The Truth Behind Success Rates: What Some Admissions Consultants Are Not Saying

“I got into Wharton,” reported one of our past clients. Such a statement should be music to mbaMission’s ears, right? Well, in this case, our client was devastated that she had not gotten into Harvard Business School (HBS) instead. Despite her acceptance at a school to which thousands of applicants only dream of gaining admission, this client was convinced she had failed. So, as an admissions consulting firm, how should we measure this “successful” candidate? Could we count her as part of our success rate or not? Earlier that same year, we earned a referral from the sibling of a past client, who had not gotten into any of his three target programs. Our new client told us that his sibling had been quite direct in his recommendation: “You have to use mbaMission—I had my problems as a candidate, and they gave me my best shot, period.” Again, as an admissions consulting firm, could we count a “failed” three-school candidate who later referred a sibling to our service as a success? Many admissions consulting firms boast of impressive success rates—97% and higher! Our questions when we encounter such statistics are simple—how are these successes measured? If these success rates are truly accurate, what kind of incentives do such measurements encourage within the consulting firm? And are these success rates predictive of your chances as an applicant if you choose to employ the firm’s services?

How are these success rates measured?

We have already pointed out some of the flaws and complications in measuring a consulting company’s “success rate.” However, before you even consider the uniqueness of each applicant’s case and the difficulty of qualifying a candidate’s success, you might want to consider whether you can trust the basic data. Is anyone validating these claims? Are any industry standards in place for reporting success? The answer to these questions is, of course, no. These claims are only as credible as the firm making them. In one case, a firm boasts that its success rate has been audited by a CPA, but it does not name the accounting firm, nor does it explain its methodology, offer any of the data behind the audit, or even reveal when the audit was performed. When an accounting firm audits a public company, the results are published and the auditor signs off on the results, taking responsibility for the claim. And, as we all know, audits of public and private companies can sometimes be worthless (see Enron or Madoff). In the case of a private company boasting of an audit but disclosing the audit to no one, we have to wonder about the value of the audit and thus the claim of success. But again, even without an audit, what does a claim of fantastic success mean without any supporting explanation?

What kind of incentives do high success rates encourage within a consulting firm?

Let us suspend our disbelief for a moment and assume that these high success rates are in fact accurate. So, some firms have a success rate as high as 97% across the board with all clients (from the strongest to the weakest) and, of course, want to maintain that rate. As a result, these companies begin to focus on preserving their success rate, rather than providing valuable application advice and assistance to those candidates who truly need it most. For example, would not it then be in a consultant’s best interest to discourage a client from being ambitious and ensure that they applies to at least one ultrasafe school? If we at mbaMission advised every competitive candidate applying to HBS, where the acceptance rate is approximately 10%, to also apply to a second school where the acceptance rate is significantly higher, we could certainly maintain an impressively high hit rate. Further, if we accepted as clients only those candidates who are clear shoo-ins at their target programs and refused to take on any borderline cases, we could also protect our success rate. But if we did these sorts of things, what kind of firm would we be? How valuable is an admissions consulting firm that only advises applicants who do not need the help?

Are success rates predictive of applicants’ success?

The firm that boasts an incredible success rate is naturally implying that you will have a similar percentage chance of gaining admissions to your target school if you use its services—otherwise, advertising such a statistic would be meaningless. Reducing the complicated MBA admissions process down to a simple science may be comforting, but the truth is that applying to business school is more of an art. Although you can certainly get a sense of where you can be competitive by comparing your profile against those of students at your target program, your individual admissions experience is still an immeasurable, largely unpredictable, and independent event. Your success hinges entirely on your personal achievements—including your GMAT scores, grades, work performance, leadership experiences, community activities—and on how these compare to those of others in the candidate pool. A solid admissions consulting firm can certainly improve an applicant’s chances, but it cannot accurately offer a candidate a defined percentage chance at a target school, because quantifying the likelihood that an individual’s story will resonate with a stranger on a random day. In fact, that lack of science is the very reason this entire industry exists!

So, now that we have discussed the flaws in these claims, what should you do? The most important thing is to familiarize yourself thoroughly with the consulting firm you are considering before you sign on. At mbaMission, we offer a free consultation to any prospective client (or for that sake, to anyone in need of some basic direction and free advice) so that you can better understand not only your candidacy, but also our firm and what we have to offer. We recognize that we need to establish our integrity with MBA applicants, so we maintain a robust blog through which you can evaluate our knowledge and opinions. To that end, we also publish our Insider’s Guides (which profile the top U.S. MBA programs) and our Complete Start-to-Finish MBA Admissions Guide. We conduct free mbaMission events across North American and online, several times each month, so that we can answer candidates’ questions while demonstrating our competencies.

At mbaMission, we will not ever offer you a simplified—and frankly, completely absurd—boast of a success rate and prefer instead to establish a one-on-one relationship with you that will ensure your applications are the best they can be. We will clarify the risks of applying to different target schools and make sure that your risks and ambitions are aligned. If you want to be adventurous and apply to a program we feel may be a challenge for you, we will support rather than dissuade you and will do our utmost for you throughout the process, so you will have your best chance of achieving your definition of success—period.