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Why Hire an MBA Admissions Consultant?

The MBA admissions process can be extremely competitive. For most applicants, it’s at least worth considering whether an admissions consultant is worth the investment.

We recommend that most applicants consider an admissions consultant for three reasons: 1) MBA programs can be highly selective 2) there are large differences in the value of an MBA as you target increasingly selective, more highly ranked programs and 3) the admissions decision process is multi-faceted and complex. A simple formula of work experience, GPA, and GMAT score is not how MBA admissions offers are determined.

MBA programs can be highly selective.

Acceptance rates at the most selective, top-tier MBA programs like Harvard, Stanford, Kellogg, Booth, Wharton or Columbia are low, ranging from 5% (Stanford) to 25% (Booth). Harvard accepts ~10% of applicants. But even if you are targeting a top 50 school, don’t assume getting admitted will be easy. For example, the University of Pittsburgh MBA program is ranked #43 by U.S. news and World report, but the acceptance is still just above 40%.  In other words, 6 out of every 10 applicants to the #43 ranked MBA program are not accepted.  It’s a competitive process and getting in isn’t easy, so considering investing in support to increase your odds makes sense.

The value of an MBA varies widely across MBA programs.

Having an MBA is not like having an MD (doctor), JD (lawyer), or RN (nurse). Although the selectivity and quality of medical, law, and nursing programs vary, all paths lead to certification, a minimum level of credibility, and most importantly, the government-regulated ability to practice medicine, law, or nursing. Getting an MBA is not like this. Some private companies may offer slight guaranteed salary bumps to folks with an MBA, but in general, an MBA guarantees nothing. Many companies will promote non-MBAs over MBAs without thinking twice.

Although you will learn new things and build a network in an MBA program, a huge portion of the value of getting an MBA comes from the brand you have now associated yourself with and the signal it sends about your work ethic, intelligence, and communication skills. The better the MBA “brand” the more talented you are assumed to be. People don’t really value Harvard MBAs because of what they learned at Harvard; people value Harvard MBAs because Harvard MBAs were interested and talented enough to be accepted to Harvard.

Now, there are many respectable MBA programs out there. But this fact is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it means that your chances of not being accepted into at least a few well-regarded programs (assuming you apply to several) are low. That’s good. On the other hand, to get maximum value out of your decision to spend time and money on an MBA, you’ll want to consider trying to get into the best possible program from a reputation and rankings perspective.  In general, the higher the ranking, the higher the  average starting salaries of graduates of the program.  

For example, MBA graduates of Notre Dame’s - Mendoza business school earn ~$144K per year in total compensation on average. Notre Dame is a highly selective, world renowned university, but although it’s a well-regarded MBA program, it’s generally considered outside the top 25 MBA programs. Acceptance rates at Notre Dame are ~40%. MBA graduates of University of Chicago-Booth earn, on average, $200K in total comp. A $55K difference in compensation every year adds up quickly.

Booth’s acceptance rate is 24%, which although high for a top ten MBA program, makes it much more difficult to get into than Notre Dame’s at 40%. Both schools are great “brands” to be associated with, but clearly putting in the extra time and effort in the process of compiling your application to target the more selective Booth over the less selective Mendoza can make much more economic sense. Some MBA admissions consultants work with students who apply to say, 7 schools. And they might charge $7,000 for that many schools. That may seem like a really large investment. But if it helps you get into Booth instead of Mendoza, assuming you earn the average starting salary, you will make that $7,000 investment in MBA admissions consulting back in just the first few months of your first post-MBA job.

All this leads me to conclude that it will usually make sense to strive and push to gain acceptance to “stretch” schools that may seem outside your reach. MBA admissions consultants can help you pull together an application that is compelling for your stretch schools.

The admissions decision process is multi-faceted and complex.

I remember learning in high school that admission to my public flagship large state university, the University of Illinois, was, more or less, formula-based. There was nuance around how many students they would/could accept from different parts of the state, and acceptance rates varied by “school” within the university (e.g., Engineering vs. Business vs. Liberal Arts). But the general formula was 50% high school GPA and 50% ACT score. You could tell whether you’d be accepted by comparing those two numbers. A low GPA and a high ACT score would do it, or vice versa, or you could be above average on both dimensions.

The MBA admissions process is not really like this. Undergraduate GPA and GMAT score matter in a significant way, yes. The higher the GPA and/or GMAT score the better the indication that you have the analytical, problem solving, and communication skills to succeed. But beyond those numbers, a long list of additional factors emerge:

  • Quality of undergraduate institution / degree
  • Personal narrative for why you want an MBA in general
  • General intellectual horsepower to complete advanced coursework
  • Demonstrated intellectual curiosity and flexibility
  • Personal narrative for why you want an MBA from x,y,z school
  • Demonstrated interest in “focus” areas for the school: finance, marketing, entrepreneurship, etc.
  • How your personal experiences and outlook will positively influence the school’s culture
  • Depth of professional experiences, including managerial experiences, and how they’ll add to classroom discussions
  • Demonstrated leadership ability
  • Demonstrated interest in community service
  • Interest in developing or previous exposure to international business issues
  • How you fit in the school’s desired class profile (gender, race, background, years of professional experience, average GPA, average GMAT score, etc.)

Taken together, the above reflects a complicated mixture of factors that determine who is accepted to any given program which can result in it feeling like a random process. For example, I was a strategy consulting associate with a degree from a less selective undergraduate institution than my manager (Indiana University for me, Northwestern University for him). I also had a lower GMAT score (710 vs. 760) and as my manager, he had more leadership experience. But I was accepted into Kellogg’s full-time program, and he was not.

How could this be? The answer is that somehow in my application, for Kellogg in that year, the overall picture I painted as an applicant as more desirable to the school.

MBA admissions consultants, if they are good, understand how to help you paint a picture that will appeal to your target schools. Painting this picture well requires understanding what each target  MBA program is looking for (there are many  similarities, but also many differences), why you want an MBA in general and in particular from each of your target schools, and engineering your resume, essay responses, recommendation letters, and interview responses into a compelling narrative or story that the admission committee can understand. Designing a powerful, consistent, realistic, yet also unique narrative for an MBA admissions committee can be a difficult task that admissions consultants are well suited to support.

Summary and recommendations

Truth be told, I did not hire an MBA admissions consultant when I applied to Kellogg. But that was because my consulting firm was packed with people who had been through the process. They were incredibly generous with their time and feedback in helping me craft my application. If you don’t have such a network, considering a consultant could be a very good idea.

As a provider of GMAT tutoring, I have had the opportunity to work with a wide range of MBA admissions consultants in the context of helping our students navigate the admissions process once they are done tutoring. I am sure there are excellent consultants available from small, medium, and large admission consulting firms.  However, I have found that medium-sized firms that are larger than 1-2 people yet may not be recognizable as a national brand provide a good mix of personalized service and ongoing, fresh insight and expertise on what top MBA programs are looking for. Some of my favorite examples are Aringo, Admissionado, and Fortuna.