The #1 quality in the best MBA admissions consultants: brutal honesty

  MBA admissions consultants are everywhere these days, and if you’re reading this little blog post, odds are good that you’ll hire one someday – despite my words of caution in this MBA blog post, this other MBA blog post, and even this MBA blog post over here.

So what’s the #1 thing you should you look for if you’re shopping for an MBA admissions consultant? Brutal honesty. Without it, you’re absolutely wasting your hard-earned money.

Let’s start with a nice game of “which applicants got into their first-choice MBA program?” Here are three candidates:

  • Candidate A: white American female, 620 GMAT, 3.8 GPA from a low-ranked public university, marketing job for a non-prestigious small company, interesting but not mind-blowing extracurriculars. Target MBA program: Stanford, Round 2.
  • Candidate B: white American male, 660 GMAT, 3.5 GPA from not-quite-elite private college, non-prestigious experience with a financial services firm and a not-terribly-successful tech startup, mediocre extracurriculars. Target MBA program: HBS, Round 3.
  • Candidate C: white American female, 770 GMAT, 4.0 GPA from a top-three Ivy League program, experience as an auction house specialist, fitness instructor, ballerina, and bodybuilder. Target MBA program: HBS, Round 1.

OK, so who do you think actually got into their first choice MBA program?

Sorry, you won’t like this. The answer is… none of them.

Here’s the reality that few of us – including the overwhelming majority of MBA admissions consultants – want to admit: it is brutally difficult to get into elite MBA programs. Candidate C sounds like a total badass, right? Well, I don’t know her personally, but she’s mentioned in this wonderful (and disturbing) Poets & Quants article by John Byrne and HBS Guru Sandy Kreisberg – and she got rejected from Harvard.

In that very same Poets & Quants article, Kreisberg offers a brutal truth: 70% of HBS applicants are qualified, but only 11% get in. That 70% estimate, for what it’s worth, sounds about right to me, and if anything the MBA applicant pool just keeps getting stronger. So for every six badasses like Candidate C, only one will be admitted.

And for what it’s worth, poor Candidate C didn’t even get an interview. Ouch.

OK, so what about Candidate A and Candidate B? Clearly, they had absolutely no hope of getting into Stanford and Harvard, right? I think we can agree on that. If Candidate C couldn’t get in, then the other two are way beyond hope – especially since Candidate B was inexplicably trying to get into HBS in Round 3.

Unfortunately, MBA admissions consultants took Candidate A and Candidate B’s money and told them they had a chance. At best, the MBA admissions consultants were being clueless and incompetent – and that’s the nicest thing I could say about them. I actually think that they were being unscrupulous, money-grubbing slimeballs. But maybe I’m wrong, and they were just being dumb.

Either way: don’t let this happen to you! If you're looking for a great MBA admissions consultant, the first thing you should do is ask for an honest evaluation of your candidacy. If the evaluation is nothing but puppy dogs and sunshine and unicorns with rainbows pouring out of their asses, you might have an MBA admissions snake-oil salesman on your hands – unless you really think that you’re the perfect MBA candidate. But Candidate C sounded pretty perfect too, didn’t she? So if an admissions consultant says that you’ll definitely be admitted to an elite MBA program (with their help, of course) – then run in the other direction.

The very best MBA admissions consultants I know will give you the honest, brutal truth about your odds right up front. They’ll probably try to steer you toward a nice mix of elite and less-selective MBA programs. And if they think you have zero shot at the elite MBA programs, they might still help you with your MBA applications – but only after you repeat the phrase “I understand that my odds are incredibly low, and I want to pay you to optimize my MBA application anyway.”

Unfortunately, the reality of elite MBA admissions truly is brutal. Even if your application is spectacular, your odds might be lower than you think. Make sure that your MBA admissions consultant is willing to deliver that brutal truth, right up front – and please don’t ever settle for anything less.

fun GMAT toys

I should have posted this a long time ago: the good people over at GMAT Club have created a GMAT score estimator. You can punch in your Manhattan GMAT, Kaplan, GMATPrep, and Princeton Review scores, and they'll give an estimate of your score on the actual GMAT exam, based on a model that they've developed. You can find the GMAT score estimator here. I'm not sure how well it works, but it's a brilliant idea. I've had far less luck with the GMAT score calculator created by The idea is that you can punch in your raw scores from the math and verbal sections of the GMAT (on a 0-60 scale), and the website will calculate your composite GMAT score on a 200-800 scale. I've tried the calculator a few times using my students' raw scores from GMATPrep and actual GMAT tests, and the calculator always seems to be off by a little bit.

More recently, I punched in my own scores from the real GMAT. According to the calculator, a quant score of 51 and a verbal score of 47 will give you a composite score of 350, in the 7th percentile. Hilarious. Still a fun toy, but the execution could use some work.

what? the test-prep industry isn't totally awesome?

I just read a great article in the Wall Street Journal that pretty much hits it on the head when it comes to the test-prep industry: It doesn't specifically mention the GMAT, but it's still an interesting commentary that applies, in some ways, to everything in the test-prep industry. Basically, the article quotes a bunch of academic studies that suggest that the average score improvement from SAT and ACT prep courses is minimal: about 30 points on the SAT, and less than 1 point (!!) on the ACT composite. The article, based on some solid reporting from students at Lowell High School in San Francisco, also accuses test-prep companies of rigging their "diagnostic tests" so that they can claim that their students had huge score improvements.

They wouldn't really do that, would they?

Um, yeah, they would. It's the oldest trick in the test-prep book, and I'm surprised that parents and students are still duped by promises that a certain private tutor or test-prep class "will raise your score by 240 points... guaranteed!" I've been teaching test-prep for nearly a decade now, and I can tell you that there are never any guarantees--some students, for a host of reasons, will never gain 240 points on their SAT score, no matter how brilliant their test-prep course or private tutor may be. (Similarly, there are some people who will never gain 240 points on their GMAT score.) And yes, many companies still rig their "diagnostic" tests so that they can claim that you made a huge score jump.

Don't get me wrong: score increases of 240 points happen on the GMAT, but they're exceedingly rare. Familiarity with the test will definitely improve your score, and a thorough review of basic test content is always productive. A great private GMAT tutor will help you with the psychological aspect of testing, and any good teacher will help you to get a grip on the trickiness inherent in the test. But everybody is different, and there are limits to what prep courses and private GMAT tutoring can achieve for any given individual.

All I'm saying is that it's good to be wary of the claims and statistics. The lively forum debates help keep GMAT test-prep companies honest, but there are still plenty of snake-oil salesmen in our midst.

stealth exponents

It's always a little bit tricky and annoying to write math problems on a GMAT blog (there's no way to comfortably write equations, unless you want to import images), but I'll do my best with this topic.  I just want to make a few little comments about exponents, and about the ways in which the GMAT Official Guides (including the GMAT Quantitative Review Guide) can lull a perfectly good GMAT student into complacency on the topic. Hopefully, you know all of the basic exponent rules.  If you're multiplying two terms with the same base, you'll add the exponents (example:  x^3*x^4 = x^7).  If you're dividing, you know that you subtract the exponents, and then you might encounter something like a "power of a power" question (example:  (x^6)^2 = x^12).  If you know these rules and a few other basics (i.e. what happens if an exponent is negative, a fraction, or zero), you'll be fine on the GMAT.  Right?

If you're focused on the GMAT Official Guide questions... well, yes, you'll be mostly fine.  Let's take a quick survey of the exponent questions in the problem solving section of the 12th edition of the GMAT Official Guide:  #15, #28, #46, and #108 all contain exponents, but they're mostly a matter of calculating (or simplifying) some numbers.  #104 and #110 look like exponent problems, but both are really about factors, not exponent properties.  #137 could be solved using exponent properties, but is just as easily done with some simple calculations and logic...

I could go on.  My point is, most of what you encounter in the GMAT Official Guides doesn't require much knowledge of exponent properties.  And when you do need to use exponent properties, they're just covering the basics.

Funny, I didn't see anything basic last time I took the GMAT, and neither did most of my students who scored above 600.  I keep hearing the same refrain:  the exponent problems looked nothing like they do in the GMAT Official Guides.

I'm convinced--based on the GMATPrep, GMAT Focus, and the real thing--that the GMAT is much more likely to show you an exponent question that has something to do with factoring and/or "base conversion."  Neither of these topics necessarily receive the attention they deserve in GMAT test-prep books.

Please accept my profuse apologies for the crappy notation, but here are a couple of examples of realistic, harder exponent problems (NOT from official GMAT materials, lest I incur the wrath of some bigshot NYC lawyer sent by the bigshots who write the GMAT):

(7^10 - 7^8)/3 = (2^x)(7^y).  If x and y are integers, then what is the value of x + y?

3^(x-1) - 3^(x+1) = -(9^5)(2^3).  What is the value of x?

I'm not going to post solutions until I'm begged repeatedly, but hopefully you see where I'm going with this.  You're going to see GMAT exponent problems that require some factoring, as well as the ability to make some ostensibly unlikely connections.  Unless you've seen these problems, you might be wondering where the heck the 2's are coming from.

Welcome to the GMAT.  If you're not uncomfortable, you're probably not doing well.  Either that, or you're way smarter than I am, and you shouldn't be wasting your time reading a blog posting about exponents on the GMAT.