The business school admissions consulting business just became even more competitive.
In a move that will surely raise the eyebrows of MBA admissions officials, a half dozen former gatekeepers from highly ranked schools have gotten together with the founder of the World MBA Tour to launch a new consulting firm aimed at business school candidates.
The firm, Fortuna Admissions, brings together admissions pros from Wharton, INSEAD, Chicago Booth, London Business School, and UC Berkeley Haas. Their differentiation is clear: to bring to applicants the inside knowledge of the admissions offices that once employed them.
Group says it knows ‘the inside track’
“We have been gatekeepers to the world’s best business schools, and have personally reviewed tens of thousands of applications from candidates all over the world,” explains Caroline Diarte Edwards, who stepped down as director of MBA admissions at INSEAD in April. “We also shaped admissions policy, devised the application processes, and had the final say on who got in. We know the inside track – what goes on behind the closed doors of Admissions Committees, how your candidacy will stand up versus the competition, and how you can best maximize your chances of gaining a coveted place on a top MBA program.”
The firm is the brainchild of Matt Symonds, a long-time player in the MBA market who will serve as a co-director of the partnership. Symonds started the Kaplan Test Prep franchise in Europe in the early 1990s and then founded what is now known as the QS World MBA Tour which he ran for nearly ten years before selling out to his partner Nunzio Quacquarelli. He also is the author of ‘The MBA Admissions Edge.’
Symonds, who is based in Paris, said that the firm would function like a “law firm partnership” with an initial team of about 10 coaches and two support staff. Besides Edwards from INSEAD, the core group includes Judith Silverman Hodara, former acting director of MBA admissions at Wharton; Pete Johnson, former executive director of MBA admissions at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School; Rose Martinelli, former director of MBA admissions at Chicago Booth; Emma Bond, former senior manager of MBA marketing and admissions of the London Business School, and Lisa Bevill, former director of MBA admissions at IE Business School in Spain. Martinelli will serve as an “expert advisor” to Fortuna and maintain her full-time role at Huron Consulting, an educational consultancy.
The group also includes some coaches who come from other parts of the business school world. Malvina Miller Complainville, formerly Harvard Business School’s associate director of career services, will put students through their paces for interview prep and the job search, for example.
Claims a ‘privileged niche in the market’
In an interview with Poets&Quants, Symonds said he believes the firm will compete on the basis of “the quality of the people I’m working with and the inside insight that they have. I wouldn’t feel we had this privileged niche in the market without this dream team beside me. They have proven themselves to be champions of the applicants. They are not cold and detached. They have a real coaching gift, and they have a sense for what makes a candidate fall down. And our international dimension helps. The majority of the big players, like Clear Admit and Stacey Blackman, are fairly U.S. based. With officials from INSEAD, London and IE on our team, we have international depth.”
Though several other admission firms also boast having former admission officials as staff, Fortuna is the only entrant in the field that is solely organized around the idea of bringing internal expertise to candidates (see The Revolving Door in Business School Admissions). The only other firm that has signed up a significant number of former business school officials as consultants is Chicago-based The MBA Exchange. On its roster of consultants The MBA Exchange boasts nine former admissions officers, 23 former student admissions committee (adcom) members, and four former contract professionals who reviewed applications or interviewed applicants for business schools.
Some consultants say inside knowledge of admissions isn’t necessary to be a good coach
Of course, some consultants pooh-pooh the notion that former admission officials bring much added value to the consulting process. “Admissions office experience provides insight into the process and enormous insight into a given school’s program at one point in time,” says Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com. “But it doesn’t provide insight into all programs at all times. It doesn’t teach anyone how to mentor or guide. Is it helpful? Yes. Is it the only way to get an understanding of admissions? No.”
Despite the fact that many schools have reported declines in MBA applications in recent years, Symonds sees the market for admissions consulting growing. “People in this age bracket more naturally reach out for advice,” he believes. “It’s come to the point where people no longer ask, ‘Should I get a coach?’ They ask, ‘Why shouldn’t I get a coach?’”
He also contends that getting into one of the best MBA programs is as competitive as ever. “The top schools are still overwhelmed with excellent candidates,” adds Symonds. “The flip side of the down curve is that the top quality pool remains stable and a lot of people jump in and out based on the ups and downs of the job market. At the top end, it remains fairly stable.”
Fortuna will charge a 10% premium due to the inside insight it brings to the consulting game
Fortuna says it will price its services at a 10% premium to existing market prices to account for the inside knowledge of its consultants, according to Symonds. A one-school comprehensive consulting package will cost an applicant $4,600, while a three-school package would cost about $7,500.
The firm’s launch will likely be greeted with some skepticism from current business school admission officials, some of whom have already expressed concern over the increasing visibility of MBA admissions consulting. Some top schools have publicly said they altered their admissions policies this year in part to get an unfiltered look at candidates due to the increasing use of coaches by applicants.
The Wharton School, for example, has introduced a new interview format where selected applicants participate in a team-based discussion with 5 or 6 other applicants. Harvard Business School has reduced the number of essays required from four to two, and then gives applicants invited to interview 24 hours to submit an additional written reflection on the interview experience. The University of Michigan’s Ross School is putting more weight on the in-person interview and less on essays because the school is concerned about the undue influence of consultants on the application process.
‘There is no question of writing essays for clients’
Symonds and his partners say they will not be writing essays for candidates or crossing any ethical boundaries. “We are dedicated to offering the best possible advice to candidates, and to guide them throughout the admissions process whilst adhering to strict ethical principles,” insists Edwards. “There is no question of writing essays for clients, or stepping in on behalf of a recommender. We coach individuals through an in-depth reflection process, brainstorm essay approaches, put them through their paces for interviews, and provide feedback until we are sure the application clearly expresses what is unique and compelling about their personal story.”
Symonds also said he hopes to raise the bar in admissions advice available online, and contribute to the diversity efforts that make such a difference to the MBA experience. “Individual coaching is not available to everyone,” he says, “but with our collective industry experience we think we can provide a platform for helpful advice that goes beyond the focus on 10 extra points on the GMAT, or whether you should apply on a Tuesday or a Thursday, and gets people to think about finding the right fit.
“Current admissions directors have to be careful about what they say in public, because everything is read, dissected and analyzed for hidden meanings and secret formulas. Our team has the advantage of insider knowledge from their former roles, which they can now freely share that knowledge through our blogs and webinars.”