The nation's elite business schools are struggling to thwart a small industry that has sprung up to coach applicants in crafting essays and acing interviews to win coveted spots on campus.
Admissions consultants, who troll for clients on Internet bulletin boards and chat rooms, promise to help MBA hopefuls find the magic words that will touch a chord at schools such as Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton -- for fees ranging from $50 to $3,000 per application.
With their master of business administration programs fielding a rising volume of applications this year, competition has intensified for acceptance at schools that serve as springboards to six-figure salaries and a shot at the corner office. And that means business for the consultants, some of whom are graduates or former admissions officers of the schools.
But officials at the schools, which require would-be students to attest that they prepared their own applications, fear a growing number of candidates are hiring consultants to help them game the system with inflated images and artfully spun tales that do not reflect their true personalities.
Now some admissions directors have begun weighing changes to their application process to shut out intermediaries and make sure they are evaluating unvarnished applicants. ''At the end of the day, what we really want to see is the candidates," said Britt K. Dewey, managing director for MBA admissions at Harvard Business School. ''We're looking for authenticity."
Dewey and her counterpart Derrick Bolton, director of admissions at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, recently discussed steps to foil the consultants. The deans of seven of the leading US business schools are expected to address the issue at an upcoming gathering. Among the measures under consideration are conducting multiple interviews and more follow-up with references, giving different essay questions to different candidates, and dispatching applicants to test centers to complete their essays under supervision.
''We want to remove the possibility of outside interference," Bolton said. Admission consultants, he contended, ''rob students of a chance to learn about themselves, to reflect on their values. Instead, they get them to focus externally on what they think schools want. And they perpetuate stereotypes about the schools that have no basis in reality."
Admissions consultants range from independent operators to larger firms with consultants scattered around the globe. The consultants insist that rather than writing the essays, they advise clients on which schools to apply to, help them find and present the true stories from their careers and lives that will most impress admissions officers, clue them in to the preferences of different business schools, and edit essay drafts.
''The schools refuse to admit there's any formula," said consultant Sanford Kreisberg, founder of Cambridge Essay Service. ''But the fact is, if you know the schools, there's a real formula."
Julie Ha hired Kreisberg, whom she has never met in person, to help her with her Stanford application in 1999. ''He didn't write anything," recalled Ha, who received her MBA from Stanford in 2002 and is now chief executive of Prospect Colleges LLC, a chain of private colleges based in Los Angeles. ''He just told me if what I wrote sounded stupid or hokey. He pushed me to do a better job. I got a sense that a lot of the students used consultants, but it wasn't cool to admit it."
Kreisberg, who taught an essay-writing course at Harvard College in the 1980s, handles hundreds of clients each year and said he has developed a sense of what schools want over a decade of coaching applicants. He said many mistakenly view essays as a way to crow about themselves. ''A lot of people think Harvard's looking for a victory lap, but they're not," he said. ''They want to know how you were effective in different ways with different people. It helps to have a slightly therapeutic vocabulary, to know the right buzzwords and personalize them."
And the touchstones vary, suggested Kreisberg, who specializes in steering applicants to Harvard, Stanford, and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, the three business schools usually regarded as being at the top of the pack. While admissions officers at Harvard look for applicants' leadership experience and ability to work through others, Kreisberg said, Stanford is keen on personal revelations, family dynamics, and identity politics. He said the ideal Harvard essay theme is like the story of Tom Sawyer ''motivating" friends to paint a fence, while Stanford is more apt to respond to the tale of a Huck Finn surviving a dysfunctional dad and rafting down the river with a runaway slave. Wharton, he said, rewards applicants who tell admissions committees in personal terms why Wharton -- and not the other schools -- is the perfect fit for them.
Such observations rankle admissions directors. The leading schools, which together admit about 1 in 8 candidates, work to weed out applications engineered by consultants. ''There are subtle clues," observed Thomas R. Caleel, director of MBA admissions at Wharton. ''Sometimes you read an essay and you lose a sense of who the individual is because the essay is overpolished."
Consultants, for their part, insist they are helping clients find their voices, not creating phony voices. ''Our value is in helping the applicant match himself or herself to a school," said Linda Abraham, president of Accepted.com of Los Angeles, an admissions consulting firm for business schools that employs 10 editors worldwide. ''We're not creating a generic application, and we're not fitting to a generic school." Applicants to undergraduate and law schools also seek outside help, sometimes from paid consultants. But because those applicants are less likely to be in the workforce, it is more common for them to get advice from high school or college guidance counselors. And there is a greater stigma about using consultants at business schools, partly because the monetary stakes are higher: A degree from a Harvard, Wharton, or Stanford enables MBAs to command lucrative job offers from Wall Street to Silicon Valley.
''If you can't even abide by the rules to get into the business schools, how can you abide by the accounting rules once you're out in the business world?" Caleel asked rhetorically. While the schools say lying, buying a canned essay, or paying someone to write one for you is grounds for rejection, they do not expressly prohibit applicants from showing drafts to outside advisers and receiving critical feedback. (The three business schools recently began using private investigators to verify the work experience listed in all their candidates' applications.)
Business school applicants, conscious of the stigma, do not disclose their use of consultants, so it is impossible to say for sure how many retain them. The consultants estimate that as many as half do, while school officials say the percentage is much lower, but all agree the number is increasing. One reason is that applicant pools are expanding this year, after several flat or declining years, as the economy and financial markets pick up. Another is the surging popularity of Internet forums, like those run by BusinessWeek, Princeton Review, and GMAT Club, where consultants dispense advice and market themselves.
Admissions consultants, craving respectability, are organizing a panel to trumpet the services they provide at a Graduate Management Admissions Council meeting this spring in San Francisco.
''We're starting to get some recognition by business school admission committees that we exist, that we're not going away," noted Alex L. Brown, senior admissions counselor at ClearAdmit LLC in Philadelphia, who worries that a small group trafficking in second-hand essays on the Internet is spoiling the image of the rest of the industry. ''There are people out there who say, 'We'll write your essay for you, or we'll sell you an essay for Harvard,' " he acknowledged. ''They give a bad name to those of us who are providing professional feedback."
Tech-savvy consultants at ClearAdmit have created a weblog and a collaborative website, known as a wiki, to keep their business school candidates abreast of admission trends and invite them to provide feedback. Brown, one of two former Wharton admissions officers now working as consultants, said he sometimes lunches with his former colleagues, though he does not lobby them on behalf of clients.
Brown said lobbying would be unethical -- and unnecessary. ''Obviously," he said, ''I have insight into how their process works."
Robert Weisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.