Help for MBA Hopefuls

Dan Bauer, founder of The MBA Exchange admissions consulting firm, offers insights and advice on the entire application process

Our guest for a BusinessWeek Online chat on Sept. 25 was Dan Bauer, founder of MBA admissions consulting firm The MBA Exchange. Every year, Bauer's eight-year-old company counsels about 250 applicants, who pay from $195 for an hour of counseling to $4,500 for a full package of help with applications, essays, and admissions interviews. Bauer also claims to have a 90% success rate at helping MBA hopefuls get into one of their top-choice schools.

Before launching The MBA Exchange, Bauer was senior vice-president for global marketing and sales at MasterCard International, and vice-president for national marketing at Citibank (C ). He's a 1990 graduate of Harvard Business School's MBA program.

Bauer fielded admissions questions from a live audience during the event, which was co-hosted by BusinessWeek Online's Mica Schneider and by Jack Dierdorff, consulting editor of BW Online. Following is an edited transcript of the chat:

Q: Many business schools have reported a decrease in MBA applications, thanks to the weak economy. But it seems that MBA hopefuls will still compete to get into B-schools in 2003, since applications are still very high. What's your read of the coming application season?

A:

The number of quality applicants will always exceed the number of available seats. So even when volume is down, that doesn't mean competition is down. Even though the economy remains soft, I'm confident that the number of quality applicants is going to remain solid for the foreseeable future.

Q: Do you expect applications this year to be up or down compared with last year, by how much, and why?

A:

I expect applications to be about the same as last year, which was down markedly from the prior year. A dramatic change in the economy -- up or down -- could spark an uptick in second- or third-round applications.

Q: How many schools do you recommend that your clients apply to? Should applicants select a safe school?

A:

We have found that the optimal number of schools for most applicants is five. You will probably want to include one or two schools where your chances are better than even. That said, we encourage our clients to never apply to a school that they wouldn't attend were it the only school to admit them.

Q: What's your take on applying in a school's first admissions round vs. the second?

A:

All things being equal, we emphasize first round, as that is when schools have the most seats and the most flexibility. However, an excellent second-round app beats a halfhearted first-round app in most cases.

Q: What's the outlook for non-U.S. applicants in the autumn of 2004?

A:

The better schools continue to seek diversity in their incoming classes. In many ways, the bar is higher for international applicants, because as a percentage of an entire class their numbers tend to be smaller. We have found the best strategy for international students is to emphasize their uniqueness in a cross-cultural sense but also to compete aggressively on the same measures -- professional, academic, and personal -- as any other applicant. One should not consider being "international" as either an advantage or a disadvantage per se.

Q: Do you know what percentage of the applicant pool for the top schools is made up of women? In your experience, do women have an advantage?

A:

This varies by school. But it continues to be an area where the leading programs want to grow. Now is a great time for a woman with solid credentials and clear goals to apply to a top business school.

Women continue to represent an inordinately low percentage of incoming classes. Around one-third of the class at (Harvard)is female, for example. It's somewhat lower at (Kellogg).

Q: For female applicants, should the timeline of starting a family come into play in the "why now?" application question?

A:

Great question. I would tend to avoid a personal issue like that one in my rationale for "why now?" While that's certainly a reasonable area of concern, the schools will be more impressed by the relevance of this degree to your long-term goals.

Q: How much difference does a ("GMAT") score of 700 vs. 750 make for similarly qualified applicants?

A:

Using as a reference point the top five schools, it would be significant, since the averages hover around 700. So excellence on the GMAT, to that extent, could help overcome a flaw in, for example, [the applicant's undergraduate] GPA or professional credentials.

Q: Should someone with a 720 GMAT score retake the exam in an effort to improve it to 750?

A:

It's impossible to answer that without a full understanding of your other credentials. In any given case, time spent enhancing an already above-average GMAT would probably be better spent on some other aspect of your application.

Q: It's often said in MBA admission tips books and on Web sites that essays for B-schools should portray a strong image. Can you offer any tips in achieving this?

A:

That's not the end-all and be-all. Yes, an essay has to be compelling, but the content also has to be relevant. The schools are looking for evidence that you understand and value their priorities, such as leadership, and that you have demonstrated passion for those.

Q: What's your take on essays asking for your past mistakes, weakness, or failures?

A:

These can be tricky because the schools expect candor. But applicants shouldn't trash their own candidacy unnecessarily. The best weaknesses or failures are those where the applicant learned from them and can cite an example showing that. That turns a weakness into strength.

Q: How about () Columbia Business School's) essay that asks, "If you could change one decision, what would it be and why?" It sounds like a failure question, but is it really?

A:

Like the "failure" essays, this particular one provides a platform for the applicant to show candor and maturity in learning from the past as well as confidence in improving for the future. I believe that the difference between this and the "failure" essays is a very subtle one. The way this question is posed simply calls for more introspection on the part of the applicant. The sharing of an example that neutralized or reversed this situation is still important.

Q: Is it a huge mistake to discuss leadership experiences from college in one of the application essays (application essays)?

A:

The key there is whether you have comparable leadership experience after college. Schools are looking for the best examples but have some bias toward professional leadership experience. Given the importance of that attribute and the number of times it's probed via essay questions, you would probably be wise to provide multiple examples -- professional and academic.

Q: How would you suggest that applicants with a low GPA deal with that in their application, and particularly in the essays?

A:

First of all, you will want to use the optional essay as a platform for explaining the circumstances. Not to apologize, but to explain. Overall, depending upon whether your transcript includes business-related courses in which you did poorly, you can identify and take additional coursework that will demonstrate your true academic ability and potential.

Q: Here's an audience question: "I'm in the telecom industry and am considering applying to (Stanford) I only have two years of work experience. What makes a strong applicant?"

A:

Leading schools like Stanford continue to look for a variety of strengths. There's no one "magic bullet" that a candidate like you, or any candidate, should rely upon. Coming from an overrepresented industry like yours, with an impressive but not uncommon education, you may want to look at an area such as nonwork leadership as a way to differentiate yourself from others with similar professional and academic profiles. For example, a community-service initiative where you made a difference as a leader could set you apart.

Q: An engineer at a Silicon Valley startup with little time for visiting campuses asks: "How important is visiting a school? How does one get the inside scoop on a school? And what are some examples of inside scoop?"

A:

Visiting a school demonstrates to the admissions committee that you understand the program to which you're applying and are willing to make this effort to convey your enthusiasm. The best way to get the inside scoop is through interaction with current students. We make it a point to introduce our clients to former clients who share insights and anecdotes that can enhance essays, for example. So, trying to connect with an undergraduate friend or even just chatting with students on campus during your visit can pay big dividends.

Q: A lot of admissions directors say people who are accepted with the help of consultants, such as yourself, often would probably have made the cut without your services. Do applicants really need to pay the extra money (in you firm's case, as much as $4,500) to get into an MBA program?

A:

The decision to engage an admissions consultant is a subjective one for each applicant. Certainly "perfect" candidates in terms of GPA, GMAT, professional credentials, etc., would understandably believe that they can do this on their own.

However, most applicants have some aspect of their candidacy that needs an experienced partner to address. Also, experience in working with hundreds of previous applicants provides insights that no one applicant could possibly have. So for those who feel that objective feedback and guidance can help make the difference, engaging an experienced admissions consultant is a wise investment. In the case of The MBA Exchange, our success rate compared to that of most applicants is the bottom line.

Q: What advice do you give MBA applicants who have had a number of employers? Does job-hopping affect an applicant's chances?

A:

A career history that has no apparent pattern or progress is one that has to be explained in essays. We have found that the best way to do this is to first frame a compelling long-term goal and then relate the pieces of your professional experience to that goal.

Q: An audience member asks: "I attended an HBS panel discussion, and a few of the recent graduates indicated they didn't state a definite career goal in their application (one even had four different jobs). How do you market yourself with a situation like this?"

A:

I would observe that that's the exception, not the rule. It can be very misleading to generalize based on the experience of any one or two applicants -- even successful ones. Those students may have been admitted despite their lack of clear goals, rather than because of it. We believe that, regardless of how strong your credentials may be, having a clear, compelling goal that links to your past and present yet also shows vision and confidence is essential.

Q: A PhD who has worked in a university lab for the past four years as a research assistant asks: "How do business schools treat this kind of academic experience? Most work experience among current MBAs was gained in companies, especially financial companies."

A:

Your background is one that would have to be considered "nontraditional." However, we have worked with other applicants with similar backgrounds and seen them succeed in B-school. The key for you would be to relate your experience to the criteria that your targeted school emphasizes and to link your work to a quantified, tangible outcome.

Q: You spoke of your success rate for clients. Can you tell usspecifically how it compares with overall averages?

A:

Published acceptance rates for the top business schools range from about 8% to 20%. Of course, that includes all applicants. Our historic success rate has been 80%. That is, eight out of ten clients gain admission to one or more of their targeted schools. Last year, 90% of our clients gained admission. The key is how selective the schools are that you're targeting. Even at the most selective, our success rates have been triple those of applicants overall.

Q: Do you make guarantees to your clients?

A:

No. The admissions process has a lot of variables, the biggest of which we have found to be the applicant's diligence in implementing a sound strategy.

Q: Before clients begin working with The MBA Exchange, you ask them to sign a contract. The contract reads like a standard contract, but then asks clients not to "disparage MBAEx to other individuals or organizations." We're interested in the word "disparage." What criticism is your firm worried about? [That line was taken from a 2002 contract that a reader shared with BusinessWeek Online.]

A:

We've found situations where competing consultants or others who weren't clients had made false comments on an online bulletin board. To avoid such misinformation and misrepresentation, we wanted to confirm that our relationships with clients have complete confidentiality. Thus the terms of our agreement.

The MBA Exchange safeguards every aspect of its relationships with clients. This trust is the reason why most of our growth has come from the direct referrals of past clients.

Q: Does your company offer only the full package, or will you assist with essays only?

A:

We discourage essay-only engagements because without a solid strategy, even the best-written and best-edited essays are less likely to produce success. At some points during the season when we have the capacity, we consider essay-only engagements, but not often.

Q: What's your take on MBA programs in Europe, and other non-U.S. regions?

A:

If an applicant's career goals include international business, then a top school like (Insead) or (London Business School) would be a great pick. The absence of international experience in the past should not preclude an applicant from considering such schools.

Q: What are the different characteristics they would look for in an applicant as compared to a U.S. B-school?

A:

Probably the most significant is cross-cultural awareness. The typical European students at these schools -- the majority of students -- tend to be more experienced and more "worldly" in their professional and personal backgrounds. So the applicant's ability to share his or her past experience with classmates or colleagues from other cultures would be key.

Q: Taking for granted that one's recommenders can provide an accurate evaluation, does it really matter or help that they are alumni of the school that you're applying to, or a highly credentialed figure, for instance a CFO or president?

A:

First of all, accuracy of the evaluation is only one factor. Passion for your candidacy is equally significant. Assuming that two potential recommenders score equally on both factors, if one has significant stature as an alumnus or alumna of the targeted school, that's a bonus.

Q: Do you think the age of an applicant can affect his or her chances of admission?

A:

There's a trend at some leading schools to attract younger applicants than in the past. Those who are 30-plus face a bit of a dilemma. On one hand, they have a greater list of accomplishments from which to draw examples. On the other hand, they face higher expectations at the admissions committee. We have had success with clients up to age 45 who targeted top-10 B-schools. The key to this success was capitalizing on their extended experience and demonstrating their effectiveness in interacting with colleagues of all ages.

The admissions committee will wonder if you can relate to 27-year-old classmates and whether they can relate to you. The key is to convince them of both -- and it is doable.

Q: Is attending MBA fairs a good strategic step for applicants, or mostly just a marketing tool for the B-schools to distribute information? Do the connections made there help applicants get into their desired B-school?

A:

As with any opportunity for face-to-face contact with an admissions official, the onus is on the applicant to make the most of it. By establishing rapport with this person and giving him or her some reason to remember you, then following up promptly, you can make this marketing opportunity work for you. Most applicants treat these simply as a chance to collect brochures. That's a missed opportunity.

Q: On average, how much time does it take to put together a solidapplication?

A:

The big variable here is typically the applicant's writing ability. Some can produce near-perfect essay drafts overnight, while others can struggle for a month. We feel that an applicant should allow a minimum of two weeks to put together his or her very best application.

Q: Dan, what final application tips can you offer?

A:

In general, it's important to look at the totality of your candidacy, not just to focus on what you think are your one or two key selling points. Second, the importance of a "theme" to your candidacy can be overstated and can overshadow the objective presentation of your strengths. And finally, I would say striving for admission to the top schools will always be a goal that's worth one's best effort. The tangible and intangible rewards last a lifetime, and we encourage everyone to aim as high as they can.

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