B-Schools Take on Essay Consultants

Admissions officers, wary of those who pay for help on applications, consider new strategies.
February 7, 2006

“Vault is collecting successful admissions essays for top MBA programs, including Wharton -- and will pay $40 for each main essay (main personal statement greater than 500 words), and $15 for each minor essay (secondary essay answering a specific question less than 500 words) that we accept for our admissions essay section.”

That message, recently sent out from a top company that helps students get into business schools, is enough to irk even the most experienced admissions officers at some the nation’s leading business schools.

“Some of our admissions counselors have gotten outraged,” says Thomas R. Caleel, director of MBA admissions at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “We want students to be giving their real stories, not some ‘polished’ or even ‘over-polished’ versions of themselves.”

“Essays have to be meaningful per person,” he adds. “It might be helpful to see some successful essays, but in my mind, it might also be limiting. Someone might read one [of the consultant-produced essays] and think that their essays have to read the same way, in order to get in.”

Those sentiments are being expressed by an increasing number of business school officials who say that students shouldn’t have to pay exorbitant amounts of money to make themselves appear different than who they really are. While some officials plan to go on the offensive against firms that they find particularly egregious, others want to work more closely with consultants. Still others say that there is little they can do to prevent the phenomenon.

Deans at seven of the top American business schools are expected to address such issues at an upcoming gathering, according to a Monday report in The Boston Globe. In an effort to “remove the possibility of outside interference,” Derrick Bolton, director of admissions at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, told the paper that deans are considering making students complete their essays under supervision, providing different essays to students in the same applicant pool, and conducting more interviews and follow-up with references.

While the proliferation of admissions consultants of various sorts has frustrated officials in undergraduate admissions as well, especially at elite institutions, the steps being considered by business schools could amount to a much more aggressive stance against the application-consulting industry.

“Part of getting the best candidates is for them to be themselves during the admissions process,” says Caleel. “We really want to get to know the real person who is applying.” Wharton’s business school dean, Patrick Harker, is expected to be part of the group that will meet to discuss consultant issues.

While Vault officials could not be reached for comment on Monday, Alex Brown, a senior admissions counselor at ClearAdmit, in Philadelphia, says that not all consulting firms function the same way. “Some businesses are bad,” he says, “but the bulk of us, that’s not the way we operate.”

“There’s a myth out there that counseling services help students create a fictitious application that will get them into school,” says Brown, who worked in admissions at Wharton for 7 years prior to joining the firm. “The reality is that we guide people into making good choices and give them plenty of feedback.”

For the approximately 50 students Brown has counseled over the past year -- who pay upwards of $200 per hour for his services -- he says he “works with the ingredients.” Initially, students must complete a lengthy questionnaire, which helps him determine which institutions would be most likely to accept them. He then provides guidance and has them draft practice essays. “We don’t tell them, 'you’ve got to use these three paragraphs to get in,’” he reflects. “They’ve got to create this themselves.”

Brown’s firm also offers several free services, including a blog and wiki, which list resources and ideas from students for success during the admissions season. He says that he realizes that every student can’t afford enhanced counseling services, which is partly why his firm has created the resources. “They also provide a good way to brand ourselves,” he notes. “I’m militant that they should remain free.”

Some consultants are excited to have received an olive branch of sorts from officials planning the Graduate Management Admissions Council meeting this spring in San Francisco. Along with Brown, Ricardo Betti of MBA Empresarial, Maxx Duffy of Maxx Associates, Graham Richmond of ClearAdmit and Linda Abraham of Accepted.com are expected to explain why they believe consulting services are beneficial for both students and institutions at the conference.

“We have a lot that we can do for business schools regarding consumer data,” says Brown. “And we plan on having dialogues with students to help them understand what we can -- and can’t -- do for them.”

Not all business school officials think that consultant firms are a phenomenon to be foiled or to be placated. “In my experience, it’s very difficult to tell when and why a consultant has been used,” says James Hayes, director of admissions at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

“We’ve seen some international students using them inappropriately, especially for essays,” he adds, “but this isn’t happening on a widespread basis.”

Hayes also adds that as a public institution, he would find it difficult to allocate resources into trying to determine which students were using a consultant. Hayes has a staff of six to sort through 2,500 to 3,500 applications each year. Students are not asked during the admissions process whether a consultant helped them prepare their applications unless something jarring occurs -- like a student with a low TOEFL score turns in a brilliantly written essay.

“If used appropriately, I think they can be a good thing,” says Hayes. “They’re not always necessary, especially for $3,000, but I have no context for knowing whether it’s a good way for a student to spend money.”



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