MBA essays

Beware of smiling MBA admissions consultants

In an earlier blog post, I profiled the unfortunate Mr. D, who paid some well-intentioned MBA admissions consultants a buttload of money during the 2012-13 admissions season.  They proceeded to suck the soul out of his MBA application, and he was rejected everywhere he applied, despite an otherwise solid profile. The bottom line is that it’s awfully easy to “over-manage” your MBA applications.  Dispassionate, soulless MBA applications are likely to fail, and far too many MBA admissions consultants will “polish” all of the energy and excitement out of your essays.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that Mr. D’s admissions consultants were bad, but at the very least, Mr. D should have fought harder to keep his individual voice strong in the application.

And now, here comes a scarier story about a truly terrible MBA admissions consultant—and how you can avoid hiring a similarly crappy one.

I recently met a great guy—let’s call him Mr. K, since he enjoys a good plate of kangaroo tartare—who applied to two super-elite Ivy League MBA programs during the 2012-13 admissions season.  The poor man pretty much had no hope of getting in:  he's a white American male with a 660 GMAT, solid-but-unspectacular experience with a financial services firm and a tech startup, an undergraduate degree from a solid-but-unheralded university, and nothing particularly special in his extracurricular life.  Unfortunately, nothing about his profile shouts “Harvard!”

To make things worse, Mr. K applied during the third round, when relatively few spots remain for solid-but-unspectacular candidates.  I hate to say that Mr. K had no hope of getting into super-elite MBA programs, but… well, he pretty much had no hope.

And guess what?  An unscrupulous MBA admissions consultant insisted that Mr. K had a great chance of getting into two of the most ridiculously prestigious MBA programs on the planet, and she proceeded to collect several thousand dollars of Mr. K’s money.  Of course, Mr. K got dinged without an interview at both schools.  He (very understandably) felt deceived by the company’s dishonestly sunny assessment of his chances; unsurprisingly, he wasn’t too pleased with other aspects of the consultant’s services, either.

My point here isn’t to criticize that particular MBA admissions consulting firm:  I’ve heard mostly excellent reviews of their work, and I have absolutely zero interest in damaging their business.  But I’ve seen a few other companies commit exactly the same sin:  blatantly overstating a semi-hopeless candidate’s chances of admission, just to increase the likelihood that the candidate will purchase MBA consulting services.

If you’re shopping for an MBA admissions consultant, the most important thing is to be skeptical of overly sunny assessments of your MBA candidacy.  Sure, many admissions consultants are good, honest people who will bluntly handicap your odds of admission—even if those odds are piss-poor.  But telling the truth is usually very much against MBA admissions consultants' self-interest.  If they tell you that your MBA application is hopeless, they’ll never collect your money.  Can you really blame them for stretching the truth and offering an overly optimistic view of prospective clients’ profiles? (And yes, I realize that I could probably make more money if I did the same thing.)

Do yourself a huge favor:  if an MBA admissions consultant tells you that you’re a shoo-in for admission to HBS and Stanford, run in the opposite direction.  Hardly anybody is a shoo-in at those schools.  Do your research before you (metaphorically) hop into bed with any MBA admissions consultant.  If dreams of a Stanford admit are dancing through your head, here’s a reality check:  at least 60-70% of Stanford MBA applicants are talented enough to succeed there.  Fewer than 10% will get in.  So unless you’re mind-blowingly remarkable—and keep in mind that the MBA applicant pool is stuffed with remarkably successful, type-A personalities—your odds are crappy.  There, I said it.  Your odds might be better at other top-10 MBA programs (Booth and Kellogg, for example, have admissions rates above 20%), but if 60-70% of applicants have solid qualifications, your chances still aren’t all that great.

So when you kick the tires on MBA admissions consultants, make sure that they’re telling you the truth about your chances.  The mark of a scrupulous MBA admissions consultant is their willingness to walk away from a candidate who can’t realistically be helped—even if it means sacrificing a substantial paycheck.  If you’re paying thousands of dollars for MBA admissions help, make absolutely certain that you’re hiring somebody you can trust.

Just remember that getting into a super-elite MBA program is incredibly difficult.  Sure, a few of you have unbelievably perfect profiles, and an honest MBA admissions consultant would, of course, say so.  But if your profile is that unbelievably perfect, you probably don’t need an MBA admissions consultant anyway, right?

Is your MBA application “over-managed”?

Last spring, I spoke with an MBA applicant who had been wildly disappointed during the 2012-13 admissions season, despite the fact that he had a reasonably successful career, an outstanding academic record, and a 700+ GMAT score.  The applicant—let’s call him Mr. D, since there were way too many dings in his life earlier this year—had also spent roughly $10,000 on MBA admissions consulting services.  And he wasn’t too happy. I asked Mr. D to send me his MBA application essays, so I could try to figure out exactly why things didn’t work out for him.  And the essays were generic as all hell.  The essays were soulless, passionless, and filled with vapid buzzwords.  The essays weren’t bad, exactly, but they certainly weren’t attention-grabbing.

Mr. D’s career vision essay was particularly lifeless, and I immediately knew that his admissions consultants had pretty much rammed the essay topic down Mr. D’s throat.  It was clear that the career vision didn’t come from Mr. D’s heart, and it was equally clear that MBA admissions committees noticed.

I’m not here to bash MBA admissions consultants; many of them do excellent work.  But I am 100% convinced that the incredible growth of the MBA admissions consulting industry has created an unintended consequence:  in the quest for perfect applications, many MBA applicants have created punchless, over-processed, sanitized essays that say almost nothing about them.

And nobody wants to read that crap.

If you don’t believe me, check out this 2010 Poets & Quants interview with J.J. Cutler, Wharton’s then-deputy dean of admissions.  My favorite chunk of the interview appears on page 3 of the article:

People write what they think we want to hear. They get over coached and over prepared. Some people make excuses. They are not genuine. We just want people to be authentic and let us make the decisions from there. You just see a lot of people who have been over-managed in the process. It’s hard to see or hear their voice. Again, a lot of people who think there is a right answer, but we’re not looking for a single right answer.

People have their essays read by too many people and before you know it, the essays don’t say a whole lot. You feel like you are being sold as opposed to being told. Sometimes, coaches inhibit a real voice from coming through.

I couldn’t agree more.

I’ve worked with MBA applicants for roughly a dozen years, and I’ve watched the MBA admissions consulting industry grow exponentially during that time.  A decade ago, only a very tiny percentage of MBA applicants hired admissions consultants, and most applicants didn’t even know that admissions consultants existed.  But the MBA admissions world has changed radically, for better and worse:  by some estimates, 30-50% of domestic applicants and 80% of international applicants now use MBA admissions consulting services of some sort.

Again, I think that many MBA admissions consultants do an outstanding job of helping applicants present a clear, charismatic vision of their past and future.  But whenever you invite a friend or stranger to examine your MBA essays, they’ll inevitably encourage you to iron out the rough edges, polish your language until it’s silky smooth, and eliminate any overly-ballsy phrases.  If you’ve written a raw, passionate essay about your career vision, the editing process might suck all of the emotion and energy out of your writing.

Unfortunately, many MBA admissions consultants simply don’t want their clients to take risks.  Experienced admissions consultants have seen plenty of applicants with certain profiles gain admission to top MBA programs; if the consultant has never seen an application like yours succeed in the MBA admissions game, the consultant might—very understandably—try to change your message so that it more closely resembles that of other successful applicants.  And in the process, your essays become less unique, and less “you”.

Nearly every MBA admissions officer in the world will insist that they want to see the “real you” in your essays, and for the most part, adcoms are being genuine when they ask you to be genuine.  Sure, if you’re a lousy MBA candidate, no amount of honesty will help—but then again, neither will the help of the best MBA admissions consultant on the planet.  And if you truly are a deserving candidate, admissions consultants might "over-manage" the honesty out of your essays—and that definitely won’t help, either.

So be as blunt, genuine, and passionate as you can in your essays, and don’t let friends, strangers, or MBA admissions consultants suck the soul out of your business school applications.

Over 30? No, you probably aren’t too old for a full-time MBA.

There’s a very persistent myth that MBA admissions committees “don’t like” older applicants, especially the over-30 types. Statistically, that seems like a reasonable assumption: the average age for students at most full-time U.S. MBA programs is in the mid-20s, and only a small percentage of students are over 30. That means that MBA programs are committing age discrimination, right? And it means that if you’re over 30, you’re probably hosed in the full-time MBA admissions game… right?

Um, no. MBA admissions committees care deeply about “fit”: they want to admit candidates who will be successful members of the MBA community, and they want to admit candidates who will be easily “recruitable” when they graduate. But for the most part, MBA admissions committees don’t really care about your age, exactly.

Odds are good that if you’re an older MBA applicant, your career has probably evolved in a very specific direction, and a general management degree such as an MBA might not be the best option at this point in your life. But if that isn’t the case for you—and if your career trajectory reeks of post-MBA success—then your chances of admission might be better than you think, even if you’re getting a little bit grey around the temples.

Don’t believe me? Then I strongly suggest that you venture over to one of my all-time favorite MBA applicant blogs, the aptly named MBAover30.com. The blogger is actually in his mid-30s, and he was admitted to Booth, MIT, and Wharton for the class of 2015. He’s a great writer, and he knows what he’s talking about.

A few posts that I particularly appreciate:

MBA Admissions Age Discrimination and Rookie Hype. My favorite line: “…the over 30 demographic… has wholesale self-selected out of the full-time MBA admissions process.” No, really: the adcom doesn’t hate you just for being old.  Older folks just don't bother to apply to full-time programs very often. • Why I’ve chosen the Wharton School of Business. Yes, your friendly blogger appears to know absolutely everything there is to know about Wharton. And yes, his unbelievably thorough research definitely helped him get in. • The Truth vs. Playing the Game in MBA Admissions Essays. Stop lying about your experiences, people. It usually doesn’t help. • Getting in to a Top Business School. My favorite line: “Most people who’ve tried to cut corners on the GMAT have ended up marching to their own funeral on test day.” I couldn't agree more.

And if you need more perspectives from a successful MBA applicant, check out the archives of the always-wonderful Money 9111, who certainly faced some hurdles during the application process, much like the fine fellow at MBAover30.  Both bloggers would probably agree that the MBA admissions process is much more nuanced and complicated than we sometimes think; you won't necessarily get completely blackballed just for a single weakness in your profile.  And you probably won't get blackballed at all just for being over 30.

 

Looking ahead to fall admissions season? Start in January.

It’s the dead of winter right now, and 2013 first-round MBA deadlines won’t be here for another eight months or so. That’s almost enough time to bring a baby to term, so if you’re looking ahead to the next admissions cycle, then you still have plenty of time to worry about the GMAT and your MBA applications, right? As crazy as it may sound, I would argue that you should probably think about starting your GMAT prep before the snow starts to melt. If your goal is to produce the best MBA applications you possibly can—without turning your life into a stressed-out nightmare right before the application deadlines—then summer might be too late to start your GMAT studies.

Unless you’ve already been humbled by the GMAT, you’re probably thinking, “Come on, you stupid ninja dude! If I start in June, I’ll still have TONS of time for applications.”

You might be right. And you might be desperately wrong. In an effort to scare the poop out of you, here are two stories about guys who started their GMAT prep in June, but still didn’t have enough time to produce their best MBA applications the following January.

In May 2011, I received a phone call from a gentleman—let’s call him Mr. U, since he’s from upstate New York—who planned to quit his (thoroughly unsatisfying) job so that he could focus exclusively on the GMAT beginning in early June. He intended to spend the summer pounding the GMAT into submission, and then he would spend the fall writing amazing MBA application essays.

And guess what? Stuff happened. His arithmetic and algebra skills were an utter disaster, and he needed far more study time than he’d hoped. He needed an extra couple of weeks to fully transition out of his job. He ended up having some unexpected family obligations as the summer and fall wore on. He got distracted by some home repair projects. Some unavoidable trips—mostly for out-of-town weddings—interrupted his GMAT studies. And because his math skills were so crappy, Mr. U battled burnout after a couple of months of studying, and had to take the GMAT twice to get his target score.

Between the GMAT struggles and the non-GMAT distractions, Mr. U didn’t start writing his MBA application essays until late December, and he pulled a few late nights in early January to get everything done. His applications weren’t very polished, and he definitely suffered through some unnecessary MBA essay agony.

It all worked out for him in the end—Mr. U currently attends a top-ten MBA program, and his life is pretty awesome—but he suffered through the harrowing process of receiving rejection letters from five of his six target MBA programs. If he had started earlier, Mr. U might have had some extra options, and he definitely would have saved himself some pain and stress.

The second story involves a more recent applicant—let’s call him Mr. FP, since he loves skiing in fresh powder, just like everybody else in Colorado. Mr. FP started working with me in June 2012, and earned his 730 in August. No problems there. He figured that he would have the entire autumn to work on his MBA applications.

But again, life got in the way. His boss gave him some summer evenings off to focus on the GMAT, but autumn was payback time, and Mr. FP ended up working ridiculously long hours from late August through the end of December. A few family dramas also ate some of his precious free time and, just like Mr. U, Mr. FP ended up finishing some of his second-round MBA applications at literally the last minute on January 3. In the end, his MBA applications weren’t perfectly polished, and we’ll both be sweating unnecessarily as we await decisions this spring.

Please don’t let this happen to you. You might think that the GMAT and MBA application process will take just a month or two, but all sorts of things can derail your progress: a bad GMAT test day, a sick family member, MBA essay writers' block, a natural disaster, unexpected work issues, a marriage proposal from your significant other, or a promotion that requires extra hours. Or your underlying GMAT skills might be worse than you expected. As Mr. U painfully discovered, weak quant fundamentals or weak reading skills can substantially delay your GMAT test date.

(Incidentally, even the official GMAT blog agrees with me on this:  at the end of this post, the GMAT brass encourages you to start your prep early.)

So if you’re truly serious about your MBA goals, make sure that you give yourself enough time to weather every possible distraction. If you start in January but succeed in achieving your dream GMAT score in February, that’s wonderful—you’ll have time for some Colorado ski trips this winter, and plenty of time for b-school visits in the spring and summer. But it takes a ton of time to write great MBA applications, and if your life isn’t perfectly smooth during the course of your GMAT studies and the MBA application process, you’ll ultimately be thrilled that you started working on the GMAT early.