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Wrangling over applications

By Robert Weisman, Globe Staff | February 6, 2006

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Admissions consultants range from independent operators to larger firms with consultants scattered around the globe. The consultants . . .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.

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