In 1976, Maxx Duffy, who was an Associate Director of Admissions at Harvard Business School at the time, left the school for personal reasons. Initially, she didn’t really think her “insider knowledge” was a big deal but a lot of her friends pressured her to help them get into the elite business school she had just departed. An extraordinarily large number of those she assisted were successful in being admitted. So, it wasn’t too long before she started billing for her services. At the outset, she distributed fliers to GMAT sites around Boston. By 1985 she had a vision and moved to LA to launch Maxx Associates, which many insiders consider to be the first “admissions consulting” firm specializing in top MBA programs.
Because many schools at that time forced applicants to sign statements that they had no assistance in preparing their application for admission, Duffy quietly stayed behind the scenes, never letting it be known that she was leveraging her “insider knowledge” to help aspiring individuals get admitted to the MBA programs of their choice.
The average cost for such help typically runs $5,000-$10,000 but almost all applicants to top MBA programs consider it a “drop in the bucket” when compared to the total cost of an MBA program (now estimated to be in the range of $300,000 once you include lost income over a couple of years.
What do you receive for this consulting fee? Some call it polish; some call it coaching and advice; and others call it repackaging. One applicant, who was laid off four times including one time while he was applying to Wharton, was planning on covering his dismissals with “I decided to change companies”. His admission consultant convinced him to change his whole essay approach to emphasize resilience and “lessons learned from failure”. He was admitted to Wharton with a scholarship to cover his tuition. Business schools have mixed reactions to the interaction between applicant and consultant. At one end is Stanford which informs every applicant that “you cross a line when any part of your application (excluding letters of reference) ceases to be exclusively yours in either thought or word”. At the other end are schools that accept on faith that applicants and MBA admission consultants are behaving ethically.
MBA admissions’ personnel frankly admit that on their own, essays rarely signify problems (there was an isolated case where two applicants submitted very similar essays and both were rejected). But because of the large number of applicants who utilize consultants, more and more emphasis is being placed on personal interviews and, in particular, admissions is looking closely to spot dramatic differences in the picture that emerges from interviews, recommendations, and the writing section of the GMAT.
I was curious about how our MBA students viewed admission consultants and so I brought the topic up in one of our classes. I phrased the question nonchalantly, “How many of you are familiar with MBA admission consultants?” About half the class raised their hands but no one had actually consulted one. Most B-schools view admission consultants as an inevitable part of the process. They probably should. Surveys have shown that consultants’ sites now rank third only behind school websites and Business Week rankings as an information source for MBA aspirants.
I decided to take admission consultants off my “immediate concerns” list and move it to my “watch” list.