Fortune Magazine

The rebel savant of the MBA admissions biz

By John A. Byrne, contributor

— “Do you want to know who gets into Harvard Business School and how it works?”

Sandy Kreisberg asks the question as if he’s about to divulge Coca-Cola’s ( KO, Fortune 500) secret formula to a rival company spy. In Darwin’s coffeehouse off Harvard Square, the long-time MBA admissions consultant leans across a table with a serious air. He reaches into a satchel and pulls out a thick folder bulging with more than 100 resumes from clients who applied to Harvard Business School last year. . . . .

The reason why Kreisberg, the self-proclaimed HBS Guru, has all these files is that he grilled more than 100 applicants to Harvard last year in mock interviews, helping candidates prepare for the real thing with the school’s admissions staff. About 70% of those 100+ candidates are in this fall’s entering class. Kreisberg claims he interviewed more applicants to Harvard than anyone in the admissions office of the school last year. . . . .

He has never taken the GMAT, never applied to a business school, and never worked in an MBA admissions office. Yet, Kreisberg has an obsessive knowledge of how the admissions office of the world’s best business school works. Every client who wants into Harvard is another data point to him, another tea leaf to read to gain some useful insight to help a customer. . . .

“I can tell who they like,” he says. “I can tell what it takes to be an acceptable oddball. After going through a resume and asking a few questions, I say, ‘Here is the verdict.’ I feel like a doctor looking at your X-rays at that point. I can tell whether this is cancer or not.”

In a business largely populated by earnest MBAs and fusty one-time academic administrators, Kreisberg is the enfant terrible of the profession. With his thin graying hair, rimless spectacles and wiry build, he looks a little like an intensely demanding high school English teacher — but few principals would likely have him. His consulting style can be argumentative, abrasive, and occasionally off-putting.

More often than not, his blistering critiques come via emails in screaming all-capped letters. To one 20-something whose writing lacked clarity, Kreisberg snapped: “THIS SOUNDS HARSH MAN, BUT I AM ON YOUR SIDE. GET OFF THE SOAPBOX, STOP BEING SUCH AN INTELLECTUAL, PRECIOUS, CULTURAL WALLFLOWER, AND JUST BANG OUT WHAT THE HELL YOU DID.” (In the end, the “wallflower” made it in to HBS.)
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When Kreisberg, now 64, began to dabble in admissions consulting in the 1970s, he was something of a pioneer. He started advising friends and family shortly after earning a master’s in English Literature at Harvard in 1971. The first HBS applicant he helped in 1974 was a bust. “She had a real hard case to make,” recalls Kreisberg. “She was a lawyer trying to get into business school, and as a rule, they do not like practicing attorneys. They figure you already have a profession.”
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As the number of applicants to prestige schools swelled in the 1990s, the industry came into its own. . . .

The typical assignment begins with a conversation about the client’s resume and ambitions. Unlike some consultants, Kreisberg is blunt, quick to assess if a candidate has the right stuff to get into a Harvard, Stanford, or Wharton.

Next comes the essay, of which a candidate will write anywhere from three to a dozen drafts. The hand holding doesn’t end there. Kreisberg gets deeply involved in an applicants’ choice of recommenders, what those recommendations should say, and how an applicant should handle him or herself if invited by Harvard to an admissions interview. Each year, HBS invites about 1,800 of its 9,500-plus applicants for an interview.

Kreisberg says a lot of his clients have access to the letters written by their recommenders. “I read them and in 15% of the cases they are damaging because the person either covertly doesn’t like my client or the person can’t execute. I’ll tell them to go back and tell this guy, ‘This ain’t helping me.’ In your own diplomatic way, you’ve got to go back and bitch slap the guy. A lot of times the guy just hasn’t closed the sale. Here’s what the guy has to testify to in a letter of recommendation: ‘I have been in this business for X years. I have worked with Y people. This schmuck is in the top 2% of Y because of his leadership, his initiative, his technical skills, and the impact he’s had on this organization.’ The guy has to be willing to say that.”

So what is Harvard looking for? “The smart advice about applying to Harvard Business School is number one, be a victim or help victims. Number two, at Harvard, essays about your work don’t score as high as non-work essays, although there are always exceptions. The biggest mistake is that people think the essays are the game. They can harm you more than they can help you. The reason why most schools have essays is that it supports their mythology that anybody can get in and that is way not true.

“At Harvard, the most predictive metric is undergraduate GPA. They put a lot of value on it,” insists Kreisberg. “To Harvard’s credit, the school is willing to blink at the GMAT. Someone is at Harvard this year with a 520 (out of 800). I give Dee (HBS admissions director Deirdre Leopold) a lot of credit for it . At Wharton, people have been told with a 680 or a 690 that you have to get that up. The difference between a 690 and a 710 has never flipped anyone at Harvard.”

Ask Kreisberg what he says to those who naively thought the admissions process was a true meritocracy, not an arm’s race to spend thousands on consultants, and he has two ready answers. “One, I say you may have a point. Two, applying to business school requires you to make some of the most important investment decisions of your life. Going to Harvard or Stanford costs kids a half million dollars by the time the smoke clears. If you don’t believe in yourself enough to hire somebody to help, you deserve the consequences of that decision.”