Tag Archives: advice

Columbia Business School: 2013-14 Deadlines and Essay Analyses


Early Decision (August 2014 entry): October 2, 2013

Regular Decision (August 2014 entry): April 9, 2014

January 2014 entry: October 2, 2013

Important: Columbia admissions is on a rolling basis (first-come, first-serve), so you should apply well before the posted deadlines.

Columbia Business School offers a few different application options.

If you know for certain that Columbia is your top choice, you should definitely consider applying through their Early Decision program. The deadline is earlier (October 2 this year) and you need to make a commitment to attend if admitted. The advantage is that you can submit your application for consideration well before the rush of other applications comes in. If you’re a strong candidate and Columbia is your first choice, you will likely have your strongest chance of getting accepted in this round. It is beneficial for a school to know with some certainty that the applicant they admit will actually come.

If you’re flexible as to when you can start your MBA and you’re looking for a shorter program, you might want to consider applying for their January 2014 entering class. The January program is 16 months and can work well for you if you are looking to return to work soon and don’t need that summer internship. The deadline is also October 2.

Otherwise, there is regular admissions for entry in August 2014. I imagine that this is the most competitive round in terms of volume of applications.

Rolling admissions means that Columbia accepts applicants on a first-come, first-serve basis. If they like you, they will extend an interview invitation to you. They will then make a final decision shortly after your interview is done without waiting for and comparing you against other applicants. So, unlike most other schools that do not operate on a rolling basis, it is better to apply earlier rather than later to Columbia (do not wait until the deadline!). They won’t start reviewing applications until early January for regular admissions, but you can submit yours even before then to get yourself in the pipeline. We have had strong clients who received feedback from the admissions office that they wished they could admit them, but unfortunately there was no space left (they had submitted applications after the winter).

Below are the essay questions for the 2013-14 application and my comments and advice:

(1.) What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal? Required by all applicants.

This is not technically an essay but appears in the essay portion of the on-line application. You are asked to write in one succinct sentence your post-MBA career goal. Be specific and clear here as to what you plan to be doing after graduation (e.g., “I will be returning to my company to lead the marketing department in our new office in Delhi.”).

2. Given your individual background, why are you pursuing a Columbia MBA at this time? (500 words) 

I would interpret this as the usual goals essay that is asked by most business schools. They want to know how your background has led you to apply to Columbia’s MBA program at this time. You’ll need to discuss your background (be careful not to simply repeat your resume but instead focus on the most salient points as related to your goals (talk about key points in your career development and the main experiences and issues that have led you to your goals)), your short- and long-term goals (you can go into a little more detail in this essay), and why you want an MBA now and why at Columbia in particular.

3. Columbia Business School is located in the heart of the world’s business capital – Manhattan. How do you anticipate that New York City will impact your experience at Columbia? (250 words)

Please view the videos below [available in the essay section of the on-line application]:

New York City – limitless possibilities

New York City – fast paced and adaptable

Yes! You have to watch these two videos first. However, they’re both very short (the longer one is just a little over 2 minutes). The first video provides an introduction to the atmosphere and culture of New York to those who aren’t familiar with the city, while the second talks more about the access that Columbia students have to businesses and leaders because they are studying in New York.

Looking at your own situation, why do you want to be in New York and how do you wish to benefit from the location? You’ll need to think about and write this essay from the view of your goals. Specifically, how can studying in New York help you grow in the ways that you hope? Definitely talk about the professional aspects of what you hope to achieve, but you can also talk about personal aspects. For example, maybe in addition to studying finance and doing an internship in Manhattan and listening to speakers, you also have an interest in volunteering in the ethnic communities, and you would like to explore this while you are in New York. Or perhaps you are from a remote part of the world, and it will be the first time to be in a city like New York. Think of the different ways you believe that studying in New York will help develop both your goals and your growth as a person.

4. What will the people in your Cluster be pleasantly surprised to learn about you? (250 words)

The Cluster will be the group of 65-70 students to which you’ll be assigned once you start at Columbia. You’ll be taking most of your first year core courses with these students as well as socializing with them outside of class.

In this essay, you are asked to reveal something interesting about yourself. Since these Cluster mates will be your friends, you are invited to write something personal here. The purpose of this essay is to offer a glimpse of you that is not apparent in the other parts of your application, which will focus entirely on your professional side. Is there anything interesting or unexpected or unusual or funny that you’d like for your future classmates to know about you? This is an open ended essay and there is no set rule as to how to write it, but if applicable, talk about (as a conclusion) how you can also somehow contribute to your classmates with this particular attribute (e.g., If you choose to discuss your hobbies in singing or acting you can also mention how you would like to contribute your talents to their MBA Follies, the students’ annual comedy show.)

5. Is there any further information that you wish to provide the Admissions Committee? Please use this space to provide an explanation of any areas of concern in your academic record or your personal history. (Maximum 500 words)

Use this optional essay to shed light on any aspect of your background that you are concerned might impact the way the admissions committee views your application. Examples include less than average test scores or GPA, employment gaps, and inability to secure a recommendation letter from a current supervisor. If in doubt, it is better to explain it, since the admissions committee will see the problem whether or not you actually talk about it. Without an explanation on your part, they will not give you the benefit of the doubt but, rather, assume the worst.

When addressing concerns, be sure to never offer excuses. Put yourself in the shoes of the admissions committee and try and anticipate how you can help them, by providing the information that they need. For example, if your TOEFL score is low, then you’ll need to provide them not reasons why your score is low but a description of the ways that you use English effectively. After all, the admissions committee is trying to gather evidence that you will not struggle in the curriculum.

For reapplicants:

How have you enhanced your candidacy since your previous application? Please detail your progress since you last applied and reiterate how you plan to achieve your immediate and long term post-MBA professional goals. (Maximum 500 words).

If you applied in the past but were not admitted, discuss here the different ways in which you have improved your candidacy since that application. Consider any weaknesses that you had, and talk about how you have worked on improving them. For example, if you had applied with average test scores, hopefully you can now show them higher test scores; if you had insufficient international experience then but have since gotten involved in some international projects, talk about that. The admissions committee wants to see an improved applicant.

Finally, update and reconfirm your career goals.

Weekend Round-up: The Latest MBA Admissions News

Here is some recommended reading from the world of MBA admissions this past week (please click on colored article titles):

1. Oliver Ashby, Senior Manager of Recruitments and Admissions at London Business School, discusses a number of topics from job hunting to career goals to the GMAT IR in this detailed interview with PaGaLGuY:

Despite tough UK visa rules, you can wriggle out 8 months for job hunting after London Business School MBA

2. Garth Saloner, Dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, talks about the value of a Stanford education at Poets & Quants:

An Interview With Stanford Dean Garth Saloner

3. BloombergBusinessweek offers some tips on how to get through the group MBA interview which the University of Michigan, Wharton and IMD have been conducting:

How to Stand Out in an MBA Group Interview

4. US News & World Report has some tips on how to get more financial aid from graduate school, and your efforts should continue even after you have enrolled:

4 Tips for Getting More Graduate School Financial Aid

And finally, a couple of links that are not directly related to admissions but perhaps could be of interest to you:

The Choices for Japanese Youth – Recommendations for this generation of young Japanese, by London Business School’s Professor of Management Practice Lynda Gratton

The Top 10 Motivational Books of All Time Inc.‘s Geoffrey James lists the top 1o books “that drive readers to change their lives, improve their lot, and build better careers.”

Happy reading and have a good weekend!


Should You Apply in Round 3?

Should You Apply in Round 3?

A number of MBA programs have their final deadlines coming up in the next few weeks. If you have not yet settled on a business school for the coming fall and yet you have been hoping to go if you could, you may be struggling with the decision of whether or not to make this last minute attempt.

What do Round 3 applicants look like?

According to business schools, the third round is smaller in volume than the first two rounds. There are fewer available seats. And the overall quality of applicants is lower.

Are my chances better or worse in Round 3?

Given the above profile of R3 applicants, the answer could be either, depending on your profile.

As mentioned in an earlier post I had written, R3 is when admissions officers admit to making decisions to help round out their class. By the 3rd round, they will have a pretty good idea of how their incoming class is shaping up in terms of gender, nationality, and industry. While they likely don’t have specific quotas set for each possible category of students, no school wants an imbalanced class. So (for example) if there are “too” many incoming students from China and India and virtually none from Southeast Asia, a strong Southeast Asian applicant in R3 is going to grab the committee’s attention. The same holds true for women applicants and applicants from any field that is not well represented in a typical MBA applicant pool. So yes, if you have an “unusual” or atypical profile and you are strong, you could have a shot in R3.

At the same time, a poor application is a poor application regardless of when you submit it. An interesting phenomenon is that many applicants sloppily put together an application in R3 because they believe it is their last chance to get into a school. This is known as the “hail Mary” pass, a term used in American football in which there is little time left in the game and a player makes a desperate attempt to throw a pass, knowing in all likelihood that his team will not win. Many applicants who apply this same philosophy to R3 think, “Well, if I don’t get in, I’ll just reapply in the fall.” If your profile is weak and you don’t have the time or energy to put your very best into your application, then it really makes no sense to apply in a round that is already known to be the most difficult round.

Why you still need to be strategic about your decision to apply in Round 3

By applying in R3 you might feel some satisfaction that you have at least tried, and so you don’t have to have any regrets. However, if there is any chance that you may reapply if you don’t get admitted, then you may want to think carefully about whether or not you should apply in R3.

Schools actually look favorably upon reapplicants as reapplying shows a high level of commitment to the school. And at some schools reapplicants actually enjoy a higher percentage acceptance rate when compared to the general applicant pool. This could be because many reapplicants who are serious will work hard over the summer to improve on the weaknesses that kept them from being admitted the first time around.

However, schools do have access to your first application and the admissions committees may read it. If you are unable to put together a decent application package together the first time around, those bad essays or recommendations will still be there when you reapply. Of course, the admissions committee will be basing their decisions on the most recent application that you submit, however, it is best if they don’t see two sets of applications that are drastically different in quality and substance. One example that comes to mind is an applicant whose first language is not English, and he writes his R3 essays in very raw and broken English. In his reapplication the following season he hires a consultant who helps him polish his essays to a native level. If the admissions committee reads these 2 sets of essays, they will be suspicious of the applicant’s English ability.

Ultimately my point is this: don’t volunteer a negative first impression of yourself if you don’t need to, unless you know for sure that you will not be reapplying. And by giving a negative impression I mean showing those qualities that might be hard to later overcome or explain. If you submit an application with weak test scores or work experience, you can at least still improve on those.

What does this all mean?

I’ll sum up my advice in this way (and please note that this is very general advice; for personalized advice tailored to your particular situation it is best to consult with someone individually):

  • If you believe you have an atypical profile and you feel ready to make a good application, apply. A strong applicant with an unusual profile will stand out in R3.
  • If you have a typical profile but you feel ready to make a good application, apply.
  • If your profile is overall strong but you have some weaknesses, but you are ready to put all your effort into your application, apply. (Of course, also take into consideration the level of the school and your qualifications.)
  • If you don’t have the time to put an application together with care and to show the admissions committee that you are taking their school seriously – if you think you might just write your essays quickly overnight and you know you won’t do a very good job – I would advise you to think twice about applying, unless you are certain you do not plan to reapply in the near future.

Good luck!


Weekend Round-up: The Latest MBA Admissions News

I’ll try and post weekly round-ups of useful MBA admissions news that I find on the web. I post stories regularly via Twitter and Facebook, but in case you don’t subscribe or would simply like your news in one place, just check in here on the weekends.

To read the articles simply click on the orange titles below:


1) Here’s an analysis of the recent drop in application volume at b-schools, including a thorough chart listing the acceptance rates of a number of programs:

Poets and Quants

Top B-Schools Much Less Selective

2) Useful for Asian applicants – some discussion on the cultural differences between Asian values and western admissions values:

Clear Admit

Clear Admit’s Kevin Chen Gives Advice to Asian MBA Applicants


1) The University of Chicago admissions blog offers some advice for those considering applying in Round 3. This advice can apply to other MBA programs as well.

University of Chicago Booth School of Business

Preparing for Round Three

2) From Bloomberg Businessweek, a summary of the admissions notification status at 10 top business schools:

Bloomberg Businessweek

MBA Admissions Decisions Coming Down to the Wire


1) Purdue Krannert’s Director of Admissions offers some personal advice on the biggest mistakes applicants can make in their admission interviews. Again, these tips are useful whether or not you are interviewing with Krannert.

I’d like to add some follow-up to his advice though:

a)  Regarding the use of “I” in an interview, he means to be careful about claiming too much credit for group achievements and trying too hard to sound impressive. Ultimately, you do need to talk about what YOU’VE done since you are the one applying to business school, not your team at work. However, if an achievement was made possible through group effort, then you need to make that clear. A mix of “I” and “we” is always good to show that you can make contributions but work cooperatively as part of a group also.

b)   Not asking about financial aid. If finances are an issue, you have every right to ask about it. However, just make sure that it is not the only thing you ask. You want to show genuine interest in the school and not just in the costs. An alternative option is to save your financial aid questions for the financial aid office, and not the admissions interviewer. (See link below on how to ask appropriate questions in an MBA interview.)

Purdue University Krannert School of Management

3 Ways to Ruin Your MBA Interview 

2) This is a great post for anyone who’s ever felt unsure about how to ask good questions at the end of an interview:

Bloomberg Businessweek

Questions to Ask in Your MBA Admissions Interview

Enjoy your reading and your weekend!




Common Interview Mistakes

Interviews are often the final hurdle to cross before the application process is completed. Contrary to what many people think, interviews are typically not “make or break” events – that is, the final outcome of your candidacy does not rest entirely on your performance during the interview. Most nice and interesting applicants will simply be confirming the admissions committee’s initial impressions of their paper applications. The applicants who stand out will be those who do particularly well or particularly poorly (i.e., who present some issue of concern such as insufficient English or communication skill, an unpleasant personality, or lack of interest in the school).

Below are some common mistakes that I have found in my past experience interviewing international candidates for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and in our collective experience training applicants for their interviews:

1. Sounding memorized and rehearsed

It is very obvious when an applicant has overly rehearsed his answers. Usually, the responses sound like the recitation of an essay: the English is smooth, the language is formal, and the answer is long.

Why this is bad: It gives the impression that you are unable to think and speak spontaneously. As the interviewer will be judging communication skills, the ability to speak naturally will be important. Also, having prepared answers will prevent you from being flexible enough to respond to questions that are phrased slightly differently from the ones you had memorized (e.g., An applicant memorizes a response for “What are your short- and long-term goals?” but instead gets asked “What do you see yourself doing 10 years from now?”).

What to do: Instead of reading and memorizing your essays in preparation for your interviews, jot down notes or short phrases (as in a short outline). Use the notes as triggers and practice thinking and speaking spontaneously.

2. Not being convincing enough about your interest in the school

Among applicants who speak English fluently, this is often the biggest mistake they make.

How does one show insufficient interest in a school? This can include providing generic reasons for wanting to attend (e.g., “Your school is strong in general management and has a diverse student body.”), showing lack of effort in researching about the school, and being unable to name any students or alumni that they have spoken to. Of course, you do not need to volunteer information about how you researched the school or which students or alumni you spoke to. However, if you are asked these questions, you should be able to answer them in some detail.

Why this is bad: No school wants to admit an applicant who doesn’t want to attend. It makes their yield (the number of applicants who accept their admission offers) look bad and it simply feels offensive to the interviewer.

What to do: Do plenty of research on the school. When you know about the program and why it fits you, your explanation of why you want to attend should flow out naturally. And what if you are applying to your safety school? Even if it is a school that is at the bottom of your list, it should still be a school where you think you’d be happy if you had to attend. If it becomes difficult to find reasons for wanting to attend that school, then that is a sign that you should not apply.

3. Not smiling, not sounding natural

This applies to those individuals who may have a more “serious” personality or who come from cultures where emotional restraint is valued.

In America in particular, outgoing personalities and warmth are valued, particularly in extroverted environments like business school. And how that is conveyed is, first and foremost, through smiling. Secondly, one conveys that through natural conversation. What I sometimes see in mock interviews are Asian applicants who do not smile, do not engage in small talk, and only recite answers as if they are giving mini-speeches.

Why this is bad: You may inadvertently give an impression that you are cold, unfriendly and overly formal.

What to do: Simply smile when you greet the interviewer. This shows the interviewer that you are happy to meet her and to conduct this interview. Engage in a little bit of small talk if there is time (follow your interviewer’s lead). Small talk is designed to put both interviewer and interviewee at ease before the meeting starts. Close your interview with a gracious thank you and handshake. In between, try to sound and appear professionally relaxed. You can smile or laugh when appropriate, you can move your hands or legs when appropriate, and you can engage in back-and-forth conversation when appropriate. You still have to be professional, but my point is you do not need to be stiff and overly formal.

Just bear in mind that at the interview stage, the interviewer will be looking to see if you are the kind of person that classmates and faculty would enjoy spending time with. They will have your paper application to learn about your achievements and leadership potential. In the interview, they are mainly interested in seeing if you have good communication skills and are a likable person.

Wait listed…now what?

The following is a detailed post I wrote a few years ago on what it means and what you should do if you receive a wait list decision from your target school(s). I review and update it as necessary, and re-run it each year. I hope this gives you some ideas in terms of next steps as well as some measure of comfort.


When you applied to schools, you probably mentally prepared yourself for one of two fates: acceptance or rejection. And then the decision arrives, and you are told you are wait listed. The admissions committee tells you that they recognize your “strong achievements” and that they remain “sincerely interested” in your candidacy but they cannot offer you a seat just yet. What does this all mean, and what can you do?

First of all, what it means to be wait listed

As someone who has both experienced the torture of being wait listed and monitored wait lists at Harvard, I can tell you a lot from experience.

When an admissions committee puts an applicant on the wait list, this is what they are saying: “You are great. We like you. You have most or even all of the things that we are looking for in a candidate. However, we don’t have the space to take everyone that we like, and some applicants are a little stronger and/or fit our current needs more. At the same time, we don’t want to lose you. Now, we have made XXX number of offers, and not everyone is going to accept our offer. Therefore, if any spaces open up, we will consider you once again.”

If you’re an MBA applicant applying in an early round, this could also be translated into “We think you are great, but we also want to see what else is out there. So we will review your application again with the next round of applicants.” Try to think of this in a positive light; instead of being rejected, you’re instead given two (or more, if you get wait listed again) chances at admission in one season.

Secondly, how does the wait list work?

Common questions with regard to the wait list include:

  • How many people are on the wait list?
  • Is the wait list ranked?
  • Is there any guarantee I will be offered a seat off the wait list?

The answers are typically 1) it depends on the school; 2) no; 3) no.

Let me talk about the latter two points.

Admissions committees will almost always tell you that the wait list is not ranked. However, in my experience, I would be lying if I said that there aren’t some people closer to the top of the wait list than others. Quality is one criterion while other factors will be those beyond your control. Admissions offices at MBA programs admit to using the 3rd round as a time to “round out” their classes and to look at balance in terms of diversity (e.g., Do they need more people from a particular racial group, geographic region, career field?). The wait list is another such time.

As for whether or not you will come off the wait list, and when, there really is no guarantee at all and the admissions officers are being completely honest with you when they say “I don’t know.” I once worked with a client who got off the wait list 2 weeks before school orientation started!

At the beginning of each season, admissions directors make their projected yields; that is, how many offers they need to make in order to yield their ideal class size. Let’s say that ABC University has 400 seats in its first year class. Traditionally, 55% of their admitted candidates take the offer, while the other 45% choose to attend another school. Thus, ABC University will admit 580 applicants in anticipation that 45% of those applicants will turn down their offers. If more than 45% of the admitted applicants choose to go somewhere else, that is the time that ABC University will go to their wait list.

Finally, what can you do?

There are a number of things you can do if you are wait listed:

  1. The most important thing you can do is follow the school’s instructions. I cannot stress this enough. Many schools welcome communication and updates from wait listed applicants. However, there are also some schools like Harvard Business School that firmly ask applicants to do nothing. It is imperative to follow the school’s instructions because 1) you want to show them that you can follow directions and 2) you do not want to annoy them at any cost. Admissions offices are watching the behaviors of their wait listed candidates closely and you don’t want to give them any reason to reject you.
  2. If you are wait listed at a school that does welcome you to update your application, then you may submit a short note or essay that describes anything new and noteworthy that you would like to add to your application. This includes information about a promotion, new responsibilities, new awards, new coursework/grades, and stronger test scores. If you’ve since visited the campus, that is definitely worth mentioning as well.
  3. Send another recommendation. Assuming your school allows this, you may consider adding another letter if you believe the new perspective will add value to your application. Related to this, you may also consider having an alum or current student send in a “push” letter for you, confirming your strengths as a candidate, your fit with the school, and your commitment to attending the school.
  4. Stay in touch (within reason) with the school. This point is critical. A major factor that influences a school’s decision to admit someone off the waitlist is his/her level of interest in the school. By the time the admissions committee gets to the wait list, they want to only take people who they know will come if made an offer. They are running out of time so they do not want to make offers to people who need time to decide. Therefore, if you are wait listed by a school that says it is okay to communicate with them, then stay in touch periodically (i.e., sending a quick note telling them you are still interested in remaining on the wait list). By this I mean perhaps once every 4 or so weeks (you’ll need to use your judgment) or at key decision times, like the 2-3 weeks preceding their next decision round (if this is an MBA program). As already discussed, it is equally important to not annoy the admissions staff; do not call or email every week or demand a meeting with the admissions staff or they will start worrying if you will be this anxious and high-maintenance once you are a student there.
  5. Analyze your weaknesses. What in your application needed improvement? Could you retake the TOEFL, GMAT or GRE? Do your English skills need improvement? Were your achievements on the weak side? As much as possible, try to tackle these weaknesses and show the admissions committee that you have made improvements since you submitted the application. I sometimes work with clients who insist on writing short essays every month showing their passion for the school, but they do nothing to improve their test scores, which is the very reason they were put on the waitlist – not lack of interest in the school. You do not need to overly reassure the admissions committee of your strengths; you need to reassure them that you can overcome the weaknesses (if any) that made them hesitate to admit you in the first place.
  6. Continue on with your plans, and your life. Do not put your life on hold for the school that wait lists you. Statistically speaking, your chances of getting admitted off any wait list is small (and the more competitive the school, the smaller the chances). The safest thing to do is to continue with your plans to attend one of the schools to which you have been admitted. If you do get an offer from the school where you are wait listed, then at that point you can change your plans. It is a torturous position to place an applicant, but the best protection for yourself is to move forward with your plans.
  7. Release your spot if you are no longer interested in waiting. Many candidates prefer not to wait, and begin to lose interest over time. In this case, as a courtesy, let the school know you are no longer interested. This frees up the wait list so that someone else who really wants to attend can have a better chance of getting in.

Not too late to apply to MBA programs: spring and summer deadlines

Perhaps you only recently decided to apply to business school, or perhaps you were frantically working on your test scores over the last few months. Or, maybe you did apply, but were unsuccessful. Well, it’s not too late to still apply if you have hopes of attending business school this fall. Most U.S. business schools still have one deadline remaining, and many MBA programs in Europe have deadlines throughout the spring and even summer.

Applying in the 3rd or final round

American business schools will finalize their fall entering classes after this final spring round of deadlines. You’ll need to check the individual deadlines of your desired schools, but these final rounds usually take place between March and April (e.g., Duke is March 21 while UCLA is April 17).

What does it mean to apply in this last round? Well, you will be running a risk. By this time the majority of the class has been filled, and admissions offices have, in their own “admissions speak,” described this round as the one in which they will look heavily at class composition and diversity. What this translates into: “We will use Round 3 to fill in gaps in profile. Already too many men? We’ll need to select some women. Only this many students from the non-profit sector? We’ll need to take more.” So if you have the profile of a “typical” MBA applicant (e.g., male,  mid-20s, banker or consultant), the odds are likely against you. But you never know. Some schools – especially those outside of the top 10 – may find many open seats after their admitted candidates have chosen to go elsewhere, thereby leaving more spaces for R3 applicants.

When should you apply if a school has monthly deadlines?

These European MBA programs have the following deadlines (I did not include London Business School and INSEAD as they both have just one deadline remaining, like the U.S. schools):

Oxford:  Open field between March 23 – June 28

Cambridge:  March 8, April 26

Manchester:  April, 1, May 1, June 3, July 8

HEC:  April 1, May 1, June 1, July 1

IMD:  April 1, June 1, August 1, September 1

IESE:  April 8, May 27

IE:  rolling, no deadline, though the program starts in either April or November (you have a choice of 2 intakes)

As always, you should submit your application when it is strongest. Ideally this is also not in the final deadline round/stage. You’ll want to apply when there are still plenty of seats remaining, and so you can be eligible for scholarships and have enough time to get your visa processed. If you can plan ahead for this to happen, you will be able to maximize your chances of admission. If you really can’t, then it’s better to wait until you can put together a solid application, even if it means waiting until the end. A poor application will be viewed negatively whether you submit it early or late.

Admissions Consultants–worth the cost? how to choose?

We’ve been fielding inquiries from prospective clients over the last 6 weeks or so and I’ve also been approached by denied applicants to assess their applications. In light of this, I’ve decided to share my thoughts on the whole process of hiring and working with admissions consultants, and talk to you not from the perspective of sales and marketing (at which I am very bad) but from that of a veteran counselor.

Do I need to spend money on an admissions consultant?

If you grew up in a western country and you had been successful in your college applications, then I might say to you “no.” Graduate applications are not all that different from college applications, though MBA applications are a little more involved in terms of strategy. However, if you combine good writing skills, common sense, the opinion of a trusted friend/colleague/relative (to coach or check your essays), and knowledge gleaned from good websites and books like Richard Montauk’s How to Get into the Top MBA Programs, you may do just fine. Each year many applicants get into the schools of their choice by working completely on their own.

In my own experience of working primarily in the Japanese market (though I have also worked with other Asian groups and Americans), I will truthfully say that I have never seen an application that could have been successful without any aid. I recommend some type of help for anyone who is in any way baffled by the process. Consultants can provide insight into what types of topics to choose for essays, facilitate in the brainstorming of stories, assist in the planning of timelines (e.g., when to stop testing for GMAT and when to start working on applications, which schools to apply in which round, etc.), provide a western or admissions’ point of view on application materials, etc. Working on rejected application assessments reminds me of the saying, “Save now, pay later.” Seeing a client going on a second year of making applications reminds me that, when in doubt, it is a good idea to get help from the beginning.

I have decided to work with a consultant. How can I make this fit into my already limited budget?

Without doubt, applying to schools is an exorbitant venture. You’re paying for test preparation, the actual test taking, and the applications. Not to mention possible campus visits and the school tuition itself. And admissions consultants are expensive.

However, admissions counseling is one area where there is some flexibility, if your finances are truly limited. First of all, you can hire someone full time or part time. Different consultants/organizations will have different policies, but there are places where you can ask for help on just one school set, or where you can pay as you go. You can also ask the consultant to help you on big picture ideas, or whatever areas you feel weakest in. For things like English checking (if you’re not a native English speaker) or editing, perhaps you can farm that out to a less expensive professional, or a friend or colleague who has good English skills.

Admissions consultants can provide you with help on school selection and other advice. It may be advice you can find on your own, if you are willing to do the research. Doing more on your end could lessen the amount of help you need to pay for.

Get details on consultants’ payment structures. Many of my colleagues charge one large but flat rate. Think of it as all-you-can-eat. Others, like us, have more of a pay-as-you-go structure. We charge hourly and refund any portion that goes unused. Like going to a buffet, ask yourself how much you plan to be eating. Ask friends and colleagues who have used consultants and see if you can get a sense of how much people have paid.

Having said all this, keep in mind that your essays and recommendations will be a key part of your candidacy on which the admissions committees will be basing their decisions. If there is room financially to not skimp or cut corners, consider this an investment in an endeavor that will eventually pay off. $5000, $7000, or even $10,000 now to get into a target school will be cheaper than getting rejected and spending a second year reapplying.

What to look for in a good admissions consultant?

Before we started Reve Counseling in 2005, I had actually decided to “retire” from the field. I had a baby at home, and I was considering a different career direction. However, that year several people came to us asking for help, including one woman whose counselor had disappeared in the middle of her applications. The owner of the organization refused to refund her.

The overall poor quality of this industry is what brought me back to counsel. Sadly, anyone can become an admissions consultant. There is no accreditation involved, no licensing.

I have been counseling for over 10 years and have spent nearly that long also recruiting, hiring, training, and also firing consultants. Based on that experience, I will offer the following tips:

  • Make sure the consultant/organization provides you with a clear, fully laid out and transparent policy of its services. How do they charge for their services? What do they offer? Do they provide refunds? Our business is incorporated in both Japan and the US, and we are required by law to refund unused services. If a consultant does not include a refund clause in his/her policy, leave.
  • Reputation. Talk to a lot of people. Which consultants had they worked with? What was their experience? If more than one person says the same negative things, you should pay attention to that. Ask consultants and professionals in the field. If a prospective client talks to me but is not sure about whom to work with, I will provide recommendations of other consultants in the field that s/he can talk to. Yes, I care about my own business, but ultimately I am in this field to make sure applicants are being taken care of. I do not trust everyone in this industry but I have a small number of consultants whom I would be comfortable referring people to.
  • Counseling style and personal fit. I have seen a lot of variations in the industry. In fact, one of the most successful and well-known consultants in our market is also known to heavily edit if not ghostwrite essays. Many have been turned off by him but then, many insist on working with him. Ask the consultant what his/her style and philosophy are. See if they fit yours. Do you feel comfortable talking to this person? Is this someone you would be willing to open up to? Do you trust this person? Do you respect this person? Your comfort in your counseling relationship will be critical to successful communication and, ultimately, a solid relationship that yields good results.
  • Genuine interest in you. The best counselors help clients build applications based on authenticity. Your consultant should be genuinely interested in getting to know you, your strengths and weaknesses, and your stories. S/he should be asking you a lot of questions about yourself. The reason is that, ultimately, your applications need to be genuine, and they need to sound like you, not your consultant. Rejected applicants are frequently rejected because their essays fail to completely unveil the real person beneath the achievements.
  • Strong writing ability. In all my rejected application assessments so far this year, the weakest point was the quality of the writing. I had reason to believe that the topics were excellent, but unfortunately the delivery was less than strong. Think of essays as movies. How many times have you seen a movie in which the topic was interesting, but the acting or the way the story was told was weak? Poor delivery impacts the reader’s ability to understand, appreciate, and be impressed by you. When I hire counselors, I choose those who can write well and who can teach others how to write well.
  • Professionalism. Does your consultant respond to you promptly? How long do you have to wait to get your documents back? Is it easy to book an appointment? How many clients does s/he work with? Beware of any consultant who works with a large number of clients, as that could mean delays in returning documents to you as well as increased mistakes or lower quality work.
  • Experience and knowledge. Everyone has to start somewhere, and, as a former novice counselor, I don’t want to disparage excellent consultants who are newer to the field. Whether new or veteran, the consultant needs to have an expert handle on the admissions process. What was this person’s training? If new, does the counselor have a supervisor? Does s/he keep up to date on the field? What schools have his/her clients applied to, what were their credentials, and how did they do? Again, we have been approached by clients who’ve received false or poor advice from other consultants. Make sure that your consultant is reputable in the field.

MBA ’12 Hopefuls: What to do this spring

You’re pretty sure you want to attend business school in 2012. You have an idea of what the general requirements are (tests, essays, recommendations, interview). Now you’re trying to figure out your time line (or, if you’re not, you need to get started!). What do you need to do when? The exact plan and strategy will vary according to each individual, but I will offer these general tips for what you should be doing right now:

Get the GMAT and TOEFL (or IELTS) out of the way

If you’re already in the process of preparing for these exams, perfect. If you’ve taken the tests and achieved your target scores, congratulations! If you have not yet started thinking about the tests, you really need to do so now. In our experience working with international applicants, it is not unusual to see some people requiring 1-2 years to prepare.

To be competitive for any top 20 school, you will need a minimum of 680 on the GMAT. This isn’t to say that you have no chances if your score falls below a 680; however, a score lower than a 680 will place you in a much more challenging position of getting accepted.

For those who’ve already achieved a 680, many want to know: Is there a big difference between a 680 and, say, a 710? Technically speaking, no. A 680 or above tells the admissions committee that you have the intellectual power to handle the work. One could argue, for example, that many of the admits that get into Stanford GSB have GMATs well in the 700s. On the other hand, how do you account for the scores of 700+ applicants who get rejected by Stanford? An excellent score will get you noticed, but it’s the overall quality of your application that will earn you an actual seat. I worked with one client who had a 710 and was rejected by a number of schools, while I’ve had another client get into Columbia with a 600; Harvard and Stanford with a 640; etc. Beyond a 680, it’s the accomplishments and personality/fit that matter.

You’d want to decide how best to use your time. Do you want to spend another month in the hopes of moving a 680 up 40 more points, or do you want to use that time focusing on your project at work (which you can use as an essay and recommendation topic) or working on your essays? If you still have plenty of time to do everything, you can go for the extra GMAT points.

For international applicants who did not complete an undergraduate degree at an English-speaking institution, you will need to take either the TOEFL or IELTS. Unlike the GMAT, score requirements here are fixed. Technically, if you do not meet the school’s minimum requirement, the admissions committee is not obligated to read your application. Do your best to not only meet this requirement but to exceed it as much as you can.

At some top 20 or 30 schools, outstanding applicants who fall slightly below the required TOEFL minimum may still be considered.

Start thinking about possible target schools

You don’t need to narrow your list down yet, but start thinking about what schools you would be interested in applying to. Consider your target study areas, desired school culture, location, opportunities, etc. Read the websites. Find out about and register for information sessions. Contact current students and alumni. Consider visiting the campus (but plan your trip when the classes are in session). The more research you do, the better your application will be. Do this in the spring and summer so that your late summer and fall can be devoted to preparing your application materials.

Once you have some idea of where you might want to apply, look up the deadlines. Do you want to apply in Round 1 or Round 2? This will give you some idea of when you need to complete your GMAT and TOEFL. Can you achieve your target scores by the deadlines?

Look into scholarship money

Scholarship money for MBA applicants is limited, and you will probably need to do a fair amount of digging to find opportunities. However, many scholarship deadlines take place in the spring. Please refer to this recent post for links to the Rotary, Fulbright, and Chevening Scholarships:


Consider whether or not to work with an admissions consultant

Not everyone needs the paid services of a professional consultant. A sharp friend or relative who has a good sense of how the application process works can help significantly. Barring that, I would encourage people to consider getting help. I say that not because I am in this field but because I see how flawed applications and essays are when they are produced without assistance. To be honest, 6 years ago I had “retired” from the field of application counseling. I was going to focus on my new child and a new career direction. However, continued contacts from prospective clients made me realize how much our help was needed, so I went back.

Just as you would seek legal help for a legal issue, or hire a broker to help you find and purchase a home, you may want to consider professional assistance to help with this investment. I do a number of denied application assessments each year and I often think, “If only they had gotten better help; they would be applying for a visa right now, not business school for a second time.”

In a separate post this week, I will write about how to find and use an admissions consultant, no matter what your budget.

Still on the wait list?

Mid-spring is approaching and, if you find yourself still on the wait list of your target school, you are likely feeling anxious. Below are some tips for what to do and what not to do, along with a glimpse of what is going on behind the scenes at your target school.

What is going on in the admissions office?

It probably feels frustrating to not receive contact from the school, but in all likelihood the school is not much more certain than you are about your wait list situation. At the beginning of each application season, admissions directors have to make and report their projected numbers (not too different from what sales directors in business have to do), and now is the time for them to make sure they’ve hit those targets. Admissions staff are anxiously waiting for their accepted applicants to respond. They are happy to get each “yes,” and they get nervous if they start getting too many “no”s. At the same time, there is a pocket of people who have not responded, who are requesting deferrals, who are waiting to hear about financial aid, etc. This also holds things up. So, only until all of this settles down and the admissions office is able to clearly see their numbers can they start extending wait list offers (which happens only after they receive more declined offers than initially projected).

What NOT to do

The biggest mistake a wait listed applicant can do right now is to annoy the admissions office, and I say this having worked in three different admissions offices at top schools (and having monitored the wait lists at two of them). This means calling, emailing or visiting the admissions office repeatedly. It means not following the school’s instructions with regard to submitting information. (Don’t send in additional essays or recommendation letters if the school specifically asks you to not send in additional material.) It means rounding up all the high-profiled/high power friends of your parents to make calls on your behalf. It means calling up the office or visiting and demanding that you speak to someone, or railing against the staff for their bad judgment (yes, this happens!).Imagine if you yourself are stuck in an uncertain situation and you don’t have the answers, but a horde of people keeps badgering you. How would you feel? This is what the admissions office feels every time they have to deal with an overly anxious applicant.

On the other extreme, the second biggest mistake an applicant can do is to show NO interest. Now, there are exceptions. If the school’s premise is basically, “Don’t call us; we’ll call you,” then you should pretty much lay low. However, if there is no such instruction, then it would help for you to periodically let them know of your continued interest. It is hard for me to say for each individual how often you should do this, but I am thinking no more than once a month. As the spring wears on, more and more people will opt out of the wait list, not bothering to wait. At that point, the admissions office will want to know who is still sticking around. It won’t hurt if, after a decent lapse in time,  you drop a polite and non-pushy note to indicate your continued and sincere interest. It is also good for the admissions office to know that you will attend if you are admitted. I have seen cases (typically late in the season when the admissions office really needed to fill the class) where, all things being semi equal, it was the applicant’s continued interest that swung the decision in his/her favor.

What to do

1) Follow the school’s instructions. Some welcome additional information (recommendations, updates of accomplishments or test scores, etc.). Some don’t. As the school has set up their requirements for a reason, it is important for you to respect them.

2) If sending in additional information, consider what weak points you need to address. Did your reasons for attending the school sound a bit weak? Do more research and follow up with a more detailed confirmation of your interest in their program. Do you think your leadership experiences or accomplishments could be stronger? See if you can update them with something significant from work. Very often I see wait listed applicants focusing exclusively on restating their passion for the school, rather than working on their weaknesses. A common example is an average TOEFL or GMAT score. If this is your weakness, do everything you can to improve your score. If your English or quantitative skills are not up to their expectation, no amount of passion for the school or good personality can change the wait list decision in your favor.

3) Continue making plans as if you will not be attending your wait listed school. Statistically, all wait listed applicants have a very small chance of being admitted. For that reason, it is important for you to move forward with your plans. Just make a contingent plan for what you would do if your target school in fact decides to take you off the wait list at some point.

For a more thorough discussion of the wait list, please see my post here from late 2009: http://www.revecounseling.com/blog/?p=449