A new Wharton admissions test fuels a consulting boom

February 26, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

The B-school added a group discussion to its admission process to view candidates in an unscripted environment. But the admissions consulting industry quickly swooped in.

By John A. Byrne

Wharton Business SchoolWebsite and MBA catalogue(Poets&Quants) -- When the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School announced last July that it was going to add a new team-based discussion as part of its MBA admissions process, the school made it clear it wanted to assess applicants in "an unscripted environment," free from the influence of admission consultants and other advice givers.

Instead, Wharton has unwittingly given the admissions consulting business a big boost. Several of the leading MBA admissions firms have since launched specific offerings priced between $400 and $500 a pop to help prepare anxious applicants for the group-based discussions. The online simulations by consultants are largely meant to mimic the real thing at which six applicants are posed a question they are expected to discuss.

"We knew people were going to be freaked out about it, so we developed a way for them to feel more comfortable with it," explains Angela Guido, a consultant with mbaMission who spearheaded the development of a 90-minute simulation for the firm. "It's a pretty exact replica of what happens in their interview. We have four to six participants, and the conversation is modeled on exactly what the real thing is like."

MORE: Columbia B-school's Glenn Hubbard: Is an MBA worth it?

By month's end, mbaMission expects to run at least 10 sessions. The firm charges applicants $400 for the practice session unless they purchase a full admissions package of consulting, which would run $3,600 for one school to $9,400 for seven schools. Practice sessions run by mbaMission on Feb. 23 and Feb. 24 were sold out, as is a forthcoming Feb. 27 session.

The MBA Exchange and Accepted.com, admissions consulting firms that are among the largest in the business, are selling similar offerings. Several other firms, including Clear Admit, say they are helping applicants prepare for the test with more traditional consulting assistance. Accepted.com said it began offering its $500 service -- which includes mock team and individual interviews, written feedback on both, and a one-on-one telephone consult -- after being "bombarded" with questions about the Wharton interview and requests for specific coaching.

So much for hopes of an unscripted environment...

It's an unintended consequence of Wharton's initial hope to take prospective students "off the page" of a typical MBA application. "Over the last 10 to 20 years, because of blogs and the applicant community and discussion forums, people have developed a really good sense of what the admissions process looks like, down to what kinds of questions are asked and how they manage the interview," Vice Dean Karl T. Ulrich explained in an interview when the school announced the new test. "So in some ways that was one of the reasons we wanted to try some other approaches, because it had become kind of a game in which everyone knew the rules. We wanted to get the applicants in an unscripted environment, with a more dynamic kind of interaction."

But the new test set off a new round of anxiety among applicants and fueled the new offerings by consulting firms. "There is tremendous value in having a dress rehearsal," explains Linda Abraham, founder and CEO of Accepted.com. "That benefit is why MBA programs provide mock interviews and mock group interviews to their grads."

MORE: Inside MBA admissions: How a top school decides

Even before Wharton officially announced the new team-discussion admissions test, The MBA Exchange had introduced its new $395 service to help applicants prep for the novel addition to the school's MBA application. The Chicago-based firm announced its offering nearly 10 days before Wharton confirmed it was going forward with the new test. The MBA Exchange product features hour-long video conferences for groups of four to six applicants. MBA Exchange says it has already run 14 sessions for 63 clients and has three more scheduled through early March.

"Because facial expressions, gestures, body language, etc. are so important, our prep sessions take place via high-definition video," says Dan Bauer, founder and managing director of The MBA Exchange. A consultant plays the role of Wharton admission officer, welcoming the participants and presenting the "prompt" for them to discuss. Clients select and use pseudonyms to ensure confidentiality. "Immediately after the team discussion, we review the group's performance  with them," adds Bauer. "We also video record the entire session and provide a confidential link so each participant can see and further analyze both team and individual performance. Finally, we send a written scorecard to each participant grading his or her individual performance on five key dimensions along with our specific comments and suggestions on what he or she did right and which tactics should be improved before the actual team session with Wharton."

Although initial reactions by applicants to the test have been generally positive, the Wharton discussion has met some controversy. Some applicants say that they have been asked to travel from Asia or Europe at great expense for the test, especially when Wharton's schedule of on-campus and off-campus sessions have been unable to accommodate them. "That has rubbed some people the wrong way," says Guido. "One client was given the option to punt or fly a really long way and she decided not to do it. Wharton was asking her to purchase a really expensive ticket for the group interview, and she just said forget it."

Currently, round two applicants invited to the sessions are shown a video of Dean Thomas Robertson discussing the school's three pillars -- social impact, global presence, and innovation -- and then told about a fictitious donation of $1 million. After each of the six applicants in the session is given one minute for an introduction, they are then asked how they would invest the money in support of one of the pillars. An admissions official observes the session, presumably to assess each candidate's performance.

Admissions consultants: Helpful addition or thwarting the process?

Asked if the consulting sessions  thwart Wharton's efforts to get an "unscripted view" of applicants, most of the firms say it's naïve to think they wouldn't create new ways to help MBA candidates with the test.

"I really like to think that what we designed is actually honoring their intention," says Guido of mbaMission, "Look, there is tension between ad consultants and admissions committees. They want to see the unpolished candidate and we won't let them. But we are not trying to get people to change their behavior. If we coach them over and over again on what to say, I can see them taking issue with it. But you can't train someone out of who they are."

MORE: Anatomy of a major B-school turnaround

Adds Abraham of Accepted.com: "As long as there is a need for consulting and editing or interview coaching, we will innovate in response to the schools' new methods of meeting potential students."

Clear Admit, another MBA consulting firm, is taking a different approach from offering applicants a simulation. "We decided that trying to simulate a group interview wasn't the ideal approach for prepping candidates," says Stacey Oyler, a consultant with Clear Admit. Instead, the firm's consultants are giving their clients expectations for the group interview experience, letting them know what Wharton is assessing, and talking through the types of people they may encounter in the group test.

"We talk with clients about the three pillars and encourage them to come up with great ideas for each one," adds Oyler. "We know from our own group interview experience that Wharton is looking for candidates who can showcase strong interpersonal skills and who are able to facilitate the discussion while contributing their own unique ideas."

The mbaMission service is a WebEx-like experience with audio and whiteboards but no video. Two consultants observe the session and offer both group and then individual feedback. "A lot of people have ... told us that what it helped them to do is think about their role in the group so that they went in with at least a few ideas of how they would orient themselves to the group," says Guido. "Having a plan of how to help move the groups forward while not stepping on people's toes gave them a greater sense of security."

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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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