Tag Archives: graduate school

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.

What does it take to get into a top school?

Just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you will change the world.

I read this once in the comment section of a Stanford student blog and it really struck me. It’s good food for thought for any of us going through life, and it’s definitely something we need to think about when applying to graduate school.

How many times have you heard of applicants with straight A’s and/or stellar test scores getting turned down in the college or graduate school admissions process? How many times have you heard from admissions representatives that the GMAT or GRE is only “one of many criteria” that they look at? Harvard College has often said that they can fill their incoming freshman class with valedictorians (each high school’s #1 academically ranked student) alone, and yet they don’t. I believe it is this kind of talk that makes the selection process so baffling and even frustrating for many applicants.

While there are definitely many factors – often subjective – that contribute to each admission decision, overall the idea is not so mysterious at all. Admissions committees, especially at the top schools, want people who are going to contribute, who are going to make a difference, and who are going to make an impact. You can be the most brilliant person in your class or in your company and score off the charts on the GMAT or GRE, but if you have never really shown a pattern of adding value to the environment around you, then your intelligence doesn’t mean a whole lot to the universities you’re targeting.

What does it mean to add value or contribute or make an impact? Often times it means showing commitment, thinking beyond yourself, and taking initiative. It is going above and beyond and doing more than you need to do.

Very early in my career I had gone to my boss at Harvard to ask why I was only given the standard 3% salary raise; surely I had done an excellent job that year. What does it take to get more than that? He told me that 3% is for people who are doing an excellent job. It is for people who do what they are supposed to do and who do it well. The higher raises are for those who go above and beyond, who accomplish more than is expected of them.

Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, MIT, and so on reserve their seats for those candidates who go above and beyond.

At work, this means taking some kind of leadership, even if it is not an official position. Maybe you’re the youngest on your team, but instead of just following the orders you’ve been given, you’ve taken one step further to identify a problem or a solution that even your seniors hadn’t seen. Maybe you’ve spoken up to management about some practices that you disagree with, when all your other peers would prefer not to take that risk.

In your personal life it may mean making the time and effort to do something more than sleeping in late on weekends. It could mean taking part in a community activity (e.g., doing volunteer work or, better yet, taking a leadership role in the volunteer work) or in your own professional, intellectual, or personal development (e.g., taking a class or training for a marathon). This is not required and I have seen great applicants get admitted without a lot of non-work activity. However, your activities outside of your career will be another window into your values, curiosity, perseverance and sense of commitment, and this can add significant value to the admissions committees’ ability to understand you.

Is all of this required to get admitted to your dream school? If you do all of those things – make impact at work, volunteer on weekends – does it mean you will be guaranteed admission at a top school? No. Because admission is relative, and you will be assessed in comparison to other applicants. However, the more evidence you can provide that you are not only intelligent but also someone who has made a difference, the likelier it is that you can rise above the majority of people who simply do an “excellent job.” During these spring and summer months as you focus on reaching your target scores on the GMAT, GRE and/or TOEFL, be sure to also take time to identify all the ways in which you have made contributions in your career, education, community, and personal life. The combination – a strong academic profile and a solid record of making impact – will help you to build a competitive application to the top schools.


Cecilia Wu Tanaka is co-founder of Reve Counseling and a veteran graduate admissions counselor with 19 years in the field. Prior to starting Reve 8 years ago she headed up a $1.25 million counseling department at the largest test prep company in Asia. In her previous life, she sat on various admissions committees at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, conducted interviews for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and directed the interview program at Harvard Medical School.

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.