The B-School Admissions Game Gets Even Pricier

Last Updated Jul 7, 2011 8:37 PM EDT

"My consultant was a complete scam. She's really money grubbing, obsessed with Coach products, and her positioning did not help me get into an Ivy League business school. It was a waste of $7,000, and she had the audacity to give me a discount rate to try again next year."
An unhappy customer, for sure.

The applicant worked with a major MBA admissions consultant and came away believing he was ripped off. He's not alone. What complicates a good match between an applicant and a consultant is the fact that most of the larger firms in the space employ their advisers on a freelance basis. So the quality of those contractors can be inconsistent. It's like that old saw about the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts. If you have a terrific scout master, you're likely to have a great experience. If you're stuck with a so-so leader, you're likely to sour on the whole idea of scouting.

The Art of Choosing Well
Selecting the right firm and the right person isn't easy. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but there probably are as many as 300 firms with more than 500 MBA admissions consultants around the world. Overall, consulting to MBA clients alone is a business with annual revenues of at least $35 million worldwide.

Applicants to business school are the most likely graduate students to use consultants, far more than law or medical school applicants, says VeritasPrep co-founder Chad Troutwine. More than a dozen consultants estimate that a quarter to a third of the applicants to the top ten business schools now use their services. At Harvard, Stanford and Wharton, as many as half of the applicants now pay for advice at between $5,000 and $10,000 a pop.

Of course, a consultant is not a must expense. The majority of applicants to B-school do perfectly fine on their own. Chioma Isiadinso, who offers advice to applicants at Poets&Quants and founded EXPARTUS after a stint as the assistant director of admissions at Harvard Business School, puts it this way: "In my mind there are three types of applicants," she says. "One, do-it-yourself candidates (pick up a few good books, do their homework and hit the grounding running); Two, candidates who need a bit of help: these candidates start off doing a lot of the heaving lifting on their own and then hire consultants for a little bit of polishing, essay editing, etc; and three, candidates who need a lot of work: These candidates want help across all aspects of the application and are very thorough and unwilling to leave anything to chance. They typically want strategic and editing help. The key is knowing which kind of a candidate you are and planning ahead--this will save you a lot of time and wasted effort."

"Some applicants are instantly attracted to the most visible firms, assuming that the ability to produce daily blogs, hourly tweets and $10 "inside secrets" books correlates to achieving admissions success," says Dan Bauer, founder and managing director of The MBA Exchange. "Other applicants are drawn to smaller boutique admissions firms that promise one-on-one care, but lack the depth of resources and breadth of experience to add real value and provide 24/7 access."

Increase the Odds of a Successful Match

We turned to several prominent admissions consultants and asked them to give us their advice on how to hire the right consultant. Linda Abraham of Accepted.com suggests that would-be clients review a consultant's website and offerings, then think hard. "Do you like what you see? Do they provide clear descriptions of services and prices? Do they offer want you want? How long have they been in business? What are their qualifications?"

She further advises that you talk to a member of the company's staff, preferably the one you will be working with. "Will you work consistently with one consultant or will you be shunted around to different 'specialists'? What if your consultant gets sick? Is there back up? Request references if you do not know someone who has used the service."

Bauer, who has an audit firm independently measure his success rate with clients, has an eight-point checklist:

  • Require independent, documented proof of past admissions success and client satisfaction. Why invest your future in someone who can't prove their claims?
  • Choose a consulting firm whose consultants have experience in both admissions and business. That's the combination that will help you build and then present your most compelling candidacy.
  • Do your due diligence. Ask past applicants what they have to say about working with the various firms.
  • Consider the professional associations to which the consulting firm belongs. These organizations (e.g., IECA, HECA, NAGAP, AIGAC, Better Business Bureau, etc.) have strict membership requirements and ethical standards that confirm the quality and trustworthiness of the firm and its consultants.
  • Have a direct conversation with the head of the consulting firm to align your goals and expectations. Be sure that you and the firm share the same view on your MBA admissions potential -- before you sign up and pay.
  • Consider value even more than price. Saving a few hundred or even thousand dollars won't be very comforting if you get second-rate service and fall short of your goals. Hourly services may look like a bargain, but a comprehensive consultation ensures that you discover and address all of your weaknesses.
  • Expect personalized advice that's customized and shared with only you.
  • Trust your gut: the way the firm treats you as a prospect is indicative of how they will treat you as a client. Are they prompt, professional, empathetic, accessible, and responsive? Do they understand you and believe in your potential for admission?
All good advice to increase the odds that you'll be a happy customer.
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    John Byrne is the editor-in-chief of PoetsandQuants.com and PoetsandQuantsforExecs.com. A former editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com and Fast Company magazine, Byrne also is the author or co-author of eight books on business, including two national bestsellers. Follow him on Twitter.