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Getting professional help is not the magic solution to joining a top business school.Comstock

Gaining entry to a top business school is no easy task. A vast array of interviews, essays, tests and presentations are the first hurdles to be navigated. This is where admissions consultants can be of help, guiding prospective students through the process to help them secure a place.

Services range from personal coaching and presentation skills to essay reviews and mock interviews. But such assistance does not come cheap. Costing 3 to 5 per cent of the overall cost of an MBA program, potential students must be sure of the added value before paying for professional help.

Do admissions consultants give applicants an edge, or is it better to save the money and go it alone?

Dan Bauer, founder of the MBA Exchange consultancy, estimates that there are about 20 to 25 MBA-specific admissions consulting firms worldwide – many of which are U.S.-based with consultants in multiple countries – comprising several hundred individual consultants. However, Jeremy Shinewald, founder of mbaMission, puts the number of "true firms" at five or six, saying about 30 additional websites purport to be MBA consultancies but do not deliver the goods.

Consultancy services are often sold on the brains behind them, credentials proudly presented to entice applicants in. Directors at these consultancies tend to be former admissions officers or MBA graduates who have been through the process themselves. They claim detailed knowledge of admissions, focusing particularly on the top schools' requirements.

But business school experience does not automatically equal expertise. "Who of those consultants remains engaged with how business schools are moving on?" asks Steve Cousins, MBA recruitment and admissions manager at Cass Business School of City University in London.

Admissions consultants' services vary from hourly options to all-in packages, and usually charge on a per-school basis with discounts for additional schools. Mr. Bauer's most popular option is a five-school package at $7,700.

The consultancy process can take from several weeks to several years. Stacy Blackman, founder of Stacy Blackman Consulting, says her package typically takes 25 to 100 hours. Applicants usually take the GMAT – the Graduate Management Admission Test – in the first quarter, and seek consultancy services from April to June.

For those needing significant help, a comprehensive service can represent good value. But it is expensive for those requiring only a few tweaks. According to Mr. Cousins, students from Russia and India who hope to study in the U.K. often employ consultants as such students are used to using them more frequently for general university admissions in their home countries.

A consultant's advice on the visa process can prove helpful for international students, Mr. Cousins adds. For those who have worked for several years and need to regain their confidence or obtain guidance through university systems, a consultant's guidance can also be welcome.

Results, however, are hard to quantify. Consultants may publish success figures – although many prefer not to – but verifying them is another matter. There is no compulsory regulation or auditing of success claims.

"From a personal point of view, I think there should be auditing," says Mr. Cousins, adding that it would provide clarity for students. Ms. Blackman, who does not publish results, disagrees. "There is a lot of smoke and mirrors involved with that kind of audit," she says.

One of the few consultancies that publishes audited results, MBA Exchange, claims 87 per cent success for clients applying to four schools under its comprehensive applications package.

Applicants using consultants must keep their eyes open for pitfalls. Business schools do not want candidates who are carbon copies of each other, a possible danger for prospective students using the same consultant and applying to the same school.

"Our role is to select the most interesting class," says Dee Leopold, director of admissions at Harvard Business School. "If everyone did the same thing, that would defeat the entire process."

An extremely well-structured essay may signal consultancy use, but spotting it otherwise is difficult, says Anna Farrus, head of admissions at Said Business School, University of Oxford. Any misrepresentation is far more likely to be spotted at an interview if applicants answer in a scripted fashion, she adds.

Ms. Leopold says the most blatant example of excessive coaching is when an exceptionally polished application arrives from somebody whose first language is not English. "Being fluent in English is not simply nice to have, it is absolutely essential," she says.

However, admissions consultants play down the possibility of unsuitable applicants being misrepresented through their services. Managing expectations is crucial: Getting professional help is not the magic solution to joining a top business school. Good consultants will be realistic and suggest an appropriate alternative if applicants are not suitable for high-demand courses.

Ms. Blackman says she can recommend someone takes a class to improve a skill, but any candidate needs to put in the grunt work. She likens it to getting advice before a job interview. "Just because they get the coaching, it doesn't mean that they are not qualified when they get the job," she adds.

Ms. Farrus is wary of consultants. "I've always questioned the value of admissions consultants. I think they may provide some help when candidates are trying to decide which schools they should apply to, but when it comes to the actual admissions process, I have my doubts."

Whether an admissions consultant is good value for money depends on the individual and how much help they need, Mr. Cousins says. "Everyone needs to make their own informed decision of whether it is something they need or if it is going to add anything," he adds.

But getting into business school is only the beginning. "A huge amount of focus goes on applying; students seem to forget about the actual program," Mr. Cousins says. "In a lot of ways, the admissions process is actually the easy bit."

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