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.


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