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The Role of the MBA Admissions Consultant: 10 FAQs

Can an MBA admissions consultant help you negotiate the application maze?

Despite the costs attached to a prestigious MBA program, leading business schools aren’t short of takers. In fact, they have acceptance rates that could strike fear into the heart of even the most academically-gifted and suitably-experienced candidates the international student community has to offer.


Step forward, the MBA admissions consultant – an individual who makes it their business to ensure their clients give themselves the best chances of selection and admittance possible – for a fee, naturally. But, how many of your fellow applicants are using their services? Would a consultant help you gain a competitive advantage on your peers, or would you better off going it alone? And what do the schools themselves think of these hired helpers? The answers to these questions, and more, are below:

1. Who are MBA admissions consultants?

Many consultants are former members of a business school's admissions office. Others are MBA graduates. Both will therefore have experience of what business schools look for in applicants and what it's like to study at particular schools, albeit in different ways. Of course, things do change over the years in this respect, so it's definitely worth checking how your consultant stays abreast of developments in the admissions offices of the schools you will be applying to.

Plus, falling into one of the two categories above isn't a prerequisite of the job. Those with backgrounds in, for example, branding or marketing, may well have set themselves up with strong knowledge of the terrain and a handy set of contacts that can rival those with direct experience in business education. Whatever their background, their role is designed to help prospective MBA students position themselves as the perfect candidate for a particular school.   

2. Why do people use them?

Help from MBA admissions consultantsConsultants appeal to those who are uneasy about the process, and their chances for success, of getting into a top-notch MBA program at a world-renowned institution, particularly those with nontraditional working backgrounds.

International students, who will invariably be less familiar with the procedures and practicalities of an application process than domestic students, may look to MBA admissions consultants for much the same reasons.  Above all, they might be in need of a boost to their confidence and convictions that they belong at a top program.

As for what they actually do, lists of an organization’s available services tend to be long and can be tailored to meet an individual’s needs. For example, they can help with technical aspects of an application’s written requirements, such as the essay and CV, as well as conducting mock interviews and instructing prospective MBA students on the best way to present themselves in front of a business school’s admissions team. With most consultancies, you should be able to sign up for as little as a one-off editing service to as much as a full package that encompasses the whole process of targeting multiple schools from school selection to admittance.      

3. How popular are MBA admissions consultants?

There’s doesn’t seem to be an agreed-upon proportion that can answer this question. Essentially, some prospective MBA students use consultants and some don't.

In a recent survey carried out by AIGAC (Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants), 46% of applicants said an MBA admissions consultant had assisted them in the process of applying to business school. AIGAC's sample also showed that men were slightly more likely to seek their advice than women, as shown by figures of 52% and 37% when analyzing respondents by their respective genders. AIGAC’s results, however, must be read in light of the distribution method of their survey, which is largely through admissions consultants.

GMAC’s latest survey of prospective MBA students points to a far lower proportion – of 22% that have used a consultant to decide on a program or school. Of course, school choice and application aren’t quite the same things and GMAC’s survey extends to students applying to pre-experience master’s degrees in business areas (with the differing application requirements that these entail), and not just different formats of the MBA, as is the case with AIGAC.  

The true proportion may lie somewhere in between these figures, with a report in Poets&Quants suggesting that consultants will see between a quarter and a third of those applying to the highest-ranking schools.

4. When do people use MBA admissions consultants?

Most people seem to seek the services of an MBA admissions consultant in the six months leading up to an application deadline. This was true for 68% of applicants who told AIGAC they had used a consultant. However, this means that just over 30% were actually working with a consultant at an earlier stage - seven months or more - before a deadline.

Examples of what a consultant might be able to assist you with, before you actually set about completing an application, include narrowing down your selection of school(s) to target and identifying any gaps that may prove glaring come submission of a final application. 

5. Does it matter which consultancy I choose?

Yes. As is true in many lines of service-orientated professions, quality will vary and there isn’t one overriding system of regulation to which consultants must adhere. Plus, individual firms will often employ a variety of different consultants, whose experience and personality may be more suited to some than others.

For these reasons, it’s imperative that you conduct thorough research if you want to enlist the help of an MBA admissions consultant. There are professional membership bodies that can help point you in the right direction. For example (but not exclusively) in the US, there is AIGAC, IECA (Independent Educational Consultants Association) and HECA (Higher Education Consultants Association) whose directories can be accessed by following the preceding links.

Aside from this, it’s a good idea to be wary of any success figures you see advertised on an admissions consultancy firm’s website – i.e. statistics that point to the strength of their services in securing admittance to top schools for their clients. The bottom line here is that any such figures are hard to verify – there is no compulsory auditing of claims – and therefore, open to misinterpretation about what you can expect from a particular firm. Aware of this, many firms don’t publish these kinds of figures.  

6. How many reputable firms are out there?

In 2010, Poets&Quants estimated that there might be as many as 500 individual MBA admissions consultants (rather than firms) internationally, creating an industry worth US$35 million each year.  However, a report in the Financial Times two years later revealed that this is far from being an agreed-upon figure and that the number of MBA-specific firms might be fewer than 20. The variance here seems to depend on who you ask – with questions of value and quality as well as definitions of what really constitutes an MBA specialist all adding to the mix.

7. How much does it cost?

This depends of the type of service or package you choose. One-off services might only cost a couple of hundred dollars, but the largest packages could set you back upwards of US$5,000, according to a blog for U.S. News penned by Stacy Blackman, an admissions consultant herself. This reaffirms the sense in identifying what you want to gain from a firm before making a monetary commitment.

8. Do prospective MBA students using consultancies apply to particular schools?

Well, prospective MBA students that use consultants are driven by much the same desires to secure a place at their target school as those not using them. Interestingly, a recent Poets&Quants survey asked consultancy firms not to where most of their clients applied, but where their most talented clients ultimately enrolled. In the responses of 35 firms, Stanford, Harvard Business School and Wharton – the triumvirate at the head of QS’s latest regional rankings – came out in first, second and third place, respectively. European stalwarts, INSEAD and London Business School both made the consultants’ top 10. 

9. Do business schools like applicants to use admissions consultants?

Business schools haven’t always embraced the existence of MBA admissions consultants, but they do appreciate that they have become a permanent fixture and that it does more good to engage with them than to pretend they’re not a popular option among prospective students. Even the skeptics have acknowledged that consultants can be useful when it comes to helping applicants understand different campus cultures, for example.

Worries mentioned by schools include receiving application materials that reek of professional assistance, especially from those for whom English is not a first language, and the fear that they will see too many applicants following the same strategy in their applications, by dint of a common consultant, in their attempts to win over an admissions team.


10. Does it make any difference if I'm a female applicant?

Maybe. An interesting finding in AIGAC's recent survey was that not all respondents who indicated using MBA admissions consultants said they had paid for services in support of their application. While this was true for only 9% of male applicants, the proportion swelled to 30% among female applicants. The suggestion, from this sample at least, is that if you are a female applicant you might find it easier to secure some degree of assistance from a consultancy on a pro-bono basis. The reason for this may well be linked to the current gap in usage by gender mentioned in Q3, coupled with the desire among business education providers to increase the proportion of female students gracing their classrooms at MBA level.  

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Written by Tim Dhoul

Tim is a writer with a background in consumer journalism and charity communications. He trained as a journalist in the UK and holds degrees in history (BA) and Latin American studies (MA).

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2 Comments
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A very informative article. As an education consultant, I fully agree with most of your opinions, Tim. However, as a consultant, I see my Job as guiding my clients into the right direction to reach their career goals. Many are afraid of applying to renowned schools because of the daunting fees and/or they lack the confidence to even dare to apply to these top schools. Consultants who have helped others into these schools can immediately identify if the candidate has the potential and would then encourage them to apply helping them find ways to finance it. Many potential candidates don't realize that the majority of these top schools have excellent scholarships and student loan programs for the asking. Additionally, improving their international CV gives them the edge as they are able to present themselves in a better light. I have seen some extremely poor CVs which, after interviewing the candidate, proved that the candidate was truly exceptional - this is also true of application essays. One thing you didn't mention was the fact that some application consultants work as agents for particular institutions and collect a commission for each candidate they bring into this school. This, I fear, is the biggest danger as they are not really helping the candidate choose school(s) which would best suit his or her career goals. Mary Petersen, Executive Link
Hi Mary, thank you for posting these useful insights into your own experience as a consultant. The idea that some consultants might be collecting commissions in sending clients to schools with which they enjoy a relationship is indeed a very troubling one from the prospective student’s perspective. To me, it does seem like there should be greater levels of transparency here – not least, because of the influential role a consultant can play in someone’s academic choices.
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