Carol founded Admit Success in 2007 in order to bring her extensive experience in admissions to MBA candidates seeking a helping hand with their applications.
Before starting Admit Success, Carol worked in MBA Admissions at both INSEAD and Columbia Business School. Carol also worked in Columbia’s Office of Career Services leading interview skills and presentation skills workshops for first- and second-year MBA Candidates.
Carol brings over 15 years of admissions experience to the MBA application process. Carol received her BA from Johns Hopkins University.
A Conversation with Carol Grayson
Principal International MBA Admissions Consultant, Admit Success
New York business journalist Alex Yong recently interviewed Carol Grayson on her role as an MBA Admissions consultant.
What types of clients do you work with? Are they already aware of graduate admissions consultants?
Some people get an MBA because they want to work for Blackstone or KKR or some other private equity shop or investment-banking firm. They’re fully aware these firms will recruit from a select number of schools. So that’s one bucket of applicants.
We also work with many people looking to switch careers or functional roles as well as those who are either going into a family business or want to eventually go the start-up route. For these applicants I tend to try to persuade them to widen out the school search a little bit.
Typically, our clients who come from the financial services arena tend to be the most knowledgeable about graduate admissions consultants. This is a big topic of discussion if you work at Goldman Sachs or a private equity firm and you’re 26 years old. This group tends to know who’s applying to which business school, and who has used an admissions consultant to help them. In both the finance and engineering space, we are part of the culture.
As for people who have gotten previous rejections and have the self-awareness to reflect on why their application was denied, they come to us with the awareness that they want to work with a consultant to avoid making the same mistakes.
Many times our prospective clients will go to an information session that’s held by a business school, and as they start to grasp what the application process entails, they hit a moment of panic. I get calls from stressed out candidates that begin with, “I don’t even know where to begin. I don’t know where to begin with the topics, I don’t know how to talk to my recommenders, I have three projects coming up, plus I’m trying to study for my GMAT. I don’t know how I’m going to get it done.” And I tell them “That’s what I’m here for”!
Please say more about the bottlenecks.
One of the benefits of working with us, among other things, is time management to push the process forward. People can go from being excited to getting overly anxious which can stall progress – that’s where we come in.
When I talk to clients about school selection, many tell me they want to apply to what I call the “holy trinity”: Harvard, Wharton, and Stanford. In many cases, I will really make a good case for expanding the search to a few other schools. While our primary objective is to get applicants accepted at top business schools, we also take into consideration their long-term career objectives, which can sometimes be better served at schools outside the top 10.
With school selection, it’s sometimes difficult to convince clients to expand the search. When the client isn’t flexible, they’ll politely thank me and say they still want to apply to the top five-ranked schools. So this is what I’m up against. I’ve actually had people say they’d consider Columbia and Chicago as a safety school. And I’m thinking: “In what world are those two schools safety schools?”
So the occasional bottleneck is school selection. The other bottleneck is when someone hires a consultant and then second guesses the process.
For example, they might change everything in an essay after getting their roommate’s or mother’s opinion. While in theory a fresh pair of eyes is a good idea, it also leads to conflicting advice when too many (non-professional) people weigh in. With Admit Success you are always guaranteed two pairs of fresh eyes- and we are pros!
Second guessing is a natural result of being anxious- and something we sometimes need to contend with, but our track record speaks for itself.
Do you work with entrepreneurs? If so, what are the different issues there?
Yes. Very accomplished, multi-dimensional clients present a different challenge in that they are used to working on many things simultaneously. This is typically the case with entrepreneurs and serial entrepreneurs who are extremely talented but have a hard time focusing.
In business school, that’s a problem. Schools aren’t big on applicants who can’t focus, and I imagine employers feel the same way. But I love schools that encourage creativity, which appeals to entrepreneurs. Some schools allow multimedia in applications. This is a great way to present oneself in a creative way. MIT encourages it; Chicago Booth and NYU Stern both allow it as well.
Tell me about the advantages of using a boutique graduate admissions consultant – Mainly, how are you different? You were on the inside of admissions and now you’re on the other side. That’s a big advantage, I guess?
One way we’re absolutely different is that nobody here is putting a cap on how many times someone can get on the phone and just talk things out. Very often, that’s all it takes to move the process forward.
For example, if someone is completely stuck on an essay topic, my job is to get them unstuck. If it’s necessary to mention a former boss you didn’t get along with in an essay, you’ll want to write it in a way that doesn’t use trash talk. I’ll make suggestions, and within minutes the client can feel so much better and no longer be stuck. I love using the skillsets from my B-School Admissions experience, and I get to have a lot more interaction now. When I was in admissions, sometimes I’d interview candidates, depending on the school, or at least speak with them, but for the most part it was an internal process.
Now as a consultant, I’m always engaged with my clients, and I like that personal connection. Whether it’s through emails or phone calls, I’m much more connected to the person I’m working with –whereas in admissions, there’s very little or no interaction with the applicants.
Here I can really see an applicant go from not knowing where they are, to seeing the finish line and crossing it ahead of the pack. It’s a hands-on, people-oriented process, which fuels me.
So if someone’s rejected, do they scratch the school off their list forever? Can you help people who want to reapply to a school or perhaps appeal a rejection? Do schools give feedback?
Most schools won’t give you feedback. Sometimes Columbia will, but schools really don’t have the bandwidth for that. If you get a rejection, you can reapply, but you can’t “appeal.” Every school says they consider re-applicants, but the reality is, without something transformative happening since your last application, you won’t be considered.
With INSEAD, there’s language on their website that very nicely tells an applicant he or she should consider any earlier INSEAD rejection and not reapply. That doesn’t mean that people don’t reapply. I’ve worked with many, many re-applicants to INSEAD — and they’ve gotten in!
Sometimes there’s something very specific that was a problem, like a terrible GMAT score or not enough work experience.
When I read essays by people who should have in theory at least gotten an interview, which is a positive indication that your application is moving forward, the biggest flaw I find with people who haven’t worked with us is that the essays are vague and generic, which in my opinion is the kiss of death and the worst thing you can do.
The bottom line is that you want to make it easy for the schools. The schools are reading hundreds and hundreds of applications. They don’t want to do the heavy lifting attempting to figure out what you’re trying to say, or read between the lines and guess. They want it right there, spelled out for them.
Whenever I start working with a client, I warn them the word I will use the most during our work together is the word specific. It’s my favorite word. The letters of recommendation also need to be specific: Here’s what this person has done, here’s what the person’s potential is based on . . . specific examples, etc.
The same criteria are needed for the essays. Schools want to see what someone’s goals are, what they’re capable of, what they love to do, what they hate to do.
When you decided to work with your colleague Peter Roberto, was it a perfect storm where you both knew this was your calling?
Teaming up with Peter was the perfect storm. We have skillsets that perfectly complement one another. I happen to think we’d each be good at the other’s job, but we have no interest in doing so. He does what he does superbly well, and I do what I do very well, and our clients get the benefit of having two seasoned professionals with them every step of the way.
You do need two equally strong people to make this successful: somebody who’s speaking with the clients and reassuring them, and somebody on the back end who can really help people take a good story and translate it into terms that clearly illustrate a candidate’s value for the admissions committee to understand. In other words: a superbly crafted essay. He’s a rock star at that.
I imagine some people come to you with a set of “tactics” in mind and don’t want to budge. How do you get clients to open up and tell you about their history and goals instead of just the tactics they want to use? What about people who are completely feeling lost?
I remember working with one client from Indonesia who was in a family business, and the essay question was about leadership. The value there was when we enabled him to acknowledge that even though he wasn’t the head of the business, he still had valuable insights.
He had so firmly convinced himself he wasn’t there on his own merit, but because of family ties. He felt he had nothing to write about. He felt he had nothing to offer the business school and was going because it was expected.
When he started talking about what he was doing, it became clear he was doing great stuff at the company. He needed me to allow him to validate his own worth. That actually happens a lot.
When you live something every day, you tend to think it’s not interesting because you are doing it all the time. However, when you’re presenting it to people who haven’t heard it before, I can help put it in a new light and let my clients – and the schools – see it is an interesting story.
There’s so much value in talking things out. I’m told I am good at this because I engage with a warm style. At the same time, I know I am also very blunt, extremely tough, and if something doesn’t work, I’ll be the first to say “So what? Who cares? We’ve got to move this forward.”
If I reject four ideas in a row, it’s because I know the fifth idea is going to be great. Many times that method produces exactly what’s needed and the client just didn’t know it. If you say you just want to use one idea because you simply can’t think of anything else, I’ll say no and bring down the hammer. I tell my clients I’m tough, but it’s because I’m thinking of what’s in their best interests.
I work with lovely clients who are extremely appreciative of our process. With very few exceptions, we hit it off really well. One of the things I love about my role is working with different types of personalities and helping them achieve their potential.
Thanks for your insights, Carol. You are passionate about your work, and it shines through!