Monday, January 30, 2012

Best of the Anecdotal MBA

Welcome to the Anecdotal MBA blog, where you'll find a unique perspective on the b-school admissions process from someone who has been through it.

There's a lot to read here, so I suggest you get started with the most popular post on this blog, The Essay Package that Stood Apart.  Then check out these five posts:
  1. How to rock the GMAT: It takes patience and lot of hard work. See how I raised my score by 140 points.
  2. What makes a good essay, quantified: Check out these graphs that highlight the key difference between the essays that got me in... and the ones that didn't.
  3. Why MBA?: Some criteria for deciding whether b-school will be worth the investment.
  4. MBA vs. EMBA: A tough decision, especially for applicants in their late 20s or early 30s. Here's how I weighed the issue.
  5. Tips on using an admissions consultant: Admissions consultants aren't cheap. Here's how to use them wisely (and here's how to use them ethically).
I hope you find this blog useful.  If there's anything you'd like to see added, just let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tips on Using an Admissions Consultant

I shelled out a whopping $2,300 on an admission consultant. This was for a flat-rate package that included consultation on essays for three schools. The firm matched me with a former admissions officer from an Ivy League business school.

Here is the full scope of services provided per my contract:
  • guidance on school selection and assessment of my chances at those schools
  • analysis of my candidacy and development of an action plan
  • individual consultations
I never did figure out what my "action plan" was supposed to be, aside from writing a ton of essays and trying like hell to get into a good program.

On the whole I received excellent service from my consultant. He was very responsive to my e-mails and phone calls, he worked well with me, and I believe he gave me sound advice. He encouraged me when I felt like my essays were hopeless and he was a good sport when I needed to bounce ideas around. He helped me understand what the admissions committees were looking for and what they didn't care about.

In short, I had a good experience with my consultant, although I still have some heartburn over the price tag. Here are four things to consider when using a consultant and choosing a consulting package:

1. Consultants Ain't Writers
One thing I learned about working with an admission consultant is they didn't get to where they are on the basis of their writing skills. To be fair, I'm sure my consultant wasn't putting much effort into polishing the edits he suggested, but let's just say there was never any risk that I would accidentally plagiarize his work. In a few cases he made corrections to my writing that were plain wrong.

Admissions consultants are not necessarily great writers. Regardless of whether you decide to hire an admission consultant, you would be wise to find someone to read over your essays for flow, style, and grammar. I am fortunate to have a significant other who happens to be a top-notch editor; she found some grammatical errors that my consultant and I had both missed. Also, she was able to come at the essays with fresh eyes, something my consultant and I were both incapable of after reading them over a thousand times. She identified a number of places where my essays needed to be cleaned up.

If necessary, find a grad student in English, history, or philosophy (or whatever), or hire someone from elance or craigslist -- do whatever it takes, but find someone other than your consultant who is well qualified to copy edit.

2. Turnaround Time
You should expect a very fast turnaround (i.e. within a day or two) on everything you give your consultant. My consultant was stellar in this regard.

I didn't hire my consultant until December 9th, with second round deadlines looming less than a month away. My first meeting with my consultant was on December 10th. We arranged to hold weekly phone calls for 30 minutes each Tuesday morning; the rest of our interaction would be by e-mail.

On December 11 I sent the first draft of my "background" essay to my consultant; he replied on the 12th.

On December 14 I sent a re-write of my first essay, plus three first-draft essays. The next day I sent the first draft of an essay for another school. On December 17 I received an e-mail with edits to all five essays.

This pace continued for two more weeks. He took December 24 and Christmas off, and two days around New Year's. He never took more than two days to provide comments on a draft I sent him, and he usually replied to questions by e-mail the same day.

3. The Consultant's Job is to Point out Problems (not necessarily solve them)
The edits I got back from my consultant were mostly along the lines of:
"This sounds like fluff, cut it."
"This is promising. You need to give an anecdote to give it some impact though."
"Explain what role this experience will play in your future."
"You're going to love this - but you won't be able to use any of this material. You're going way too far back. You need to focus on the last two years, especially your management experiences."
My consultant pointed out a lot of problems in my draft essays, but it was up to me to figure out how to solve them. This was a little frustrating given my tight deadlines, but it is the proper role of an admissions consultant.

4. Package or Hourly?
One early dilemma I faced was whether to buy the one, three, or five application package, or whether to hire the consultant on an hourly basis. I think made the right decision in going with the three application package.

The one-application package may have been a good option if I had more time to work on the essays. Given that there is significant overlap in the essay questions between different schools, paying a flat rate for one application package probably gives the most bang for the buck. With more time, I think this would have been the way to go.

The five application package, on the other hand, would have been a waste of money. By the time you've written three applications, you've covered 80+% of the material that you'll need for any application. I wrote my fourth application package without the help of a consultant and I didn't feel as though there was much he would have been able to add by that point. I'd already seen all of the essay questions, albeit in slightly different form.

What about hourly rates? In general, I don't like hiring people for hourly billing. It puts me in the position of having to micromanage their work and I'm always left wondering if the task should have taken as long as it did. Task-based rates go a long way toward solving this problem.

Still, I think hourly rates can make sense in certain cases. For example, maybe you've paid for a one-school package but you have some specific questions about how to tackle an essay for a second school. If you decide to hire a consultant for just an hour or two, I'd suggest spending that time on the phone. That way you can grill them and you won't have to worry about whether you're getting their full attention.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Superficial Look at MBA Admission Consulting

This will be the first in a series of posts that looks at the ethics and value of admissions consultants.

Before you read on, check out An in-depth look into MBA Admission Consulting over at the GeekMBA360. This is the best synopsis of the admission consulting industry that I've yet come across. Also, my post will serve as a friendly rebuttal to some of the positions that GeekMBA360 takes on this matter.

Full Disclosure
As I've mentioned or implied in previous posts, I used an admission consulting firm to help me with my applications. I bought a three-application package and wrote my fourth application without the help of a consultant. The school I was admitted to was one of the schools the consulting firm helped me with.

My consultant was a former admissions counselor for a top MBA program. He did not offer to write my essays, nor would I have allowed him to. He provided general guidance on positioning my essays and helped me identify the parts of my essays that added to my application versus the ones that did not.

How Admissions Consultants Level the Playing Field
A large number of business school applicants come from finance and management consulting, two fields that are chock full of graduates from top business schools. Applicants coming from that background have access to a lot of inside advice from people who have been through the process. That advice may come in many different (perfectly legitimate) forms: advice on how the b-school application process works, advice on preparing for the GMAT, advice on the essay writing process, etc.

Many other applicants come from industries where there are fewer, if any, graduates of the top business schools. I believe these applicants are at a disadvantage versus applicants coming from MBA-dense industries. There is a much steeper hill to climb to understand the application process, what schools care about and how to present oneself through an application if you lack the advice of someone who has already been through it.

I know what you're thinking: "There are tons of resources out there for prospective students. How big an advantage can having access to an MBA graduate really be?" The situation seems analogous to undergraduate matriculation rates for students whose parents did not go to college versus those who did. According to a 2001 study by the US Department of Education, matriculation rates vary dramatically according to whether the student's parents attended college. Is it such a stretch to think that the senior leaders at one's place of work, who often fill a mentorship role, might have a similar impact on their juniors?

Admissions consultants level the playing field by providing insider advice (on essay writing, etc.) that was previously available only to a select part of the applicant pool.

Do Admissions Consultants Game the System?
In An in-depth look into MBA Admission Consulting, GeekMBA360 states his ethical objection to the use of admissions consultants:
I feel that admission consultants are helping some applicants to "game" the system and gain an unfair advantage.
In fairness to GeekMBA360, I have taken this quote somewhat out of context - he goes on to explain that he believes the b-school admission process is more subjective than it is for other graduate schools, so he can understand the role of consultants. Still, I think this statement fairly captures the unease that a lot of people have with the idea of admission consultants.

In what ways might a consultant "game" the system? If consultants had an inside connection with the admission committee, there would clearly be a big problem. But this would be an indictment of the schools themselves, not consultants per se.

What if consultants blatantly wrote essays for the applicant? Obviously that would be a problem - and I think this is the concern that most people have over consultants. But why should this be a special concern for consultants? What about unpaid help from friends, colleagues, or significant others?

It isn't clear to me why paid consultants pose a bigger ethical problem than unpaid helpers do. In both cases, we rely on the applicant to be the judge of what sort of assistance is allowable.

Do Admissions Consultants give an Unfair Advantage to the Rich?
Another concern I've come across is that, due to their high cost, admissions consultants will give an unfair advantage to wealthy applicants.

I think this concern gets the issue exactly backwards. People who earn less money are also less likely to have access to graduates of the top MBA programs through their social or business connections. These people stand to benefit the most from a consultant, since they will know the least about the process.

Consider a 25-year old b-school applicant who earned her undergraduate degree at Yale, works for an elite investment bank and is probably making well over $100K. She can easily afford the cost of even a high-end consultant, but given that half of the people in her team already have MBAs from Wharton, Harvard, or Columbia, she already has access to people who can help proof her essays and polish her resume - for free! She can shell out the $3k for a consultant, but it seems unlikely to me that the consultant will have much to add.

On the other hand, consider a 25-year old government employee who was the first in her family to attend college, who graduated at the top of her class at State University and has excelled in her profession. Although many of the people in her office hold PhDs, they have no idea what business school is all about or how to get into one. The $3k consulting fee is far more costly on her $60K government salary, but it will give her access to a perspective she couldn't otherwise get.

Are Consultants worth the Money?
To me, the most important question is not whether it is ethical to hire a consultant - the main question is whether it is wise to hire a consultant. They are damn expensive and not everyone is satisfied with their results.

The main problem is the lack of transparency: it is almost impossible to know what you're getting when you hire a consultant. As far as I know, no large organization has undertaken a survey of business school admissions consultants. The best I've found is the ongoing survey at Admissions411. This survey seems quite good and I encourage anyone who has used a consultant to share their experience on this site. But it is not clear that this survey draws from a representative sample of consulting customers, which limits its accuracy.

Advice at any Price
The admissions consulting industry is the product of an opaque and possibly even arbitrary admission process that holds huge sway over peoples' lives. It seems disingenuous to claim that the industry encourages people to act unethically. Take the consulting industry away and we're still left with plenty of motive and plenty of capacity for unethical behavior.

To me, the most important question is whether some admissions consultants might be taking advantage of applicants. This is mitigated to some extent by the free hour of consulting that many firms offer (it gives applicants a chance to test the waters), but there is no way to ensure that the consultant you've hired will give you value for your money.

Two changes would go a long way toward answering this question. First, I'd like to see a big player like Business Week perform an extensive survey of admissions consultants. And second, I would like to see consultants get paid in part on the basis of their results. Part of their fee would go into escrow; they would get paid if you got in.

By aligning the incentives of consultants with the incentives of applicants and by improving the transparency of the consulting industry, I think we would see average fees go down and quality improve, to the benefit of both applicants and schools.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Anecdotal MBA has been AWOL

Hi folks, as you've noticed I haven't posted anything in a week now - I've been travelling like mad for work and needed this weekend to recover.

I'll be back on Tuesday with the first in a series on admissions consultants.

Thanks for reading, I hope you'll stay tuned.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Rephrasing the Question

In recent posts I looked at my essays for reasons why I may have been rejected by three schools but admitted to one. In this post I'll offer some suggestions on how you can avoid making the mistakes I made.

To recap, I think there were two basic problems with some of my essays. First, I did't do enough research into some of the schools I applied to, so I wasn't able to do a good job of tailoring my essays. The lesson learned is straightforward: do your homework and make sure you can articulate your reasons for applying to each school (and the answer shouldn't include the words "ranking" or "reputation"). It's probably worth writing your reasons down on paper.

The second basic problem was I spent too much time explaining my qualifications and background, at the cost of explaining why I felt I needed an MBA, why that school in particular, and (for one school) what my future goals were. See "Essay Statistics" for details.

Losing the Forest for the Trees
How did I manage to overlook these important details? I think I became too focused on the direct essay questions, losing sight of the "questions behind the question" - i.e. the questions that every essay package should address, even if the questions aren't asked explicitly:
  1. What are your qualifications?
  2. Why do you want/need an MBA?
  3. Why do you want to go to this school?
  4. What are your future goals?
All of the applications I've seen ask you to explain your accomplishments and future goals, but they don't all ask you to explain why you need an MBA or why you want an MBA from that school in particular. I think these questions still need to be answered though.

Rephrasing the Question
Thankfully my b-school application days are behind me, but if I had to write application essays again, I'd rephrase the questions to make sure I didn't overlook the basics. This would help me plan how I was going to incorporate answers to the questions above within the context of the essay topic.

For example, here's how I'd rephrase this year's HBS questions (parenthetical numbers refer to questions from my list above):
Original question: What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (1)
Rephrased question: What are your three most substantial accomplishments, why do you view them as such, how do they fit in with your future goals, and how have they prepared you for HBS? (1, 2, 3, 4)

Original question: What have you learned from a mistake? (1)
Rephrased question: What have you learned from a mistake and how has it prepared you for business school? (1, 2)

Original question: Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision. (1)
Rephrased question: Same. (1)

Original question: What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you? (4)
Rephrased question: What is your career vision, why is it meaningful to you, and why do you need an MBA from HBS to achieve it? (2/3, 4)

Topic coverage before rephrasing: 1, 1, 1, 4
Topic coverage after rephrasing: 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 1, 2/3, 4
I don't have any great ideas on how to rephrase the "difficult decision" question - if you think of anything, please post a comment or shoot me an e-mail ( Clear Admit advises a straightforward reply to this question.

There's Nothing New Here
If you've been studying for the GMAT, the idea of rephrasing questions won't seem new to you. And if you've been thinking about b-school application essays, it will seem obvious that you need to cover the fundamentals when you compose your essays.

To me, the power in rephrasing essay questions - or interview questions, or questions from my boss - is it gives me a chance to think about what a good answer would consist of, then build the goals of my answer back in to the question.

I learned the hard way that it is entirely possible to answer business school essay questions while missing some of the most important points. The essay questions aren't designed to ensure you'll provide a complete essay package - that is left up to the applicant. But by identifying your goals before you start writing, and incorporating them into the questions, there's a better chance that you'll end up with well-rounded essays - avoiding the mistakes I made.