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, who are typically candidates applying to highly selective business schools.
Not everyone who has hired a consultant to help with business school applications seems 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 1,258 five-star ratings. Satisfied clients who had also 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 arguments we found most compelling 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 approach over $10,000. 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.
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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 a broad range of 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, information alone might not be enough 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 that 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 refrain from 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 as well as authority to encourage candidates like these can prove valuable; they may push a person to retake the GMAT or to consider a more realistic selection of schools. These professionals can save such applicants from investing tremendous amounts of time and effort only to be met with the heartbreak of widespread rejections—”dings.”
Former Harvard Business School associate director of admissions 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 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 2020, Poets & Quants featured a list of 10 favorably-reviewed MBA admission consultants from their directory of 497 active MBA admission consultants who previously worked as deans and admissions committee gatekeepers at business schools. In their fourth annual review of this emerging profession, more than 3,500 verified reviews from clients were used to select the best consultants who were able to increase an applicant’s chances of admission. This career trend growth does not seem surprising, given the cozy relationships between business school officers and admission consultants.
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 which are 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 and that 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. Of the consultants who lack experience working in admission offices, almost all 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 impacts. 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 that represents 180 graduate admissions consulting firms from 16 countries. In 2016 AIGAC released a report that 45 percent of a sample of 1,114 applicants who applied to at least one graduate business school had hired admission consultants, a level consistent with a similar study the group conducted a year earlier.
However, some criticized the findings as biased because it’s in the best interest of this association to report higher than actual results. Moreover, AIGAC failed to report the sampling methodology. And 61 percent of respondents were international applicants, a group known for widespread use of admission consultants.
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 had a 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).
Note that 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, in some cases 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 communications 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, many consultants on the Poets & Quants list charge about $8,000 for a three-school application package. Most of the hourly rates appear to list between $299 and $450 per hour. However, a few of the hourly rates appear to be comparable with the billable hourly rates charged by law firm partners, ranging anywhere from about $500 to $900 per hour.
These fees can seem staggering until one considers them relative to the total costs of applying to the kinds of 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 forty. The difference in compensation for that candidate could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of 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 for whom a gap exists between their aspirations and their profile. This includes:
- 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 which don’t offer business school application counseling to employees and don’t employ many MBAs that are willing to provide free advice.
- Well-qualified applicants, especially from underrepresented groups, likely to win scholarships that 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 at 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 stay away from any consultant that 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 two Poets & Quants articles in 2017 and 2018, twelve of the most favorably-reviewed consultants worked for only five firms: Menlo Coaching, mbaMission, Fortuna Admissions, Stacy Blackman Consulting, and the MBA Exchange. In the first four pages of the current listings, only seven firms account for 857 five-star reviews. Those firms include mbaMission (298), Stacy Blackman Consulting (126), Admissions Gateway (102), Menlo Coaching (94), the MBA Exchange (88), Admitify (81) and Career Protocol (68).
- 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 about the experience, backgrounds, and track records of their professionals. Do their consultants have experience in business as well as admissions? How strong is the evidence that the firm can provide for their admission success stories and their client satisfaction?
- Ask previous applicants for their opinions about their experience with a firm.
- Most consultants offer free initial consultations that can prove useful to candidates. The firms usually have more time available for these free sales meetings during their off-peak season, which is roughly from March through June. The feedback they offer during such preliminary calls can provide a preview of the quality of their work. Moreover, the way they treat prospects foreshadows the way 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 who simply need good information to prepare winning business school applications to top-50 business schools, an admission consultant probably won’t seem worth the expense. Most applicants like these should do very well without the advising consultants provide.
And by no means do all consultants seem like they’re 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 about a quarter of most consultants’ fees.
But for a candidate with high aspirations who needs the kinds of 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 like they’re worth every penny.