The rebel savant of the MBA admissions biz
By John A. Byrne, contributor
September 23, 2010
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.”