Toronto software firm that develops interviewing software used by some business school admission offices—surveyed 50 of the top business schools in the United States. According to the Economist, Kira asked the schools’ admissions officers if they believed students who used consultants exercised an unfair advantage over those who didn’t. Half of those surveyed said they did.
How Admission Consultants Help Applicants
Applicants to MBA programs can take several steps that can improve their chances of getting into an MBA program. A 2015 survey found admission consultants believe that GMAT scores now account for a fifth of the weight—about 22 percent—in MBA program admission decisions. After a GMAT score, the consultants believe the following parts of an MBA application are most important: essays (14.5 percent), admission interviews (12.1 percent), undergraduate GPAs (10.3 percent), and recommendation letters (7.6 percent).
In this survey, three of the four most important application components below the GMAT—essays, interviews, and recommendation letters—amount to almost 35 percent of the total weight. These are the components with which admission consultants can help the most, which is why working with a consultant can certainly improve one’s chances of admission at a highly-ranked school.
Specific circumstances exist where some applicants would be well-served by collaborating with an admission consultant. These situations focus on application essays.
Selecting Essay Anecdotes that Emphasize Vulnerability
First, as we note in our guide, How to Write a Great MBA Personal Statement, experts agree that authenticity is a necessary winning essay hallmark. We were especially surprised by how many of the winning Harvard MBA application essays display vulnerability because this quality is not generally associated with business leaders or business students.
Admission consultants sometimes need to coax candidates into overcoming their resistance to share vulnerable anecdotes—even when those stories will paint their essays as compelling and memorable to admission officers.
In this insightful Poets & Quants excerpt, a shy introvert applicant with no business experience known as David Marin (a pseudonym) seeks telephone counseling from John, his admission consultant with Southern California-based Stacy Blackman Consulting. Marin felt too emotional to answer a University of Chicago essay question, “Describe a time when you were surprised by feedback that you received. What was the feedback, and why were you surprised?”
Marin, a teacher in a low-income school, was hesitant to write about a situation in which a principal screamed at him for calling the parents of one of his students. The experience had been painful, but by encouraging him to explore this vulnerability in an essay, the admissions consultant ultimately helped Marin to secure several MBA program acceptances, including one at his dream school.
Editing Short-Answer Essays to Fit Tight Word Limits
Second, the current MBA application trend is toward requiring very brief essays. These days, word limits required by the essay prompts for schools like the Columbia Business School and the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill can be extraordinarily restrictive, sometimes imposing constraints as brief as 50 to 250 words.
To help a candidate’s writing fit, effective editing can often shorten essays by as much as 50 percent. However, because most MBA candidates don’t have college or graduate training in advanced expository writing or editing, to achieve this result some may need to work either with an admission consultant with editing qualifications or a professional editor.
Supporting Applicants with Communication Challenges
Third, STEM (science, technical, engineering, or mathematics) professionals or people with communication deficits can benefit from some assistance with their essays. Although they tend to score higher on the GMAT, which primarily tests quantitative reasoning, STEM candidates frequently face challenges writing solid essays and resumes for business school. These challenges can be exacerbated among international applicants who lack competency in English. Coaching can help this group of candidates avoid embarrassing defects in their essays that may disqualify them.
Putting Consultant Costs into Perspective
The fees charged by some MBA admission consultants can be substantial. At the time of this writing, most consultants on the Poets & Quants list charge about $8,000 (up to $20,000) for a three-school application package. Most of the hourly rates are between $299 and $450 per hour. However, a few of the hourly rates are comparable with the billable hourly rates charged by law firm partners, ranging anywhere from about $500 to $750 per hour.
These fees can seem staggering until one considers them relative to the total costs of applying to the business schools that consulting clients often seek to attend.
Including the opportunity costs of lost salary for two years at $50,000 per year, the total costs of attending several of the top MBA programs in the United States now exceed $300,000. From that standpoint, $8,000 amounts to only about 2.6 percent of that total—a drop in the bucket.
Suppose that an admission consultant’s work could result in an applicant’s acceptance at one top-10 school when, without that consultant’s help, the candidate would do no better than winning acceptance at a school ranked at the bottom of the top 40. The difference in compensation for that candidate could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars throughout a lifetime, and pay dividends long after the first post-graduation job. From this perspective, the $8,000 seems like a wildly successful investment—an almost inconsequential amount compared to the enormous return.
Who Should Consider an Admission Consultant?
The following groups of applicants can benefit from an admissions consultant:
Most applicants who aspire to enroll at one of the world’s most popular business schools, such as the Harvard Business School, the Stanford Graduate School of Business (which only admits 5 percent of applicants), and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, will likely need consultants’ help to win admission.
Even if applicants have five years of experience with one of these schools’ prestigious “feeder” employers like McKinsey, a 3.9 GPA, and a 750 score on the GMAT, competition for spots at these schools is still too intense to face without coaching by professionals. Poets & Quants’ Editor John Byrne expands this category to include the top dozen full-time programs.
- Candidates applying to online MBA programs offered by top business schools. These schools include Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, and the new online MBA program at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
- Candidates with a gap between their aspirations and their profile.
- Anyone applying to a top-12 school with less than a 3.5 GPA, or less than a 700 GMAT score, or work experience without prestige or feeder employers.
- Anyone applying to a top-50 full-time, on-campus program with a GPA below 3.2, or a GMAT score below about 630, or work experience issues (including over ten years of work experience), or whose age falls significantly below or above the typical range for full-time, on-campus MBA students.
- Candidates who are applying to a top-25 school who have communication challenges that may affect their performance on application essays or during interviews.
- International candidates who are non-native English speakers and who are applying to a top-50 business school in the United States.
- Candidates working at companies that don’t offer business school application counseling to employees and don’t employ many MBAs willing to provide free advice.
- Well-qualified applicants (especially from underrepresented groups) who are likely to win scholarships. This may defray some or all of the costs of admission consulting.
How Should I Select a Consultant?
Chioma Isiadinso of Poets & Quants and Harvard MBA Dan Bauer of the MBA Exchange offered suggestions for selecting a good consultant. We’ve incorporated some of their recommendations into the following tips:
- Candidates should first try to develop a clear sense of their needs and a realistic assessment of their chances for admission to the schools they’d like to attend. For example, does one need a firm that focuses on strategy, on essay editing, or both?
- Applicants also need a realistic understanding of the services that consultants can offer. For example, no professional would ever write an application essay for a client, and candidates should avoid any consultant who offers to do so. Membership in an association like the AIGAC signals that a consultant observes the group’s professional responsibility standards.
- Recognize that the best admission consultants appear to make up a highly concentrated industry. In three Poets & Quants articles in 2021, 2022, and 2023, the most favorably-reviewed consultants worked for four to five common firms: Fortuna Admissions, mbaMission, Admissions Gateway, Stratus Admission Consulting, and Master Admissions. Moreover, three of these five common firms have featured in the Top five MBA Admission Consulting Firms Of 2023.
- A good way to start is by asking for referrals from trusted friends or colleagues. Ask around to see if they have any experience with firms like these.
- Videos can help one quickly form impressions of consultants. This interview with Jessica Burlingame of the MBA Exchange, David White and Alice Van Harten of Menlo Coaching, and Betsy Massar of Master Admissions provides a good example. So do these clips with Jon Frank of Admissionado and Chioma Isiadinso of Expartus.
- Research different firms to determine the best fit with one’s needs and preferences. As part of this due diligence and vetting process, learn about each company’s history, who manages the firm, how they select and train consultants, and their professionals’ experience, backgrounds, and track records. Do their consultants have experience in business as well as admissions? How strong can the firm provide evidence for their admission success stories and client satisfaction?
- Ask previous applicants for their opinions about their experience with a firm.
- Most consultants offer free initial consultations that can be helpful to candidates. The firms usually have more time for these free sales meetings during their off-peak season, roughly from March through June. The feedback they offer during such preliminary calls can provide a preview of the quality of their work. Moreover, how they treat prospects foreshadows how they treat their clients. Do they seem professional? Are they prompt, accessible, and responsive? Do they seem understanding and empathetic?
- Bauer recommends considering value over price, suggesting that saving money might not feel comforting to candidates who receive second-rate service and fail to win admission to their target schools. He suggests that comprehensive consultation packages ensure that candidates discover and address all their weaknesses in ways that hourly services cannot.
- Before signing any agreements, consider a conversation with the head of the consulting firm to ensure alignment of objectives, expectations, and views about one’s admissions potential.
So, on balance, is an MBA admission consultant worth it?
For MBA candidates needing good information to prepare winning business school applications to the top-50 business schools, an admission consultant probably won’t seem worth the expense. Most applicants like these should do very well without the advice consultants provide.
And not all consultants seem to be worth the expensive fees they charge. Some applicants might do just as well with alternatives like ApplicantLab, which offers an online consulting platform created by Harvard MBA Maria Wich-Vila. Her service has received almost 50 five-star reviews on Poets & Quants while only charging a quarter of most consultants’ fees.
But for a candidate with high aspirations who needs the skills, expertise, and support that only a comprehensive professional relationship can provide, the best consultants working with the leading firms we mention in our tips above will probably seem worth every penny.