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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 28, 2011

How to pick a graduate admissions consultant

In the post, I provide some general suggestions for selecting a graduate admissions consultant.  I have previously discussed the whole issue of application advisers in Admissions Advice: Mentor, Consultant, Editor or Ghostwriter?, but I wanted to provide a practical guide for the purpose of admissions counselor, consultant, and/or adviser selection. This post does make use of a part of that earlier post, but I suggest reading both. I hope this post will help applicants find the right consultant for their MBA, LL.M., MPA, MPP, or other graduate school applications.

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

Are you offered a free initial consultation with the consultant you would be working with?
For me, at least, this is the most basic consideration there is.  If you can't have an initial consultation how can you determine who to work with?   No two consultants have the same opinions, bring the same experience, or will give you exactly the same advice.  Even with my colleagues who have worked closely with, we don't agree on everything, our methods, and certainly our personalities and personal perspectives are different.  Actually, for interview preparation, this can allow for a client to get multiple perspectives by having mock interviews with multiple consultants, which clients can us to their advantage.  However, when it comes to essay consulting, ultimately you will likely need to work with one person, at least primarily.   For essays, it is very hard to work effectively with multiple consultants effectively. You will likely spend more time and money with consultant on your essays than on anything else, so you need to make sure that there is a good personal fit between you and the consultant.

I would consider 30 minutes to be an absolute minimum for you to ask questions about the consultant's services and for the consultant to briefly give you a bit of trial feedback.  I schedule one-hour sessions which frequently last a bit longer than that because I usually provide 30-40 minutes of feedback based on initial questions I ask potential clients.  The amount of time I spend giving feedback is a direct function of how well the potential client has filled out my initial consultation form and the kind of questions they ask.

I assume that any counselor will provide you with an initial consultation form for you to complete. Based on what I have seen, my own form (Google Docs version/ Scribed version) is of medium level length.  I try to get potential clients to provide me with the most essential information I need to have an effective initial consultation and also to not overburden potential clients with burdensome documents.   Please complete the form in a reasonable level of detail so that the consultant has sufficient information about you to ask more than basic questions.  If you have not calculated your GPA, do it!   Especially with US schools, I can't effectively advise a client on school selection if I don't know what their GPA is.  Don't just leave answers to big questions. At least indicate that you don't have an answer. For instance,  if you don't have an answer to question like "What are your long term goals?" I suggest you just write down that you need assistance with this issue.

 I would personally worry about any consultant who does not ask you many questions because this likely means that they will likely work with anyone because they are simply trying to generate an income and not necessarily a positive admissions result. Popular consultants don't just have to work with anyone. They ask good questions to potential clients and try to engage with them in order to determine whether they want offer their services.

Some good questions to ask:
1.   Based on my profile, what is your assessment of my school selection? Do you think there are other schools that I should be considering?
2.  How can you add value to my applications? 
3. If you don't know about the consultants results and experience, you should ask about that. If you have such information, ask for any clarification you require.
3.  What are your methods?
4.  What is your availability?
5.  What is your around time on document review?
6.  Can you give me an idea about how the whole process would work?
7.  What differentiates you from other consultants?
8. What are your criteria for selecting which clients to work with?
9.  For applicants with an international background applying to US schools:  Have you worked with people from my country or part of the world before?  How much experience do you have working with international applicants? 
10.  For reapplicants:  How much experience do you have working with reapplciants? 
11. Whatever burning issues in your own background you really want to discuss. For instance, how to handle a prolonged period of unemployment or low GPA.


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 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 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 will 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.

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.

”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.

-Adam Markus
アダム マーカス

If you are interested in my overall counseling services and would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form, which is publicly available on Google Docs and Scribedand then send your completed form to adammarkus@gmail.com.  You can also send me your resume if it is convenient for you.  Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to.  See here for why.

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