Welcome to #AdmissionsPros! In this series, admissions advisors and educational consultants offer their advice and insight on the big picture of elementary, secondary, and graduate school admissions — from extracurriculars, to essays, to, (of course) standardized tests.
David White and his partner Alice van Harten are co-founders of Menlo Coaching, a boutique admissions consulting firm that helps MBA applicants get into the best programs in the world. Recently named the top admissions consultant on prospective student site Poets&Quants (where over 500 consultants are listed), David shared some of his in-demand insights with Noodle Pros.
Can you tell us a little bit about the origins of Menlo Coaching?
We started coaching people in 2007, but it wasn’t a real business at the start. Alice, the co-founder of Menlo, had earned her Ph.D. in classical philosophy. After looking long and hard for a job, she learned that the management consulting firms McKinsey, Bain, and BCG will hire a Ph.D. graduate at the same level as an MBA graduate — if (big if) the candidate performs well in case interviews. Case interviews were, of course, very different from what she had ever done, but she studied hard, got offers from all three firms, and ultimately joined Bain.
What started to happen next was that colleagues who were applying to MBA programs would come to her and ask “What was it that you studied again? Wasn’t there a lot of writing involved? Will you read these essays for me?” Back in 2007, Alice was new to the corporate world, but I had followed a pretty traditional path working in the Internet industry — I had worked for a startup that was eventually acquired by Adobe, I had worked at Yahoo, and for a few other large companies — so Alice sent the career and professional questions to me, things like, “How should I ask my boss for a recommendation?”
It grew from that point based on referrals. Because Alice had her job at Bain, and I had my job in the Internet industry, Menlo Coaching was a labor of love, not a business where we were trying to maximize revenues. We had no financial incentive to say “Let’s sell a bunch of packages to people who have no chance to get in,” or “Let’s offer discounts for people who buy big packages up front” or the other tricks that you sometimes see in the industry. Not only was this the right thing to do, it was also a great business practice and led to more and more referrals.
And fast-forwarding to the present, can you talk about some of the services you provide now, such as video content for your clients and group sessions? What makes you stand out as MBA admissions consultants?
Part of the MBA application process is about your personal story. Applicants have to share some very personal details, and it’s impossible to predict what that story looks like before you get to know the applicant.
But there are other practical parts of the process: networking with the schools, understanding what makes you a good fit, stating career goals that the admissions officer believes you’re going to achieve, and much more. Every applicant needs to know these parts. So we’ve pulled those into a series of instructional videos. Busy applicants – private equity professionals and bankers working 80 or 90 hours a week, consultants who are on the road a lot, tech guys and gals pushing for that next release – love the ability to consume that content anytime, anywhere rather than having to book an appointment with us for each little piece. Later, when they come to their one-on-one sessions, we can get into the meat of their case, the personal stuff, as opposed to giving them a lecture on the basics.
Second, our group sessions came out of this insight that we do really like to work with people early. We actually have a lot of people who are working with us now who aren’t going to submit until next year, and even a few for the year after that. And the natural tendency of most people is something like, “Oh it’s March. The deadline isn’t until September. I have plenty of time before I need to work hard on this stuff.” We used to crack the whip on them and say, “Go do your campus visits, start making some relationships with people you know at the schools,” but it didn’t always work.
But now, when we get people in a group setting, and they know they’re going to be called out in front of everyone else, they don’t want to let anyone down. So now we have people going on these epic five or six school road trips, getting all their campus visits done, feeling this kind of drumbeat of motivation, because everyone else is posting their campus visit reports too. That kind of spirit of competition benefits everyone — it’s the same reason people get better results from SoulCycle and CrossFit. And additionally, everything in an MBA is about your study team, or your cohort, or your cluster, or your section. MBAs have mastered this technology of harnessing people together to motivate them, and it’s kind of ironic that the step immediately before the MBA has not done this earlier.
You are somewhat selective with your clients, is that right?
We take probably one out of 20 people who inquire with us, but we’re not just looking for the best candidates; we take some clients who have a lot of lumps or imperfections. We just have to believe that they have a chance at their target schools, whether that’s based on stats or some other reason. If we have the capacity and they are coachable, pleasant to work with, and we know they’re going to listen to what we say and work hard, we will take them on.
Most people we decline are people we wish we could help, and would love to work with, but we just don’t have the time or space to do so. We do first come, first served, and when it’s full it’s full.
Are most of your clients only applying to top-tier schools, or does it run the gamut?
It runs the gamut. We have three groups of clients:
We do a lot of business with elite candidates who work at top private equity firms or consulting firms and really want the Harvard or Stanford offer, and when their backgrounds make sense for that we’re happy for them to aim high.
The vast majority of clients are aiming for Top 10 schools with one or two safety schools just outside that range.
And finally, there are some people who are aiming more in the top 20 to 25, and at that point we just want to make sure that they will get a good return by investing their money in a given MBA program.
Applicants seek us out not just to improve their odds of admission, but also to improve their odds of being awarded a scholarship.
I’m glad you brought up scholarships. Obviously, business school is a huge expense. What is the best way for candidates to negotiate financial aid and earn scholarships?
Scholarships are awarded because the school really wants the candidate to enroll. So, it’s not something you can sprinkle on at the end, but is based on the same qualities that make admission likely.
The best thing you can do to get a scholarship is to get a great GMAT score — one that’s really going to help the school boost its average.
Second, make a great quality application, because most of the scholarships are judged off of your application for admission. The things that help you to get you in are the same things that help you get a scholarship.
Another magnet for scholarships is if you’re in an underrepresented category. This is NOT required – in the last cycle, we had several Asian American and Caucasian men (which are pretty competitive categories) awarded full scholarships – but it does help. One of our Hispanic applicants in the last cycle who had a powerful story to tell was awarded a total of $420k of scholarships despite average test scores.
Can you make up for a poor test score with a very strong application?
There are people who are going to get in with low test scores. But it is not always possible to write such a good essay that your test score doesn’t matter. For example, the applicant I mentioned who was offered $420k in scholarships had a GRE that was a bit below school averages, but the incredible story of what she had done in her career really resonated. It was not that she worked with the biggest or most prestigious employers, but it had to do with the courageous way that she had overcome obstacles she had faced. And the schools in that case couldn’t care less about her test scores, they were falling over themselves to get her.
But that doesn’t mean that a candidate with a job in accounting, from an overrepresented demographic, and only 700 on the GMAT, can make up for not retaking the GMAT by writing a really good essay to get in. That’s not a safe plan.
I actually just shot a video on this yesterday for our clients. The short version is, usually GMAT is preferred. But, if you really can’t give a good GMAT performance, GRE can be a backup.
Let’s talk about and the application essays. Is there anything that applicants shouldn’t write about?
Applicants spend so much time writing their essays, and they think they will be read slowly and lovingly in the admissions office. Actually, they’re going to read it pretty quickly because they have so many applications to review. So it’s important to think about that.
I think our applicants have plenty of life experience, so when they run into trouble from saying the same things as everybody else, it’s because they are trying to guess what the admissions committee wants to hear. They’re trying to package it up and pre-digest it, which never works.
Also, we’ve seen the occasional racist or sexist essay. You wouldn’t really believe it, but it happens. For example, an applicant from another country who had submitted an application before he worked with us came to us saying, “Here’s my old application. Can you tell me why [I didn’t get in]?” There was a prompt asking: “When did you face a challenge?” and he wrote, “When I moved to the US to do my master’s degree, my mother and my grandmother were no longer there to do the cooking and cleaning for me. It was really hard.” We explained patiently why it was a mistake to suggest that the women in his life had a duty to cook and clean for him.
Last question: What is your biggest piece of advice for candidates who are applying to highly selective MBA programs?
Start early. It’s a process that has many parts beyond the written application. Students need to be doing their research. Even if they already know a lot about the schools, they need to be out there networking and showing their face. With the highly selective programs, it helps if you build relationships with people who have some influence at the schools. You need to think about your career goals. This process requires time. Many people begin too late, thinking that this is a process that is all about writing an essay. They couldn’t be more wrong. There are many tendrils to the MBA admissions process, and if you get an early start at these highly competitive schools you’re going to put yourself at a big advantage. That’s why we love working with early applicants in our Early Birds program.
Interested in working with David White? Contact him via the Menlo Coaching website for more information.
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