Tag Archives: MBA admissions consultant

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.

How low GMAT scores might help your MBA application

 

Almost every week, I hear from somebody who’s worried about a low GMAT or GRE score on their score report. The question usually sounds something like this: “If I got a 500 on my first test but eventually get a 740 on my fourth GMAT exam, will MBA admissions committees think that I’m stupid because of the 500?”

The quick answer: no, they won’t think you’re stupid. And no, the 500 won’t hurt your odds of admission at all. If anything, I think an upward trajectory could help your chances, just a little bit – at least under the right circumstances.

You’ll hear this from plenty of MBA admissions committee members, but MBA programs really do want to evaluate your application based on your best GMAT score – and there are plenty of reasons why. First, using your highest GMAT score is better for the school’s overall average (which, of course, is an important part of MBA rankings). And just as importantly, most human beings understand that other human beings might have a bad GMAT test day once in a while – and the MBA programs want to see how you perform on your best day. That just seems fair, right?

So at worst, I’m convinced that your old, low GMAT scores are irrelevant to your chances of admission to a top MBA program. And at best, I think that a poor start to your GMAT test-taking career can actually help your chances.

Here’s a completely real example, with some details omitted to protect the MBA applicant’s identity. A number of years ago, I worked with an amazing guy who had started his career as an insurance salesman – let’s call him Mr. G, even though he didn’t work at Geico. Mr. G came from a troubled working-class family in a Rust Belt city; his father had addiction problems, and his mom supported the kids on her own.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. G’s youth wasn’t glamorous, and he wasn’t destined for Ivy League undergraduate programs or glitzy investment banking jobs. Instead, he worked in a grocery store when he was in high school, and then continued working in the same grocery store while he attended a state university that you’ve probably never heard of. Mr. G dreamed of a post-undergraduate job in “finance” – and he did, in fact, major in finance. But he attended a no-name university, and nobody ever told him how, exactly, you could land a job on Wall Street. After all, his Rust Belt city was – both spiritually and geographically – a long way from Wall Street, and his grocery store job left him little time for internships, anyway.

Mr. G worked his butt off, and got a 4.0 GPA as an undergrad. But since he attended the University of You’ve Never Heard of It, the only “finance” job he could get afterward was as an insurance salesman. He broke sales records in his first year, but was deeply unsatisfied. So he decided to move to New York City to try to find a job on Wall Street. Of course, no high-falutin’ Wall Street firm would hire the insurance salesman from a no-name university, so he ended up in another sales job – and, since he’s such a hard-working S.O.B., Mr. G again kicked all sorts of butt in that job, unglamorous as it was.

Then Mr. G decided that a top-tier MBA was his best path out of his career slump – and probably his only path to an actual Wall Street finance job.

So he took the GMAT, and got a 580. That obviously wasn’t good enough, especially with the lack of pedigree on his resume. So he called a GMAT tutor (*cough*), got a 660 after about a month of studying, then got a 710 after another month or so of studying. Not bad!

But Mr. G’s MBA application was in big trouble from the start, since he lacked prestigious “MBA-feeder job” experience and had attended a non-selective university. So Mr. G and his MBA admissions consultant (*cough*) decided that the best strategy was to emphasize his working-class roots, highlight his epic work ethic, plainly state that he had no idea how to “play the game” as an undergraduate, and hope that a great MBA program would give him a chance.

And here’s the GMAT-related punchline: Mr. G’s GMAT score trajectory fit right into that narrative. In his MBA applications, we pounded away at a simple message: Mr. G wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he will absolutely outwork everybody else in the room. A 710 on his very first attempt at the GMAT wouldn’t have done anything to support our message. But with his 580-660-710 GMAT scores, he looked like a guy who was willing to work his ass off to achieve his dreams. Which, of course, he was.

In case you’re wondering, Mr. G is doing wonderfully now. He attended an Ivy League MBA program, and finally landed a job with a prestigious Wall Street firm as soon as he graduated. He was a superstar in his MBA program, too – and he really did outwork everybody else in the room.

Your profile may not look anything like Mr. G’s, but if you’re nervous about flashing some low scores in the fine print of your GMAT score report – well, don’t be. At worst, MBA admissions committees don’t really notice if you retake the GMAT several times. And if they notice at all, your willingness to improve your GMAT score might show that you’re also willing to outwork everybody else in the room – and that can only help your chances of admission.

 

The International House of Pancakes test for MBA application essays

In an earlier blog post, I argued that many MBA applicants—often with the help of MBA admissions consultants—have “over-managed” their MBA essays and sucked much of the soul out of their applications.  If you know anything about human nature (or the insane workload of MBA admissions committees) you probably realize that soulless MBA essays will probably get you nowhere, unless you’re an otherwise perfect MBA candidate.

(But if you’re pretty much a perfect MBA candidate, why are you wasting your time reading this blog?  Shouldn’t you be doing something completely perfectly amazing and superhuman right now?)

For those of you who aren’t superhuman, I’m convinced that it’s absolutely critical to sound passionate about your business pursuits in your MBA applications, regardless of whether you’re writing about past successes or future goals.  Fundamentally, MBA applications are a test of your ability to market the product you presumably know best:  yourself.  If you can’t convince an MBA admissions committee that your career will reach exciting new heights post-MBA, why should anybody offer you a coveted spot at an elite business school?

This is particularly true for aspiring entrepreneurs or anybody who runs a family business.  If you can’t get us excited about your future plans in a 400-word MBA essay “elevator pitch,” it’s hard to believe that you’ll ever succeed in getting investors or customers excited about your company.  If you plan to start a business—or want to continue running your existing business—you’ll be doomed to failure if you can’t get investors, employees, and customers to buy into your product.  And why would any elite MBA program want to admit a passionless, unconvincing wannabe entrepreneur?

So if you’re an entrepreneurial sort and you’ve already written drafts of your essays, you’re probably wondering:  are your essays convincing and passionate, or generic and soulless?  And how can you tell?

As luck would have it, I’ve developed a simple, high-calorie tool for determining whether your business ideas are compelling enough for your MBA application.  I call it the International House of Pancakes test, because I really like breakfast.

Here’s how it works:  if you’ve already used the name of your company in your essays, replace the name with “International House of Pancakes.”  If the essay still makes sense, you’ve probably written an essay turd.  Your essay needs to capture your excitement for your specific industry and your particular company; if you replace the name of the company with a restaurant name, you should get complete nonsense.  (Unless, of course, you’re actually planning to run a restaurant.  In that case, I know a guy who is really, really great at testing menu items.)

To illustrate the International House of Pancakes test, here’s a real draft of an essay written by one of my favorite students (let’s call her Ms. ERP, since that’s the best-sounding word in the excerpt below), with the name of the school removed to protect her privacy:

Upon graduation from [an MBA program], my short-term goal is to manage operations for the International House of Pancakes Group – the $16 million chain wholly owned by my family.  With our proprietary SMARTE training program, internally built ERP software, and strong reputation in Canada, I am excited about helping the International House of Pancakes reach its full growth potential.  As the COO, my initial priorities would be to improve International House of Pancakes’ day-to-day operations and to expand our presence in the Middle Eastern and Asian markets.  Since the profitability of our Canadian locations is declining due to rising costs resulting from government intervention, I need to streamline our organizational infrastructure so our company can grow internationally and with measured risk.  I would continue to identify potential areas for investment, lead negotiations with potential partners and suppliers, and manage new initiatives.

The paragraph is dry and clinical, but it still makes sense, right?  And that’s a huge problem.  The essay was supposed to be about her family’s business in the education industry.  Honestly, it really is an innovative, interesting firm that could plausibly be wildly successful on several continents.  But you definitely wouldn’t know that from reading this essay.  There’s no life to it, no vivid description of her work, and absolutely no hint of passion for her company or industry.

Right now, you might be chuckling at poor Ms. ERP:  “Ha ha ha!  That silly Ms. ERP!  I would never do that in my own essays!  I love what I do, and it shows in my MBA essays!”

Oh yeah?  Try swapping out the company name in your essays, and see if it still works.  You might be surprised:  it’s shockingly easy to let your MBA application essays devolve into generic, vapid corporate-speak, no matter how geeked up you actually are about your career.

The story ends well for Ms. ERP.  After I sent her the International House of Pancakes version of her essay, she cursed loudly and showed my handiwork to her father, who laughed and said that I was a jerk and that he really liked me.  Ms. ERP then revised her essay to paint a vivid, energetic picture of her family business, and she now attends a super-elite U.S. business school, despite a GMAT score in the mid-600s.  But she has, unfortunately, maintained an aversion to pancakes to this day.

 

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.