Applicants: Getting A Leg Up And Paying The Price

When business school applicants are looking for a boost, they sometimes turn to two sources of help: test preparation courses and admissions consultants. Many students think they're useful enough to be worth the hundreds, even thousands of dollars they cost. But evidence is mixed on whether they can assure you a higher GMAT score or a favorable reception at the admissions office. BUSINESS WEEK evaluated both methods, and here's what we found:


You grew up in the '80s, when Guess? jeans were "rad," Ferris Bueller was a cult hero, and standardized tests meant whipping out No. 2 pencils. Now, you're a few years into your career, you're thinking about business school, and you're fretting over the GMAT, the B-school admissions test everybody now takes on a computer.

The Graduate Management Admission Test is likely to be the first time many Generation Xers (and late-blooming baby boomers, for that matter) have taken an exam on a PC. Indeed, that's the only way you can take it. This is why enrollment in Princeton Review's and Kaplan Educational Centers' test-prep classes has boomed in the year since the GMAT went digital--and why, if you're headed for B-school, you may be thinking about plunking down up to $1,000 for a course.

NEW BALL GAME. The new GMAT is similar in content to the old one, with verbal and math sections and two essays. But the digital test has different ground rules. For starters, questions must be answered in order. That means you can't jump to the no-brainers and save the puzzlers for later. You're also penalized for not finishing all the sections. So guessing--and knowing how to eliminate incorrect answers--is more important than ever. Perhaps the biggest change, however, is that the test is adaptive. How well you do on early questions determines how hard the questions will be later. And the difficulty of the questions, not just the number you get right, affects your final score.

Adding to the pressure, you now must decide before you leave the room whether you want to cancel your score so it doesn't count. Otherwise, you get the multiple-choice results immediately. On the old paper test, a test taker had one week to cancel and didn't find out the grade for more than a month. Even now, you still have to wait for your essay grades, but they don't contribute to the main score, anyway.

As a result of the changes, more students are clamoring for test review, and Kaplan saw profits of its GMAT division climb 35% last year, compared with a 15% increase for its overall test prep division. Meanwhile, Princeton Review's GMAT enrollment increased 20%. "People want to prepare more for a test that's in a format they are not used to," says Cathryn Still, managing director of GMAT programs for Princeton Review.

But you may want to think twice before signing up for such a class. Many MBAs say that in retrospect, they could have prepared just as well on their own. In fact, in BUSINESS WEEK's survey of 6,020 recent B-school graduates at 61 top programs, no area of education received lower marks on average than GMAT test prep courses. On a scale of 1 to 10, students who took such classes gave them a 6.1. "When you pay $800 for a preparation course," says Michael Strohl, a '98 MBA from the University of Washington, you expect "the instructor to provide more than commonsense exam-taking tips."

A Kaplan or Princeton course still may be right for some applicants. For example, if you want to review specific subject matter or discuss test-taking strategy, the classes can be valuable. If nothing else, paying the steep fee inspires applicants to prepare more rigorously.

EXTRA TUTORING. So which course should you take? Compare both to see which curriculum better meets your needs. Princeton, for example, caps its classes at 15 students, compared with 25 at Kaplan. Princeton also wins kudos for requiring the teacher to schedule one-on-one sessions as often as students request. "For a fixed price, you get the structured course as well as all the extra tutoring you need," says Jennifer Meyer, a recent Kellogg MBA. Kaplan offers extra-help sessions but not always with the same person.

Before the GMAT was computerized, applicants showed a preference for Princeton Review. This year's grads of BUSINESS WEEK's top 25 B-schools gave it an average score of 6.5, compared with 5.8 for Kaplan.

Kaplan says the comparison is unfair. Picking Princeton because of the BUSINESS WEEK survey results, says Kaplan Vice-President Melissa Mack, "is like shopping for a car that's undergone new model relaunches, using a 1993 edition of Consumer Reports." In fact, both companies have made major changes to their courses since the GMAT went high tech, and Mack says Kaplan has one clear advantage: It has its own computer labs and offers students more chances to take sample computerized tests (table, page 179).

Of course, you don't need to drop a grand to take a sample GMAT. You can still buy a host of review books for about $20 each. Or you can use practice software. The Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT, offers a review guide and POWERPREP software ($70 for both), including two complete tests. You can order the package from, where you can also download a list of essay topics for free.

The Princeton Review site ( offers a book and CD-ROM with four practice tests for $35. And Kaplan sells software review packages for $30 (

So if you've got the discipline, you may be able to save hundreds of dollars--without costing yourself any GMAT points.

By Sara Leitch and David Leonhardt


Daniel Gomes thought he had a good shot at getting into a top B-school. A Brazilian with more than four years work experience in Sao Paulo at Quaker Oats and Banco Safra, Gomes decided to go for an American MBA in October, 1995. But "English is not my first language," he says. Plus, "I had only two months to study for the GMAT, and I wasn't familiar with the application process in the U.S."

So Gomes tried to give himself an edge. He spent about $3,000 for 30 hours with Patricia Montero, a Sao Paulo admissions consultant who helped improve his English and organize applications to Wharton School of Business and the University of Michigan. Wharton rejected him, but he got into Michigan, graduated last spring, and took an $85,000-a-year job as an associate consultant at McKinsey in Sao Paulo.

With selectivity at an all-time high at the best schools, should you seek out an admissions consultant? "I probably could have gotten the same help from the admissions people"--for free, says Grace Cragin, a recent Wharton grad who used MBA Strategies. Nonetheless, of the 6,020 students in the top 61 programs responding to BUSINESS WEEK's B-school survey, 2.7%, or 163, said they used a consultant. For a few hundred to several thousand dollars, consultants offer you inside connections from their previous jobs at B-schools, tips on interviewing, and essay critiques.

MBA Strategies, one of the largest domestic consulting firms, with 200 clients, usually starts with a phone interview to evaluate the applicant. President Sally Lannin, a former placement officer at Stanford University, says she and her staff help students narrow their choices by identifying schools in their league. She also reviews application drafts and help clients brainstorm on essay topics. At $150 an hour, a complete evaluation by MBA Strategies runs $450 to $750. The drill is similar at Kaplan Educational Centers, which opened an admissions consulting arm in 1996. Trent Anderson, who heads the program, says he tries to match applicants with consultants who once worked at their chosen schools. For $50, an online service, IvyEssays, sells a package of about 40 essays by applicants who have been accepted by your preferred school. The essays are supposed to be used as examples only.

Such services, which might seem to encourage cheating, could backfire. "If the school feels any part of the application is not the student's own work, they are immediately disqualified," says Robert Alig, Wharton's director of admissions and financial aid.

Despite the shortcomings of consultants, many students who used them say all they really wanted was someone to hold their hand throughout the process. Take Lorin Decker, a 1998 graduate of Harvard B-school. Decker spent about $300 for tips from Ben Baron, a former member of the Harvard admissions committee who now works for Kaplan. "It was more of a confidence booster," says Decker. That might count for something when you're facing the tortuous process of applying for an MBA.

By Hala Habal

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