The Wall Street Journal recently published the article “MBA Applications at Some of the Country’s Best Colleges Fell this Year” talking about how application volumes at many of the top MBA programs are significantly down from last year’s volumes. In this week’s episode of Business Casual, John, Caroline and Maria dig into this claim and what the story behind the numbers REALLY is (hint – the headline is clearly sensationalist and misleading).
The team also discusses John’s article about the MBA Admissions Consulting Firm that claims to have the “most former M7 adcoms” on its team. Is this something that really matters when it comes to MBA Admissions Consulting? Should “adcom” experience be a requirement for you when selecting an MBA Admissions coach? And what really constitutes “adcom experience” anyway? (Like many things, this can be subjective!) Listen below to hear what the team has to say.
[00:00:07.270] – John
Well, hello, everyone. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. Welcome to Business Casual, our weekly podcast. We have two very sexy topics to discuss today with my co hosts, Caroline Diarte. Edwards, Maria Wich Vila. Caroline, of course, is the former admissions director at INSEAD and a co founder of Fortuna Admissions, one of the leading MBA consulting firms in the market. And Maria is the inventor of ApplicantLab, which allows applicants to kind of do it yourself approach, gaining guidance along each step of the way to help you enhance your odds of acceptance. And Maria graduated from that school in Boston that we all know and that many people apply to. We want to talk about two things. One is a Wall Street Journal story that appeared under the headline MBA Applications at Some of the Country’s Best Colleges Fell this Year. The story begins with some of the best known MBA programs in the US registered precipitous drops or sluggish interests from prospective candidates this year following a 2020 admission cycle in which applications soared. That’s one thing we want to take on. The second thing we want to take on is a story I’m working on, actually today.
[00:01:28.670] – John
And we’ll have appeared by the time this comes out. And it’s about an MBA admissions consulting firm which claims to have more M7 admission officials on its consulting team than any other firm in the world and why it thinks that’s a good thing. So we want to talk about what kind of backgrounds do MBA admission consultants bring to the game and doesn’t really matter if you’re going to get a terrific coaching experience from them, no matter what their background is. Let’s tackle the Wall Street Journal story first. We know that applications at the Kellogg School of Business dropped by 20%, which was pretty dramatic last year, and at Columbia Business School by less dramatic percentage 6%. But we also know that those are the only two schools that have so far reported in this current time period that have had declines. Every other school has had an increase. Michigan Ross, in fact, had an increase of over 50%. Many schools from Cornell to Yale and others have had a twelve plus percent increase. And MIT just announced another increase. In other words, the only two schools so far that are highly prominent in the US that have had a decline are Kellogg and Colombia.
[00:02:49.410] – John
And to put a little context around that, if you look at what happened to Kellogg the previous year, their applications were up by something like 54%. Now how come? It’s because they expanded the time in which you could apply to the school because of the pandemic, and they actually announced that they would waive standardized tests. So in came a flood of applicants. Now judged against that period is a more normal application cycle where they did not expand the deadlines, where they ended their policy of considering waivers of candidates and so naturally the application volume fell by 20%. That was a pretty dramatic fall, but it’s a total anomaly. And yet you look at the headline on that Wall Street Journal, you look at the lead on that story, and everything else is behind a paywall. And guess what? You think that there’s fewer people interested in getting an MBA today. You think that schools are hard up to find applicants. Caroline, what do you make of this?
[00:03:56.000] – Caroline
It’s a showing about the headline, as you say, and that they’ve exaggerated this. And we were discussing this last week when we talked about the rankings, that publishers often like to dramatize things for the sake of attracting eyeballs and sort of finding a story that isn’t there. And I think that this is the prime case of that. We’re trying to build traffic and create a story where there isn’t really one. So look, I think that last year was definitely a banner year for business schools. Volume has stabilized, but I don’t see a drop in the market. We see very strong demand for the new season. I did actually talk to a journalist for that article. One of the points that I made is that the top schools have a very consistent pipeline. And even though there are fluctuations year to year, yes, there may be a surge because of economic downturn, pandemic, etcetera. And it is cyclical. Despite those variations, the top schools have an incredibly strong presence pipeline of outstanding candidates coming through year in, year out. And the media often like to make a story about doom and gloom for business schools. It’s all going to hell in a handbasket.
[00:05:18.590] – Caroline
People don’t need MBAs any longer. Declining demand. It’s just not happening. We don’t see that there may be greater fluctuations in demand for schools that are further down the pecking order, but the top schools have consistent demand coming through, and we don’t see that changing.
[00:05:37.220] – John
That’s true. And the facts are just they’re obvious. Duke of 12.1%. Michigan of 55.9%. Cornell up 12.4. Yale up 12.3. Dartmouth, tuck up 11.0. Mit up 12.0. How in the world you could actually justify coming out with the story saying that things are bad, applications are down? I have no idea. Maria, you don’t trust what the media says even though you had a career in media.
[00:06:08.450] – Caroline
That’s why he doesn’t trust them.
[00:06:10.650] – Maria
I don’t trust anybody. John. No, you know what’s sort of annoying about this analysis, this quote unquote analysis is that it’s really not an apples to apples comparison. I mean, 2020 was such a crazy year, not just in MBA admissions, but you might have noticed that it was also a slightly crazy year on other facets of life as well. And so to say something like, well, Kellogg’s applications are down. That’s like saying, well, during the pandemic, I placed a lot of online grocery orders. And after the pandemic, I placed a lot fewer of them. And it’s like, well, does that mean that the grocery business is dying? No, it’s just because things are different now. And so I think I actually admittedly my coffee is still kicking in. But I Googled actually what was the 2019 application number to Kellogg? And so it might be down 20% versus last year. But if I did this correctly in my little Handy Dandy Excel sheet, they’re actually up by three and a half percent compared to 2019. So if this were really a doom and gloom thing, we would be seeing this very consistent downward trend even from pre pandemic levels.
[00:07:14.460] – Maria
So it’s really not fair to put up this pandemic number, which was crazy because as we’ve discussed in the past, Kellogg extended their deadlines. Kellogg said you don’t need a GMAT anymore, I believe. And guys, correct me if I’m wrong, because like I said, the coffee hasn’t kicked in yet. I think Kellogg actually even said, if we rejected you in an earlier round, you can come back and reapply. Maybe we’ll change our minds, right? So of course a bunch of rejected people were playing. So it’s not at all an apples to apples. It wasn’t an apples to apples comparison. So I get it, man. You need to generate the clicks. If you just say things are going swimmingly, not much change to report, then no one’s going to click on it. And John, you’re the one who was a journalist. Maybe your editor gets mad at you and they walk in and all grumpy and they’re like, nobody’s clicking on your article. Shape up, Byrne.
[00:08:05.090] – John
Luckily, I was a journalist.
[00:08:09.630] – Maria
You got out.
[00:08:12.390] – John
And to your point about catalog, okay, even after the 20% client, the application volume at the school was higher than any Kellogg admissions cycle since 2014. Okay, so of course that wasn’t in the story either. But it just goes to show and we’ve addressed this issue before. Why are there so many people who are so eager to, in one way or another, diminished the MBA? Yeah, I know, it’s the most popular graduate degree in America, and people tend to love success, but they also tend to envy and hate success in people and organizations and everything. When you’re number one, you’re always a target. But why is it so consistent that everyone wants to be a bearer of bad news when it comes to the NBA?
[00:09:03.870] – Maria
Maria, why do you think sodonfreude? It’s schadenfreude, right? I mean, everyone loves nobody. The only thing people love more than an underdog story is a fall from Grace story. And I wonder, I actually have not yet clicked on this article, but oftentimes the journalists who love writing these stories themselves don’t have MBAs. And so it’s really great. It’s extra great to be on the outside criticizing things. It’s like when people are like, oh, the Royal family, let’s throw rocks at them. And it’s like, well, is it because you really don’t like them or is it because you’re a little jealous that you’re not in the Royal family. Or maybe I don’t know if that analogy holds up, but you know what I mean. It’s like, well, wait a minute. Do you have an NBA? Like, if you did, you probably would think that it was a pretty valuable experience and maybe you would be a little bit less likely to throw rocks at it. Aka, jealous much.
[00:09:51.870] – John
Yeah. And Maria, you have an MBA. Caroline. You have an MBA, Caroline. I bet you are. There are times and people say, hey, do you really think that MBA was worth it? Don’t you regret having gone?
[00:10:02.560] – Caroline
Well, they don’t say that to me so often these days, given my profession, I think they can assume they know that the answer to that question. But people do sometimes say to me talk about the bad publicity that these articles generate and the latest tech Tyson has said, you don’t need to go to business school. So people are going to stop going to business school and demand is going to decrease. And the schools aren’t worried about that. They have an incredibly talented pipeline of people coming through who understand the value of the experience they’re going to get and how it’s going to help them in the future. So regardless of the latest headlines and what journalists jump on because somebody has said something critical, it’s like the Elon Musk thing the other day.
[00:10:56.650] – Caroline
I mean, fundamentally, it doesn’t change anything about the business school experience and what you’re going to get out of it. And candidates know that and recruiters know that.
[00:11:06.870] – John
That is really true. If anything, I would think that what makes the job of selecting talent at these business schools so difficult is that there are so many highly skilled people who deserve to be admitted and so many of them are turned down. It’s the opposite problem. In other words, there’s a surplus of quality applicants that cannot be served by the limited supply of seats in the classroom. So I would think the greater worry at most business schools is, are we rejecting someone who potentially could be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or could be the next big entrepreneur who’s going to shape the way things are done in his or her industry, unless about, oh, our applications might be down by two or three or four or 5%, or in the case of Kellogg 20%, which still happens to be higher than any other application volume they’ve had since 2014. I’m sure that that’s true. Now, when you were at INSEAD, you certainly didn’t worry about application volume.
[00:12:18.760] – Caroline
No. And when I took the role, I spent some time looking back through the statistics, and clearly there was a cycle that is correlated with the economic cycle.
[00:12:31.000] – Caroline
But what I also observed was that there’s an incredibly consistent pipeline of strong candidates coming through. And when there’s a surge of applications, for example, if there’s an economic downturn. That increased volume is not always of the same quality as that consistent volume that’s coming through year by year. So therefore, the fluctuations sometimes it’s not necessarily terribly helpful because you get people throwing their head into the ring for the wrong reasons. Right. And they’re not necessarily the best qualified candidates and the best prepared candidates. So it’s somewhat misleading to say that a huge surge in application volume is a great thing for business schools because actually they don’t necessarily need all of that additional volume. And they may be dealing with more candidates who are less well prepared. The top schools have a very loyal base. The pipeline coming through year by year, regardless of the cycle. And all those headlines are just a distraction, really. And it doesn’t really say much about actually what is going on fundamentally.
[00:13:38.310] – John
Absolutely. So I want to turn to another topic because it’s ever present in my mind because I’m writing about this today. So a few days ago, one of your competitors and this goes to both Maria and Caroline sent me an analysis of their rival firms and how they compare with them on the basis of one metric. How many M7 admission officers actually work for them as consultants. And this firm, it’s Stacey Blackman consulting by their own count, says they have 21 former members of M7 admissions offices, including the trio from Harvard Business School and Stanford School of Business, on their team. And we know that when Fortuna was founded, its differentiation in the market, in fact, was that Fortuna put together a team of people who had worked in ad compositions at some of the best schools, including INSEAD, Wharton, you even had as advisors, former ADCOMS at, I believe, Berkeley and Chicago booth. So my question is, do you really have to have experience, inside experience, privilege, information of being on the inside of the admissions process, having read thousands of applications, maybe interviewed thousands of students as well, having sat in dozens or hundreds of admissions committee meetings where there were conversations and discussions, if not debates about giving candidates and whether they were worthy enough to be accepted.
[00:15:17.880] – John
Is that a prerequisite to being a good admissions consultant? Now, Maria, you should take on this because you didn’t have ADCOM experience, correct?
[00:15:29.990] – Maria
I do not have official Adcom experience. I am always very transparent about that. I was an admissions volunteer for a student organization that was trying to bring more applicants to campus. So at HBS, the way how it works. So different schools have different levels of student involvement in the admissions office. At some schools, the students are reading files and assessing them. At some schools, the students are doing interviews. At HBS, the students are really not involved in the admissions process. Most people who are students at HBS who do anything with the admissions office, are they’re section admissions reps? And that might sound very exciting to an outsider, but all it is is you’re a tour guide, right? Whenever there’s a visitor who’s going to come sitting on your class, you go to the admissions office, you make sure they’re happy. You do small talk, and you walk them to the classroom. So I sometimes see people at various firms say, like, oh, my name is so and so. And I was a Harvard admissions rep. And it’s like, I know what that means. That means you were a tour guide. There are also people in the Harvard admissions office, for example, who might just be processing some of the files or who might be in the interviews.
[00:16:39.270] – Maria
They might be the notetakers in the interviews, and yet they can still, those people can credibly say, I worked in the admissions office, but did you really like if you were just taking notes during the interview? I’m sure that you have some experience and some insight, but it’s probably not super valuable. Now, my role was a little bit different in that I was working with. There was specifically an admissions officer devoted to diversity recruitment. And so I was working with him to try to figure out how do we increase the pipeline. And when we talk about increasing the pipeline, we want a quality pipeline. And from my conversations with him, I was able to glean. What does Harvard define as a quality pipeline? Number one. And then number two, I think that you just have to have a lot of experience doing this, right. So when I started in this field for years, I did not charge anything because I was like, I’m learning. If you’re willing to learn along with me while I help you, why should I charge for that? I would not charge money for my advice. I would not be able to sleep at night.
[00:17:38.110] – Maria
I can’t. It was too Catholic of an upbringing for me to be able to charge money for something if I didn’t think it had value. So I think there are also other ways to get a lot of information, like those of us who are members of AIGAC, which is the Association of Independent Graduate Admissions Consultants. I think that’s what that stands for.
[00:17:56.610] – Caroline
Thank you, Carol.
[00:17:57.430] – Maria
Carol is giving me the thumbs up over the Zoom. Thank you. I just call it AGAIC, but I don’t think about what it means anyway. Every year we have a conference with admissions officers. We sit in rooms with admissions officers. We do exercises where we discuss hypothetical made up candidates with admissions officers. And so we say to them, what would you accept this hypothetical candidate with a 720 and the 3.2 GPA over this other candidate with a seven, eight? We get to learn how they think. It’s not as good as having been sitting there for years and years reading thousands. But you do start to glean information. We visit the schools every year. You start to glean information. You see who gets in and who doesn’t, you see which essays tend to work and which ones don’t. And so after you do this for several years, as long as you have the experience and you start to be able to do pattern matching, I think that’s key. And I think the other thing is also the ability to communicate. Right. There might be people out there who fundamentally have a great understanding of what a business school is looking for.
[00:18:58.400] – Maria
But if they don’t know how to help somebody else convey that or communicate that effectively, if they are a bad writer, for example, then they’re not going to be helpful as an admissions consultant. So I think it helps. I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t. But I also think that there are other ways to gain that expertise.
[00:19:14.650] – John
That’s true. And I interviewed another person who owns a firm who does not have many former adcoms on the staff. And here’s what he said. Who would you hire a film critic or a director to get behind the camera of your film? A food critic or a chef to prepare a meal for your most critical professional dinner? Are those questions actually beside the point?
[00:19:40.140] – Caroline
Caroline, my perspective on this was and I started for Tuna, as you know, with Mash and June a few years back, after having worked with several years and having observed that more and more of our students were working with counselors. And after looking into this, I realized that a lot of the people that they were working with and paying for a lot of money didn’t know very much at all about integrity and what it took to get in. And when I looked at it a little bit more deeply, I discovered that a lot of people who are sort of set up shop as advisors were people who had graduated from a school, and then someone had approached them and said, oh, I’d really like to go to that school as well. Can you help me? And they sort of started advising someone. It’s snowball from there and sort of fallen into it that way. And I knew from having studied on my MBA and then gone back two years later in the admissions office that as a student, I knew nothing about how admissions worked. And it was a whole new world being behind the closed doors of admissions.
[00:20:45.890] – Caroline
And as a student and Alum, you might even not really know exactly why you got it, never mind why anyone else would get it right. It’s not necessarily something you’re exposed to when you attend the school. So that was where we were coming from. We saw that there was a gap in the market where there were a lot of counselors out there who are not giving very good advice. And I also knew that from the fact that sometimes those coaches would approach us with questions that were incredibly basic. Right. I mean, they hadn’t even read the website. So it was concerning that people were paying them large sums of money for their advice. And therefore we set up fortunate with the idea of bringing together a team of people who had that insider expertise. And I completely agree that the insider expertise alone is not sufficient to me. There are sort of three different elements to the skills that a good admissions coach should bring to the table. So one part of it is that school insight and understanding the admissions process and the DNA of the school and who is a good fit for that school and helping people understand where they should apply and where would be a good fit for them and helping them navigate through the process and understand what is expected of them and how they can best put their best foot forward in the process.
[00:22:16.270] – Caroline
And then the second part is just being a good coach right there’s universal coaching skills of being a good listener, being able to hold up a mirror to someone and help them understand what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are, help them think about their future and what they want to do in the short term, in the medium term, and how they see their career evolving over time and really spending time to get to know them and give them some good advice on what they have achieved to date and what the skills are that they’ve developed. Because that’s sometimes not so obvious for someone who is in their mid twentys and they are working alongside people who have very similar profile. And it might be difficult for them to sort of figure out what is unique about my story. And often a coach who’s coming to their profiles with a fresh set of eyes and understand their full history can really see the things that stand out in a way that is very difficult sometimes for the individuals too, because it’s difficult to see the forest for the trees. Right. So there’s that sort of coaching element and then there’s being able to shape the story and help somebody articulate their story effectively and get that down on paper and help them coach them for the interviews and so on.
[00:23:43.670] – Caroline
So there’s the sort of the more content oriented piece as well. So I think all of those three elements are very important. And when we hire people at Fortuna, we’re not just looking at the school expertise, we’re very much looking. And we put people through their paces before we hire them to screen for those other elements as well. So all of those three pieces are super important. And I agree with Maria. Over time you can build up that knowledge of the schools through diligence and experience. We can certainly build that up. Unfortunately, too many people don’t take time to do that I think so. I think one of the tricky things for candidates these days is just the process can be a bit overwhelming because there is so much information out there.
[00:24:34.840] – Caroline
When I applied to business school, I ordered the brochure. I filled out a form. There wasn’t this overwhelming wealth of information online with a lot of good advice and a lot of bad advice. And then how is the candidate supposed to know which is rich? Right. And so one of the things that we do is help people sort of navigate through that process and figure out what it is that they need to know. What are the good information sources help dispel some of the myths and take some of the anxiety out of the process. And having the experience from being behind the closed doors of admissions can give us some confidence in the advice that we’re giving people that we’re not guessing, that we actually can say with some authority how the schools evaluate candidates, what they like to see, what they don’t like to see. And through our experience of both being in the schools and now working with hundreds and hundreds of candidates, that Fortune, how an individual’s profile will stand up in comparison to other people in the pool. And we stay in touch with the schools as well. That’s very important to us to maintain, to keep our knowledge up to date.
[00:25:51.980] – Caroline
And I am in regular contact with my former colleagues that is here, as are many of my colleagues at Fortune, with their former colleagues. And so we do our best to maintain those relationships and stay on top of things so that our knowledge is always current.
[00:26:10.090] – John
All good points. And actually, in many ways, I think, like everything in life, it comes down to practice. Right. So a personal story. I recently went to a teaching hospital to have my eyes examined. I’m getting to that age when things get a little blurry here and there. And I do have cataracts. They’re not severe, but I had a surgeon look at them at the teaching hospital, and she was terrific. I loved her. And then I asked, well, how many of these procedures have you done? And she said, 25. And I said, no offense, but I want someone who’s done thousands of these. And I think the point here that I’m trying to make is that regardless of whether or not you have inside information about a particular school’s admissions processes, regardless of how far removed you are from the school and how perishable that information might be, the number of people you’ve worked with over the years and helping them with their applications and all those applications that you’ve seen and how they differ from each other and all the outcomes that you’ve seen those students get is what could make you an incredibly valuable and helpful counselor to others.
[00:27:25.320] – John
I’m sure both of you would agree with that. Now, Caroline, would you have someone operate on your eyes who’s done 25 cataract surgeries?
[00:27:35.770] – Caroline
Yeah. Well, it does sound rather early stage.
[00:27:40.990] – John
You’re so diplomatic. Maria, how about you?
[00:27:43.740] – Maria
That’s the best words. Not me, John. I want the person to operate on my eyes who ran admissions for the medical school. Oh, that’s who I want operating.
[00:27:59.910] – John
All right, there you have it. I don’t know if we came up with one way or the other. I think there’s both ways. You can be a great coach whether or not you have ADCOM experience. And if you do have ADCOM experience, obviously you’ve seen a lot and you see how subtle differences and nuances can make a difference in a candidacy and you see how different people in admissions committee room react to it but that may not be necessary to make you an excellent coach. In fact, I’m willing to bet on it that there are coaches out there who are as good or better than those who have admissions experience and vice versa. So there’s no one rule to apply and it may just be some differentiation. But if you don’t look for those other points that Caroline mentioned, a good listener someone who is empathetic to the process, someone who keeps in touch with the schools and knows their cultures. Someone who knows what these different schools are looking for, even though your own experience may be for one school, if you’re not doing all those other things, you’re not going to be any good at the job of helping others get into their dream school.
[00:29:04.360] – John
All right, Maria, Caroline, thank you, as always. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. You’ve been listening to Business Casual.