In the past few years, admissions consulting for business school applications has become a service that’s as popular as it is controversial and expensive

By EILEEN GUNN, College Journal

September 2004 – Candace Davies was working in the wealth-advisory division at Merrill Lynch when she decided she wanted an M.B.A. Not just any M.B.A., but one from a top-ranked school. Ms. Davis had achieved a lot for someone just four years out of college. At 25, she was bringing in and managing her own high-net-worth accounts. Even so, she thought she’d need help since her GMATs weren’t as competitive as she had hoped, her undergrad major was biology and her grades were mediocre.

To gain an extra edge, she sought advice from an admissions consultant, a fast-growing aid for college and graduate-school applicants. The service she hired, Kaplan Inc., a New York-based test-preparation provider, teamed her with a former admissions officer at the University of Rochester’s business school, who helped identify those schools that would be a stretch for her to get into and those that better fit her interests and test scores. The counselor also reviewed her essays to make sure they made the most of her Wall Street experiences and coached her on interviews.

In all, Ms. Davies spent nearly $2,000, was accepted at five of the seven schools she’d chosen and was offered scholarships to four, including the Johnson Graduate School of Management Cornell University, where she started this fall.


Admission’s Biggest Open Secret

In the past five years, admissions consulting has taken off and is now possibly the biggest open secret in applying to business school — a service that’s as popular as it is controversial and expensive. About a third of the customers are international applicants looking for help with English and the application process. Others want to overcome hurdles such as low grades or a nontraditional background. Consulting services, which range from national players like Kaplan to smaller boutiques and solo practitioners, charge anywhere from $125 an hour for editing an essay to $5,000 to $8,000 for unlimited help on five to seven applications.

Graham Richmond graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and then co-founded Clear Admit, an admissions counseling firm in Philadelphia. Many clients are what he calls “overly traditionals” — people who got top grades at elite colleges, went directly into jobs at brand-name consulting or financial firms and now want to set themselves apart from the countless applicants who did exactly the same thing. (A female first-year student at Wharton sums up the dilemma: “I graduated summa cum laude and got a 700 on my GMATs, but so did a bunch of my classmates. So how do you differentiate yourself?”)

That question becomes harder to answer as more people seek M.B.A.s. In 2002, 127,500 M.B.A.s were granted. In 1992, the number was 84,600, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But according to the Graduate Management Admissions Council, well over 220,000 people take the GMATs each year, creating a surplus of applicants.

And, as Derrick Bolton, director for M.B.A. admissions at Stanford University notes, “There’s this sense out there that if you don’t get into a top-ranked school, you shouldn’t bother going to business school at all.” Indeed, with as many as 6,000 people vying for Wharton’s 800 openings, or 5,000 competing for 360 seats at Stanford, applicants are hungry for any edge they can find.


How Much Help Is Too Much?

But the competition doesn’t necessarily make counseling the right call. If such firms “provide feedback on what the schools look for and how to approach the application, that’s a legitimate service,” says Alex Brown, senior associate director of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. But “if your essays have perfect, eloquent prose” and other things, such as your interview, suggest you’re not a wordsmith, then “we might assume you had too much help.”

Indeed, Harvard Business School recently wrote into its admissions policy that, “Your application must be written solely by you without outside assistance.” A spokesperson for the school says, “People should take that literally. We’ve taken a pretty firm stand against these services — and, actually, you can drop the word pretty.” Stanford’s Mr. Bolton adds: “These services rely on rules of thumb. They’re based on the idea that there’s an ideal business-school candidate, or a typical Stanford student. And that’s just not the case.”

Still, admissions counselors would argue that there’s more of a method to admissions-office thinking than deans would prefer to admit. Dan Bauer, a Harvard Business School alumnus, started, a service in Highland Park, Ill., by asking business-school friends where they applied, where they were accepted and rejected and for copies of their old applications. “I started looking into what weaknesses and strengths appealed to the higher ranked schools,” he says. “Some people are reluctant to get personal, or overemphasize strengths without admitting any weaknesses.” Several years later, “We have hundreds of applications to work with now. What I initially discovered qualitatively has continued to be true,” he says.


When Essays Are Too Polished

Teaching methods, extracurricular activities, academic strengths and campus culture do vary from school to school. And the admissions officers’ job is to pick the students who are most likely to fit in, enjoy and excel in their particular environment. So, in theory, the 700-GMAT, summa cum laude applicant who’s turned away by Harvard, Columbia or Dartmouth has acceptable credentials, but isn’t the best fit. “When we read through essays we like to get a sense that we’re getting underneath the surface a little. If an essay is too polished, you can lose who the person was 10 iterations ago,” says Mr. Brown.

But admissions officers say the advice such counselors provide is valuable. While high-school guidance counselors can help college-bound students focus their interests, “in the M.B.A. market you don’t have that, because you’ve been out in the work force for a while,” Mr. Brown observes, particularly “if you’re coming from nontraditional careers.”

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The Johnson School at Cornell University

Roberto Rojas, a second-year student at the Goizueta School of Business at Atlanta’s Emory University, used Master’s Prep in Caracas, Venezuela, as a for-fee guidance office. The Spanish-born American had gone to Syracuse University in New York and was working in a city-government job in Caracas when he started thinking about business school. “I decided to apply pretty late in the year, so they pointed out schools that had later admissions deadlines,” Mr. Rojas says. In addition, “I was looking only in the Northeast, because they were the schools I knew.” But his consultant suggested Emory might suit him. “I’d never heard of Emory, but I went to visit, and I loved it. Atlanta seemed a little easier to live in as a student than New York or Boston.”

Clear Admit boasts that its customers’ acceptance rates at Harvard and Wharton are about three times higher than for applicants overall. But one has to wonder whether that’s a reflection of the service itself or of the people who gravitate toward it.

Given the full scholarships she was offered at four of the five schools where she applied, Ms. Davies concedes that she probably would have been accepted to at least one of them on her own. Still, she says she “definitely would do it over again…My counselor made me more confident. I knew I was putting my best foot forward,” she says.


— Ms. Gunn is a free-lance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.