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Study Abroad Consultants: Questions to Ask

With the ever growing popularity of overseas education, international admissions experts have sprung up like tea stalls at every street corner. Some promise a red carpet walk to the admissions office, in exchange for your first born, while others let you easy on the price but offer very little in credible services.

Take, for instance, MBA admissions consultants. More than any other overseas degree, MBA aspirants are the most likely to avail the conveniences of one of the many admission consultancies, in the business.

In fact, nearly 45% MBA applications, in 2016, were counseled by one of the 300+ MBA consultancies. Often with a price tag same as that of a small sedan, and with the future of your career depending on your choice of which helping hand you have been matched with, it certainly begs a wholesome research into the effectiveness of your future consultancy. Here is a useful read into the way you can employ certain factors in evaluating the credibility of an MBA admissions consultancy.

Admissions consultants are there to walk applicants through the process, from matching applicants to schools, essay editing, SoP reviews, resume sniff test, GRE/GMAT information, interview preparations and sometimes even the visa song and dance. When you are getting geared up to leave the comforts of the familiar to study abroad, you may decide to hire these elves to help you create the application package or you may simply choose to go solo.

Here’re some thoughtful questions to ask yourself before you decide to take an axe to your piggy bank – Is hiring a consultant worth it?

If you don’t do a thorough job of introspection, your experience will not only turn fruitlessly sour, but you may even get penalized for improper use of study abroad consultants. There are unethical practices that, if detected, get applications thrown straight into the unrecyclable bin – read don’t ‘outsource’ to MBA admission consultants, like getting your consultant to write your essay for you.

For all you know, they may end up plagiarizing someone else’s essay, setting off the adcom’s radar when they get five applications with the same tear-jerking inspirational story!

Read how UCLA rejected an application for a plagiarized essay…ouch! In fact, in the admissions consulting business there are clear boundaries between ethical and unethical practices.

So, besides wearing a deerstalker hat, and smoking a calabash pipe (*cough* Sherlock *cough*), while searching for that genuine overseas education counsellor, you should ask some basic, yet pertinent, questions to all the consultancies you shortlist. You should be prepared for a prompt, and transparent, response, a lack of which, in itself, is a sign of opacity – a big no-no in your selection criteria.

10 Questions to ask your study abroad consultant

(Caution: Some of these may make the overseas education consultant uneasy)


What universities have your clients got into?

There are some good uses for university rankings – all based on individual methodologies, carrying some amount of weight for the over all performance, degree specific output, quality of faculty, alumni, research funding, publications and campus life. Though not identical, these are roughly similar, with the good universities popping up with ranks that are plus/minus a few between the various ranking systems. Their credibility speak for themselves. None ever rely on paying anyone to pump up their accomplishments. And that includes not having to pay a commission to any third party consultancy to lure unsuspecting applicants their way.

So, if the study abroad consultancy hands you a list of random universities, with names like the World Famous International University of Hollywood, you should certainly sit back and go…hmm, maybe not.

Do you get commission from any university?

You can simply move on if they hesitate to respond. You don’t want to get involved with an agency that is covertly acting as a marketing, and recruiting, body for a low ranking university. And if they respond with a no, you can go back to the previous response and verify their claims for yourself.

Can you share evidence of the high conversion rates you advertise?

It is possible to get dazzled by the shiny claims on their websites – 99.99% acceptance, 100% scholarships with bygone clients working in F500 companies. Make sure you verify whether the 99.99% data is for reputable universities and not a product of overestimating the stats of anyone who has gotten into any forgettable institute. That the 100% scholarship is not a familial inheritance and whether the F, in the F500, stands for Fortune and not Failing.

Also check if the team uses some non-transparent techniques to game that number, such as selecting only super-strong applicants with high GMAT scores, or forcing applicants to choose easy schools to maintain a high conversion rate.

Over-exaggeration is human nature, well sometimes, and it will be your job to find out how much!

Who are your consultants? What are their educational and professional background?

What concerns you most, more than the fame and fortune of the agency you are hiring, is the ability of your personal consultant to be qualified to assist you well. Your consultant, or mentor, should have enough experience in assisting other candidates, with a decent fraction of them having been successfully admitted in reputed programs.

Some of them may have qualifications that look good on paper but if they are half-heartedly performing this service as a stop gap gig, you are better off working with another who has more experience, tenacity, and dedication to stick it out with you till the end.

Will I be working with a single consultant and will he/she be able to work around my schedule?

You certainly don’t want your application be passed around, shuttling in between experts. Your ideal situation is one experienced advisor who can assist you from Adam to Armageddon. With too many advisors, in the mix, chances are that your application will keep getting reviewed endlessly without a happy end.

With time being an unforgiving factor, you simply cannot afford that scenario. Also sentimentally true is the need for your advisor to be able to understand your work constraints and be willing to create a flexible schedule for you two to brainstorm together.

Has my consultant assisted other successful applicants from my background?

This may seem like a revival of your previous query but there is a subtle difference. Your consultant’s experience is only as much useful as is his/her past encounter with candidates who have shared a similar profile.

If he has practiced his skills with only MBA applicants with a finance background, you may expect much less back for your buck when it comes to say an MS application in Computer Science.

If you are as good as you claim to be, why do you have paid advertisements in newspapers and the internet?

…With much less sass, but somewhere in the neighborhood of that very query. The best form of publicity is the one that comes from word of mouth, with past clients spreading the word of their pleasant experience.

Testimonial from an unbiased source is a big badge of honor. It certifies the consultancy as being genuine and effective. Also trustworthy is ones’ familiarity with the brand built over a period of time through online activity. There is a reason why brand names are a marketable entity by themselves – think Coca Cola Company buying Thums Up and not renaming it the Adult Coke.

Brands, by themselves, are far more meaningful. As is word-of-mouth publicity. Much more than big colorful paid ads, with the picture of a swimsuit model holding a degree from the World Famous International University of Hollywood.

How long have you been in the business?

The response to this should be measured against their past record, their brand name and their perception among your peers. A consultancy in its infancy may beg the question about the experience of its advisors. While one which has been around for two decades should also have consistent performance. A long but mediocre existence is not a good sign. So you see, age is a factor but you will have to weigh its effectiveness with its numbers.

(Here’s the tricky one) Will you write my essays?

“No”…that’s the only acceptable response. Advisors can only assist you in your endeavor to compose your essay. They can discuss or edit your writing style. They cannot, with a capital NO, write it for you. If any consultancy, in their bid to entice you, says they would, we can only say this…Run to the forest Run! You will be treading the dark world of plagiarism with a high chance of the adcom lords using your application as dry wall stuffing.
Your study abroad consultant is a means to an end – a successful application. The choice of the right one has implications that are both financially sensible and effective. Whether you choose a big name agency or a boutique firm, you want your end result to be an envelope with an acceptance offer.

However your desired end should never justify the means. Your application needs to adhere to the ethical standard that is expected of any applicant applying with or without a consultant’s help. The onus is on you to be insightful, vigilant and aware of the basic requirements of any admission board.

Your awareness will help you not just choose your best fit but prevent the charlatans from hoodwinking you with a glossy name, a million promises and a snazzy ad with a bunch of young spectacled smiling faces sitting against a backdrop of an “insert random name” foreign library!
And so we conclude with this bucket of wisdom – Get smart before you add to the cart!

If you are curious to know how MBA Crystal Ball stacks up against these parameters, read this: MBA admissions consultants ranking

Also read:
MBA admissions consulting reviews

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7 thoughts on “Study Abroad Consultants: Questions to Ask”

  1. Hello Sameer,

    Thanks for the ideas you’ve shared in this article. I would be delighted if you could share some insights about my profile and guide me which global B-schools I could aim for.


    1) Passed 10th and 11th, both with 78%

    2) Graduated in Civil Engineering from VIT, Vellore with 8.42 CGPA

    3) Worked with Tata Housing, Mumbai for 2 years (in fact, 2 weeks less than 2 years) after college in QA/QC vertical but majorly in Contracts department

    4) Since I wanted to learn various aspects of business, I setup a new trading proprietorship to expand the work of my family business in Varanasi.
    I’m currently working on it

    5) I’ve worked for a NGO for two years, where I’ve held additional role for an year as PR intern. Also, I’ve held managerial roles in organising my college festivals. And, I’ve also represented my college Cricket team at University level.

    6) I’ve had a two year academic break after class 12th due to unfortunate conditions back in my home

    Looking forward for your feedback.


  2. Hi I am TEJA I have 80 in 10 80 in intermediate and 70 in BE civil I can score gre around 300 I want to do Masters in cse in top 30 universities in USA can I get a seat in top 30 universities in USA in cse any help is appreciated

  3. I am working in reputed cement industry of india and having 12 years experience and having B.E. in mining with first class acanemic career.Now I want PGPX from IIM_A .what is the procedure for admission

  4. I am 28 year old .I have done Btech in 2011 in electrical engineering . I want to do something big . currently i am working as junior engineer in goverenment sector. i want to plan to do MBA in iim or du . plz seggest me what would i do .

  5. Hello Samir, is there any age limit for doing MBA or MS course. I am 47 years and a graduate working professional in India and now thinking to study in US.

  6. @Siddharth: Plenty of stuff happening in there. It could get difficult for Adcoms to understand all the transitions and breaks. Make sure you use your essays to explain all of it. Here are some tips to select the right bschools:

    @Surya: The GRE score would low for the top MS programs. See if you can retake it and go higher. Read about the average GRE Scores for top MS Universities in USA:

    @Amit: The admissions procedure is explained on the IIMA PGPX website.

    @Sumit: Start off by taking the GMAT. That’s the first step. We’ve decribed the rest of the process here:

    @Sumy: Universities don’t put any upper limit for age. It is up to the candidate to convince the admissions team (via the SoP) that the program fits their expectations.


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