Leveling the Playing Field: Lower the Cost of Pursuing an MBA

Harbus-LogoWith acceptance rates at top MBA programs ranging from 7% to 20% and recent studies showing that over 50% of MBA applicants use an MBA consultant, the cost for competing begins early in the MBA pursuit process and has steepened dramatically. This advice comes at a steep price, though: the average hourly rate for admissions consulting is $280 / hour, or almost $9,000 for a five-school “comprehensive package”.

We at the Harbus continue to leverage our access to current HBS students to compile resourceful guides – including advice, essays, interview questions, and post-interview reflections from successful candidates – at an affordable price, as a means of leveling the playing field for HBS applicants. While our products have most greatly benefited those applying to HBS, they also apply to applicants applying to all of the other top business schools.

Recently, we crossed paths with Maria Wich-Vila, an HBS Alum (’05) and entrepreneur who is also passionate about lowering the financial barriers for all MBA applicants looking to remain competitive against their peers, without emptying their savings account. Her interactive online MBA admissions platform, ApplicantLab, starts at just $249, which is thousands of dollars less than most other traditional MBA consulting services. We recently sat down with Maria to learn more about her path to entrepreneurship, the inspiration behind her company, ApplicantLab, and how ApplicantLab continues to benefit MBA applicants. We even managed to extract some insight into life at a startup.

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Alula Eshete (HBS ‘17): So how did you come up with the idea for your startup, ApplicantLab?

What It Does ApplicantLabMaria Wich-Vila (HBS ’05): I was a VP of Admissions for LASO (the Latino Students Organization) when I was at HBS. We would work with the admissions office to organize diversity events, and at these events I’d meet people who would ask me for help with their essays. I began doing it to try to level the playing field, since frequently these prospective students couldn’t afford admissions consultants, just like I couldn’t when I was an applicant.  Then, after graduation, I just kept providing admissions advice, pro-bono, via word of mouth: people would send me their friends, co-workers, younger siblings.  I’d work in startups during the day and then would help people with their essays, recommendation strategy, interviews, etc. on nights & weekends.

In those years, I learned that the application process can be broken down into steps that everyone can follow: identifying how to deal with weaknesses, uncovering the key messages you want to convey, and then using very specific experiences and stories as the foundation for everything you communicate in the application. The specifics of the advice at each step differs from applicant to applicant, but the overall process is the same for everyone.  And specifically, the stories someone tells about themselves in their application – not just in the essays, but also in the recommendations, and later during the interview process, are the best way to convey information in an authentic and efficient manner.  Applicant Mapping on computer

Then, when my son was a newborn, I had a lot less time to give advice and started having to turn people away. I began searching for books or blogs to refer prospective applicants to, but found that they tended to be way too generic to be useful. Meanwhile, the “affordable” admissions firms didn’t usually offer high-quality service, and the top-notch firms charged exorbitant prices. I looked at how interactive, computer-adaptive technology was transforming the test-prep industry, and saw an opportunity for an analogous product on the admissions-advice side.  I put on my product-manager hat and asked myself, “How can I use technology to truly scale great advice?  In sum, how can I replicate myself?”

AE: For those who are unfamiliar with the service, what is ApplicantLab, exactly? Is it an online course, or a series of advice articles, or an e-book?

MWV:Our Promise ApplicantLab It’s an interactive, computer-adaptive sequence of exercises that walks you through everything you need to do to craft a strong application.  It’s a much more advanced version of a course or articles.

It differs from existing online offerings in two key ways: first of all, the content delivered is tailored to each user, based upon information they enter about themselves. This saves the user time, so that they don’t need to read through information that isn’t relevant to them.

Secondly, almost the entire platform is interactive – you do the strategizing, brainstorming, branding, outlining, and writing exercises directly in the browser. For example, one of the first steps is an interactive tool to guide you on how to address weaknesses in your profile.

The core of the program is an outlining and story allocation tool where you brainstorm the stories most important to you and type brief summaries into text boxes; these boxes then become drag-and-droppable so you can allocate them to different essay questions and recommenders in an optimal way.  The program even color-codes the boxes so that you get a full graphical picture of your application to each school, before you even start to write. Then, we break down each essay question into key mini-questions, to help eliminate writer’s block and ensure the question is fully answered. Then, it moves on to drafting and editing exercises.  In sum, the writing process is broken down into digestible steps that really build upon one another, and were built on the same process I use when walking someone through the admissions process in person.

AE: How does it differ from other admissions consultants?

MWV: The short answer is price. The reason consultants charge so much is because it truly is a very time-intensive process to work with someone, one-on-one. You need to ask them about their background, give them tips for dealing with weaknesses, brainstorm story ideas, reject the weak ideas, organize the strong ideas, etc. This process is, understandably, expensive.

Applicant Lab New Venture Competition LogoApplicantLab’s pricing is a fraction of other consultants, because the interactive system does a lot of the “explaining” and “discovery” and “here’s how we might build this story” heavy-lifting.  When a user reaches out to us for more guidance, time is saved in two ways:  first, we don’t need to spend a lot of time explaining things – if they’ve done the work, then the most common mistakes are being avoided. Secondly, we can see in our dashboard at a glance what information the user has entered, so it only takes a few minutes to get acquainted with their background, goals, etc. vs. a 1-hour introductory call.  There are a number of other time-saving techniques we use, so we can offer high-quality service in much less time…and therefore, for far less money.

Also, frequently the most successful firms need to farm out a lot of the work to temporary seasonal workers – those workers might have attended an elite school, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are skilled in this field. As a client you might not be sure if the advice you’re getting is ultimately coming from an expert, or is just some temp worker’s opinion. I have a dear friend who once worked for one of the largest companies in this space, and she was shocked at how little vetting / training she received. She was essentially told to just sound authoritative. Obviously, some firms are better about this than others, but at least with a digital service, it’s fully scalable so everyone is getting the same high-quality advice.new discount

Finally obviously, since it’s all online, you can work on it on your own time, at your own pace. We had one user power through four applications in one week last year. I don’t recommend waiting that long to get started, but…it’s feasible!

AE: But wait – if someone follows the steps in ApplicantLab, are their essays going to sound like someone else’s?

MWV: No. This is something we’ve been very thoughtful about. Part of what I wanted to achieve via interactivity was to avoid a “one size fits all” advice approach by mimicking the same process consultants use.  This is, again, why the idea of simply creating something passive like some “e-books” or a “video course” didn’t sit well with me.  And, to be clear: the software at no point actually “writes” anything for you. It’s a guide to help you uncover and express your best stories, but there is a lot of freedom in how you do it. We tell you which key points to make, to fully answer the question, but how you tell it is up to you. Keeping things in your authentic voice is vital.   

AE: What keeps you up at night?

MWV: Other admissions consultants can be selective and turn away weak or difficult candidates, or actively encourage candidates with sub-par profiles to apply to less-selective schools.  I’m not currently doing that. I’m not turning anyone away. The good news is, since I currently charge a flat-fee in the platform, regardless of number of schools applied to, I can be really honest with people when they ask me what I think about their chances. That is, I don’t have any incentive to falsely encourage them, since it’s not like I’m going to make an extra $1,200 for each extra school I persuade them to apply to. If anything, I have an incentive to be very blunt. Who's Behind It ApplicantLab

Also, I can’t force people to do all of the work in the Lab – for example, a user recently reached out to me and said he planned to skip ahead and do the Recommendations section first, before any other step. This worries me, because the whole idea is that my platform gives you a step-by-step way to be thoughtful and strategic about the choices you make in presenting yourself, and skipping to that module first is going to mean that his choices may not be as strong. So: if this person now doesn’t get in, are they going to blame me? If I make the platform truly open to anyone, even people who have zero chance of getting into a given school, does that create a risk that they’ll unfairly blame the product? So these are things I may need to re-evaluate.

AE: In all honesty, did you use an admissions consultant when you were applying to HBS?

MWV: No; there was no way I could have afforded one. Even if I could have though, I’m not sure I could have justified it to myself. I ended up lucking out because a major deal I had been working on in my job was suddenly shelved the August before I applied. With my job unexpectedly and temporarily in a lull, I was able to hustle and self-study for the GMAT (thankfully, a generous friend from college lent me her prep books), and then I spent a couple of months reading every article and message-board posting I could get my hands on. The main branch of the Hong Kong library had one copy of one book about MBA admissions at the time. It was in the reference section, so I couldn’t even check it out – I had to spend several Saturdays re-reading it and taking a million notes. I literally did not spend a penny on preparation, but again, I lucked out with a slow patch at work that did give me the luxury of time. Unfortunately, these circumstances aren’t the norm for most MBA applicants.

AE: ARE THERE DIFFERENT WAYS to use ApplicantLab? Can someone still use it and hire an Admissions Consultant?

MWV: Absolutely.  Someone could just access the software as a “DIY” tool, and then get additional guidance from friends or from another consultant.  In addition, for a modest additional fee, they can get feedback from an ApplicantLab consultant, who can see all of their information in the system and thus have a more efficient, productive call. Due to client demand, we’re also starting to offer additional feedback, mock interview packages, etc., with the condition that someone use the software first. This is vital to keeping things efficient!  

AplicantLab_Source (2)We’ve also had users go through the Lab and then hire a pricey firm to do a final “polish” — which still saved them several thousand dollars. I’ve even had users who paid expensive firms for their several-thousand dollar “comprehensive” packages, to double-check the advice they were being given, and also to apply to additional schools. I’ve had several users say that they were shocked that the advice and process used in the ApplicantLab was not only the same, but sometimes even better than what they were getting elsewhere, for far more money

AE: Very interesting! This is some great food for thought for our readers. On behalf of the Harbus community, thank you for your time!

MWV: Thank you, it was my pleasure!

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In closing, we at the Harbus would like to thank Maria for sharing her time, experiences, and her groundbreaking ApplicantLab software. We wish her continued success in her quest to level the playing field for MBA applicants on their respective paths to business school.

For more information on Applicant Lab*, you can visit http://applicantlab.com/  or reach out to Maria directly at maria@applicantlab.com.  

*For a discount on your ApplicantLab download, use the Promo Code: HARBUS10 

As always, the Harbus HBS Essay Guide and Admissions & Interview Guide are both available on the Harbus website (www.harbus.org), along with the latest articles on HBS news.

Good luck (and guidance) on your business school applications!

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ApplicantLab is an official partner of The Harbus News 2015-2016