Tips from an Admissions Whiz

Clear Admit co-founder Graham Richmond has staked his business on giving applicants specialized advice. Here's a sampling

Graham Richmond, co-founder of admissions consulting firm Clear Admit, was the guest for a BusinessWeek Online chat on July 30.

Richmond's 19-month-old company has helped about 200 MBA hopefuls with their applications, essays, and interviews. He and his small team of counselors will advise another 200 MBA wannabes this year on choosing which schools to apply to, plus essay writing, interviewing skills, and what to do if you're waitlisted.

Aside from his recent work at Clear Admit, Richmond has experience in the B-schools admissions field dating back to 1995, when he worked at MCS Multi-App, an educational-software startup that offered application aids for business- and law-schools. From 1999 to 2001, he attended the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and also worked in the school's admissions office as a student admissions officer, reading hundreds of applications and attending weekly admissions committee decision meetings.

Richmond fielded questions from a live audience in a chat co-hosted by BW Online's Mica Schneider and Jack Dierdorff. Here's an edited transcript of the event:

Q: How do business schools view companies such as your own? Is it ethical to get assistance on a business-school application?

A:

Opinion is mixed. Some admissions officers I've spoken to feel that we're doing a nice job of demystifying the process and helping students make informed decisions about the schools they're applying to.

Our guiding principle is that applicants need feedback and that they should get that feedback from an informed source rather than from a parent or a sibling or a co-worker -- some of whom may not really know what MBA programs are looking for.

Q: People can't help wondering how the slow economy and bear market are affecting B-school prospects. Were applications down last year? By how much? What do you expect for next year?

A:

The short answer is yes, application volume was down slightly. Most of the top schools saw a decrease on the order of 15%. But it's important to remember that this is coming off of historical highs for most of the top schools, and it's also important to observe that the [test and other] statistics for this year's entering class are the highest they've ever been. So numbers might be down, but competition seems to be up.

Q: Each year, there seems to be a fad that people appear to latch on to, such as business ethics. Is there such a theme in 2003 applications?

A:

I'm not a big believer in fads in admissions strategy. In my mind, most of the top MBA programs are looking for pretty much the same traits that they've always looked for, such as leadership, academic aptitude, and a diversity of experiences.

Q: Numerous application-consulting companies are in the market. How is Clear Admit any different than the rest? Especially since Clear Admit charges substantially more than other companies do?

A:

Clear Admit combines expertise from an admissions standpoint, an applicant's standpoint, an MBA student's standpoint, and an editor's standpoint. There are companies that have editors without MBA [degrees]; there are MBAs editing applications without admissions experience; and there are former admissions officers helping students, who don't have MBAs themselves. Clear Admit combines all of these perspectives.

As far as cost is concerned, our clients receive a highly tailored service. We work with a very limited number of applicants, and we're there for them throughout the admissions process. People are paying us to increase their odds of admission to a top school and tap into a lifetime of benefits.

Q: How does your company stay in tune with trends in MBA admissions? How up-to-date is your admissions advice?

A:

First and foremost, we maintain contact with admissions officers. As a former admissions counselor from Wharton, I personally call upon ex-colleagues from multiple schools in order to find out what they're looking for each year. In addition, we've now worked with hundreds of clients and seen the fruits of our labor, and we're constantly receiving new information based on experiences with clients.

Q: Here is an unusual situation from a member of the audience: I did a MBA from India 10 years ago, right after I finished my undergraduate degree. I want to do another MBA in the U.S. at a top-10 school. How can I justify my application?

A:

The key will be to show what there is to gain from pursuing an MBA at this stage of your career. Obviously, given that you had not worked prior to the first MBA, you may be able to justify a return to the classroom in order to put [your work] experiences in context. In addition, attending business school in the U.S. may open doors for you that aren't opened by the MBA program you pursued in India.

Q: Does it help for applicants with a software background to take accounting and finance courses prior to applying to an MBA program?

A:

Yes, absolutely. The admissions committee, in assessing your academic readiness for the MBA program, will look at your undergraduate transcripts to see signs of quantitative aptitude. And taking these types of foundation courses -- in particular, accounting statistics, and even calculus -- can be a good way to show a high level of preparedness for the MBA program.

Q: How do European business schools differ from U.S. business schools in terms of what they expect and look for in applicants?

A:

A majority of European programs are on a one-year format, which often means that there isn't time for a summer internship. So applicants will need very clear career goals to maximize the benefit of a shorter program. In addition, European schools focus on bringing in students with broad international perspectives.

Q: How do top schools view free spirits who take a significant break from their professional careers to pursue artistic, spiritual, or recreational activities for 6 to 12 months?

A:

This can be a tremendous advantage, assuming that the activity you've pursued relates somehow to your prior experiences and future goals. So, for example, if you've always had a passion for geopolitics and decided to take a six-month volunteer post with USAID and can indicate how this will improve your ability to contribute on the MBA campus, then you'll be better off than the applicant who has pursued a more standard path. If you pursued something that has no relation to your career goals or past experiences, then it may be harder to justify the break.

Q: What strengths are most important for people applying to MBA programs directly after finishing an undergraduate degree? Does entering into an MBA program so soon put you at a disadvantage after the MBA?

A:

There has been a lot of talk about a "youth movement" in MBA admissions. Younger applicants will be closely scrutinized for evidence of leadership, whether through a college activity or a summer job. They'll also be scrutinized for academic abilities. But at the end of the day, what's most important to schools is what the candidate has done with his or her time on the planet. Having said that, I typically do not counsel undergrads to apply directly to business school, except in rare cases.

Q: Do you think schools are increasingly counting on more years of productivity after B-school? How can a 35-year-old address that when he or she is up against people in their late 20s?

A:

If your goal is to enter an entry-level analyst program on Wall Street at age 35 or more, you may face stiff competition from your classmates. Older applicants typically need to have goals that are deemed realistic for someone graduating in their age group. For example, a military person who's coming to an MBA at age 35 and making a career change can benefit.

Q: Here's a question from an audience member who calls himself "a regular Joe Shmoe": I work, work, work and then I take care of my family. I don't have many extracurricular activities [to show on my application] besides babysitting. How can I make my application stand apart from the others?

A:

Admissions officers understand that work and family commitments can be incredibly demanding. The key is to demonstrate to the committee how you might spend your time on campus outside of the classroom. And this may involve highlighting previous activities from college and giving the committee a sense that, when free of your work obligations and focused on MBA study, you'll be an active contributor to the MBA campus and community.

Q: What's a good strategy for contacting professors at a school that an MBA applicant is interested in? How does the applicant get his or her name known among the faculty before his or her application is submitted?

A:

It makes a lot of sense to communicate with students and professors who are studying [or researching] your field of interest. Engaging professors and students in informational discussions or interviews can really pay dividends when it comes time to write your essays and persuade the school that you've done your homework. At the same time, you can't expect a discussion with a professor to serve the purpose of affecting your admissions status "behind the scenes." Professors see right through students who contact them for no reason other than to try to get their name acrosstheir desk.

Q: How do you feel the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court will affect minority admissions at the top business schools, in particular at the University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business and University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business, which have done away with race-based admissions in the past?

A:

I don't think it will have an impact on admissions to the top MBA programs, primarily because the level of competition among applicants is incredibly high. MBA programs have the fortunate situation of being able to build truly diverse classes composed of highly qualified applicants. They're not doing what Michigan was doing in the law school. The schools have gone on record saying they're still thinking about this issue.

Q: What are the chances of a school admitting someone with a good grade point average (GPA), an average GMAT score, good essays, good work experience, and good recommendations? How much does the GMAT count?

A:

The beauty of MBA admissions process is that it's a multivariable equation. The GMAT is one variable with several components, such as the breakdown of one's score, the number of times the test was taken, and whether or not the student is a native English speaker. So students have a chance to compensate for a GMAT score that's below the average. This is typically done via the other academic metrics, such as [the applicant's] GPA, quality of coursework, and reputation of the undergraduate institution [the applicant attended].

Typically, your academic profile is assessed through the GMAT and academic experience, so work experience, essays, and recommendations will not typically be considered in lieu of a low GMAT score.

Q: Any insight into how universities look at applicants who have retaken the GMAT to get a higher score?

A:

The short answer is that MBA programs focus on your best score. In addition, a student with a low score who retakes the test and performs better will look good in the eyes of the admissions committee for recognizing a weakness and seeking to address it. Reapplicants with first-time low scores who don't retake the test when they apply again may be frowned upon.

Q: Another variation on that admissions equation: How important are promotions and large salary increases when an admissions committee is measuring an applicant's success at work? If an applicant gets good recommendations and has discussed growth in terms of responsibilities, will this be sufficient?

A:

Ideally, a candidate can point to increases in responsibility via promotions and salary increase, since these are the principal ways for people to put their money where their mouth is. At the same time, strong recommendations can go a long way toward helping a candidate who doesn't have salary increases or promotions to point to -- particularly in these economic times, because it's understood that you may not get a promotion [or raise].

Q: I'm currently employed in the technology industry but would like to switch over to sports marketing. How do I convince admissions committees that I'm capable of being successful in a field that I have no experience in?

A:

Ideally, there may be responsibilities in your current position that might lend themselves to the post you're seeking after an MBA. You can jump from one industry to another most easily if you're working in the same function. In addition, you would ideally have several extracurricular activities that you can point to which relate to sports marketing.

Q: It's easy to mention my strengths in the application essay. How should I mention a weakness in the essay? How negative do I have to go?

A:

The classic faux pas in "weakness" essays is to offer a weakness that's really a masked strength -- such as, "I work too hard!" "I'm a perfectionist!" We encourage our clients to show a strong degree of self-reflection in their "weakness" essays. For example, "I don't ask enough questions" might be more interesting to discuss.

Q: How does one sell a military background to business schools? What's the reputation of army officers at business schools?

A:

Military applicants are often very strong when it comes to leadership skills and team experience. One concern with military applicants is their ability to demonstrate the flexibility to move into the civilian work force. It may also make sense for you to touch base with the military clubs at the MBA programs you're targeting so that you can get a sense for the career paths that accepted students are following.

Q: Here's another good audience question: "Two years ago, I quit my job to be a stay-at-home mom. Now, I'm planning to go back to school. Would my time at home be a disadvantage on my application?"

A:

No. The admissions committee should recognize that there are challenges to raising children, but it will be important for you to highlight business experience and professional accomplishments, and to convince the committee that you'll take full advantage of the education upon graduation.

It may also be helpful to indicate an interest in contributing to the family clubs on MBA campuses so that the reader can see that you plan to make your family part of the MBA community.

Q: How much value does an MBA have in terms of starting your own business?

A:

Speaking from experience, I can say that the value of studying entrepreneurial management at Wharton has been critical to the success of Clear Admit. In addition, the entrepreneurial community on the average MBA program campus is incredibly supportive and ensures an educational experience outside of the classroom.

Q: You've talked a lot about the paper side of an application today. We've had quite a few questions about attire for an admissions interview. How do you advise your clients to dress when they visit a business school?

A:

Formal business attire is appropriate for an MBA interview. It's always better to be overdressed. But avoid flaunting excessive jewelry, coating your body in perfume, etc. You don't want to be too flashy.

Q: What's your recommendation between first and second application deadlines? Should I shoot to get all my applications in before the first deadline?

A:

Your odds are always best in the first round. But it's important that you submit the best application that you can put together, especially when one considers that the statistics for round two are traditionally not too different than from round one. Rounds three and four are a different story.

Q: You mentioned that you ask admissions committees what they're looking for each year. What do you think they're looking for in the coming year that might be different from years past? How much does the ideal class change from year to year?

A:

One element that has been accentuated by the current economy is the importance of well-defined career goals in an MBA applicant's essays and interviews. Schools like Wharton and Harvard Business School are less likely to take a chance on students with fuzzy goals. In a sense, the admissions office is responsible to the career-management office and needs to provide them with an entering class that can benefit from what career services has to offer.

On your second question, the truth is that the "ideal class" may be refined from year to year, depending on trends [such as entrepreneurship and the economic situation]. But in the end, the overall approach to admissions doesn't vary dramatically.

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