MBA admissions' revolving door

September 14, 2012: 8:59 AM ET

In recent years, plenty of B-school admissions staffers have turned into admit consultants, similar to the hordes of legislative aides who later become lobbyists on Capitol Hill.

Stacey Oyler

By John A. Byrne

(Poets&Quants) -- Stacey Oyler can recreate the scene as if it were yesterday. As an assistant director of admissions for Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business in the mid-2000s, she recalls the grueling process of deciding on the fate of a seemingly endless parade of applicants desperate to get an MBA degree from the school.

With seven of her colleagues, she would hold up in a conference room, surrounded by stacks of application files and a fortifying supply of cupcakes and cookies. Spreadsheets that dissected every applicant by their undergraduate colleges, work backgrounds, GMAT scores, and hometowns lay before each staffer. The school's admissions director sat behind a laptop, inputting the committee's decisions.

From 9 a.m. until 6 p.m., over as many as five days, the group would debate the merits of every applicant. Each decision -- whether to admit, deny, or waitlist -- had to be unanimous. "You got a little crazy locked in that room," she laughs. "I remember we had a major debate over whether a military candidate actually flew a plane or was merely on the plane. You couldn't tell for sure from his application."

As the pilot of the plane, Oyler and her colleagues reasoned, he would have been in a significant leadership role, with a great deal of responsibility on his shoulders. That experience would have been in his favor. "Finally, someone just said, 'Pick up the phone and ask him.' We did."

Over a 21-month period, from October 2003 to July 2005, Oyler lugged an L.L. Bean bag overflowing with applications through too many airports, read about 800 files from candidates, interviewed hundreds in hotel lobbies, and, by virtue of those locked-down meetings, participated in every admissions decision for two full classes of admits to Tuck.

For the past four years, the 36-year-old Oyler has taken that inside knowledge of elite admissions and put it to work for clients of MBA admissions consulting firm Clear Admit. Her stint in the admissions offices of an elite business school, followed by three years as an MBA recruiter for McKinsey & Co., has given her the credibility and knowhow to advise applicants who want to get into top business schools.

"I know people think I went to the dark side when I became a consultant," she says, "but I don't do this for the money. I like working with people. I'm just a coach, but I love what I do. It's fun, and I'm not cheating."

Oyler is one of dozens of former admissions officials who now work the other side, helping clients brave the steep odds of admission to business schools that once paid them to evaluate applicants. Indeed, in recent years, there has been a revolving door of B-school staffers turned consultants, not dissimilar to the hordes of legislative aides who later become lobbyists on Capitol Hill. They come from every top school in the world, including Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, London, and INSEAD.

Their experience with the inner workings of an admissions office, the nuances of how applications are read and graded, the tricks that make a file stand out from the pile, the mistakes that can torpedo an applicant, are all highly valuable to a jittery and anxious group of MBA candidates. When applicants hire former business school admissions officials, "they are getting the perspective of someone who has been at the table where the admissions decisions have been made," says Chioma Isiadinso, who had been an assistant director of admissions for Harvard Business School before founding consulting firm EXPARTUS. "They've been privy to how admissions boards think, how they make decisions, and their idiosyncrasies. Some individuals can have a soft spot for particular profiles or even individuals from certain schools or even firms."

An insider's edge?

The appeal of having a former insider guide an applicant through a process where rejection is the norm can be reassuring. One of the largest MBA admissions consulting firms, Chicago-based The MBA Exchange, now boasts nine former admissions officers, 23 former student admissions committee (adcom) members, and four former contract professionals who reviewed applications or interviewed applicants for business schools. Dan Bauer, founder and managing director at The MBA exchange, says that former admissions staffers can be especially useful helping applicants handle sensitive issues like academic suspension, alternative undergraduate transcripts, or learning disabilities that "need to be explained, documented, or mitigated."

Not everyone believes that an admissions stint is a prerequisite to becoming a great admissions consultant. "Just because someone has read applications, it does not mean that they are capable of helping applicants construct a standout application -- these are two entirely different skills," says Jeremy Shinewald, founder and president of mbaMission, an admissions consulting firm.

Others question whether insider knowledge at just one institution is relevant to the broader business school world. "Admissions office experience provides insight into the process and enormous insight into a given school's program at one point in time," says Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com. "But it doesn't provide insight into all programs at all times.  It doesn't teach anyone how to mentor or guide. Is it helpful? Yes. Is it the only way to get an understanding of admissions? No."

For many admissions officers, crossing the divide can be difficult. "The hardest part for me about transitioning to the consultant side was knowing that it was frowned upon at HBS," says Isiadinso, who worked at Harvard from 2000 to 2002. "When you work in admissions, you hear the stories often on the inside about how horrible consultants are and how much of a disservice they do to applicants.

"So of course when I left HBS I had my concerns. The response was never overtly negative. But I was aware that not everyone was happy about it. It was important to me to walk a fine line ... making sure that I pursued a genuine passion … and being respectful and not going to the mountain top to share every thing I observed while working at Harvard."

Putting faces to the names, GMATs, and GPAs

The biggest difference between the two roles? "As an admissions officer, you have to size up a candidate and make a decision on them very quickly," says Aparna Barnan, a consultant with The MBA Exchange who was associate director of admissions for the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business from 2006 to 2010. "The average admissions officer can't spend much more than 15 to 30 minutes on a person. As a consultant, you can really delve into the details. You can get to know them on a personal level and help them put their best foot forward.

"As an admissions officer, you can't reveal too much," she adds. "There is only so much time you have to give people and you want to make sure you don't give anyone an unfair advantage. As a consultant, I can give people the full benefit of my experience. If there is some confusion about how to approach an issue, I can give them fairly good guidance."

Many consultants feel they would be better admissions officers after helping applicants make their case more effectively.

"Now that I'm on the other side of it, I can tell you it's not so black and white," adds Barnan. "When I was at Michigan, a lot of us got frustrated by applications from India that lacked depth and failed to show character. When you asked about failure, a lot of Indians would say I got a bad grade or didn't make it to the top of the class. It was their culture that made it difficult for them to open up. As a consultant, you realize that a lot of the choices people make on an application are driven by culture. I can now get them to dig deeper and offer more substantive responses."

A petite, soft-spoken extrovert with a nurturing personality, Oyler says there are limits to what a consultant can do for a client. "If you have a 600 GMAT and one year of work experience, you're not getting into Harvard, no matter who you hire as a consultant," she says. "It's good to have a dream, but your expectations need to be realistic."

And you can never predict how candidates might follow through with advice.  Once, she recalls, Tuck received an application from a candidate with all the edits and comments from a consultant visible on his essays -- and the consultant's bill still tacked onto the file. "Clearly, he lacked attention to detail," she says. "He didn't get in."

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About This Author
John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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