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.


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