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Getting admitted to a top MBA program abroad is no mean feat. The competition for getting into the top business schools, especially the big brands like Harvard, Stanford, INSEAD, Cambridge, etc. has always been fierce. In order to improve admission chances, many applicants opt for MBA admissions consulting services. There are many websites and MBA admission consultants out there. I have earlier interviewed a few top B-School alumni and admission consultants. In this post, we have Farrell D. Hehn, founder of MBA Prep Coach.
Farrell started her work in MBA admissions consulting in 1999, in the 2nd year of her MBA. She specializes in helping her clients get into the top 10 MBA programs in the US. However, she has also helped candidates to get admits to top MBA programs around the world. Here is a snapshot of some of the business schools where her clients have been admitted.
Farrell works with clients from all over the world including the US, India, China, Europe, South America, etc. Feel free to have a look at her clients’ testimonials on Poets & Quants.
Farrell holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from California State University, and post-college, went into sales for Wells Fargo.
She later pursued law at Tulane in New Orleans but found she was in the words of her friend, “more of a people person than a bookworm.” In her 2nd semester, she decided to take the GMAT, apply to schools with late deadlines, and start an MBA program that year. She wanted a marketing education to learn more about the science behind her sales goals at Wells Fargo. On a personal note, she also wanted a chance to study in France to become fluent in French.
After visiting several schools, she settled on the University of Iowa, where they had offered her a scholarship to become a “pioneer,” their first MBA student to study abroad. She spent 8 years in marketing management working for industry leaders including Gannett, Dow Jones, and Wells Fargo. In the evenings, she served as a verbal GMAT tutor and MBA essay editor for a very well-known admissions consulting firm.
In 2008, she became a certified coach and helped new self-employed professionals develop their value proposition and monetize their business. While ramping up her practice, she also began a teaching career including Economics and MBA-level Marketing. She returned to her alma mater, California State University to teach Advertising and Strategic Management. After having worked in MBA admissions consulting part-time throughout her career, in 2014 she started her venture, MBAPrepCoach.com and has since devoted her career full-time to MBA and EMBA aspirants.
In this post, she shares her perspective on various aspects of MBA admissions – school selection, profile building, GMAT preparation, rankings, MBA essays, interview prep, and post-MBA careers.
MBA Admissions Consulting – Behind the Scenes
Q&A with Farrell D. Hehn (MBA Admissions Coach) Founder, MBAPrepCoach.com
Tanmoy: What were the primary challenges when you launched your independent venture after working for established brands?
Farrell: I had worked in a marketing management role for 8 years for large, market-leader companies.
Learning about marketing a small business was a completely different ball game – a steep learning curve going from Wells Fargo corporate environment to marketing a remote-based business online.
Tanmoy: What was the primary motivation behind launching MBAPrepCoach?
Farrell: When someone is seeking an MBA, they are looking to change something in their life. That change requires transformation on the part of my clients, which is the most exciting part of what I do. I help bring that about. I help them create their professional identity.
After becoming a certified coach, I enjoyed working with career coaching clients but there’s no deadline or “container” for the work we did. I thought to myself, I love coaching, and working with MBA applicants serves as a great container for that. There is a deadline and a focused purpose.
One of my GMAT Verbal clients asked me to help him with his application which kicked everything off; what makes me decide to do this full-time.
Tanmoy: What’s the difference between marketing Brands/Products and People?
Farrell: As far as similarities – identify the brand promise. What does the product consistently deliver – and what does this candidate consistently deliver? What problem does this product or person solve?
That said, in this job, you have the most reliable technique is to engage your audience with stories that tap into the power of human emotion. The adcom develops emotional ties to my applicants because of the stories we tell of their human-ness.
I was lucky to take and Advertising Strategy class as part of my MBA studies taught by the brilliant Professor Baba Shiv. He taught me a rubric called the 4 Powers as a way to test the effectiveness of an advertisement: Stopping Power, Transmission Power, Persuasive Power, and Locking Power. This was very helpful when I worked in advertising, and I used it in my current life as well when pressure testing my client’s deliverables: CV, recommendations, essays, application responses, interview responses, and LinkedIn summary.
Tanmoy: Over the last decade, what are the big developments that have impacted the Business Education (MBA) industry in the US?
Farrell: Obviously, there is a rising popularity in online education, which some view as comparable to in-person education. If you are just seeking the nuts and bolts of marketing theory and such, yes, maybe Coursera et al would be good resources for you. Doing Coursera offerings might be a good way to see if this business stuff interests you.
Having a chance to engage in internships, volunteer for externships, speaking with professors on the fly, developing a lifetime network, finding long-term mentors are all very critical sources of support. And they are critical to your success in applying this information for the benefit of you or an employer. I hope that candidates comprehend these differences.
Tanmoy: Is a regular MBA still as popular as back in the 1980s or 2000s? Don’t programs like MS Business Analytics, MiM, MS Finance or MS Data Science and MOOCs & Online MBA programs present a threat?
Farrell: I see some of these specialized master’s degrees as useful for junior employees, so a short-term solution, but they won’t be helpful when trying to ascend into upper management. For international students seeking OPT extensions, the MS does make sense. I see those getting an MS in a specialized area possibly returning to do an EMBA later on (for example, 59% of MIT Sloan EMBA admitted students have a masters already).
I think doing a specialized masters could be risky unless you are pretty sure about the career track you’re on because it will be hard to pivot.
Most people have several different careers in their lifetime. If you are seeking a job where you need to take in the big picture and look at the enterprise from a broad angle, these specialized masters might not get the job done. Short term salary increase yes, but it narrows your choices and might limit your salary growth and upward mobility as opposed to doing an MBA. I see them more as complements than substitutes; same for the online classes as I discussed in the previous question.
Tanmoy: According to you, is a regular MBA from a top-10 B-School worth the $100,000 price tag? How should applicants go about funding/financing the MBA?
Farrell: This is a tough question. Are you interested in academics, building leadership skills, seeking personal transformation, creating a network, or trying to pave a path out of your current job? Heck, I work with some candidates who are wife hunting. So, the value derived is case by case.
However, in most cases for a full-time student, you need to take out loans. For it to be worth it, in my opinion, you have to be able to pay back those loans. So, the MBA needs to be indispensable to achieving your post-MBA goal.
Generally, this is the case for consultants, investment bankers, techies at large tech companies, and product managers. If you have a clear and easy pathway to achieve this career goal without an MBA, it might better achieved without an MBA.
If you are seeking a change in industry or role, an MBA is worth it. If you are a sponsored candidate, its definitely worth it. It’s very case by case; if you can achieve your goal in 2 years without it, go that direction unless you can pay for the MBA in cash.
Tanmoy: What are your personal thoughts on MBA rankings? How should the applicants use rankings? How much importance should an applicant give to the numerous MBA rankings that get published annually?
Farrell: It’s a little weird really because US News & World Report started out as a print magazine, they are publishers. It’s so odd to me that publishers are now experts in assessing the quality of an MBA education. As someone who worked in print media, I can tell you I was the only MBA I ever met at Gannett, which is the largest newspaper publisher in the country.
That said, USN does have a specific methodology and there are clear metrics that are studied year over year. So, I have to give credence to it, and it’s currently the only real way an employer can separate the wheat from the chaff, aside from observing hires from various schools.
Tanmoy: U.S. News, Businessweek, Forbes, the FT, Poets & Quants, QS Top MBA, and The Economist – Which of these rankings should an international applicant use and how?
For US programs I use U.S. News (USN), and for global programs, I use the Financial Times rankings. Businessweek is more of a maverick in the rankings world; they switch up methodology so their year over year rankings are not useful. It kind of shocked the world when Duke was #1 in 2014 based on their student-feedback forward methodology.
I guess I look at Businessweek, Forbes, and Economist as ways to cross-check results from USN – see what is the same and what varies. I haven’t really dug into QS rankings much; the fact they didn’t make it to the Poets and Quants ranking party makes me question them.
I do like the Poets and Quants ranking, so you can see the aggregate feedback from each source. Kind of helps me evaluate the sources as much as the schools. One con to that ranking is they do not weigh the rankings from each source. The fact is USN is what recruiters go by, in the US, and so any meaningful aggregate ranking would need to be weighted according to credibility.
Apparently, Wharton will not cooperate with the Economist and so the Economist did not rank the Wharton EMBA (considered #2 by USN) and so they got a big zero for PQ for the Economist. This dropped their ranking down to 10, which misrepresents things a bit; the others ranked them #2 after Booth.
A note here about school selection. I really caution candidates to assert that school ranked #1 is better for them to attend than a school ranked #2. It’s very important to look at fit in terms of environment, values, program offerings, specialties, etc. I personally visited all the schools where I was admitted, and the experience was very different from the next.
My tip – Visit the schools before making that final choice; don’t rely on rankings to decide your future for such a large investment. If you want to build a strong network, you need to find your people.
Tanmoy: Majority of international applicants (especially from India) put too much effort than needed on the GMAT score and ignore the other components of the application. What would be your advice?
Farrell: It’s a tough one because they do indeed need a solid GMAT; I recommend at least 20 points over the class average just to become viable. But this is a classic case of NECESSARY but not SUFFICIENT.
It’s important for Indians to make a shift in their mindset from the Indian way of doing things to the meritocracy orientation of business schools, especially American ones. It truly is a holistic process, and fit does actually matter, that is not BS.
Test scores do NOT establish a ranking of applicants like the IIT exam. They do help break the tie between comparable applicants. The more “comparable” you are to others the more you are competing on the basis of GMAT, there is more upward pressure. So, it’s important to do your absolute damnedest to separate yourself from others in your profile group – which is largely your citizenship, gender, and industry.
Also, the fact is that your GMAT score does not matter unless the adcom has an emotional connection to you. This is why the application requires your utmost attention – and ALL components of it. Inconsistency is the kiss of death.
My mantra is to research yourself, research your goals and research the schools. Fit is essential. My candidates have been admitted to Wharton but dinged at Duke or admitted to Stanford but rejected from Kellogg. The adcom looks at fit and so should you.
Tanmoy: You were a GMAT prep coach. Any advice/tips on GMAT preparation for busy working professionals?
Farrell: My most successful students studied one hour every morning, six days per week. So much more efficient to study in the morning. Give it the best of you not the rest of you.
Many think you must come home after a long day and slog through massive problem sets when you really just need to set up a clear learning objective and invest an hour, maybe 90 minutes in the morning 5 or 6 days per week.
Also, keep in mind this is a process of training your brain to see and think the GMAT way, at least for the verbal part. Many students focus on completing an Olympian amount of problems but guess what those problems are not going to be on the test. It’s a different kind of test: learn how to approach the test effectively. Master the mind of the GMAT maker. Familiarize yourself with problem types but don’t treat this like you are studying for a law exam or something. Be strategic! The test is screening for those who can work in a clever way rather than respond to a problem by working long, hard hours.
Related Article: GMAT Critical Reasoning (CR) Overview & Preparation Tips
Tanmoy: What should applicants be doing 6-9 months and more before they apply?
Farrell: One or two years prior to applying, make sure to shape up your profile, and start doing some introspection. I strongly recommend therapy or executive coaching; the idea is to get to know yourself really well so you can help communicate who you are to the adcom. Not in vague, generic terms but with stories; stories about influences that have shaped you. Stories that reflect your values and how they mesh with the values of the school. I have a series of 10 tips on how to prepare for Round 1.
Nine months out you should probably be retaking the GMAT – especially for Indians, if there is any room for improvement, retake. Do not leave any money on the table (and in fact, this is real money on the table because GMAT scores correspond closely with scholarship offers).
Again, my mantra is research yourself, your goals and the schools. Around 6 to 9 months, you want to be engaged in all of this. And it’s unwise to cram and jam all of this – informational interviews and the like – into a span of 2 months before the deadline. Make sure to give yourself TIME to introspect with a coach or therapist and give yourself time to research your career goals.
Identify potential mentors on Linked In. Go and meet people who can help write your essays for you. Also, during this time you should be attending events like The MBA Tour, and school-specific events in your city. Follow that up with tracking them on Facebook and YouTube. Keep a notebook of everything you learn about each program and how it meshes with your career goals.
I would like Indians to switch from a mentality about “writing the essays” to research answers that just flow on to the page. The writing part is simply the physical manifestation of the thinking part. It’s about the content – good quality content starts with research and ends with insights from that research. Just like a consultant, you do the research and then write the report. Just focusing on writing the essays when you haven’t done any of this research is not going to yield a good result, to be honest.
Tanmoy: What are the key differentiators between a 2-year and a 1-year program? Are there specific considerations that should tilt the decision either ways?
Farrell: The first question, of course, is to get VERY CLEAR about your career goals. I work with my clients on this and help them set up informational interviews with grads who have achieved a similar post-MBA goal. You must network to find out if an internship is necessary; if it will increase the likelihood of you achieving your post-MBA goal.
Most of the time it will, and the goal is to convert the internship into a full-time offer. If you are in financial services, an internship is pretty important. For investment banking, indispensable. But I also think it is valuable to do an associate intern position, work at a start-up or get some sense of life as a Product Manager in tech.
Most candidates frankly do not have clarity regarding their goals, and of course, you discover a lot about yourself and your passions in the course of an MBA program. So, for this reason, I prefer 2-year programs because you get the chance to re-recruit if the internship did not live up to your expectations. RE-RECRUITING HAPPENS OFTEN.
One of my clients did a corporate LDP internship, hated it, and re-recruited for a job at a start-up. Another did an internship in investment banking, worked like a dog and sadly, was side-lined without even a recommendation and had to start over in the fall to recruit for a job in consulting. I knew these internships would not work out, but everyone needs to make their own mistakes.
With a one-year program, you must look for a full-time job the minute your feet hit the floor. What if you don’t like it? Then the value proposition of an MBA has unraveled quite a bit. I like formats such as LBS and ESADE where they are customizable to your needs. LBS actually allows the possibility of 2 internships.
If you go with a shorter program, I recommend you stick with programs that offer an internship period. If applying to INSEAD, my preference is for January term unless you are dead set on consulting because January term offers an 8-week internship period.
A lot of applicants are very focused on the cost of a program but not as much about the benefits – the upside – of what you get. Longer programs offer you deeper connections with classmates; the chance to do externships, study abroad, more time to explore and transform. This is likely to be your last chance to do this as a working adult so do it properly, in my opinion.
Tanmoy: Considering that the essay topics are pretty subjective with no absolute right or wrong answers, what are the top things that applicants can keep in mind while working on their essays?
Farrell: Help them get to know you as your closest friends know you. Drop the act. Don’t be so desperate-sounding. I wish I could call every Indian in the world and explain this to them. Be likable, relatable, and well-rounded. Because you are the product the schools are selling. Seriously. Yes, you need to show impact and progression but the emotional intelligence and other qualities I mentioned above must be there, you must demonstrate them to achieve success in gaining admits.
Because Indian culture is not very focused on the individual, there is often a lack of awareness as to strengths, values, professional identity. Admission consultants are expensive but indispensable to facilitating his process. Or at least good ones. I am a certified coach and the questions I ask really help tease this out.
Tanmoy: Many candidates are surprised when they think they’ve done very well on the interview and then they get a rejection note from the school. What could have possibly gone wrong in such situations? What are the top mistakes to avoid in an MBA interview?
Farrell: The interview is not really about getting the answers right but developing a rapport with the interviewer. Showing that you have your experience and message packaged for recruiters. Showing you have the emotional intelligence to be likable by classmates.
Common mistakes are either overpreparing or underprepared. Overpreparing, that you are repeating your resume word for word and fail to deliver the information in a conversational, seemingly spontaneous style. It’s a mistake to perform a rapid-fire speech for the interviewer rather than make it an interactive experience. You need to practice being present, at the moment, making eye contact. Even if you have prepared your responses – during the interview, slow it down, reflect, pause between thoughts. Communicating your experience in manageable bite-size pieces.
And then there is under-preparing, failing to really have your story together. I work with clients on “packaging” their story in milestones they can deliver in an interview. It’s important to research the interview style as well; for Darden, you need to deliver your story for 20 minutes whereas for HBS you need to keep your answers brief and to the point; lots of ground to cover in 30 minutes. You need to have your story straight but also show that you can handle whatever is thrown your way. If they ask a question you didn’t prepare for, show that you can roll with it, rather than become rattled by that.
Tanmoy: The US is definitely the most sought-after MBA destination as the majority of top b-schools are located in the US. But, with the tightening of the immigration rules, international students are looking elsewhere (Canada, Asia, Europe, etc.).
What are your thoughts on this? Do you see anything positive for the international students in the upcoming years?
Farrell: Ironically, the H-1B process in the US has created a greater incentive for companies to hire Indians with masters degrees – which is outlined here. Then, there are 18 months offered for both graduate and spouse with the J-1 and J-2 visas. The law seems to be OK at this point however my concern is how to welcome international students of color will feel in certain parts of the US, particularly the south.
The UK is definitely going to attract talent with their 2-year post-grad visa offer with no course restrictions, which will be in place next season. I am sure we will see an uptick in applications at LBS, Judge and SBS next year.
For Canada and New Zealand, there is a generous post-study work visa policy but a shortage of top schools. And the 3-year work visa offered in Canada is obviously appealing, even though you must attend a 2-year program. New Zealand has a long-term skills shortage in IT and many other areas. For those primarily interested in relocating, it might be worth it to attend a non-ivy program in the country.
Tanmoy: Apart from consulting and technology, which other industries are good bets for international students who want to work in the U.S.?
Farrell: Manufacturing and finance to a far lesser degree. For those seeking work outside of consulting or technology, I would be looking at schools in the UK, given the new policy they announced yesterday about a 2-year work visa where you can pursue a career in any domain.
Tanmoy: Admission consulting is gaining popularity in India and other countries slowly. How should applicants approach MBA admissions consulting services? How should they find the Right MBA Admissions Consultant or Coach for themselves?
Farrell: I am often really saddened to hear about horror stories candidates have had with admissions consultants who delivered a copy-paste approach, gave bad advice or just were not helpful in delivering specific essay feedback. I think these are some things to look out for. You want someone with a signature system but also customizes things for each individual.
One unsettling thing is the lack of transparency with the process in this line of work. Students, and in particular Indian students really need what we have to offer but there is an asymmetry in information about what that is, and how we can help them get admitted. I just created a blog called 43 Reasons to Hire an MBA Admissions Consultant, to help create more transparency about how we add value.
Having worked for a half dozen admissions consultancies I can say, you want to work with someone who is doing this full-time and has skin in the game. Most large firms hire fresh ivy grads who are doing this as a side job. One of my clients in Pune told me that his previous advisor would only schedule calls with him when she was waiting at JFK to leave for a flight; she had a very demanding job. I remember how grateful he was that we did a proper job of prepping his essays, which made me really sad.
Working with people very closely and walking with them through the whole process is important, and I feel a big predictor of success. So, do beware of these “comprehensive packages” comprised of 10 hours or something. I spend a lot of time with my clients but it’s essential to success. I have to get to know them well in order to help the adcom do the same.
Also, someone who graduated from HBS does not necessarily know why they got in there and much less how they can get you in there. So, the idea of pushing fresh top MBA grads off on unsuspecting MBA hopefuls is a poor model in my opinion.
To do this job well, you need to have a lot of skills. I feel it is a perfect synthesis of my coaching, marketing and editing skills. And, my MBA and business experience. I contribute heavily on GMAT Club to stay on top of student concerns, recent developments and I also keep myself abreast of MBA program changes.
MBA admissions consulting is a full-time job. Don’t hand your money over to a firm that is hiring people who look qualified but it’s really a bunch of plastic packaging, and they don’t have much skin in the game.
All of that said, if you don’t work with a consultant, you are bringing a knife to a gunfight. All my clients say they wouldn’t have made it through without me and I must agree on that point. So, it’s worth it to find someone qualified, dedicated and motivated to help you.