The Harbus


The Case for Admissions Consultants:

An Interview with Sandy Kreisberg Founder of Cambridge Essay Service


HARBUS: Why did you say our HARBUS essay book “65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays” is really “65 Mediocre Essays From Successful Applications?”

SANDY: Ha, ha. Well, on the record, probably “35 Mediocre Essays,” which are either under-cooked in terms of facts, quotes, examples, or got to the real point at the end and then did not bother to start over, or never followed up on the meaning/significance of the experience. Those are classic mistakes, but at HBS, essay execution does not count so much as essay DNA. If you have powerful experiences, the adcom will meet you half way.

HARBUS: What do you mean?

SANDY: I read lots of applications from accepted HBS students with weak or so-so essays, or essays that could have been improved, or essays that are, in cases, confusing, but you can usually figure out why those applicants were accepted. They presented diverse, powerful experiences, even if not fully captured. Applying to HBS is not an essay contest. If applicant A has a perfect essay about not much, and if applicant B extrudes the factual underpinnings of having a big impact on an underserved group, you go with applicant B, on the theory that she can perfect her writing when she gets here, or never become a great writer but become a powerful leader, and hire professionals to do her writing.

HARBUS: Is that true at all schools?

SANDY: No, at Wharton and Stanford essay execution really counts way more. At Wharton you can commit suicide if you don’t really nail why Wharton, why now, goals. At Stanford, you really need to be on their wavelength in Essay A about what matters most, although if they want you, they will blink a bit, too. Although, HBS, to its credit I suppose, will blink the most, both about technical essay execution and stats, especially the GMAT.

HARBUS: OK, given the recent push back from adcoms about consultants, what are the best arguments in favor of consultants?

SANDY: Consultants can level the information grid, both in the obvious example that applicants from banks and consulting shops have a lot of contextual information about applying, about what questions really mean–if not the secret handshake–then just the data base of previous successful applicants from their firms, and access to mentors, successful peers now at school X, Y, and Z etc.


SANDY: And in the not so obvious example of being a group of dedicated school watchers, who stay around year after year, (consultants) can be an added voice to that of the official information provided by the school. Consultants are like stock analysts, who are not perfect either obviously, but who do interpret what the official company line is, have industry expertise, and in cases, force a company to own up to mistakes, or just operate with the healthy knowledge that someone is watching them.

HARBUS: Huh? Consultants do that?

SANDY: You bet, consultants are outgrowths of the blog and internet culture of the past 10 years, and most consultants, including me, define their ‘brand’ on blogs and internet forums like Business Week’s, which has about 10 leading consultants all giving advice, chewing over any event like grade disclosure, hacking, interview scheduling, 3rd-round applications, age limits at various schools, dean changes, EMBA vs. MBA in public forums. The more history, data, insight I bring to those discussions, the more I get a following, the more I define a personal brand, the more clients I get, etc.

HARBUS: But can’t the schools address those issues?

SANDY: Well, sure, but adcoms are limited both legally, and probably temperamentally, and institutionally, to take a wide view of things. For instance, the GMAT range is 560-800, the age-range is 21 to 36, etc. But applicants want to know who gets in with a 560 GMAT, and how many students are over 32, and how many students get in Round 3.

HARBUS: Who does get in with a 560 GMAT?

SANDY: Ha, ha, I thought you could tell me.

HARBUS: Name some things consultants have pointed out to the blogosphere?

SANDY: That 3rd Round is really, really hard at Wharton and Stanford, and probably a bit harder at HBS; that most folks over 32 or so, who are not military, are going to have a hard time getting in to Harvard or Stanford; that Harvard is not as fond of IIT graduates from India as Wharton is; that Harvard’s recent claim that grade non-disclosure was implemented to insulate its January cohort (of beloved memory) who were, in fact, different in terms of background, etc. was a major 180 from what it was telling the January cohort at the time; that interviews at Stanford usually have zilch impact on your admit decision, while bad interviews at HBS are usually a prelude to a ding or WL.

HARBUS: How many HBS students use consultants?

SANDY: Well, the HARBUS survey said 10 percent, and my own guess is probably as many students use consultants as HBS faculty and staff use admissions consultants for their own children – in one form or another, including sending them to schools that hire consultants.


SANDY: And, that is probably higher than 10 percent.

HARBUS: What do you think HBS adcoms are looking for?

SANDY: It’s no secret undergraduate GPA counts more than they let on, as a gross metric. Although, like I said, they are willing to blink, in lots of individual cases, to their credit. If you don’t come from the most popular 50 feeder companies or organizations, you need to pop some other part of the application, like extras, or stats. If you are a regular Joe or Jane from Ivy/near Ivy/ banking/ consulting, it gets real, real hard separating the last 75 applicants on the train from the next 100 on the curb. I don’t envy the adcom making those calls. Every year, I run across 20 or so people who get dinged at HBS who seem just great to me, but I’d have a hard time kicking out 20 members of the class to make room for them.

HARBUS: You said you convince about 100 applicants a year not to apply to HBS? What makes you so sure?

SANDY: Because I try to convince 200, and of the 100 who apply anyway, none get in.

HARBUS: Because?

SANDY: Too old, too ordinary, no stardust, nothing driving them in, disfavored cohort (IT) to boot, deluded (owns auto detailing shop, sells residential real estate, web designer). OK, the adcoms are going to come up with one of each of those (laughing). I’m sticking with the program, I don’t mean someone who once sold residential real estate, I mean that is the current job-not that there is anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld says.

HARBUS: If you were on the adcom, what would you do about consultants, and what changes would you make in the application process?

SANDY: Nothing and nothing. I love the HBS process, and not because it is good for me, it isn’t. I’d do better if essay execution counted more, as it is, I tell lots of applicants not to bother hiring me, ‘You could make this application way better, but it ain’t going to make a difference, you deliver the package, and that is all that counts, the wrapping paper just has to have the right address.’

HARBUS: So what do you love about it?

SANDY: I think it is a very good corkscrew that gets out the cork, and the cork is mostly the stuff of your real experiences, and a slight aroma of reflection, hope, aspiration and potential.