US business schools may be suffering a decline in applications, but that does not mean that it’s any easier getting into a top master’s degree program.
Admissions teams are notoriously selective, and for good reason. Peer learning is a major part of a business master’s degree, and corporate recruiters and prospective students alike use selectivity as a benchmark for course quality.
With the stakes high — master’s in management tuition fees at the top schools can be as much as much as a new car — many would-be master’s students are hiring expert help.
Admissions consultants, who assist people with the entire admissions process, from selecting a school to reviewing essays and doing interview preparation, now number in the hundreds if not thousands. The Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, or AIGAC, counts over 200 individual consultant members. But the true figure is likely to be far higher because not all firms will pass AIGAC’s screening process that includes proving experience and clients.
The Graduate Management Admission Council, which runs the GMAT, says that 26 per cent of business master’s degree candidates are using admissions consultants. Consultants say the proportion is likely to be higher still, as many clients cherish their anonymity, as consulting is controversial.
The trend is most prevalent in Latin America where a third of prospective students pay for consultants, and higher-than-average proportions of them also use consulting in Canada, Asia, the Middle East and in Africa.
This could be due to fiercer competition for business school places among candidates from these countries, as there are more of them than US applicants, and schools want to admit a broad range of nationalities. “There are relatively fewer seats available to non-US citizens at top-tier US schools, where the percentage of international admits is only 30-40 percent,” says Alex Min, CEO of The MBA Exchange admissions consultancy firm.
To advocates, consultants provide expert knowledge that can help candidates get into the most selective institutions. To detractors the fees consultants charge give some candidates an unfair advantage over poorer students, and help to exacerbate business schools’ elitist image.
Admissions consulting is often marketed on the brains behind it. Many consultants are former admissions officers, or at least have a business school degree themselves and so have been through the application process.
For master’s in management programs, schools tend to have broadly the same admissions criteria — a GMAT or GRE score, undergraduate GPA transcript, essays et al. But some have more unique application elements, for example “emotional intelligence” tests or team-based consultancy challenges.
However, does experience automatically equal expertise? Many consultants have been doing the job for some time – could their knowledge date?
Stacy Blackman, president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, says detailed knowledge of top schools’ requirements provides value for clients. Her consultants are former admissions committee members of such elite schools as Harvard, Stanford and Wharton.
“Our team is actively sharing intelligence and best practices [picked up] from their past work within MBA programs and [from] their ongoing relationships with colleagues at MBA programs,” says Blackman.
Her most popular package is for applications to four schools. Prices range from between $4,850 to $14,500, depending on the number of schools.
Blackman says it’s important to start early when applying for the best and most competitive schools. The vast majority of her clients seek consultancy services at least three months ahead of business school application deadlines.
The problem for prospective students is judging the success of admissions services. The MBA Exchange is one of the few firms that publishes success figures, which are audited by an independent accountancy company: the average client success rate, or gaining admission to at least one of their top four or five target schools, is 87 percent.
However, firms are not compelled to disclose their rates and there is no regulation of claims.
Blackman, who does not publish success rates, is sceptical. Without referring to any firm in particular, she says the numbers can be sliced and decided so as to manipulate averages. “The numbers can be misleading and ultimately become untrustworthy marketing fluff.”
Another problem with consulting is the cost: many admissions officers say applicants who use consulting have an unfair advantage over people who don’t.
Consultants counter that schools are already incredibly expensive. However, they appear to recognize that their services are a substantial investment too, as some firms offer pro-bono advice to a small number of clients. Others put free admissions tips on blogs, or have published books that cost a small fee.
“There are a ton of people who apply successfully without using coaches, it depends really on the person,” says Chioma Isiadinso, co-founder of the Expartus admissions firm.
“For people who need very little help, who tend to be self-motivated, then a few books are all it takes [to acquire the knowledge],” says Isiadinso. Candidates can also get help from their colleagues.
But there are other concerns, such as that consultants could make applications homogenous by providing the same advice to multiple candidates.
“Students who use consultants take the risk of having standardized answers that do not reflect well their personality,” says Julien Manteau, director of strategy and global development for HEC Paris’ pre-experience master’s programs.
Some applicants pay third-parties to write application material like essays on their behalf, though admissions consultants say they would never do that.
Business schools can rescind applications they suspect are “ghost-written”. “It may be a dangerous illusion to believe that someone else can do it for you,” says Manteau.
David Simpson, an admissions director at London Business School, says there are ways to spot what he considers “unethical” consulting. For example, if someone performs poorly on the GMAT but writes a stunning essay, that would raise a red flag.
But Simpson says he is comfortable with people seeking consultancy services, as long as they compile their own admissions material: “We are not looking to penalize people for getting help.”
Manteau at HEC Paris, however, discourages applicants from seeking consulting services, “as there is nothing in the admission process that requires external help, in our opinion”.
With so many firms out there, how can prospective business students pick the right consultant?
Min, at The MBA Exchange, advises that applicants gauge the opinion of firms’ former clients. “Do your due diligence through credible, third-party websites.”
He says candidates should also pick firms who belong to professional organizations such as AIGAC. “They have strict membership requirements and ethical standards that confirm the quality and trustworthiness of the firms.”
Isiadinso, at Expartus, adds: “Doing one’s homework is extremely important for applicants in order to hire the right admission consultant. The last thing you want is to hire a consultant who ends up wasting your money.”