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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

April 19, 2009

Admissions Advice: Mentor, Consultant, Editor or Ghostwriter?

In 2007, I did a series of posts on this topic. At this point, I wanted to offer a revised version of this series as a single long post. While much of the original series of posts remains, I thought that this would be a good time to revise and extend my remarks.

In this post, I will analyze the pros and cons of obtaining advice from mentors, admissions consultants, editors, and ghostwriters, for purpose of admission to MBA, LL.M., and other types of graduate programs. I will not include the names of any specific admissions consultants, editors, or ghostwriters here. This is not due to any ignorance or laziness on my part, but rather the fact that I am not advocating or criticizing the use of any specific service because (1) I can't fairly attest to the efficacy of all major service providers and (2) I am not interested in being sued for libel.

What kind of admissions advice are you looking for? I think it is important to think very carefully about the types of advisers available when selecting what is best for you. The right advice from the right adviser(s) will facilitate your acceptance in to an MBA, LL.M., or other graduate program, while the wrong advice might very well result in the need to reapply.
Every year, I find myself helping applicants overcome bad advice. The source might have been that of their friends, their mentors, alumni from the school they intend to apply to, something they read on an online forum, and, all too often that from other admissions consultants. In some cases, the advice they previously received was bad enough to contribute to them get dinged everywhere without an interview. Other times, it just contributes to their initial drafts being substandard. In any case, I don't primarily blame the advisers, especially the unpaid ones, because advice need not be taken.

Unless you believe that all medical doctors make correct medical judgments, that all economists can forecast the future, and that professional advice is, in general, more of a science than art, you should approach all advice skeptically (including mine). If you lack such skepticism, click here and start reading because you need Nassim Nicholas Taleb's help before I can do anything for you. Assuming you do realize the limits of advice, I offer you the following rule for taking it:
While these two rules cannot guarantee admission into the graduate program of your dreams, they carry much greater lifetime value.

One thing that always scares me is when I hear about mentors, admissions consultants, test prep instructors, alumni, or supervisors who insist on their absolute authority. Such individuals, whatever there value might be should be treated with extreme caution.

Examples of Admissions Advisers Gone Bad:

1. The adviser with a chip on his or her shoulder: One of my clients had a supervisor who insisted that a lower ranked program was better than a higher one and that my client need not apply to such higher ranked programs. This particular supervisor had a degree from a program that was even lower ranked than one they were recommending. My client took my advice and applied to high ranking programs and was admitted to them. If your adviser seems jealous or otherwise seems to suggest radically reducing your options based on nothing in particular, you need to make figure out how to effectively ignore him or her.

2. Admissions Commanders: I know of admissions consultants who absolutely insist on their perspective and simply command rather advise their clients. The problem is that this usually rests on the assumption that the counselor knows more about the client than the client knows about himself/herself. Such an approach is unlikely to result in the client producing the kind of inspired self-portrait (YOUR STORY) that I believe all humans are capable of. I am optimistic enough to assume that we all have stories worth telling.

3. The Controller: "MY WAY IS THE WAY." The controller might be your supervisor, your professor, an alumni, a test prep teacher, an admissions consultant, or your mentor (sempai). They will simply try to control what an applicant does. In their own area of expertise, their advice might be quite good, but outside of that, it can frequently be inaccurate, dated, or otherwise lacking in accuracy. If the Controller is a paid service provider (admissions consultant or test prep instructor), greed rather a mere desire to dominate others might be their core motivation.

Of course, bad advice does not usually take such malicious forms. Usually, the adviser is well meaning, just not well informed. Which leads to my next topic.


A Sad Story
In Fall 1988, during my senior undergraduate year, I decided to apply to for PhD programs in Political Science. As I was graduating in three instead of the usual four years, I was 20 years old at that time. I sought advice from two of my professors, both were tenured, one had his PhD from Harvard and the other from Princeton. They supported me, wrote recommendations (that I later used successfully in 1990), but provided me with little guidance on the admissions process. I simply followed the application instructions and made a horrible mess of the whole thing. As this was long before online applications, I filled my own out in my handwriting (A kind of childlike scribble best not seen). I was dinged everywhere. :(

A Happy Story
As I mentioned in a previous post, when I applied to graduate school in 1990, I was fortunate to have an excellent mentor, a PhD student at the University of Chicago, who remains to this day one of my closest friends. I was lucky because he understood the admissions process and the relative difficulty for obtaining admission at a time when the US Economy was weak and many people were applying to graduate school (Kind of like now, but not as awful.). His advice was timely and practical and helped me succeed at getting admitted to PhD programs in Political Science.

There are two differences between my happy and sad stories.

The first has to do with me.
When I applied at age 20, I was completely immature and totally lacked a real sense of the process or its relative difficulty. Two years later (Still immature in many respects, but less so than previously), I understood what the application process really involved and was able to make the right decisions. I put an immense amount of time and effort into winning the admissions game.

The second has to do with my advisers.
My team of 1988 mentors simply consisted of two professors. While they were great professors who were recognized in their fields and wrote me very good recommendations, they were totally ineffective admissions advisers:
(1) Their advice was not based on actual contemporary knowledge of the admissions process. Since both taught primarily undergraduates and were part of departments that did not have graduate programs, they did not actually know the process because that had finished their graduate work decades earlier.
(2) They did not give me practical advice beyond simply following the application instructions. I never got the impression from them that it was particularly hard to apply to graduate school.
(3) They were too busy to be really involved with my process and I was not aggressive enough to really get their full support.
Maybe I did not ask the right questions, but they certainly did not seem to be particularly proactive.

My 1990 team was different. I talked with my former professors about academic issues, but as far as the practical issue of applying goes, I had a new mentor, who:
(1) Gave me timely advice based on the actual admissions process.
My new mentor, who subsequently went on to a career as a leading administrator at two top universities, really understood how the admissions game was played and could explain it to me. Remember, this was 1990, so the availability of good advice on graduate admissions was extremely limited.
(2) Provided me with a set of strategies for success beyond the application instructions. He provided me the sort of advice that really helped to differentiate me from other applicants.
(3) Fully committed to supporting me. He put in the time to advise me on strategy and review my materials.
If you have a mentor like my friend, you are indeed very lucky. If not, you may be able to bring together a group of mentors (professors, friends/colleagues who succeeded at the admissions process, experts in your intended field of study, current students of the school(s) you want to attend, and/or alumni) who provide you with all the support you need.

Alternatively, you may find that your mentor(s) can't provide with all the help you need because
(1) they don't have enough time,
(2) they lack sufficient knowledge about the process,
(3) you are finding that they can only advise you based on their past experience,
(4) your mentors are contradicting one another and you are not sure which one is right,
(5) you want extensive assistance putting your applications together.

Depending on the type of graduate program you are applying to, I think you will find it useful to develop a team of mentors and/or advisers who can support you. Highly experienced admissions consultants can usually provide equivalent support, but even if you use an admissions consultant, I would still get opinions from unpaid advisers.

All applicants: Try to find alumni who has recently graduated and/or a current student to give you insight into each program you apply to. Students and recent graduates are really in the best position to tell you what a school is really like. This is especially important and relatively easy for MBA applicants. In other fields it maybe more difficult, but many schools have graduate students available for applicants to talk with. See my recent post on networking.

For all graduate school applicants in general and PhD applicants in particular: It is often extremely valuable to make faculty contact. Check with the admissions office for each program first before doing so. Those applying to MBA are less likely to use this strategy and depending on the school might be told not to contact faculty. If you contact faculty you had better have an academic topic related to your study plans to discuss with them.

For LL.M. applicants applying to Harvard Law School and most other top programs. You will need to discuss one or more of the legal issues you are interested in studying in a great deal of depth and thus you would be well advised to consult with a lawyer or law professor who has sufficient knowledge in the field you plan to study to assess the depth and accuracy of your thinking. One of my strengths as an LL.M. admissions consultant is that I can help my clients articulate an effective version of their legal analysis in the context of an admissions essay. See here for my LL.M. client results for Fall 2009 admissions.

For those applying to programs where a writing sample or other sample(s) of past work is/are required. Make sure that you have someone in your intended field of study who can assess the strength of your writing sample. Professors and/or professionals in your intended field are ideal for this purpose. While I can evaluate such writing samples from the perspective of their connection to the rest of the application, I am always happy to know that my client had previously asked an expert in their field to review it first.

For those applying to research based programs in the arts and sciences. If possible, have your research plan reviewed closely by a professor and/or other professional in you field who can assess it.

If your mentors can't provide you with the assistance you need, you will need to pay for assistance. Admissions consultants (also known as admissions advisers, admissions counselors, and application counselors, and some even call themselves editors) are one such option.

The Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC) provides the following excellent summary of what admissions consultants do:
I have been a member of AIGAC shortly after its founding in 2007. I support the intent of the organization as well as the above definition of our role.

Admissions consultants are a mixed group. Typical backgrounds for admissions consultants:
1. Former admissions officers
2. Counseling professionals with degrees or certification in career counseling, social work, and/or a related field
3. Professional educators
4. Individuals with a strong academic pedigree who found they are good at helping others with the admissions process
5. Degree holders for the type of program they provide admissions consulting for

The advice they offer reflects this background: It is mixed. One can’t go to school to become an admissions consultant. It is a trade one picks up. A review of my LINKEDIN profile would reveal that my prior experience in higher education, international education, and test prep gave me a good background for the admissions consulting work I began in 2001. In general, I think you would find that most experienced consultants have a prior work history that similarly prepared them. On the other hand, don't be surprised to see a whole bunch of recently graduated MBAs with no experience in test prep, education, or admissions, becoming admissions consultants. Some will believe that an MBA somehow prepares someone to be an admissions consultant, but as far as I can see this is rarely the case.

Just as their background varies, so does their ability. If you decide to use a consultant, I think the criteria below will help you determine who to work with. Here are some of the characteristics of good and bad consultants:

Good consultants:
1. They will listen to you and provide highly individualized advice.
2. They will understand your strengths and weaknesses as a candidate.
3. They will have a solid set of methods for explaining all aspects of the process to you.
4. They will be totally honest. (For example, when discussing school selection they will provide you with an honest assessment of how your GMAT, TOEFL, and/or GRE scores will impact your chances for admission to a specific school.)
5. They will become engaged with you and your life.
6. They will refine their advice to you as your sessions proceed.
7. They are great at brainstorming and helping you tell your story.
8. They will push you to revise your essays and, if applicable, push you to practice your interviews.
9. They will let you know when they think an application is done regardless of either your expectations or their financial benefit. That is to say, sometimes they will advise working on something more than you think and sometimes less than you expected.
10. They either have or know how to obtain any admissions information that you will need.

Bad consultants:
1. Don’t listen to you.
2. Their advice lacks any depth or specificity.
3. They lack integrity.
4. They will not push you to work hard.
5. They are basically indifferent to you as a person because they just consider it to be their job to review your application materials or prepare you for an interview, which they will do only formally.
6. They don’t have high standards.
7. You will notice that they quickly fail to learn more about you after the first couple of sessions.
8. They have rigid preconceived ideas that they will foist upon you.
9. They are more likely to act like editors than counselors.
10. They seem to lack key information about the admissions process.

You will notice that in my list of characteristics for a good consultant, I did not include years of experience. From my perspective, much of what goes into making a great counselor is everything they did and the person they were before they even started consulting. Of course, a highly seasoned professional is more likely to produce a better outcome than a novice. Someone who starts as a good consultant, can in the course of five to ten years become a great one. Bad consultants rarely improve, but if they survive, it is because they just learned how to effectively game the system.

You will quickly find that admissions consultants are either working as independent service providers or part of a service. The biggest potential differences between hiring an independent service provider and services are as follows:

1. Service structure. Independent consultants, for both good and bad, are not part of larger organizations and hence the level of service you can expect will be personal and is likely to reflect the personality of the consultant. If you are someone who loves rules and regulations, a service is more likely to provide that level of bureaucracy. An independent consultant should be able to provide you with services in a more flexible manner.

2. Changing your consultant. If you eventually discover that you don’t like an independent consultant, there is no company to complain to, and depending on the way you are paying for the service, you may find yourself stuck with the consultant. On the other hand, if you use a consulting service, you will likely have the option of switching to a new consultant. Of course, it may very well be that the new consultant at the consulting service is even worse than the last guy.

3. Choosing your consultant. Obviously if you use an independent consultant, you have chosen that person. On the other hand, if you decide to use a consulting service, depending on your contract, they may have the right to switch consultants on you. If you use service and don’t specify the consultant first, you may also find that the consultant you wanted to meet with is too busy to meet with you because they already have too many clients. BEWARE OF SUBSTITUTIONS! Most successful services have at least one well-known consultant, but since such individuals are a finite resource, not everyone gets to work with the star. Some clients get the other consultants. The other consultants can be great. Or the other hand, consultants can be someone the organization needed to fill a seat because of client demand. If you go with service, don't accept substitutions. Furthermore, if the consulting service does not offer a free initial consultation with the consultant that you want to work with, you should really consider other alternatives.

4. Getting multiple perspectives. One advantage some consulting services have over independent consultants is that they offer clients the possibility of getting the viewpoint of more than one counselor. While this can be quite helpful, it also requires managing the perspectives of multiple consultants, which will likely be less efficient, and may prove confusing. It may also be the case that such services will provide you with multiple perspectives, but none of those perspectives will be very deep because each of their consultants does not know you all that well.

While some services will claim that they have an informational advantage over independent consultants or other rivals, I think this is an increasingly difficult argument to make given the accessibility of free or low cost information.

Ultimately the question to ask is ”Does the consultant have expertise?” No matter whether you use an independent consultant or service, you should really consider that it is the consultant who will be impacting you. Regarding expertise, I think it is mistake to assume that you need to see a consultant who has an academic credential in your intended field of study. Just because someone does not have an MBA, LL.M., PhD in Electrical Engineering, a Masters in Art History,etc. is not inherently a problem. Instead you need someone who has expertise in the admissions process, in listening to you, in helping you tell the most effective story you can, and in helping you present yourself at your best.

First, let me say that certain kinds of editing, seem quite ethical to me and I am on public record for stating that certain kinds of editing techniques are ethical. If by editing, one means making very targeted suggestions to a text or suggesting different ways to tell a story, I think that is ethical. The problem is when editing becomes rewriting.

Editing becomes rewriting when the editor is no longer making suggestions about how the writer should rewrite the text, but is actually doing the writing. It is at this point that the ethical line has been crossed and we are beginning to enter the world of the ghostwriter.


Ethical editing is a part of admissions consulting. It can also be a standalone service. Some applicants might find that they don’t need an admissions consultant, but just an editor.

If you can answer “yes” to the following questions, you don’t need an admissions consultant, but an editor:
(1) I am confident about my overall admissions strategy.
(2) I don’t need assistance with brainstorming my essays.
(3) I don’t need assistance preparing for interviews. (If you are applying for an MBA, you better have someone to practice with.)
(4) I don’t need someone to review my recommendations in any great depth.
(5) I don’t have any substantive questions about the application process.
(6) I am certain that the stories in my essays present me as effectively as possible.
(7) I just need someone to proofread my essays and give me their overall impression of my content. I can handle any substantive changes myself.
(8) I am not interested in going through an examination of my goals and life experiences in order to determine whether the stories I intend to tell in my essay(s) and/or interview are the most effective stories for me to tell.
(9) I have sufficient advice already to succeed at the admissions game.

If you answered “No” to one or more of the above questions, I think you should consider using an admissions consultant if you can afford to so.

It should be absolutely clear that I don’t condone ghostwriting and would never advocate anyone using it. That said, it is clearly something that enough applicants do that it is a recognized problem. As originally reported in the April 7, 2007 edition of The Wall Street Journal:
The problem of ghostwriting is just one part of a larger problem of inauthentic applications.

Not just here in Japan, where I live, but elsewhere I know of counseling services that provide ghostwritten essays. Not only those pursuing MBA, but even LL.M., MPA, MPP, and other degree programs, use such services. I certainly will not name these services. Anyone who wants to find them anywhere in the world can find them easily enough.

I will not provide a lecture on why ghostwriting is unethical. If you are so morally challenged that you find it necessary to cheat to get into school, anything I write will not matter.

For those seeking admission to top programs, I strongly suggest reading The Wall Street Journal article referenced above. In particular consider the following:

Turnitin.com, a Web site that high schools and colleges use to check papers for plagiarism.
The nine-year-old site, which screens more than 100,000 student papers a day, added an admissions-essay service in 2004. Over the last three years, Mr. Barrie says, the site has screened more than 27,000 admissions essays, and found 11 percent included at least one-quarter unoriginal material. Mr. Barrie says about two dozen schools now use the site to check admissions essays; none of the institutions would agree to be identified.

Clearly more and more schools will be using the technology for detecting plagiarized applications.

Now imagine how they will use content analysis software to analyze whether the person who wrote the GMAT, GRE, and/or TOEFL essay, is the same person who wrote the essay(s). While at present, admissions can probably only do this on a case by case basis, the detection tools of forensic linguistics are likely to eventually make their way into the application process.

You may get away with it. I would be dishonest if I said otherwise. I hope I have the chance to revisit this issue again and announce that admissions offices are now routinely eliminating ghostwritten applications using a standardized protocol.

As an applicant, only you can decide what kind of advice you need and who to ask for it. This is a very important part of the process that you control. Think before accepting what anyone tells you.
-Adam Markus
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If you are looking for a highly experienced admissions consultant who is passionate about helping his clients succeed, please feel free to contact me at adammarkus@gmail.com to arrange an initial consultation. To learn more about my services, see here. Initial consultations are conducted by Skype or telephone. For clients in Tokyo, a free face-to-face consultation is possible after an initial Skype or telephone consultation. I only work with a limited number of clients per year and believe that an initial consultation is the best way to determine whether there is a good fit. Whether you use my service or another, I suggest making certain that the fit feels right to you.

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