How to find the best admissions consultant

Those of you who have decided to apply to graduate school this fall/winter and to employ an admissions consultant may already be looking around for the best person to help you. Each year some applicants come to us because they were not happy with the person they had worked with, and through them I have learned about some of the more common grievances among applicants. Additionally, I have worked on the side of recruiting, training, supervising and even firing admissions consultants for over ten years. I’ve settled conflicts between clients and consultants and have a good understanding of how things can go wrong. Because hiring a consultant is such a huge investment, below I offer some advice as you research the best person to work with you:

1. What is your own philosophy about presenting yourself to your target universities?

This past season I worked with a Chinese client, and I had learned earlier of the common practice in China of applicants hiring consultants to write their essays entirely for them. Since we don’t engage in ghostwriting, I asked her why she came to us. She responded, “It’s outrageous for someone to want to take my words from me; I want to tell my own story, and to use my own words.”

Ethically speaking, using your own words and writing your own essays is the only choice. Practically speaking, admissions committees are now catching on to essays that are not genuine. (This is why more and more business schools are using the Turnitin software to detect plagiarism as well as reducing the number of essays required and instead placing more emphasis on the interview.) However, you do need to be honest with yourself about your expectations: Do you wish to, or are you willing to do most of the work in the writing process? Do you prefer a consultant who is willing to play a big role in writing your essays for you?

I once worked with a client who kept pushing me to polish his essays up to a native English level, because he was worried his English ability was too low. Despite the fact that he had signed a contract with us agreeing to our non-ghostwriting policy, he got very angry at my unwillingness to write his essays for him. I believe that he had every intention of following our philosophy, but when he realized his test scores were not improving, he became increasingly panicked about his chances of attending a top 10 business school, and his desperation overpowered everything else. So you will need to ask yourself honestly what type of help you truly wish to get and find a counselor whose philosophy and methods match your needs.

2. How much flexibility do you need?

Looking at the coming fall and winter months, how busy will you be with work, test preparation, family, etc.? Are you in a line of work where you might be called at a moment’s notice to travel overseas? Do you foresee periods when you might need to work 20 hours a day? Ask your prospective consultant how she works and how she responds to schedules like yours. Some consultants try to be flexible and make themselves available as much as possible; some have stricter rules about when they expect to receive client essays and make appointments.

3. Ask the consultant how many clients he works with and/or how he handles his client load and the bottlenecks in the season.

Perhaps the biggest complaint I have heard from unhappy clients is the feeling that they were not a priority to the person to whom they’d paid huge sums of money to serve as their coach. Often this happens through small gestures on the part of the consultant – delayed responses to e-mail messages, quick and superficial responses, slow return of essays, forgetting of details that have already been discussed, etc.

I believe that professional and ethical consultants start off the season with every intention to prioritize each and every client. However, when the demands become great – when 15 people are sending 4 essays each and all asking to receive feedback “right away” (remember, the majority of deadlines fall around the same time) – the consultant becomes overwhelmed, and becomes pressured to prioritize. Some consultants might do this based on deadline – they may prioritize those who urgently need to finish their applications soon – and they may prioritize according to the “status” of the client (the more “superstar” clients with the 700+ GMAT may get more attention). This happens when a consultant takes on more clients than he can handle.

It would be unfair of me to give a “magic” number that you can use when shopping for consultants since everyone has a different capacity for working (e.g., a consultant who is single versus a consultant who has children at home to take care of versus a consultant who might have another job on the side). Generally speaking, I would suggest paying attention and asking questions of a consultant who says he works with more than 10-12 clients per season. (It may turn out not to be a problem at all; my point is to just pay attention and get more information.)

4. Ask the consultant about her refund and cancellation policies and ask for a copy in writing.

In Japan where we are incorporated, consulting services like ours are required by law to provide refunds to clients. And yet, you’ll be surprised how many consultants fail to do this. The unfortunate thing about this industry is that it is unregulated; literally anyone who can speak English can start this sort of business. We once had a client come to us in December because her consultant from another company literally disappeared in the middle of the application season. She never heard from him again and when she went to the head of the company for a refund, she was told that she was not entitled to one. Though she ultimately decided not to, we had talked to her at some length about her right to bring legal action against this company.

5. Find out about the consultant’s experience but be critical in the right ways.

A common question we get from prospective clients is “What schools have your previous clients gotten into?” As we have been working in this field for almost 15 years, we have helped clients get into literally every known business school in the US, Europe and Canada, as well as to all the major programs in law and public policy (we have fewer non-MBA clients). Our list of results each year depends entirely on the clients that we get; for example, we have no Wharton or Columbia admits this year because none of our clients applied to Wharton or Columbia. Asking about results is definitely a legitimate question, but you need to be sure to approach the list with a critical eye. For example, sometimes a consultant’s impressive list reflects more his restriction of working only with high scoring, company-sponsored applicants than it does actual talent. Instead, ask how they help to strengthen a client’s candidacy when the client is applying to a top school, especially with lower than average test scores if that is your situation, or ask them for some short sample advice. These types of questions can give you a better window into their experience and knowledge as consultants.

Regarding newer consultants with fewer years of experience, should you discount them? I would say no. All of the experienced consultants today started from zero and if they were hired by a reputable organization, then they likely had to pass both a rigorous interview process and training program. (At Reve our counselors go through an initial interview and, if approved, need to complete three application-related documents and essay critiques as well as conduct a one-hour mock counseling session with a Japanese “client.” Once accepted, they will undergo several months of training.) One of our first year consultants two seasons ago helped a client get into Stanford, and a second year consultant helped another client get into Harvard. However, what I had as a consultant starting out 14 years ago at The Princeton Review and what my newer consultants have is support. A new consultant should ideally be working in an environment in which she has received extensive training and is getting ongoing support from veteran consultants.

Of course, aside from these questions you’ll also want to talk to friends and colleagues about their personal experiences of having worked with specific consultants. The right fit with a trusted professional will be an investment worth making, and it is a good idea to ask all the right questions before making this investment.

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