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March 31, 2013 10:55 pm

A guide on the road to business school

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Admissions consultants can help students gain a coveted MBA place, but assistance does not come cheap

Gaining entry to a top business school is no easy task. A vast array of interviews, essays, tests and presentations are the first hurdles to be navigated. This is where admissions consultants can be of help, guiding prospective students through the process to help them secure a place.

Services range from personal coaching and presentation skills to essay reviews and mock interviews. But such assistance does not come cheap. Costing 3-5 per cent of the overall cost of an MBA programme, potential students must be sure of the added value before paying for professional help.

Do admissions consultants give applicants the edge, or is it better to save the money and go it alone? Dan Bauer, founder of the MBA Exchange consultancy, estimates that there are about 20-25 MBA-specific admissions consulting firms worldwide – many of which are US-based with consultants in multiple countries – comprising several hundred individual consultants. However, Jeremy Shinewald, founder of mbaMission, puts the number of “true firms” at five or six, saying about 30 additional websites purport to be MBA consultancies but do not deliver the goods.

Consultancy services are often sold on the brains behind them, credentials proudly presented to entice applicants in. Directors at these consultancies tend to be former admissions officers or MBA graduates who have been through the process themselves. They claim detailed knowledge of admissions, focusing particularly on the top schools’ requirements.

But business school experience does not automatically equal expertise. “Who of those consultants remains engaged with how business schools are moving on?” asks Steve Cousins, MBA recruitment and admissions manager at Cass Business School, City University, London.

Admissions consultants’ services vary from hourly options to all-in packages, and usually charge on a per-school basis with discounts for additional schools. Mr Bauer’s most popular option is a five-school package at $7,700.

The consultancy process can take from several weeks to several years. Stacy Blackman, founder of Stacy Blackman Consulting, says her package typically takes 25-100 hours. Applicants usually take the GMAT – the Graduate Management Admission Test – in the first quarter, and seek consultancy services from April to June.

For those needing significant help, a comprehensive service can represent good value. But it is expensive for those requiring only a few tweaks. According to Mr Cousins, students from Russia and India who hope to study in the UK often employ consultants as such students are used to using them more frequently in general university admission in their home countries.

A consultant’s advice on the visa process can prove helpful for international students, adds Mr Cousins. For those who have worked for several years and need to regain their confidence or obtain guidance through university systems, again a consultant’s guidance can also be welcome.

Results, however, are hard to quantify. Consultants may publish success figures – although many prefer not to – but verifying them is another matter. There is no compulsory regulation or auditing of success claims.

“From a personal point of view, I think there should be auditing,” says Mr Cousins, adding that it would provide clarity for students. Ms Blackman, who does not publish results, disagrees. “There is a lot of smoke and mirrors involved with that kind of audit,” she says.

One of the few consultancies that publishes audited results, MBA Exchange, claims 87 per cent success for clients applying to four schools under its comprehensive applications package.

Being fluent in English is not simply nice to have, it is absolutely essential

- Dee Leopold

Applicants using consultants must keep their eyes open for pitfalls. Business schools do not want candidates who are carbon copies of each other, a possible danger for prospective students using the same consultant and applying to the same school.

“Our role is to select the most interesting class,” says Dee Leopold, director of admissions at Harvard Business School. “If everyone did the same thing, that would defeat the entire process.”

An extremely well-structured essay may signal consultancy use, but spotting it otherwise is difficult, says Anna Farrus, head of admissions at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. Any misrepresentation is far more likely to be spotted at interview if applicants answer in a scripted fashion, she adds.

Ms Leopold says the most blatant example of excessive coaching is when an exceptionally polished application arrives from somebody whose first language is not English. “Being fluent in English is not simply nice to have, it is absolutely essential,” she says.

However, admissions consultants play down the possibility of unsuitable applicants being misrepresented through their services. Managing expectations is crucial: getting professional help is not the magic solution to joining a top business school. Good consultants will be realistic and suggest an appropriate alternative if applicants are not suitable for high-demand courses. Ms Blackman says she can recommend someone takes a class to improve a skill, but any candidate needs to put in the spade work. She likens it to getting advice before a job interview. “Just because they get the coaching, it doesn’t mean that they are not qualified when they get the job,” she adds.

Ms Farrus is wary of consultants. “I’ve always questioned the value of admissions consultants. I think they may provide some help when candidates are trying to decide which schools they should apply to, but when it comes to the actual admissions process, I have my doubts.”

Whether an admissions consultant is good value for money depends on the individual and how much help they need, says Mr Cousins. “Everyone needs to make their own informed decision of whether it is something they need or if it is going to add anything,” he adds.

But getting into business school is only the beginning. “A huge amount of focus goes on applying, students seem to forget about the actual programme,” says Mr Cousins. “In a lot of ways, the admissions process is actually the easy bit.”


Choosing the right consultant


Deciding whether to use a consultant is a task in itself. For applicants unfamiliar with the process or who have struggled in the past, a consultant could provide the boost required.

But using one is no substitute for putting in the effort directly, as Cass’s Mr Cousins points out. “A lot of candidates that come on to the MBA programmes could go through the process themselves,” he says. “You see some applications come in where you think if they had taken a bit more time over it, they would have a better chance of getting on the programme.”

Business schools actively encourage applicants to use their personal support network to assist with their application, such as looking over their personal statement. “We advise that because friends and family know them best,” Mr Cousins says. But in cases where such a network does not exist, a consultant can fill the gap.

The cost of using a consultant is far from negligible, so choosing the right one is critical. The best option is a personal recommendation from a trusted source, but if this is not possible, there are some key things to look for.

Assessing the services offered as part of the package will give an indication of the consultant’s expertise. Are they up to date with current trends, for example, are they aware of the move towards entrepreneurship and social media presence? Do they offer a well-balanced range of services?

It is also important to look at how they approach applications for the top schools – whether they use specific methods for each or are more generic – and whether they are up to date with the latest admissions procedures.

What the consultant is promising is essential. No consultant should be guaranteeing results to every client; ultimately, the applicant must still be suitable for the course. Consultancies offering to write essays on the applicant’s behalf or taking a script-like approach to interviews should be treated with caution. “Reputable consultants do not offer results, they offer guidance,” says Harvard’s Ms Leopold.

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