b-school debrief: costs of the application process

So Much $$$

Business school costs a lot. This is obvious, whether you are a full-ride scholarship student or are paying fully out-of-pocket. Aside from the (constantly rising) tuition costs, you have the cost of living, external costs of the program, the utility cost for losing 2 years of income, and before everything, the cost of applying. In the grand scheme of things, the cost of applying may seem like a small, tiny teardrop in the bucket of the overall financial toll of an MBA. But for those who are still prospecting schools, still working on their GMAT, or even considering if they want to get an MBA, the costs of each part of the application process can be a large concern.

Trying to be Cheap

As I laid out before, my approach to the application process was to spend as minimally as possible. This wasn’t a reflection of my indecision on the MBA, but more that I have always had an internal conflict on spending money to get ahead when applying for things – I’m very stubborn about it, and always opted to self-study for the SATs and GREs instead of plunking down thousands for classes. The results, I will say, were mixed. I took the SATs 4 times before I got a great score, and the GRE was just enough to get me into grad school for my MS.  For b-school, the application process was far more grueling, and it made me reconsider this mantra. If you read around or ask around these days, there are two main sources of application support people willingly drop wads of cash into for assistance and advantage: GMAT classes and, more recently, admissions consultants.

GMAT Classes

costs1I touched on the GMAT course issue a bit in the previous posts on the GMAT, but I’ll lay out how it went for me. I started studying half-heartedly with a set of Manhattan GMAT books, and found that I really enjoyed their approach. After my first diagnostics, I was dismayed at just how bad I was, not really taking into consideration the specialized approach you need to learn to master the GMAT. I saw an offer to attend the first session of a Manhattan in-person course, so I checked it out. After going through the session and seeing how structured they were in teaching + drilling their strategies, I definitely considered the course. But at $1,600 or so, I was very hesitant. I ended up not going with it and believing I could conquer it through self-study as usual.

Again as I detailed in the GMAT posts, I had a great deal of luck in that a friend who had taken the course ended up with a full year extra of access to their online materials – including video lectures. I jumped on it and this definitely helped in my study process, as well as the syllabus they gave to lay out a study strategy for their 9 books. The online-only course was around $900 or so at the time, so in all honesty I might have given that more consideration if I didn’t have free access, and had known how useful it was. So for your consideration, if you’re really struggling or even moderately struggling with the GMAT, I do believe some assistance helps, but again from a budgetary perspective I found myself very much not wanting to drop so much money on a course. Keep in mind as well that each run-through of the test is $250, so if you don’t want to take my multiple-effort approach and keep spending more on re-takes, perhaps a course may work for you as well.

Admissions Consultants

Now we come to the truly divergent path of the application process – whether or not to use an admissions consultant.

A friend who had been applying to Top 10 schools had told me a few years before about admissions consultants – and I was surprised at the concept. You pay people thousands of dollars to tell you how to apply to school? Doesn’t that dilute the purpose of the application? But she was aiming for Stanford – her dream school – and was thus prepared to spare no expense. As the pressure and stress mounted on me 5-6 months before it was my turn to submit my apps, I took a good hard look at just what a consultant provided and if it was worth my consideration. Nothing about my budgetary mindfulness changed, but I knew for sure I was going to do this b-school thing, and the more real the applications got, the more uncertain it felt my future was. What if I didn’t get in to where I wanted – or worse, came out completely empty handed? I looked at the price points of some of these services – Admissionado, MBA Prep School, etc. Prices ranged from $2,500 – 5,000 per school. This was insane to me, to spend so much money to re-tool a story that I had to build myself. It appeared to just be a magic wand that people were looking for, that would give them the golden ticket to the b-school of their choice.

I dove in and did my research on what exactly I could get out of a consultant, and the answers varied greatly. Some promised to get you into a Top 10 school; some were far more pragmatic and their claims were simply to build the best story you can by helping you mine yourself, and to write more pointedly. I got a quote from one of the larger consultancies for my application list – Columbia, NYU, Stanford, Wharton, UCLA, Haas and Cornell. They offered me help on one, Columbia, for a single-school fee of $4000 with additional schools at $2000 a pop.


Holy. Crap. I saw those numbers and ran away. The biggest takeaway I got from consultant research was that nothing was guaranteed (of course), and there were no sure things. If my profile was weak, the “best” consultants in the world couldn’t help me. I felt I had a strong profile, and was confident in my writing abilities, so I decided to go it on my own, with some budget help.

Budget Admissions Tools

There are far cheaper options to help you through the admissions process and submitting a strong application without dropping thousands on a consultant. I searched around for some, and found some by chance, but eventually settled on two resources which I came to really love. (Note: I am neither affiliated with nor am I working in conjunction with either of these two. These are the two resources I personally came to love during my application process.)

Touch MBA Podcasts – This was my first discovery. I had a long commute to work, and started listening to GMAT podcasts; once that nonsense was over, I checked out admissions podcasts and stumbled upon Darren Joe’s podcasts. He touches on a variety of topics, from interviews and Q&As with admissions officers at a huge list of schools (including many in the Top 10), as well as general admissions advice on writing, story building, defining your goals, success stories, and more. These were in convenient less-than-an-hour-long slices that I could listen to and repeat if I wanted to absorb his strategies better. He also provides a free profile evaluation and school selection advice, which helped me to discover Cornell Tech’s MBA, a program I had previously not known of.

Touch MBA’s topics and overall enthusiastic approach to his podcasts kept me calm and steady whenever I was thinking about the daunting task of applying. Being a previous admissions officer at a top MBA program in Asia, I felt his perspective was sharp, but he also always had a genuine feel to his advice – he really just wanted to help people out. When I first started listening, everything was a free podcast; as he gained a larger following, he has started to create purchasable resources including more in-depth videos and tools that I didn’t personally use, but are affordable as well.

Essay Snark – I absolutely love, love, LOVE this site. These guys (one person? I can’t tell) are the opposite of Touch MBA in personality – no sugar coating, blunt advice, and unapologetic topics. While still maintaining the same goal of helping you guide yourself through the b-school application, they take a tough-love approach. This is highlighted in the most part by their “blahg,” which is a daily-updated blog covering topics that are pertinent to the current position of the admissions cycle, along with countdowns and advice for each school in the Top 15. The blahg is $9.99 per month to read, which is well worth it in my opinion.

costs3Essay Snark offers more conventional consultant packages – still a few grand – for those that opt for it, but they also provide a plethora of resources and a la carte feedback options. I used their individual strategy guides and a few other products and only spent about $250 total on help from here – WELL worth it from my perspective. I will detail Essay Snark’s guides and how I used them in future blog posts, but the three products I did pay for through them were 15 weeks of Blahg access + Weekly Countdown e-mails for $35, the strategy guide 6-pack for $99, and the customized recommender’s instructions sets for $99. I kept a Blahg subscription for a few months after apps were turned in because they were still compelling reads.

These two resources made a true difference in my application quality, and I was able to do so by only spending a few hundred dollars – about the same cost as one run at the GMAT. While I set out initially thinking I’d need no external service help, I felt that there were just enough for me. EXCEPT!:

Friends and Peers – This is the unspoken budget application tool. When it comes to your essays, you can do without the pricey admissions consultants by simply consulting a large range of your friends – ones who know how to write, ones who’ve gone to b-school, ones that know you as a person, and even ones you’ve just met, aka current students at the schools you’re applying to. Networking and utilizing your network is one of the most crucial skills you’ll need during b-school, so you may as well start now!

Additional Costs

So aside from the costs of the GMAT, GMAT resources / courses, and application resources / consultants, there’s still that last costly part of the process that people forget – the applications! When you set out to determine your school list, don’t forget that each application you’re submitting is going to cost between $200-250. If you’re peppering the entire field and trying for 10+ schools, that’s already $2500+ right there (we’ll talk about school research and choice, as well as quality over quantity, in the next entry). Don’t forget to keep this in mind too, especially if you’re still on the fence of either your chances or if you really want that MBA.

Final Thoughts

Like I said before, the costs of applying are small change compared to the overall cost of getting your MBA. But the amount you can spend in this process can balloon very quickly if you go resource-hungry, and can bite you back if you for some reason decide not to pursue in the end, or fail to realize just how awesome you are without the help of someone whispering it in your ear. If you’re like me and find dropping stacks of cash on external assistance a little off-putting, there are plenty of options for you to get similar ‘advantages’ while still having money to buy dinner at the end of the day. Good luck!

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