The MBA news aggregator Poets & Quants recently published application numbers for the 2018-2019 MBA class, and they’re not looking great for MBA programs. The top ten MBA programs in the US, including HBS, Booth, and Wharton, saw an average decline in applications of 5.9%. Some programs experienced much more drastic declines in applications, with Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business seeing a devastating 22.5% drop from 2017’s numbers.
Supply and demand being what it is, acceptance rates for these schools went up in tandem with this decline. If this was a singular bad year for MBA programs, they could do their best to mitigate their losses in the short term, and hope for a better season next year. However, as data from GMAC shows, there has been a long-term decline in MBA applications since their peak after the 2008 financial crisis. Some business schools with programs outside of the top tiers have even closed their full-time MBA programs and moved to online-only offerings.
This downward trend in MBA applications can be attributed to many things, including a tight labor market, skyrocketing costs of tuition, and a changing workplace, and the implications of this downturn may reverberate beyond just business schools. There is an entire industry of admissions consulting that has built up around these elite business programs, and if these schools’ programs continue to raise their acceptance rates, students may find the proposition of paying for school and an admissions consultant’s fees too much to bear, especially if they think they have a good shot at securing admission to a top tier program on their own.
However, admissions consultants do a lot more than simply edit essays.In this article, we will explore some of the unseen ways that MBA admissions consultants help future MBAs become better applicants, and businesspeople. A close examination reveals a durable industry offering deep value that will position it well to grow when MBA applications spike again after the next recession.
One of the most important things that an admissions consultant can help you with as an MBA candidate is motivating you to stay on track with all of the requirements of your MBA application. If you’ve decided that you’re going to take a career break in order to pursue your MBA, you’re going to want to get into a good program to make up for the lost salary. Given the tight acceptance rates, that probably means applying to at least three programs. Each program is going to have a completely different written application process, with different essays, different short-answer requirements, and sometimes even a multimedia submission requirement. That’s a lot to manage on your own, especially if you’ve only got two or three months before application deadlines. A quality admissions consultant will lay out a detailed plan of action for you, giving you target dates for the submission of each round of essay editing, and should gently remind you to stay on track if things are falling behind.
Depending on the strength of your candidacy, (GMAT score, breadth of experience, demographic), your admissions consultant should also help you decide which application round to apply for. Generally, weaker applicants should apply in the first round, before adcoms (that’s admission consultants speak for ‘admissions committee members’) have seen hundreds of applications and before they’ve already got an idea of what next year’s cohort is going to look like. Stronger candidates may be able to wait until round 2, but are also encouraged to apply as early as possible.
Making the Right School Choice
Another strategic benefit of employing an admissions consultant is that they can help you apply to schools for which you will have the best chance of gaining admission. A lot of factors go into this analysis, including GMAT scores, demographic, the industries you’ve spent the most time in, and your age. Admissions consultants will help you identify your ‘reach’ targeted MBA programs, and will also help you pick out a ‘safety’ program as a backup.
Additionally, an admission consultant will also help you align your goals with your targeted programs. If you’ve done your research into the top-tier MBA programs, you’ll know that each school produces a different kind of MBA graduate, and that each school’s graduates tend to go into specific industries. For example, Wharton is known for producing graduates that go into finance and investment banking, while MIT is known for graduates that go on to work in tech and become founders. Of course, there are exceptions to all of these rules, and these programs that have reputations are also always looking for MBA applicants that could break the mold and help their school seem more well-rounded. How can you know if your particular set of goals and experiences make you one of those mold-breakers? Well, an admissions consultant, who should always have an MBA from one of these institutions, can help you figure out if your idea for a social venture is an interesting and intriguing fit for Wharton, or if maybe you would have better luck applying to Stanford GSB.
We all know that one of the main reasons you want to get an MBA is to make more money and improve your standard of living. The adcoms know that, too, but an applicant who comes to a top-tier MBA program’s admissions committee with a vague set of goals that basically communicates “I want more money” or even “I want to put an end to my financial struggles” doesn’t really stand a chance of admission. Adcoms at these elite institutions are looking for applicants with crystal clear visions of success and for people that are going to innovate, change, and even revolutionize the industries in which they operate. These elite institutions know that nearly anyone could come to their program and learn how to make money, what they’re looking for are the best-of-the-best, people who will make money AND create new things via innovation-oriented programs.
However, many talented and qualified MBA applicants come to admissions consultants with fairly boilerplate goals and visions of the future. One of the most common goals admissions consultants see from new clients is: ‘After graduation, I want to join a Big 3 consultancy, and work my way up to Managing Director, creating efficiencies and adding value along the way.’ While this may be the path that many graduates of elite MBA programs do end up taking, telling the adcoms that this is your goal is a surefire way to get dinged. A good admissions consultant won’t let you bring that to the adcoms because you haven’t yet figured out WHY you want to join a consultancy. Who are you going to help? What are you going to change, revolutionize, or improve? These are the kinds of questions that an admissions consultant is going to give to a client with unclear or undeveloped goals.
More often than not, one of the biggest benefits that clients of admissions consultants receive is the opportunity to flesh out the legitimacy of their career goals with a completely objective third party. Is your goal interesting? Unique? Could it make money? Is there a huge logical flaw in your plan that you’ve been ignoring because you really just want to work for an NGO and then go become CEO of Shell and change it from the inside? An MBA admissions consultant is going to challenge you to clarify, and more importantly, justify the logic of your goals. This isn’t always a pretty process, and oftentimes a client will go in with one set of goals, and come out with a set that is significantly different, but almost always more realistic and more competitive.
Letter of Recommendation
Finding recommenders to answer the oftentimes lengthy MBA application Letter of Recommendation prompts can be tricky. Even if you do have two amazing recommenders, it’s not always a given that they’re going to be great writers. In fact, admissions consultants often find that LORs are the worst writing on the application. LOR prompts aren’t that confusing, but in their desire to give applicants what they think is the best chance possible, many recommenders try to fit in as much praise as possible, while leaving out any convincing details or descriptions of HOW an applicant actually achieved their goals.
While admissions consultants certainly don’t re-write LORs, they can help gently suggest that a recommender ‘Show, not tell’ in a second draft. Adcoms read about a lot of amazing accomplishments that recommenders claim applicants have achieved, and one of the best ways to help adcoms believe that you really did make $50M on that consulting project is by showing the adcom, step-by-step, the actions you took to make it happen.
Many program’s LOR prompts also feature a ‘feedback’ question, asking the recommender to explain how the applicant takes and responds to criticism. The majority of recommenders struggle to reply to these questions competitively on the first attempt because they’re understandably averse to saying anything negative about the applicant. An admissions consultant will be able to help an apprehensive recommender provide a story of an applicant’s professional growth without falling into the ‘Johnny’s weakness is actually a strength’ trap.
Additionally, in our international world, it’s not uncommon for an applicant to be from India, their boss to be from Malaysia, and for both of them to be working in New York City. While both of these hypothetical application participants might be amazing investment bankers, their written English may need an outside eye from a native English speaker before going to the adcom.
Adcoms read a lot of applications every year, and the majority of those applications read very similarly: I have an engineering background, I went into consulting, now I want an MBA so I can do higher-stakes consulting that makes me a ton of money. While these goals and background are all fine and can be shaped into a competitive application, adcoms love hearing new stories from applicants with unique backgrounds. However, coming from a unique background also means that the adcoms are likely not familiar with how your worldview has been shaped by your country, your profession, your language, etc. That unfamiliarity can understandably lead to some awkward statements in application essays, and hiring an admissions consultant can help mitigate some of those cultural mismatches or misunderstandings before they reach an adcom’s desk.
These cultural red flags can also come from more traditional international and domestic MBA candidates, particularly when a candidate hails from a more family-oriented culture and is applying to an American MBA program. In your home country it might simply be respectful to mention the successes of your family business and to give family the credit for helping you get to where you are professionally. However, Western adcoms are most interested in the actions of individual applicants, and can even view mentions of family as an attempt to distract or deflect from shortcomings in a candidate’s application. A good admissions consultant can help an applicant in this situation turn their family background into an application asset, instead of a liability. This and many similar cultural misunderstandings sink thousands of MBA applications every year.
Additionally, MBA candidates from huge countries like India and China often struggle to differentiate themselves from other applicants with similar backgrounds. Applicants from these countries generally have come up through a much more standardized and structured educational path than Western applicants, and many find it difficult to make their journey feel unique in an MBA application. An admissions consultant, by getting to know these applicants on an individual level, can help them find elements of their professional and higher educational background that make them stand out from the rest of a competitive applicant pool. At a larger admissions company, the consultants will also have access to a large bank of applications from candidates similar to you, and will be able to identify specific aspects of your profile that are overemphasized in the pool.
Applying to universities, and MBA programs in particular, is expensive. Applying to four top-tier MBA programs like HBS, CBS, Fuqua, and Wharton can cost an applicant upwards of $1,000 in application fees alone. Add on to that taking time off work to go on a school visit, paying for the school visit, and staying up late editing your application essays, and the costs of simply applying to MBA programs can reach in the several thousands of dollars. Hiring an admissions consultant is going to add on to these costs, but it’s also going to give you a better chance of not having to go through the same stressful process again next year.
Of course, if an applicant didn’t receive an admit in their first year of applying to MBA programs, hiring an admissions consultant is even more important. An admissions consultant can look at your essays from your previous application and help you understand why you got dinged last year, and what you can do to make it across the line this year. Most applicants will likely have gained more experiences and skills from one application season to the next, but it’s not a given that they will have become more prepared to communicate those skills and experiences to adcoms in an effective manner.
Is The Admissions Consulting Investment Worth It?
With MBA applications falling year over year, and acceptance rates rising, it might be tempting to try and give your MBA applications a go on your own. However, keep in mind that economists are predicting that a recession in major global markets is looming in the near future. The last time there was a major economic downturn, 2008, top-tier MBA programs saw an unprecedented upsurge in applications as people left their jobs to make themselves more professionally competitive with a graduate business degree. This also resulted in these programs becoming much more competitive in terms of acceptance rates. Right now, there is a great opportunity for people to apply to business programs that they may not have been competitive applicants to even a few years ago. Yes, an admissions consultant is going to add to the cost of your overall application budget, but that might seem a worthwhile investment when, in a couple years, your MBA helps you snag a job you never could have dreamed of.