Monday, August 1, 2011

Is admissions consulting worth the cost?

I didn't have a consultant when I applied to business school.  That's true unless you count a couple key family members and friends who spent time reading my essays and providing feedback.  That advice was free, useful, and not at all professional.  No one who helped me had any experience with business school; they were just willing to help and proofread my essays into a semblance of a cohesive story.  I'm pretty sure I hadn't even heard of admissions consultants when I began applying to business schools.  However,there seems to be a growing sense that an admissions consultant is becoming a standard component of applying to business school. 
If estimates of the use of admissions consultants are correct, more than 4,500 applicants to Harvard (roughly half) paid for advice and counsel to help them make the best case possible. - Poets and Quants
The number of companies and inviduals offering the service also seems to be on the rise.
Exact numbers are hard to come by, but there probably are as many as 300 firms with more than 500 MBA admissions consultants around the world. Overall, consulting to MBA clients alone is a business with annual revenues of at least $35 million worldwide.  - Poets and Quants
I didn't have a consultant when I applied to business school.  In fact, I didn't pay for much of anything that wasn't required (like the application fee and the GMAT) beyond a few used books to prep for the GMAT.  My application expenses came out around $500 or slightly under.  I also applied to only one school.

But if I had used a consulting service I could have paid up to $4,400 for a comprehensive package just to support my application to my single school.  For those applying to more schools, a seven school package might cost $9,250.  with that you could apply to all of the "top 5" business schools.  Though I poked around several consultants' websites I couldn't find a single package that had a price tag of more than $10,000.  Apparently even determined MBA applicants are price sensitive and won't cross the five-figure mark.  However, a seven school package from Sanford Kreisberg, a well-known consultant who specializes in Harvard Business School, would cost $19,700.  He charges $2,800 per school.

This seems like a crazy amount of money to me.  Just a single school package could have increased my application cost by as much as a factor of ten, from $500 to $5,000.  If you're going to be paying for degree with $50k+ tuition for two years in an area with little or no financial aid, do you really have that kind of money to spare? Of course it's easy for me to question the value of consultants since I already got into the school of my choice without help.  But as a prospective candidate I might imagine that the decision is not as clear cut if you're desperate to get into the school of your choice or if you are very serious about getting into a top-tier school.  Knowing that there are admissions consultants out there and that many of your competitors are using them could put tremendous pressure on you to pony up the cash just to make sure that you have a fair shot at your dream.

But do these companies deliver?  In looking around I've seen success rates as high as 97% verified by an independent auditing group to no track record at all.  The nature of the service probably means that most people wouldn't want their purchase to be known and accurate data will be hard to come by and verify.  Call me naive, but I can't imagine that a consulting service adds that much to their clients' existing resumes, skills, and scores.  The presentation of information already set in stone by the time the application is started seems like all you can really consult on.  I have to wonder how many of those clients would have gotten in on their own efforts or just used the consulting service like a high-priced and neurotic babysitter for their business school applications.

Do you think admissions consultants provide a valuable service?  Anyone use one? Would you pay for one if you were trying to get into a top program?

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  1. From my perspective a consultant's contribution is purely cosmetic- sprucing up the college applicant's resume. Deeper structural work (skills, grades, experience) is quite evidently untouchable by these consultants. You'd have thought that the best schools' admissions departments would be able to see through such superficial touch ups. It's quite sad to see industries like this burgeon, capitalising on people's desperation for a top education.

  2. There's absolutely no way I would ever pay for something like this. I want to get in on my own merit and that includes filling out the application and going through the process as me and me only.

  3. I agree with the above comments. It's kind of disheartening to know that people are paying for this type of service.

    I would hope that my fellow classmates would be smart enough not to waste their money on this.

  4. If I had to guess, I'd say that the results of each consultant were mostly to do with survivorship bias more than anything.

  5. I went to business school - Top 20, but not Harvard, Stanford, etc. That being said, I didn't want to pursue such a strategy.

    However, if somebody feels like he/she really wants to go to a certain school that happens to be hyper competitive internationally, then why not consider it to be an investment for such a service? Not saying I would do it as I didn't before and probably wouldn't anyway. But if the person has a really good track record and has proven testimonials to back it up, then it might be worth considering for some folks.

  6. I have often thought about this and wondered why people go to consulting services like this. I think it comes down to a matter of convenience. I pay a tax professional to manage my taxes for me, a CPA to handle my bookeeping, a maid to clean my house, and a plumber to fix my busted pipes (not really, but you get my point). People pay professionals to help them with tasks that they do not feel qualified to handle. If I could pay a professional to help me get into a top tier business school, and I had the means to do so without going into debt, then why not?

    People usually only apply to graduate school one time, and if you are trying for a top tier school, you might only have one shot. If you get into a Harvard MBA program, you will likely recoup that money in the first year salary after graduation.

    My point being, that you can pay a professional to help you with many tasks that you are not good at, so why should college admissions be any different?

  7. Honestly I think the question should shift away from is admissions consulting worth it, to is admissions consulting is ethical. Personally, the whole concept of admissions consulting rubs me the wrong way. It send the message that it's possible for anyone to buy their way into a top school. I think part of the integrity of a top program depends on each individual applicant taking full responsibility and leadership over their work, including their admissions application. Assuming they actually made it past admissions (which, just like grade school teachers, I'm sure they can spot enhanced work) is this the type of people you want to be sharpened by in professional school? For me, no thanks. Any top MBA student should be able to put together their own admissions package for goodness sake, otherwise the credibility of the profession is seriously on the line.

    Also, the idea that top MBA students can "recoup" any and all expenses is something that I frequently hear perpetuated with very little data to back it up. I think it gives a lot of MBA students a false sense of security that they will all be rolling in the dough, even if they are in the hole 100k or more before they've even graduated and landed jobs. Personally, I don't think it's wise to act as if something is going to occur (i.e fat salary post graduation), if it does occur then totally awesome, but if it doesn't, well, I didn't gamble my whole financial future away in the process.

    BTW, just came across your blog. I'm a MBA spouse and these were all issues my husband and I talked about before he applied to B-school. He made it into a top 8 school, but opted for a top 20 because he got a full ride. I think MBA students need to take a hard look at how massive student loans will impact their lives on many different levels. For us, it was all about true financial freedom.

  8. Harri - Things like your GPA they can't do anything about but for essays it might make a big difference. In general I agree with you though, it's more marketing you than changing something fundamental.

    Money Beagle - Agreed, but what if your merit is measured with coached candidates as a comparison? Soccer stars make it on teams based on their own merits but they've had plenty of coaching.

    JT - Good point.

    STRONGside & Squirrelers - I think you capture the reasoning well.

    Tessa - It would be interesting to see what happened if admissions departments banned paid consultants, but it's unlikely to happen. I agree that there is no guaranteed ROI for business school and assuming so can be foolhardy. Congrats on admission and a full ride for your husband!

  9. The really interesting thing with admissions consultants these days is that they offer free consultations and services (one essay or resume edit) in order to attract folks. I think taking advantage of these free consultations is well worth the time since they offer different perspectives and most of them have gone to these top schools or know people who have gotten in. I think paying 2000 to 3000 dollars per school to do some essay editing and interview prep is a bit overpriced and like Sandy Kreisberg mentioned, they can help prospective applicants stand tall but cannot change their height. That's the essence of why admissions consultants exist, because most people are either too busy or have other reasons to spend serious time on their application to stand themselves up and not have to rely on admissions consultants.

  10. I think admissions consultants are a fact of life, and can make a difference in terms of coaching, guidance, etc. For example, it's going to be an UPHILL climb if you have a 620 GMAT and you want to get into, say, Duke. But if you prepare your application well, you can improve your odds so that IF Duke takes someone with a 620 GMAT, you're the person they pick.

    Someone I know works at a company that offers MBA admissions consulting as a perk to its young workers. Now, if someone goes out and hires his/her own consultant, is that any more/less ethical than if the service is already provided by work?

    I don't see anyone would see something wrong with an executive hiring a negotiations coach to help her negotiate a higher salary or a runner hiring a coach to help him run a faster mile - what's different about admissions consultants (or any consultants?)

  11. I am an admissions consultant. I actually didn't know this industry existed when I applied to (and was accepted) by HBS in 2003. With that said, I joined the industry because I enjoy helping people tackle this process...which can be stressful and overwhelming...but I do so in a way that is indeed ethical. I do worry about the reputation of the industry because I would never want someone to think I am unethical. I am far from unethical. This is a very interesting discussion and it is interesting (and eye-opening) to hear the other side.

  12. A lot of these admissions consultants try their hardest to persuade a person to apply to schools that aren't HBS, Stanford, Wharton, etc... Their job is to help you refine your application, give pointers where you can make some improvement (which any admissions counselor at any MBA job fair would do for free if you took the time to talk to them) and help you think about your essays, outlining these essays and editing what you've written (not re-writing, but editing).