April 2006

Outlook in Higher Education

Getting into Top B-Schools
Success Requires a Strategy
April 10, 2006

by Sandra Gardner

There’s no question that getting an M.B.A. (master’s degree in business administration), especially at a top school, is expensive. Out-of-state tuition and fees can range from about $35,000 to nearly $40,000 a year, plus living expenses, for the top four schools.  And for full-time students, in what is generally a two-year program, there’s the added cost of lost wages.

Is getting an M.B.A. really worth all that time and expense? The answer is: definitely, if you want to more than double your income, according to surveys of M.B.A. holders salaries.  For M.B.A. holders from the top four schools – University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton, Northwestern University’s Kellogg, Stanford University and Harvard University ”“ the salary levels spiral to upwards of $165,000 a year.  Not only that, but acquiring an M.B.A. can provide additional benefits of greater compensation growth, more stable long-term employment, and a higher likelihood of participating in the work force, according to ”The ROI on the M.BA.,” an article by Antony Davies and Thomas K Cline, published by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. (R0I is “rate of investment.”)  Since 1993, the authors report, expected wage growth for workers with professional degrees, including M.B.A.s, exceeded inflation by more than 2 percent. The wage growth for those with only undergraduate degrees averaged 1 percent above inflation.

Graduates with professional degrees have had 25 percent lower unemployment, and 81 percent have been work force participants, compared to 78 percent of those without professional degrees.

But being accepted into a top school program isn’t easy. The average GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) score was at least 700; undergraduate GPA (Grade Point Average) was more than 3.50, for the top four schools. In 2004, Kellogg took only 23 percent of applicants; Wharton, 16 percent; Harvard, 13 percent; and Stanford, 10 percent, according to Business Week’s “Best B-Schools of 2004.”

Hooking up with an M.B.A. admissions strategy firm like Stacy Blackman Consulting, based in Los Angeles, Calif., can make it all possible.  Her success rate? She says that 97 percent of her clients are accepted at one of their top four choices. This includes clients with low GMAT and GPA scores and a lack of extracurricular or leadership experience.  Blackman came to the business from a background in marketing products such as securities – and ice cream – at such companies as Charles Schwab, idealab! and Haagen-Dazs. Five years ago, she took that experience and translated it into business school admissions strategy, as one of the pioneers in the field.

Blackman, who holds an undergraduate degree from Wharton and an M.B.A. from Kellogg, believes that marketing people isn’t that much different from marketing chocolate chip cookie dough. How does she do it?

Basically, by a technique she calls “people branding.”

”It’s positioning people by thinking about the target market: what do they want and how can I appeal to those interests,” she says.

Grant Allen is a good example. Even being a cum laude graduate of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering didn’t work for his initial application to a top B-school.

“I didn’t even make it to the interview,” says Allen, one of Blackman’s clients, now in his first year at Wharton. “Before I talked to Stacy, I overemphasized my job achievements.” These included developing his own Web-design company as an undergraduate and working as an analytic and problem-solving consultant with Bates White, LIE, an environmental and product liability consulting practice; and a senior analyst for Dean & Company, a strategy consulting practice, both located in Washington, D.C.

Unfortunately, Allen’s marketing of himself to business schools didn’t differentiate him much from the pack of accomplished achievers with whom he was competing.

“You’re a smart person who’s done well at a job, and so has everyone else,” he says wryly.  “Stacy helped me bring out my unique story.”

Blackman looked at things other than Allen’s G.P.A. and work history. Since 1998, he’s been traveling to South America, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean on behalf of a family foundation, International Cooperating Ministries. The Ministries is a church-building foundation started by Allen’s grandfather that has facilitated construction of 1,800 orphanages and churches in 35 countries.

“We work with the people in the country, providing overhead money and bridge loans for materials to build a place where people can worship and come together in a community center,” Allen explains.

Allen also co-founded with his father, a retired ophthalmologist, the Ocular Melanoma Foundation, a nonprofit education and research advocacy group for a rare type of Cancer.

Blackman helped Allen weave these threads into his essays so that his application told a unique story to admissions officials. As a result, he was accepted not only at Wharton but also at Kellogg.

“She acts as a coach, helps you clarify your thoughts, keeps you on track and enthusiastic about the process, and brings out the unique story you have inside you,” Allen says.

Though Blackman’s comprehensive marketing plan is custom designed, she and her staff, which includes 10 trained consultants, follow an overall schema. They conduct an initial conversation with the client about his or her background, M.B.A. admission goals, resume, and “numbers” (GMAT and GPA).  The client then fills out a “Brainstorm Survey” Blackman created to identify achievements, goals, strengths, and challenges.

“The survey covers personal background and challenges, things that are not on the resume,” she says. “Schools want to know who you are as a human being.”

The client’s challenges and “holes” are assessed regarding B-school admission, and an action plan to meet these needs is put together. These include developing a school selection and target list, selecting and preparing recommenders and strategizing essay questions and an overall marketing plan.  Support is provided in completing essays and resumes; planning school visits, interview techniques and preparation; and dealing with school decisions and enrollment.

Blackman will help a client find a GMAT tutor or volunteer opportunities, in addition to the motivation to go through extra rounds of essays, address areas of weakness and apply while working full-time.  Clients work with the firm anywhere from a month to a year or something in between – however long it takes to complete the application process.

Her clients’ job history before business school ranges from investment banking to computer engineering to teaching and music.

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is the idea that someone who has a low G.P.A. or who is not an investment banker won’t get into business school,” she says.

That’s exactly what Janet Zhou had thought, even with her summa cum laude degree from the University of Memphis and years of working as a senior software engineer and technical product manager at Avolent, a leading enterprise application software provider.

“I was a software engineer for a long time,” Zhou says. “It was a difficult proposition to take my credentials and make them appeal to business school, to find the right way of describing myself so as to stand out from the very qualified applicant pool.”

Blackman noted that Zhou had emigrated from China at age 15 with no knowledge of English.

“Stacy asked me, what did I learn from that experience, the process of learning to speak English, learning about a different culture and finding an identity for myself with a blend of my cultural background and the U.S. culture,” Zhou explains.

Blackman added to this the fact that Zhou is fluent in Mandarin and volunteered at the San Francisco Asian Women Shelter, providing support, advocacy and Chinese language interpreting for domestic violence victims.

As a result of Blackman’s marketing, Zhou was accepted at MIT’s Sloan School of Business, the University of Michigan and Kellogg, where she is now completing her first year.

“She helped me design a strategy as to what to emphasize in my background and helped in writing the essays,” Zhou says.

Being a minority, from another culture or an immigrant family, provides an applicant with a unique perspective that can be an advantage, Blackman says. Even a not-so- perfect GPA doesn’t have to deter a business school hopeful, as was the case with a Hispanic client who’d failed a class in college.

“He grew up with a lot of challenges, in a poor family in a terrible gang neighborhood,” Blackman recalls. “But he’d developed so much as a human being, his essays reflected his accomplishments and maturity. He got into Harvard Business School and Wharton.”

Relating personal challenges that have been overcome is a big plus on an application essay, Blackman maintains, as is identifying a weakness that has been dealt with.

“For example, if you had low grades in college, business schools will question how you would handle their curriculum. Identify this as a weakness and let them know that you’re taking a calculus or accounting course to overcome this,” she says.

Blackman’s services aren’t cheap: her price for the first school is $2,750; the second school, an additional $1,500; for the third school and beyond, $1,000 per school; and a four-school package for $5,750. She also offers a $250 hourly service for clients who need specific help with a particular aspect of their application.

But her clients feel that the success they have hoped for is well worth the price. So much so, in fact, that the majority of her clients come to her through word of mouth.

“Don’t be afraid to expose a weakness. Sometimes a weakness can be turned into a strength. A ‘perfect’ person can show a lack of self-awareness,” Blackman advises.

“The key is to look at what you have going for you, who you are, what you can bring to the table.  Market yourself.”

In other words: think of the nuggets that make up the unique product that is you. Just like Rocky Road.