Winning a competitive MBA place at a top business school is no mean feat. The highest ranked schools will admit just a fraction of the overall number of applicants. To get an edge, some prospective students are turning to specialist consultants who can advise them on their overall application strategy and each element of the selection process. Those MBA admission consultants do not come cheap, however. Are they worth the fees?
Stacy Blackman runs Stacy Blackman Consulting, which has been advising would-be MBAs since 2001. She says an admissions consultant can “vividly articulate your value proposition” for the incoming student class relative to your applicant pool. This can “markedly increase your chances of MBA program acceptances and scholarship”, Blackman says.
She points out that being rejected from a top MBA program can be a significant setback for the applicant, so candidates may want an experienced partner to give them clarity and confidence. “Dings can set a career back, erode recommender confidence and result in an entire year delay for reapplicants,” Blackman says.
Admissions consulting is no panacea, though. It’s right for applicants who recognize that they must bring quality attributes, including academics, professional and personal experiences, to the partnership. “Admissions consultants work with what is given to us,” adds Blackman. “We love diamonds-in-the-rough, dreamers, do-ers, those who are eager for a fighting chance at an elite MBA admit and bring their A-game.”
Putting your best foot forward
Fortuna Admissions, another firm, works with clients from all over the world, from a huge variety of professional backgrounds. Most of the clients are applying to the top US or international schools. “As these are such competitive programs, it makes sense to have an advisor who can guide you through the process and make sure that you put your best foot forward every step of the way,” argues Caroline Diarte Edwards, director and co-founder of Fortuna.
A former admissions director at INSEAD, a top business school, she argues that consultancy fees are a tiny fraction of the investment that a candidate will make in their MBA. “So our clients recognize that it’s worth investing in getting our support because we increase their chances of getting admitted to a top school,” she argues.
“The vast majority of our clients get into at least one of their target programs, so the return on investment is quite clear,” she adds.
Seth Gilmore, senior consultant at The MBA Exchange, argues that admissions advisors are worth the fees if the process helps shore up gaps in the application, trains the candidate on how to communicate more effectively and persuasively, and helps instill confidence and clarity around their goals.
But he warns that the investment won’t pay off if you’re already a shoo-in. “That is common in our industry,” he says. Consulting works best for people targeting highly competitive schools and overpopulated demographics such as consulting and finance, adds Gilmore. It’s also good for people who have great potential but weak standardized test scores.
An MBA application rebound?
Demand for consultants moves with the application cycles. There was a surge in demand in 2020 when Covid peaked because MBA applications run counter-cyclical to the economy and job stability. In 2021, the economic recovery from the pandemic led to a drop in overall MBA demand and the direction of travel continued into 2022.
But admission consultants are hopeful for a comeback given the uncertainty over the economy this year. That would only increase competition for an MBA place. Blackman says: “As a result of recent layoffs across multiple industries and recession predictions, we are seeing a sharp increase in MBA interest and expect that to continue through 2023 and 2024.”
There are a large number of admissions consulting firms. How can prospective MBA students choose the right advisor for them? Diarte Edwards warns that, “a lot of admissions coaches aren’t very well qualified – there are no barriers to entry as such, and most coaches are b-school alumni who fell into the job because they were approached by hopeful candidates asking them how they got into the school”.
She adds: “I would advise candidates to look for a coach who has relevant credentials and experience, and then see if you have good chemistry with the individual coach that you are considering engaging. It’s an important relationship and you’ll be working together closely for a number of months, so you want to make sure that it’s a good personal fit.”
How do business schools view MBA applicants who use admissions consultants?
Russ Morgan, senior associate dean at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, says: “I think admissions consultants can play a positive role. I don’t think that they can always play a role in getting every single student a more positive outcome, but they can help educate a prospective applicant on the options they have, and the best fit they have with an institution.”
But he warns against the possibility of inauthenticity. “We want to find out who this authentic individual is, what is it about them that resonates and fits with us. The last thing we want is a regression to an application process where everyone looks the same.”