Should You Hire an MBA Admissions Consultant?

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com

With acceptance rates at the most elite business schools ranging from 6.8 to 21.6 percent, a growing number of MBA hopefuls are relying on the services of admissions consultants to help them market their candidacy and stand out amid a sea of equally amazing applicants.

The Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT exam, reports that one in five applicants worldwide uses consultants—but a 2013 survey by the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants reports that 57 percent of prospective MBAs used an admissions consultant. The majority sought assistance with their essays, resume evaluation and interview preparation. But it is important to recognize some of the pros and cons of working with an MBA admissions consultant, as it might not be the right move for everyone.

[Avoid these three surprising mistakes MBA applicants make.]

I believe a consultant can nearly always help, whether you are a first-time or a repeat business school applicant, whether you are in the dark or more knowledgeable about the admissions process. After all, both beginning athletes and Olympians have coaches.

The one caveat to this situation would be if the admissions committee at the school to which you are applying is heavily focused on numbers, in which case you may not need a consultant to help flesh out things like your essays or interviews.

On the pro side, a consultant offers a trained second pair of eyes to review your material, help steer strategy and provide a sanity check. Many admissions consultants have years of MBA admissions and marketing experience.

Working with a respected consulting team gives you the ability to leverage the database of knowledge of a collected group of experts who together have experience with thousands of clients in programs across the globe. Input from one friend who applied, or even someone who attended the school, provides only a limited snapshot.

A firm with years in the business has perspective on what has worked – and what hasn’t – over time. Any questions or concerns you have about a particular program can be answered in-house, saving you tons of time researching online or trolling business school forums.

There is a lot of information about the MBA admissions process readily available online for free. Blogs like mine offer application advice, school-specific essay tips, and more.

While you can and should take advantage of free online information about the MBA admissions process, some people feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount out there, and the information is not always correct. I believe applicants can do their own research and still benefit from personalized guidance and coaching.

Detractors might argue that if you’re a strong MBA candidate, consulting services will provide little added value because your stats and profile speak for themselves. I disagree, and have seen many cases of stellar candidates who were shocked when they were denied admission to programs that seemed like sure things.

For example, we worked with one Cornell University graduate who had three years of experience in a top investment bank, a high GPA, a high GMAT score, phenomenal extracurriculars and competent writing skills. However, when he came to us he had zero introspection and was unable to look inward to mine his unique and interesting strengths. He definitely belonged in a top program, but the guidance he gained in how to market himself took his application package from generic to compelling.

Cost is the obvious potential drawback of working with an MBA admissions consultant. Fees run anywhere from a few hundred dollars for a la carte editing services to several thousand dollars for comprehensive packages targeting multiple schools.

If you’re not committed to completing the process, it is a huge waste of money. Make sure you’re ready to follow through, and find out if the firm offers any type of financial guarantees if you’re not successful.

One danger of hiring a consultant is that you might rely too much on their expertise, losing your voice and story in the process. Make certain that you’re prepared to partner with the consultant while not letting them take on the whole journey.

[Try these exercises to help MBA applicants develop a personal brand.]

Another complaint of applicants is that their consultant doesn’t devote enough time to them. Before you hire a consultant, ask about usual turnaround times and how many clients get taken on at once. A full-time consultant may be juggling you with 20 other clients, all vying for the same deadline, so ask these questions before you commit.

Some potential clients think hiring a business school consultant means they don’t have to do any work. A good consultant is not an essay-writing service, won’t do the work for you and is not there to agree with whatever the client says.

This type of relationship won’t work for personality types that have difficulty accepting criticism, coaching and input from others. Only invest in a consultant if you’re ready for a true partnership – not if you want a ghostwriter.

Consultants can push you, point out errors and opportunities and help you submit your very best application. But they still need you on the team.

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