This article is dedicated to you if you wonder who the top MBA admission consultants in the industry today are. Though I cannot claim to have all of the answers, I can offer my perspective as someone who has been on both sides of the table: I worked with an MB admissions consultant when I was applying to business school, and now I advise entrepreneurs aiming for the top business schools.
Unfortunately, Billy Bean cannot guide you through your decision-making process. The number of applicants who utilize admissions consultants varies depending on where you turn for your information, from 10% to over 50% (GMAC). In analysing the average between the two, let let's say 1 in 3 MBA applicants choose to get professional help with their applications. Many choose to work with a consultant for various reasons, but most are looking for insight from people who understand what the admissions committee is looking for, what their programs are alike, and can show them what an MBA will do for them (work-wise). A consultant cannot perform miracles for you. Still, they can provide guidance in a vague, ""black box"" process, help illustrate what’s worked for others with similar profiles, add details to stories, and provide you with a second set of eyes as you develop your pitch.
However, that was not the question you asked. So, when choosing a contractor, how do you go about it? Simple - get it right the first time and find someone who will fit your needs. If that wasn't the answer you were hoping for, then you have to do your homework before making a financial and other important decision. If you are considering hiring a consultant, talk directly with them, ask the tough questions, and determine not only if the consultant can guide you effectively, but whether you can imagine working with the consultant at v15, when you're tired, frustrated, and just want everything to be over.
Now that we've outlined some key questions to ask as you talk with potential consultants (note, make sure you ask your actual potential consultant these questions, instead of the salesperson you may have spoken with first in some instances).
What is your professional experience working with applicants? Why is this important? Experience counts in every profession. Consultants hired by some companies with no experience working with applicants are either applicants themselves or former admissions committee members. The approach could be similar to hiring someone who manages your own money as a financial advisor. Could work well, could not. You will find out in time, but you definitely deserve to know, and a good question is one that isn't public.
Do you have experience with applicants like me? Do you think these matters? This is a proxy for whether or not you'll "click", both personally and professionally (and this is particularly vital for someone helping you position yourself professionally). To use another Sabermetrics (Moneyball) comparison, finding the right consultant is more akin to the 2014 Red Sox (don't hate me Yankees fans – I married into Boston!): the 2014 Red Sox were a group of self-described ''idiots'' who staged the greatest comeback in sports history (down 1-3 in the ALCS to the Yankees) by having a comradery and a team spirit that was second to none. Yet, they still remembered how to ''Cowboy Up'' and work together. It would be best if you had someone with whom you have that connection and can work well together. My husband asked me recently how I knew whether or not a client would be a good fit for me and my response was ''the same way you know when a potential new hire on your team will be a good fit – connection''.
Do you take on many clients at a time? In a situation where there are too many of you, you may not receive the level of service that everyone markets. As you get closer to the deadline, make sure you can meet with your consultant. I discuss this in more detail below.
But what else should you consider? In light of the relatively unknown admissions consulting industry, I will break it down so you can understand what questions to ask based on your personal preferences (emphasis on personally because different firms have different design styles, and you must decide what works best for you).
There's a bigger industry than you realized: Many applicants are unaware that admissions consulting has grown into a huge industry. Aside from selling GMAT prep classes, they can also help you with your Law School personal statements if the MBA doesn't work out, and they can also lend you money for business school. Currently, there is a separate industry association for the industry!
When you study a few of these companies, you'll find something in common with them all - they all claim to be the best, and sometimes they cite testimonials, reviews, or independent audits as proof of their excellence. Next, look at consultant reviews on blogs and forums run by third-party applicants to determine if they are the best choice for you. (I was addicted to MBA forums when I applied). Some smaller companies are not listed on many of the more popular sites, particularly smaller ones. Does that mean they aren't successful? Not. There are, however, certain websites that require consulting firms to pay to be able to leave reviews (sometimes upwards of $10,000 per year for this privilege). A company (Vantage Point included...) pays even more than having its own forums on these websites or being categorized as an expert. While paying doesn't necessarily mean these firms aren't as good as they appear (quite honestly, we pay to give free advice and demonstrate how we work), some other firms are excluded and you shouldn't hold that against them.
It is common for a firm/consultant to mention the number of clients it has helped through a process. Be wary of this metric. You know that feeling when McDonald's celebrates its billionth hamburger served? Does volume show the company/consultant has the experience, or does it mean the company/consultant is rushing through applicants and will likely not have time to tailor the process to you? Instead, find out if individual consultants can work with you. Providing ""high touch"" service to 50 clients in a round is impossible, so you'll want to know how many clients each consultant works with at once.
Finally, there is the success metric, which is a favourite of those who love data. It's difficult to use this metric because the data is often self-reported and limited to certain clients. Moreover, there are different kinds of firms: one focuses on success and has adverse incentives to direct students to "easier" schools to get into. In contrast, another does not focus on success metrics and is motivated by you writing an awesome review of their work. Ask your question about a metric like you would anything else if you see one.
The bottom line is that MBA Admission Consultants can be of great assistance when it comes to navigating the complex and stressful (yet very important!) admissions process. The process of establishing a relationship with them and incorporating their knowledge into your application can strengthen your application considerably. Many firms out there can help and there are great consultants available. In short, there is no magical solution for locating the perfect firm and consultant for you. I recommend asking the questions I referenced above, doing your research, talking to multiple people, and of course, taking your time.