Stanford MBA

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.

"first-round advantage" is a big fat lie... sort of

As summer in NYC rumbles toward a close, the emails and phone calls I receive from aspiring MBA applicants start to sound more and more ambitious.  Most students want to cram their GMAT preparations into three or four weeks, even if they need a massive score gain.  I hear the same refrain over and over again:  “I want to apply in the first round, so I have to take the GMAT really really really soon or else I’ll never have enough time to write my essays and then I won’t apply in the first round and then the world will come to an end…!” OK, so I’m paraphrasing a little bit.  Very few people sound that dramatic.  (Disclaimer: I swear that I'm not writing this to pick on any of my beloved current or former GMAT students. This post is about a general seasonal trend, not about any particular GMAT student.) But I always hear a lot of unnecessary panic in GMAT students’ voices this time of year, and the anxiety seems to increase as soon as I suggest that an MBA applicant might need more weeks of GMAT prep than they had (perhaps optimistically) anticipated.  Many applicants seem absolutely convinced that they’ll have a chance at their favorite MBA program only if they apply before the first-round deadline.

Call me a heretic if you want, but I’m convinced that the vaunted "first-round advantage” is mostly a myth.  Unless you fit into a few special categories, there is virtually no benefit to driving yourself into a GMAT-addled frenzy just for the sake of being one of the earliest applicants.

Sure, some of you have perfectly wonderful reasons to apply early in the admissions season.  If you’re looking for a scholarship (and are among the tiny handful of applicants who actually have a realistic chance at getting one), you’re definitely better off applying early:  scholarship funds are often given out early in the admissions season.  It’s also possible that you’ll get a lift from applying to binding “early action” programs (Tuck, Columbia, Duke, and Vanderbilt leap to mind); technically speaking, you make a binding commitment when you apply through these programs, and the schools have little reason to think that you’d flake on them if you’re admitted… and that will probably help your chances.

But if you’re obsessed with first-round MBA applications and nothing in the previous paragraph applies to you, you probably need to relax a little bit.  Sure, admissions committees are somewhat more likely to have some spare time on their hands in September than in January, and they’re a bit more likely to read first-round essays with fresh eyes and an open mind.  But that’s really the only general advantage to applying in the first round.

Think about it rationally:  the best MBA programs want to attract and select top applicants just as badly as you want to be among the top applicants; why the heck would they ding a strong MBA applicant in January, but admit that same applicant in September?  At most top MBA programs, less than half of the incoming class is admitted during the first round... so don't worry, you'll have plenty of opportunities during second round.

Or think of it this way:  if you're awesome enough to earn a first-round admit from HBS or Stanford, then you're probably awesome enough to get in during second round.  Then again, if your application is shaky for some reason, a first-round attempt won’t fix any of your problems.  If your essays are shoddy, your work experience is flimsy, or your GMAT score is hopelessly low, you’ll be just as screwed during first round as you would be later in the admissions season.  Sorry, but the "first-round advantage" won't mask any of your MBA application weaknesses.

Whatever you do, don’t let the stress of looming first-round deadlines hurt the quality of your application.  If you need an extra few weeks or months to raise your GMAT score, take your time:  a strong GMAT score in January will help you far more than a rushed first-round application in October.  If you could use a few extra weeks to perfect your essays, take your time:  a sloppy, typo-ravaged October application will be far less successful than a polished, eloquent second-round application.  If you get hasty with your essays and fail to tell a coherent “story” about your life and goals, you’ll do enormous harm to your candidacy—no matter when you apply.

The bottom line is that it’s always wise to produce the best MBA application that you possibly can.  If it's mid-September and you’re just starting to rumble into high gear with your GMAT prep or MBA essays, chances are good that your very best MBA application won’t be ready until second round.  And you shouldn’t feel even the slightest bit of remorse if you wait just a few more months to bless the adcom with your irresistibly charming second-round application.