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Do I Need an MBA Admissions Consultant?

Posted August 07, 2017 by Lee Davidson - Editor, Digital Content - AACSB International

The business of MBA admissions consulting is booming, with consultants all over the world eager to help prospective MBA students get into their top business school choices. “Applying to business school is arguably one of the more involved processes of any of the prestigious graduate tracks (law, medical, etc.). With such a complex undertaking and ever-increasing competition from all corners of the globe, admission into top MBA programs has become more challenging than ever,” says Cecile Matthews, director of MBA Admissions Consulting at Veritas Prep. Admissions consultants can help applicants “develop the most comprehensive, thoughtful, and strategic applications possible,” she continues. And students are increasingly eager to reach for their help. The 2017 Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC) MBA Applicant Survey revealed some interesting facts:

  • 37 percent of respondents used admissions consultants’ websites and blogs to research schools
  • 27 percent hired an admissions consultant to help select which schools to apply to
  • For survey respondents who hired a consultant, 39 percent were influenced by their consultant to apply to a school they had not previously considered
  • Applicants who used an admissions consultant found business school rankings less valuable for decision-making
  • Applicants who used consultant services were more likely to apply to a greater number of schools than those who did not, the majority of them applying to seven or more schools

So what exactly do admissions consultants do? In addition to providing guidance on application documents such as resumes, essays, and letters of recommendations, consultants can offer a variety of other services, such as test preparation, personal coaching, and individualized school recommendations that may not have been on the applicant’s radar. We reached out to admissions consultants serving student markets around the globe to find out why MBA applicants should seek out their help when applying to business school.

What Can an MBA Admissions Consultant Do That I Can’t Do?

Consultants often have extensive knowledge about the MBA market based on years of experience working in admissions; they know what certain business schools look for in an applicant and can guide their client in creating a specialized application package for that school. Matthews says that “consultants have worked with numerous clients and/or have reviewed hundreds, even thousands, of applications, and as such know where an applicant needs to be in order to be competitive.” Candy Lee LaBalle, of LaBalle Admissions based in Europe, adds that consultants help clients “do a deep self-reflection,” identifying why they want to earn an MBA, what their goals are, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. She also notes that a key component to consulting for her is providing overall support throughout the whole admissions process: “The MBA application process is challenging, time-consuming and often frustrating. My goal is to be there for my clients, every step of the way.” Scott Edinburgh of U.S.-based Personal MBA Coach further notes that even though different schools’ application questions sound similar, “what each school is really looking for from the questions differs quite a bit. Understanding this is important in order to cater the messaging accordingly.” Here are some other key competencies of MBA admissions consultants that were common among those we spoke with:

  • Know the market. Kavita Mehta, CEO and co-founder of the Red Pen MBA in India, notes, “Our school-specific and other insights gleaned through participation in professional development programs, campus visits, and meetings with admissions officers enable us to supplement the applicant’s knowledge and fine-tune their application.” Similarly, Edinburgh’s team brings great value in preparing candidates for interviews: “We have former MBA interviewers on our team who used to sit in the admissions seat and evaluate applicants, thus they have the inside information into what the schools really want out of the interviews and other crucial parts.”
  • Craft a story. This aspect of the MBA application is hugely significant, as an individual story is what helps a candidate stand out in a highly competitive pool, and all four of the consultants we spoke with seemed to agree. According to Edinburgh, “a lot of what admissions consultants do is help develop the right messages for applicants. Many applicants have done a wide variety of impressive things over their careers, but doing something or many things impressive and packaging it together well are two very different things. … knowing exactly what to focus on and how to focus on it is important in order to put the best foot forward.” Matthews adds, “Consultants often help applicants see something really outstanding about themselves or connect the dots in a way the applicant hadn’t considered before.”
  • Manage time. Staying on top of deadlines, particularly when applying to multiple schools in different global regions, can require a schedule all its own. But many admissions consultants have all of the relevant deadlines already in their storehouse of knowledge and can help take the pressure off the applicant of hunting down, planning for, and meeting those deadlines. Mehta comments, “Most MBA applicants are juggling busy personal and professional lives. Working with an experienced admissions consultant allows them to stay on top of their timelines.” LaBalle adds that her services allow applicants to save time not just by knowing deadlines but by being a go-to source for answers: “I have done the research, visited the schools, helped hundreds of applicants. Whatever doubt or question you have, I can promise you, I’ve seen it before and can guide you through to the right answer for you.
  • Develop a strategy. Even when an applicant has a complete application package and is on target with deadlines, there are nuances at different schools or in different global regions that admissions consultant, with their in-depth knowledge, can help an applicant prepare for. LaBalle notes, “With acceptance rates between six and 20 percent, the odds are against most applicants; however, using smart strategies, I can help improve those odds.” She admits that nobody can guarantee admission, but with her specialized knowledge of schools “on both sides of the Atlantic”—as an American based in Europe—her strategies can guarantee a strong application. Mehta, whose company works largely with Indian applicants seeking to study abroad, comments on a more cultural aspect of the region she serves: “India tends to be a last-minute culture, and we try to ease that by clearly outlining the various components and the importance of approaching each one with clear thought and a plan.”

How Much Can I Expect to Pay for MBA Admissions Consulting?

Applying to business school can be very costly, with required application fees, testing, and transcripts. The thought of paying even more for consulting services can seem daunting if not outright prohibitive. But consultants encourage applicants to view the fees as part of the overall educational investment. As Mehta states, “Consultant fees are typically between 2 percent and 5 percent of the total cost of an MBA. Investing in the services of an experienced consultant will ensure an applicant has their facts straight and that no stone is left unturned in developing the most competitive application possible.” Matthews, who asserts that “Veritas Prep pioneered the fixed price, comprehensive approach to business school admissions,” says their goal is not to count hours or limit responsibilities but to get a prospective student admitted to their preferred school. That fixed price is 4,700 USD to apply to one school. But they also offer an hourly package for work on specific parts of the application, starting at 950 USD for a minimum of three hours. Edinburgh similarly offers a one-school comprehensive package at 4,500 USD, with savings for applying to multiple schools, noting that applicants on average apply to five schools, at a cost of 9,250 USD.

Who Typically Hires MBA Admissions Consultants?

Prospective students of all ages and backgrounds and stages of life hire consultants. LaBalle’s clients often are “smart young professionals who have the background and profile to succeed in a top MBA. They are prepared to make it in a top MBA and know how tough it is.” But Matthews paints a broader picture of the applicants seeking their services: “Some clients know, or at least think they know, which schools they want to apply to, what their story is, and how to tell it. Others need help thinking through how to articulate their goals or their story. Very few applicants are ‘perfect,’ so we are here to provide expert advice on how to present their strongest application possible.” And Edinburgh, whose clientele range from about 18 to 45 years old, more highly concentrated in the middle, and consist of overachievers and underachievers, both of whom he says “need support in different ways!” Mehta also sees a variety of applicants, “from different industries and backgrounds both in India and globally.” She continues, “We advise professionals who work in banking, private equity, consulting, non-profit, technology, and consumer packaged goods. We also counsel young college graduates on the groundwork and requirements of a global MBA program.” 

Can an MBA Admissions Consultant Turn Me Down?

Different types of consulting companies are more selective than others. “Boutique” companies, which are small and specialized, might take on only clients in whom they see immediate potential. Bigger consulting groups might make greater efforts to work with any applicant seeking services, spending more time working on areas where the applicant falls short of certain standards or looking for other schools the applicant might not have previously considered. “We don’t believe in turning down a client just because we don’t think they’ll be successful; we often say that determining whether or not an applicant is business school material is ultimately up to admissions officers, not us,” says Matthews. That said, Veritas Prep offers a free profile evaluation before clients commit to services. Mehta, at the Red Pen, says they do sometimes turn down potential clients if they simply don’t have the experience or necessary MBA application requirements, but, she adds, “A good counselor will be a partner and has to work closely together with the applicant to help bring out the best and help find the best fit.” Both LaBalle and Edinburgh, whose operations are smaller, say they turn down clients whose expectations are unrealistic or who simply aren’t qualified.

Mehta eloquently summarizes the main takeaway: “Working with an admissions consultant may not be the right path for all MBA applicants. … [B]ut there is tremendous value consultants bring, which is demonstrated not only in their successful track record but also in how they help applicants evolve and mature through the MBA journey.”

The admissions consultants who contributed to this blog post did so voluntarily and are unaffiliated with AACSB.