A few honest thoughts on MBA admissions consultants
I just finished up round 1 applications for business schools, so no splashy success story yet. I did want to share a few insights from my experience working with two sets of admissions consultants this cycle that could be helpful. For context, I'm a white male in PE.
How they add tremendous value:
- Knowing what constitutes "unique". This is one that surprised me. I thought I nailed my first drafts of essays. My consultants – who by nature of their jobs see hundreds of applications per cycle – told me that I sounded like every other white finance guy who was also "creatively" trying to differentiate himself. They also pointed out areas of my story that I thought were unique that are actually pretty typical (early promotions, academic awards), and areas I thought were typical that are apparently unique (my specific extracurriculars). This is probably the single highest value-add from my experiences.
- Looking for red flags to the "Adcom Moms". The advice is shared that the key to essay writing is "do no harm" (e.g. don't come off as arrogant or weird or offensive). Important here is knowing the reader of the application – it's not an MD in IB, it's typically a former graduate of the MBA program who has time to do part-time admissions work. These folks are often non-finance folks, and often women. They also typically hate the finance jerks they remember from their programs who were overly competitive or "douchey". Many of my stories were about me competing in things. My admissions coaches had me tone all of that waaay down, and play up collaboration and teamwork. (Even "interests" on the resume… "cooking classes with friends" instead of "golf" or "weightlifting" or "triathlons".)
- Understanding trends in admissions. Both sets of consultants have participated in frequent dialogue with adcom members and get the "inside scoop" into current trends. Though obvious in hindsight, they emphasized areas in my applications that I didn't think were as important (e.g. racial diversity, working with women).
- Keeping me on schedule. I truly don't lack the ability to schedule out a task and complete it. With writing, however, it really does take time. Having a consultant pinging me for work product forced me to avoid the "3 days to write and finalize an essay" problem.
- Tailoring apps to schools. Goes beyond what is readily available on the internet.
Some arguments against admissions coaches:
- They really don't help produce quality writing. There's no "ghost-writing" here. Good news is that MBA applications are not a creative writing competition. Bad news is if you're a bad writer, your adcom may not help too much. (I realize with my sample size, n=2. Maybe other folks have different experiences.)
- Caliber questions.. Extremely controversial topic here that I absolutely don't agree with… but why would someone go to GSB only to become a resume reviewer? There's an argument that the bottom part of the classes self-select into this kind of work. Good news is, that same oversimplified argument applies to adcoms as well, so the two "speak each other's languages" (see number 2 in previous section).
- Cost. It's pretty ridiculous. Enough said here.
- There's no "counterfactual". This one is the real kicker that irks me. I'll never know how my applications would have looked without the admissions consultants. They love to cite their admissions stats, but do they really add any value, or is it simply the case that the ultra-motivated types are more likely to use them? This isn't a real problem per se, but it's hard to do a real lookback to know if your investment was worth the cost..
All said, I do recommend using a consultant. To repurpose a phrase that seems to apply: consultants can "help you stand up straight, but they can't make you taller". And if you're a white guy in finance, it's good to stand as straight as possible..