Only 10% of applicants land a spot in certain top MBA programs. So it's small wonder that many business-school aspirants don't leave much to chance -- even if it means entering into an ethically gray area at best. That explains why one current applicant to Harvard Business School hired an admissions consultant to help with his essays and to fine-tune his application. "It was beautiful," he says of the finished product, which was due on Oct. 13. "I would be very surprised if I did not get into Harvard."
The applicant will not, however, get accepted if the school finds out about the consultant. Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton require students to affirm that their application is entirely their own work. "We worry that a whole industry has developed to support people in their efforts to get admitted to Harvard Business School," says Dean of the Faculty Kim B. Clark. Many other B-school administrators say they don't like admissions consultants, even though their institutions have not gone so far as to ban them.
As many as 20% of those applying to top MBA programs are paying up to $5,000 -- about $150 to $200 an hour -- for consulting services, according to estimates from consultants and some admissions officials. What were one-person shops less than a decade ago are now staffed with dozens of former admissions officers and MBAs from prestigious programs. "Seventy percent of our clients get into one of their top three choices," claims Toby Stock, director of MBA Counseling at Chicago's Brody Consultants.
Applicants justify using admissions consultants by saying it's no different than meeting with a paid adviser before a job interview -- or showing their essays to friends or relatives for input, which school admissions offices encourage. Still, those who used consultants spoke with BusinessWeek only on the condition that their names not be used.
Applicants stretch ethical limits the furthest with their essays. There's a fine line between someone giving you constructive criticism and putting words in your mouth. But even critics say admissions consultants can provide services that don't raise ethical questions. They're valuable for strategizing, if you're planning to apply for an MBA a few years from now. If you have a job that's not particularly distinctive, a consultant can structure your extracurricular life to make you a more attractive candidate. An adviser also can help you get leadership experience you may lack.
If it's too late to reconstruct your life, consultants can analyze your grades, work history, and GMAT scores to gauge if you have a shot at your top school choices. If they conclude you don't, they'll steer you toward more realistic options -- where you won't have to present yourself as someone you're not. If you're determined to go to a particular school despite poor odds, they can mine your life's experiences for events and character traits you can play up to offset your weaknesses. Playing the piano, for instance, might be a skill that matters more than you think. "It proves the discipline and focus we want," says Alex Brown, Wharton's senior associate director of admissions.
B-schools are getting better at spotting doctored applications. The essays have a telltale sameness to them, says Stanford's MBA Admissions Director Derrick Bolton. So if you hire a consultant, stick with approved uses. Don't forget there are other sources of help, too. "If applicants would call the admissions office, they'd get a lot of the same advice for free," says Liz Riley, admissions director of Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Free is a value concept surely any B-school applicant can understand.
By Kate Hazelwood