I get it. Getting into a top MBA program might feel like the most important thing in your life, ever.
So there’s temptation: temptation to use an expensive admissions consultant, and perhaps to portray yourself as someone you’re sort of but not quite.
Here are the problems with that strategy:
Admissions Officers are increasingly suspicious of the “overly-polished” application
Some schools, like Duke Fuqua, are actually asking you to ‘fess up in your application if you use a consultant, in the noble attempt to hold those applications to a different standard. Very well-intentioned, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s like asking Hollywood celebrities if they get plastic surgery: even if they admit to it, surely they’re under-stating?
There’s also been a lot of talk about HBS’s shift in recent years to “essentially eliminating the formal essay”. Some are speculating that this might be their attempt to either confound MBA Admissions Consultants AND / OR make it easier to sniff out an application that’s “had a little work done“.
I applaud Admissions Officers’ attempts to detect an application that’s been, ahem, under the knife one too many times: the goal of an MBA admissions process should be to try to select folks with the best leadership potential (and fit with a school). I would argue that storytelling is one of the most powerful skills a leader can have (insofar as it’s a great tool for persuasion)(and therefore I focused the creation of the ApplicantLab on guiding you through that process).
And the best stories? The most effective ones? They come from you, in your “voice”.
“But if I hire an MBA admissions consultant, how would they ever know?” you might think. Here are some potential ways:
They run materials through plagiarism checkers
If you work with an admissions consultant who is copying-and-pasting elements from previous clients’ work (face it: how would YOU ever know?), it might come up in a plagiarism checker if someone else submitted something similar, in fact…
They’ve been doing this work for A LONG TIME
… I’ve heard ONE admissions officer claim that she’s gotten so used to certain consultants’ styles that she can not only tell WHO has used a consultant, but in fact, which consultant was used!
They can access your GMAT timed writing sample
OF COURSE what you actually submit in your application will be better than the frenzied stuff you wrote under timed, stressful, overly-caffeinated conditions. And it should be. What you submit should be thoughtful, coherent, compelling, and free from grammatical / spelling mistakes. You can even try to incorporate some “good style” elements like in the classic Elements of Style (the highlights of which are handily summarized for ApplicantLab users).
The essence of “you”, and your writing style, is going to come across in the response to those GMAT prompts. This is particularly true if you’re an international applicant or if English is not your native language. If your GMAT writing sample is intelligently constructed, but demonstrates certain noticeable (but non-fatal!) issues like trouble with verb conjugation, lack of adherence to parallel structure, etc…. it sure will look a little suspicious if the essay is completely flawless. Ditto for someone with a lower GMAT verbal score.
They’re going to meet you in person anyway
If you’re lucky, you’ll be invited to interview. True, sometimes these are “blind” interviews with someone who does not have access to your essays. But at certain top schools, the person interviewing you will not only have read your essays but will have very specific questions about them (more on that in a later post).
And when it comes to the temptation to perhaps embellish your accomplishments? To claim that you led a team when really you were a top contributor but not technically the leader?
They might call one of your recommenders
At the very least, they will look to see that the letter of recommendation is consistent with the story you’re telling about yourself. Your recommender will not only need to answer written questions about you, but he/she will also need to rank your relative strengths in a handy-dandy grid.
So not only will your specific claims about yourself (e.g. your role in certain projects) be easy to verify, but your relative strengths will be as well. Resist the temptation to portray yourself as a dynamic, inspiring type…when really you are the more quiet-but-super-dependable type (the world gets things done thanks to the quiet, super-dependable types!).
It’s completely possible (and considered fair game) for the admissions office to call a recommender with any questions / clarifications. (One of the reasons you should push your recommender to actually write the recommendation for you, but that will be saved for another day).
This does NOT mean, as one candidate asked me, “Are you saying that I should intentionally put in a few errors into my essay, just so that it’s clear to them that this is actually my own work?”. Of course not. If you’re a strong writer, if you have a natural ability to tell stories, if you have a lifelong compulsion to re-re-re-edit rough copy until it smoothly flows like a delectable honey….THEN OF COURSE, DO *THAT*.
What I’m warning against is hiring someone to buff and polish your essays so much that:
1) The “real you” gets lost (like our sad friend in the mask above, who looks like she’d (he’d?) rather be anywhere else right about now)
2) It’s so “perfect” (when other data in your file doesn’t support that you’re a perfect writer), that it might raise suspicion.
In sum: just like an aging starlet with too much plastic surgery — or an unenthusiastic (possibly mildly-depressed?) person in an elaborate carnival costume like our friend above:
too much professional polish could feel unsettling, insincere, and ultimately might work against you.
This is why I created the ApplicantLab: it walks you through, step-by-step, exactly what to say (OR NOT SAY) as you write your MBA application essays and resume, solicit recommendations, and prepare for interviews. It’s guaranteed to help you confidently approach each essay — making it as powerful as possible, yet still in your authentic voice.