How to Find the Best MBA Admission Consultants
If you’re wondering who the best MBA admission consultants are in the industry today, this article is dedicated to you. While I can’t claim to have all of the answers for you, I can give you my perspective as someone who has been on both sides of the table: I worked with an mba admissions consultant when I was applying to business school, have since advised many others as an mba admissions consultant, and I’m now the founder of Vantage Point MBA, a boutique firm focuses on advising candidates to the top schools.
The short answer is that unfortunately there is no Billy Bean to help guide you through this decision process. Depending on what number you believe, roughly 20% of applicants chose to work with an mba admissions consultant (GMAC) or over 50% (MBA Admissions Consultant trade association). Let’s take the average between the two and assume that 1 in 3 applicants to the top MBA programs are making the decision to get professional help with their applications. They do so for a variety of reasons, but most chose to work with a consultant to help position their applications in the best possible light (eg. get insights from people who know what the adcom is looking for, have insight into the specifics of the programs themselves, and can help you consider what the MBA could do for you (realistically) in the grand scheme of your career). While consultants can’t work miracles, they can help guide you through a somewhat vague, “black box” process, share examples of what’s worked for other applicants with similar profiles, help flesh out stories and goals, and provide you with a structure and second set of (critical) eyes as you develop your pitch.
But that wasn’t your question. So how do you pick who to work with? Easy – invest the time to get it right and find someone that’s the right fit. That’s probably not the answer you wanted to hear, but before making such an important decision (financially and otherwise), you owe it to yourself to do your research, speak with potential consultants directly, ask the tough questions, and determine not only whether this is someone whose guidance you trust, but whether the consultant is a person who you can see yourself working with, not on a couple of drafts, but on v15, when you’re tired, frustrated and just want ‘everything to be done already’.
So with that, here are some key questions to ask as you’re talking to potential consultants (note be sure you ask these questions to your actual potential consultant, not the salesperson who you might speak with first at some of the larger firms).
1) How many years of professional experience do you have working with applicants? Why does this matter? Like every other profession, experience matters. Many companies will hire consultants with zero experience working with applicants but who have either been through the application process themselves or are a former admissions committee officer. This could be like hiring a financial advisor who is theoretically qualified because he or she manages his or her own money. Might be great, might not. Time will tell but you deserve to know and often this won’t be public, so definitely ask the question.
2) Have you ever worked with an applicant like me? Why does this matter? It could be a proxy for whether or not you’ll ‘click’ personality and work style wise (and this is super important given this person is helping you analyze and position your personal and professional life). To use another Sabermetrics (Moneyball) comparison, finding the right consultant is more akin to the 2014 Red Sox (don’t hate me Yankees fans – I married into Boston!): the 2014 Red Sox were a group of self-described ‘idiots’ who staged the greatest comeback in sports history (down 1-3 in the ALCS to the Yankees) by having a comradery and a team spirit that was second to none. They still remembered how to ‘Cowboy Up’ and work together. You need someone who you have that connection with and can work well together with. My husband asked me recently how I knew whether or not a client would be a good fit for me and my response was ‘the same way you know when a potential new hire on your team will be a good fit – connection’.
3) How many clients do you take per round? If you’re going to be one of too many, then it will be impossible to receive that ‘high touch’ service that everyone markets. Make sure your consultant has time for you, especially as you get down to the wire. I talk a bit more about this below too….
Now what are the other considerations? Since the admissions consulting industry is not typically well understood, I’ll break it down a bit in order to help you with your research and knowing what questions to ask based on what you personally are looking for (emphasis on personally because truly different firms have different styles and whether that works for you is up to you – there is no one-size-fits all).
– It’s a bigger industry than you thought: What most applicants do not realize is that the admissions consulting has become a massive industry onto itself. There are literally hundreds of firms, ranging from one-man (or woman) shops to multi-million dollar conglomerates that can also sell you GMAT prep classes, help you with your Law School personal statements if the MBA doesn’t work out, and provide business school loans. The industry is so big it has its own industry association now!
– They’re ALL ‘the best’: If you’ve looked at more than a handful of these companies you’ll see something in common – somehow, they’re all ‘the best, with testimonials, reviews, and in some cases ‘independent audits’ to prove it. One place to start assessing whether or not they are ‘the best’ for you is by looking at consultant reviews on third-party applicant blogs and forums (I was ADDICTED to these MBA forums when I was applying). However, a lot of companies, particularly the smaller ones, aren’t listed on many of the more popular sites. Does that mean they don’t have a track record of success? Absolutely not. But to be eligible for reviews on certain (very popular) sites, yep you guessed it, consulting companies have to pay (sometimes upwards of $10,000 per year for the privilege). Companies (Vantage Point included…) pay even more than that to have their own forums on these sites, or to be listed as ‘experts’. Paying doesn’t mean these companies aren’t as good as they seem (quite honestly we pay for the opportunity to give free advice and show people how we work so they have something to go on), but it does mean that some other firms are excluded and you shouldn’t hold that against them.
– Beware of the metrics: A common metric that is thrown around is the number of clients that a firm/consultant has helped through the process. This sort of feels like McDonald’s celebrating its billionth hamburger served, doesn’t it? Is volume a good thing because it reflects experience, or is it a bad thing because it shows that the company/consultant is churning through applicants and likely won’t have the time to develop a personalized approach to your application? Be sure to ask about individual consultant capacity. Realistically it’s hard to provide “high touch” service to 50 clients per round, so you’ll want to get a straight answer on how many clients each consultant works with at a time.
And of course there’s your favorite one (if you love data): the success metric. The problem with this metric is the fine print – the data is often self reported and limited to certain clients. Additionally, there are two types of firms out there: a) the ones who focus on success and thereby have adverse incentives to guide clients towards “easier” schools to get into; and b) the ones who don’t focus on success metrics and are incented to get you into the best school that they can purely because of the potential awesome review from you. So, if you see a metric, ask for the background on it like you would with anything else.
Bottom line – Admissions Consultants can be a huge advantage in helping you navigate this complex and stressful (yet very important!) process. They can significantly help strengthen your application by building a relationship with you and leveraging their own experiences to help you position yourself optimally. And there are great consultants and a lot of firms out there to help. But of course, the short answer to your question remains that there is no silver bullet for how to find the right firm and consultant for you. Take your time, do your research, talk to multiple people and of course I recommend asking the questions I referenced above.
Hope this helps (or at least adds to the conversation!) and thanks for starting this thread!