Have you used an admissions consultant to help you with your MBA application?
Seems like a relatively harmless question, right? Well, that depends on who asks it.
For the 2011-2012 admissions cycle, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business asked all of its MBA applicants if they used the services of “an agency or a consultant to guide you through the application process.” Only 5% of Fuqua’s pool of nearly 3,500 MBA applicants decided against answering the optional question. Of the remaining 95% who provided an answer, less than 10% admitted to using a consultant, says Liz Riley Hargrove, associate dean for admissions.
Question did not impact an applicant’s admission changes
The question was asked merely for informational purposes. “We’ve been hearing for years from students and alumni about the number of applicants using admission consultants, but we didn’t have any real data to understand the percentage of our applicants who were getting help,” says Hargrove. “We did get a number of applicants who were a bit anxious in answering the question because they assumed it would be factored into the admissions process.”
Hargrove was as surprised as anyone by the rather low percentage of applicants who admitted using consultants. “The groundswell made me feel that the majority had been using consultants. The reality is that a very small percentage said they used a consultant or an agency. The naïve part of me would like to assume that everyone answered honestly. I’d like to believe it is an accurate reflection of the Fuqua applicant pool.”
Duke number shows big gap between estimates by MBA admissions consultants
The estimate culled from answers to the question is far below estimates by several admissions consultants. Some now estimate that as many as 80% of the international applicants and 30% to 50% of domestic applicants to the top U.S. schools are now using admission consultants. Estimates vary wildly, of course, because they are informed guesses by consultants. Dan Bauer, founder and managing director of The MBA Exchange, believes that a third of all applicants to top 10 schools now use a paid consultant, ranging from full-service to basic essay editing.
In 2009, Stanford Graduate School of Business did a more informal survey of students who had already been admitted. The survey, by Admissions Director Derrick Bolton, found that about 15% of Stanford’s enrolled students admitted to using consultants.
Just how honest Fuqua’s applicants were in answering the question is anyone’s guess. The school’s MBA candidates did not know how the admissions would use the data and at least some worried that a candid answer could backfire on them.
Consultants believe Fuqua’s applicants didn’t tell the truth
“I would assume that number is low,” says Jeremy Shinewald, founder and president of mbaMission, one of the larger players in the MBA admissions business. “Some would be fearful of admitting it.”
Linda Abraham, founder and president of Accepted.com, agrees. “I am guessing that applicants are reluctant to disclose consultant use, much like they may be reluctant to disclose tutoring they received in college, use of college writing centers to help with papers they had to write, test prep they took to get to the score they ultimately apply with, use of a career counselor, or hiring of life coach to advise them on major life decisions,” she says. “I wonder why schools don’t ask about those professional services or why they don’t ask about non-professional help candidates receive during the application process from bosses, colleagues, professors, friends, and family. If these questions are going to be asked, why limit them to admissions consultants?”
One consultant admits telling a Fuqua applicant not to admit he got help
At least one consultant contacted by Poets&Quants told a client not to admit that he used their firm. Jana Blanchette, founder and president of San Diego-based Inside MBA Admissions, said she advised a client not to check the box on the application that would indicate the applicant got help from a consultant. “We’re coaching them through the process,” reasons Blanchette. “We are not doing the process for them. The work is authentically theirs. For their own safety, given the nature of the environment, I would say, ‘Heck no. Don’t admit you used us. Do you feel this material is yours? Did you feel you created this?’
“They say, ‘Oh, my God, yes.’
“’Then that is how you check it,’ I said.”
Hargrove says that Fuqua will ask the question again this year and explain to applicants that the answers will not be used to evaluate their candidacy for admission. Based on conversations at the recent GMAC conference in Chicago, Hargrove also believes other schools are likely to ask the same question during the 2012-2013 application season.
More b-schools expected to put the question on their applications this year
“I can’t imagine there won’t be a number of schools this year,” she told Poets&Quants. “It’s good to get the data. It doesn’t mean we don’t expect applicants to use admission consultants. But lots of schools are reevaluating their application process so we can get the best possible representation of a candidate. Before we put a process in place to protect against it, we want to know how many applicants are getting help.
“We also get tons of requests for interviews, guest blogs and information from a lot of admission consultants and we wanted to know which agencies our applicants were using to better manage some of the requests we were getting.”