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How much would you spend to get a leg up in the MBA admissions process?

For some people, there is no limit.

Admissions consulting firms have been around for a while now, and with a constant flow of demand from both undergraduate and graduate students seeking advice on how to perfect their applications to various programs, the industry is flourishing.

A comprehensive admissions consulting package for a school like Wharton, prices can range from $3,000 to $4,000, while packages for multiple schools carry an even higher price tag. For assistance with a single interview or application, prices usually fall in the range of hundreds of dollars.

A new interview format

Last summer, the Wharton School announced a change in its interview format for students applying to its MBA program.

This change was implemented for the first time during the current 2012-2013 application cycle. The admissions process now includes a team interview component that is meant to give applicants an opportunity to demonstrate their personal qualities and strengths.

“We wanted to give our applicants an objective platform to showcase themselves and their personal qualities and show how they think and engage with others,” Wharton MBA Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Ankur Kumar said. “It gives us a chance to observe them in action and actually see it live.”

Applicants are divided into teams of five to six people and are given a list of prompts beforehand to prepare. One prompt is selected as the topic for the actual 35-minute interview, which is conducted either on campus or around the world by Wharton admissions fellows and officers.

In the current round of applications, students are asked to describe how they would invest $1 million in support of one of Wharton’s three pillars: social impact, global presence, and innovation.

The team interview is designed to help applicants “understand the value and culture of Wharton firsthand” by giving them exposure to “the kinds of conversations and discussions they would be engaging in with their classmates and faculty on a daily basis,” Kumar said.

The role of admissions consultants

With Wharton’s new addition to the application process and some universities piloting similar ideas, such as Michigan University’s Ross School of Business, admissions consulting firms have to adjust quickly to these changes, sometimes even before the change is officially made.

For example, according to an article in Fortune, MBA admissions consulting firm The MBA Exchange introduced a new service specifically designed to help students prepare for this group interview before Wharton even officially announced this change.

Other admissions consulting firms have followed suit since the announcement was made and now offer programs to help students prepare for the group interview, among other areas of the application process.

“Whenever a school alters its admission process we alter our strategy given that change,” said Eliot Ingram, a 1999 Wharton MBA recipient and co-founder of MBA admissions consulting firm Clear Admit. “We help people brainstorm a good idea and think that through so they can get off to a good start.”

Due to consistent demand, MBA admissions consulting firms are able to charge relatively high prices for their services.

While admissions consulting firms attempt to imitate certain aspects of the admissions process, Ingram thinks there’s more to it.

“I really view my job as akin to being a guidance counselor,” Ingram said. “It’s really helpful for students in their twenties to put a lot of deep thought into what their career goals are. What do you want to do when you grow up? Why MBA? We help people think through those questions.”

Is it worth it?

Depending on the applicant’s personality, strengths and other idiosyncrasies, enlisting the help of an admissions consulting firm may or may not be worthwhile.

“Some people may need more structured help and other people may not,” second-year MBA student Mila Adamova said. “I can see how it can be helpful for international applicants who are not as familiar with the U.S. process, but I know it’s very widespread” among all MBA applicants.

Adamova added that age is also a big factor.

“It’s different because when you apply for an undergraduate program your parents are also driving the process and they’re the ones paying for it,” she said. “At the MBA level, you’re the one most likely paying for it, so you’re the one making that decision.”

When choosing from the multitude of admissions consulting firms, many factors can influence a student’s decision.

College and Wharton sophomore Praneet Mylavarapu, who is looking at similar types of consulting firms that specialize in standardized test preparation, believes that the brand recognition of some admissions consulting firms attract students more than the actual services themselves.

“It’s a lot of name recognition … it could be a marketing thing where one firm isn’t better than another, but it seems hard to tell,” he said. “They must be at least somewhat effective because they are still in existence.”

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