TL;DR: MBA Admissions Consultants know that you’re in an emotionally-fragile (or ego-driven) place, and sadly, many (not all! but many!) of them EXPLOIT that to make money.
Expensive admissions consultants — in particular, the ones from the larger firms — often have shady sales techniques to convince you to spend a ton of money on them. The most common technique is to either flatter the candidate with unrealistic promises (and then use future sessions to bring expectations down), or to tear the candidate down and make them feel so worthless that by the end of the call, the candidate is practically begging for the privilege of paying several thousand dollars for this guidance. There are other techniques I mention below, but these two are the one’s you’re most likely to encounter!
The saying “you get what you pay for” certainly applies in many cases.
However, it does NOT necessarily apply to hiring an admissions consultant. This is vitally important to know, in case you look at their high fees and are left wondering: “Is a traditional admissions consultant worth it?”
Each year, I hear from happy ApplicantLab users who share that they had also shelled out thousands of dollars to work with an admissions consultant — either during the same year, or during a previous, unsuccessful year (and that the Lab was just as good, if not better, than the consultant)!
I have a standard reply to those emails, and it starts with: “I’m sorry to hear this; I wish I could say that this is a rare experience, but in fact many people regret paying the high prices that many consultants charge.”
I think a big reason for these negative experiences is that some admissions consultants often have a “sales playbook” – schemes that, similar to car salesmen, will tell you just about anything if it will convince you to hire them.
After years of collecting horror stories from my own clients, below are the emotionally-exploitative techniques they use to get you to pay up.
Tricks Admissions Consultants Play To Make The Sale:
- The “puffing you up” technique
- The “dragging you down” technique
- The “manipulated success rate” technique
- The “exploding offer during a so-called ‘consultation call’” technique
- The “bait and switch” consultation sales technique
- The “exaggerated aura of expertise” technique
- Why the larger MBA admissions consulting firms tend to be more guilty of this than the smaller firms / solo practitioners
The “puffing you up” technique
Everyone, when they first start applying to schools, dreams of getting an acceptance letter from Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, etc.
The honest truth is that most (80%, 90% or more) will not get accepted.
The even MORE honest truth is that many of them never had a shot in the first place.
However, this does not stop some admissions consultants from using obvious flattery to puff up you ego and thus close the sale.
They might tell you during the “consultation call” that you DEFINITELY have a chance of getting in to a top school! They might even use words like “interesting” or “compelling” to describe you.
You’re so excited after this call! Here is a consultant that “believes in you” and “gets” you! Sure, other people have expressed some doubts (though others rarely want to risk getting on our bad sides, so acquaintances usually keep their negative predictions to themselves), but THIS person CLEARLY sees how remarkable you are!
And, maybe you are remarkable! If you truly are that remarkable, you probably don’t need an admissions consultant since your profile will get you in on its own.
What is far, far more likely is that they are trying to close the sale with you.
Then, after your deposit is paid…they will start to steer you in another direction:
“Hey, I know that you’re excited about EliteSchool, and when we first spoke, based on the teeny amount of information I had about you, I thought you had a good shot. But now that I’ve gotten to know you a bit better, how about if we move EliteSchool to your list of ‘REACH’ schools, and add in some ‘BETTER FITS’?”
*Note that in this case, a “better fit” probably = “a school they think you have a strong chance of getting accepted to, and thus you won’t damage any of those “success metrics” they love to manipulate / publish.
They are counting on the fact that you’re going to spend several hours with them on the phone / e-mail over the next few weeks / months, and in that time, they can win your trust and start to talk you down a bit.
They might also use phrases like “…this year is turning out to be way more competitive than usual” or “…a lot more people with your background are applying than what I predicted” or “…I just heard that EliteSchool has started putting a lot more emphasis on [something you don’t have], so while in the PAST you probably would have gotten in, it might not happen this year.”
All of these sorts of phrases above help them convince you that, when they implied that you were TOTALLY a strong candidate for that elite school at first (before you paid them)… well, things are “different” this year, so it’s NOT that they were fake during the consultation… it’s that the world has changed! And you can’t blame them for that, right?
**I should also note that sometimes, the flattery folks have even less of a conscience. They will help someone apply to a school that they know is never going to happen.. and then, when the person doesn’t get in? They ghost them. Stop replying to emails. Will have an “assistant” reply to tell you that they are sorry that you are disappointed but that ConsultantName is not currently available and please refer to the terms & conditions about no refunds and how researching suitable schools is your responsibility. These folks just “take the money and run” and don’t feel bad about it for a second!
The “dragging you down” technique
Other firms have the exact opposite sale technique. They will try to convince you during the “consultation” call that your profile is very weak, or at best, marginal…
…and so the ONLY hope you possibly have would be if you are lucky enough to get to hire them (you see, they are quickly filling up and might not have availability if you wait!). Then, MAYBE, you have a shot of getting in, but you’ll need their golden, magical guidance to get even close.
I can’t decide which technique I hate most: this one (since it preys on an applicant’s insecurities) or the puffing-up one (since it preys on an applicant’s ego).
This sales pitch works better on more mature, self-aware candidates – people who are likely to have started doing their research and realize how tough this process can be. Also, anecdotally, I suspect that this technique is more often used with female clients, preying on the whole “impostor syndrome” thing. UGH.
Anyway, like that emotionally-abusive ex who tried to convince you that you couldn’t possibly live without them, these consultants will find and exaggerate flaws in your profile. They will make mountains out of molehills to scare you and convince you that THEY are the life-line you need.
- My favorite example was a candidate who was flat-out told that he would MAYBE get into a top 15 – 20 school, IF they were lucky and IF they paid this firm a LOT of money.
- This person used ApplicantLab and ended up getting the Reliance Fellowship (a merit-based full ride) to Stanford GSB!
- People who work in fields like the arts / media being told that their background is too non-traditional and thus they are in big trouble re: admissions.
- The truth is, someone who has held a leadership role in an arts / media organization probably has amazing lessons to share with classmates!
- A more recent example, a consultant from another firm told one of my clients to “not even bother” talking about their family business, since “any family business making less than $200 million / year in revenue will not be impressive enough to mention for the adcom at any M7 school”
- LOL. Tell that to the many clients I’ve worked with from family businesses waaaay smaller than $200M/year who went to top schools. If this were true, then there would be virtually no one in any program from family businesses! And yet, several top schools have entire classes and conferences devoted to family businesses!
I said above that I’m not sure which one I hate more – while the flattery angle makes my stomach churn, at the end of the day, it’s someone’s inflated ego that makes them sign up. THIS technique, on the other hand, feasts on fear. It succeeds by destabilizing, sowing doubt, and deflating people. So I think this one is worse.
The “manipulated success rate” technique
The firms that publish too-good-to-be-true “success” metrics primarily do this in two ways:
- They convince the client that some “safe” schools are in fact “target” schools
- That way, when the person applies and gets in, and the bold headline of “9X% of our clients get into at least one target school!” can be published
- In order for #1 to work, candidates need to be open to applying to some safer schools. If someone seems unwilling / inflexible, they simply won’t work with you!
For example, a firm might say “Look, we’d be happy to help you with your application to EliteSchool, but we’ll only do so if you also apply to SaferSchool as well”. I actually had a former client who was flat-out told that a firm would not bother to work with him for applications to top fifteen schools, but they’d be happy to help with schools ranked 16 – 30!
At this point, firms are saving time by having an “intake” or “interest” form prior to setting up the “consultation call.” This is to make sure that they are not going to waste their time on the sales call.
If the person’s “intake” form shows a blah college, blah employers, and blah impact within those employers… BUT the person writes that the ONLY school they are considering is Stanford? Guess what! That person will probably NOT EVEN GET a “consultation call” appointment!
To be fair, it’s not just admissions consultants that do this – even in the under-rated movie Doctor Strange, he has a confrontational conversation with a guy who had wanted to be his patient… but whose case seemed so impossible that Dr. Strange didn’t even bother (boo! I can’t find a link to the clip, but if you’ve seen the movie you know what I mean!)
The “exploding offer during a so-called ‘consultation call’” technique
This one is quick and easy to explain: “Usually, we charge $4,800 for a one-school package, BUT I JUST got permission from my manager for a LIMITED TIME special that IF you sign up with us RIGHT NOW, I can give you a discount of $X! But I don’t know how much longer my manager will let me do this, so you’d better sign up now!”
While it’s unrealistic to expect that an admissions consultant would care for you the way a family member would… it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that they want what is best (or at least, “OK”) for you.
I bet if you reached out a week later, saying that you had your bank account / credit card in hand, but would only sign up if that limited-time offer were still good… I’m pretty sure that they’d (perhaps after checking with a “manager” of course) still accept it. And if they wouldn’t, then you don’t want to work with such pushy people anyway.
(The “expiring discount” technique is a close cousin of the “we are filling up fast / our top consultants are almost all booked!” technique.)
The “bait and switch” consultation sales technique
First of all, many firms’ “FREE 30 / 15 minute consultation!” is a sales call in disguise.
The person will walk a fine line between throwing out some crumbs of information…just enough to try to hook you. But they will usually be pretty vague, or “of course I’d need to know a lot more about you – that’s what our 2 hour ‘discovery introduction call’ is for!”
But you already knew this, right?
What many people don’t know, however, is that the super-smart, friendly, and caring person you did your consultation with is often NOT the same person who will be your consultant.
I know this because a few years ago, a large consulting firm offered to buy ApplicantLab and they showed me “behind the curtain” of their operations and explained that many other firms work the same way.
ONE consultant (or sometimes not even a full consultant, just a well-trained salesperson) will do the intro call and make you fall in love with them. Starry-eyed, you pay the deposit. Then… you’re introduced to “Someone Else”, who’s the person who will be actually working with you.
This technique has different forms:
- The deeply-experienced consultant does the sales call, then pawns you off to a far less experienced person.
- A not-very-experienced consultant (but professional salesperson) does the call – their initial questions get to the heart of “which buttons are the best ones to push?”, and then they’ll push those buttons to get you to sign up.
- A firm will say that you will “probably” get to work with the same person who did your call… but then, wouldn’t you know it, soon after you pay your deposit: darn! That consultant you liked *just* got fully booked! Too bad! However, we have this other person on our team…
The “exaggerated aura of expertise” technique
This is another technique that makes me want to vomit.
A consultant’s webpage will say something that sure SOUNDS good, like: “Former staff member, EliteSchool admissions!” or even just “Former staff, EliteSchool”.
What they don’t tell you is that they were simply a support-staff member (e.g. working in operations, or in “recruitment” [sales]), OR they were simply a 2nd-year student doing routine admissions interviews (but with limited impact on the admissions decisions themselves) or they were simply a career center volunteer, helping out the first-year students, etc.
They will often not point out that frequently, admissions offices will hire the spouses of foreign students, simply because they need a job, not because they have massive expertise / talent. Or sometimes (of course not always), the students who work in admissions right after graduation do so because they were unable to get another job (shhhh!)
Or a consultant will try to confer expertise via logos of publications they have been “featured” in – of course, not all of them will tell you that they are often paying for – er, “sponsoring” — those articles.
**For the record, I pay nothing to be a co-host of the Poets and Quants podcast! This is because John is SUPER nice!
One that makes me especially sick is when consulting firms make it seem that they are being “endorsed” by a certain organization, when really, all they did was make a large donation or pay a sponsorship fee.
Why the larger MBA admissions consulting firms tend to be more guilty of this than the smaller firms / solo practitioners
Of course, not all firms do things like this! I have found, in particular, that the larger MBA admissions consulting firms tend to rely upon more “strong arm” / emotional tactics like this.
I think that this is because some of the larger firms will staff up each year with a small army of MBA Admissions Consultants — many of which are simply recent graduates of MBA programs, but who are not necessarily admissions experts!!! — and so they are trying to get the maximum number of clients possible. Because: they know that they can keep expanding their work force as needed. And since each new client = roughly 50% (!!!) of the revenue going directly to the firm, the motivation to sign up a lot of clients is pretty intense!
Smaller MBA admissions consulting firms — e.g., the boutique firms, or expert solo practioners — do NOT usually use these sales techniques. Why? Because they each have a natural limit on the number of clients they can serve each year.
Therefore, it’s in their best interest to fill their available spaces thoughtfully. And because of THAT, the “free 30 minute consultation” is more likely to be a genuine exploration of whether or not you’d be a good fit for each other — that is, are your personalities a match? Can they support you in what you want to do? (Note that many of these elite solo practitioners will often refer potential clients to each other, if they feel that someone else in their network might be better able to help!)
Of course — the boutique firms / solo practioners do NOT have a “Sales Team” trying to close deals, so any free consultations that you do with them takes time out of their day. So please, if you’re going to request a conversation with a smaller / solo firm, PLEASE only reach out if you are serious about potentially hiring them. Please check their pricing in advance and make sure that you’re comfortable potentially paying it, should they be a good match for you, because they don’t have the revenues of the big firms, they don’t have a “sales team”, etc. and so being respectful of their time is, at a minimum, a great way to get some good karma! 🙂
Have YOU encountered any of the sales techniques I mention above? Are there any that I missed? You won’t find any of them with ApplicantLab — I don’t turn anyone away (which is honestly sometimes a bad thing, when someone with unrealistic / immature expectations signs up), but I also don’t filter people out based on whether or not I think they have the $$$ to pay me, or whether or not I think they’ll add to my “success stories” list! But the good news is: no sales pitch!