Would Saint Thomas Aquinas Have Hired an MBA Admissions Consultant?

Warning: this blog post will be more esoteric than most. If you don’t like deep thinking, you might want to wait for the next one. Because what I am going to do is use some of Thomas Aquinas’ teachings to explain that there are different ways to going about the MBA application process. Namely, that one can “seek learning,” “be taught,” or “rush out and share what he has learned,” which loosely translates to doing the applications on your own, hiring a consultant, or engaging in forum culture. I am a consultant, so you will never guess which one I am saying he would have endorsed! In all seriousness though, this is some interesting stuff so I encourage you to dive in, be willing to self-assess, and possibly achieve a new perspective.


The first place to start, of course, is with doing it yourself. We come across a variety of applicants (everyone from true underdogs to true rock stars) and every subset is capable of choosing a consultant or not, usually unrelated to their initial qualities. Some are desperate to have a chance and others want to ensure they do all they can, but either way, the justification for hiring an expert exists across the entire spectrum. Usually, the reasons given for NOT engaging a consultant are more practical: budget and time constraints being chief among them. Some have a confidence (verging on arrogance) that there is nothing they can learn and others believe they can learn it in other (read: free) ways. We’re not here to say that everyone must hire a consultant, noting only that the landscape keeps getting more competitive, the essay sets keep getting harder to navigate, and some accounts peg almost half of all domestic applicants and three-fourths of international applicants as using a consultant. In many ways, applying to a top 15 business school without a consultant is like running for office without a campaign manager or going to trial without a lawyer. Technically, it can be done, and it can even be done successfully, but it is it wise? For some insight, let’s go to one of the greatest philosophers in human history!

Saint Thomas Aquinas, the great Italian philosopher, once grappled with whether people could learn information without a teacher and in doing so, he identified three things that any “learner” must confront.

  • First, is the morass of information – the seemingly limitless amount of data, opinions, and content that must be confronted when attempting to master a subject. Aquinas believed that merely confronting this sea of info caused beginners to become confused and discouraged. (It’s interesting to note that via its “raw case method,” Yale SOM is actively introducing this hurdle for its own students, in order to test their “real world” chops – Aquinas might not have liked it, but I have to say that I do.)
  • Second, the information is not ordered, grouped, or presented in any way that might lend itself to narrowing of focus.
  • Third, the lack of order causes information to feel disconnected, which creates a frustration and “hopelessness” in the learner.

Does this sound familiar? When I first got my feet wet with college admissions (over a decade ago), it seemed impossible to get my arms around it all. From the perspective of an associate director of admission, I had to master the internal (university agendas, demographic balance, the importance of stats like yield rate, file-reviewing processes, and on and on) as well as the external (types of leadership activities, relative value of hundreds of schools and course options, test score nuances, peer schools, and so forth), all while traveling the country to give talks (as an expert!) to hundreds of people at a time. I can only imagine what it feels like to an applicant in this day and age. So many options, so much information, none of it making any sense. It is surely discouraging.

So … hire a consultant, right? Well, not so fast. Even as he argues for the value of a teacher to bring discipline, order, and context to the sea of information, Aquinas continues to make the case for the learner’s ability to learn, even without being taught. He writes, “Knowledge therefore exists not in a purely passive way, but in an active way; otherwise man would not be able to acquire knowledge.” Paraphrased now: you don’t have to sit around on your butt and wait for someone to tell you what to do. Just ask the RZA, a junior high dropout who taught himself for years in the NYC public library system and went on to become a rapper, producer, mogul, and now film director. (And yes, I have now fulfilled my lifelong goal of discussing both Saint Thomas Aquinas and the RZA in the same paragraph.) James Schall, a professor at Georgetown and the author of a book titled “On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs,” writes that “fortunately, knowledge of what is can develop almost anywhere there is an inquisitive mind” (emphasis added).

All this to say, if you want to go DIY, you no doubt possess the power to do so. However…


From Schall back to Aquinas, the consensus seems to be that a teacher is by far the best way to unlock the abilities of the avid learner. We know that a wise instructor can separate fact from fiction, organize content, and otherwise give order to the sea of information. Not only that, but the teacher can save massive amounts of time. From Aquinas’ De Veritate: “The teacher, who explicitly has the whole knowledge of a thing, can more expeditiously lead someone to this knowledge than can someone who learns it inducing it from himself.” Kind of obvious, sure, but the key word is “expeditiously.” A few weeks or even several months is not a lot of time to try to bring order to the teaming universe of admissions information that is out there – more every day, in fact. If you can find someone who has been at this for a few years, has worked with a few hundred clients, and who therefore has “the whole knowledge of a thing” (or at least a lot of knowledge of a thing), you can save yourself a lot of time and heartache.

(Warning: I am going to start scolding applicants in five, four, three, two, one…)

Of course, when hiring a teacher, there is always going to need to be a shift in the dynamic of the learner. In other words, merely hiring a teacher is not going to result in maximum learning – you have to be the right kind of learner. It has always amazed me the way some clients improve so much more than others, even though I am the same person taking the same proven approach to each of them. Being a fairly ego-centric person, I kept looking inward for answers: maybe it has to do with how busy I am at a given time? Maybe I have subtle biases that are impacting my performance? Could it be energy levels, mood, or even things like weather or lighting? Nope. Thanks to Aquinas and Schall, I now realize that it is not about me (what? never!), but about the client. Schall, in writing about Aquinas, explains explains that there are three types of learners:

  • The first is interested “only in grades.” For our purposes, that is someone interested only in that which is tangible. “What worked for someone else? I want to do that.” Or: “what will the results be?” Taking that approach will still generate something, but not the fullest thing.
  • Second is the person who constantly asks questions but doesn’t listen. Is this you? Did you feel your cheeks blush when you read this? If there is any trait that is commonplace and highly frustrating among the subset of humankind that I work with (i.e., elite MBA applicants) it is that so many ask incessant questions but aren’t really listening – either to my answers or the other things I am proactively sharing.
  • Third is the person who knows there are things to be learned and people who can teach them. Schall puts this perfectly: “the third recognizes that he must take responsibility for his education and has a certain faith or trust that someone else can guide him.”

That third learner – that is the person who thrives. In fact, I would argue that the only way for a client to receive true and complete value from my services (or anyone else who takes this line of work extremely seriously) is if they fit Schall’s quote above. Note that this client “must take responsibility” for the process, yet also have “faith or trust” in the guidance. The two most detrimental behaviors exhibited by clients are 1) not maintaining personal responsibility for their own process (taking a “I hired you, now it’s on you” approach), and 2) not having faith or trust in what is truly expert guidance (constantly crowd sourcing for solutions, double checking the work, etc.). For years I have thought these were just annoyances for a consultant to bear (working with lazy people and having to deal with the second guessing of others who possess far less expertise), but now I see them for what they are: impediments to the “learning” of a client. In other words, it’s not my loss if you lack personal responsibility or trust and faith … it’s yours.

This is a good time to discuss the final approach – the dreaded “group think.”


One popular way of approaching the applications that falls somewhere within the first two camps is to use forums to A) bring order to things (aiding in the DIY approach) and B) find expertise (affording something of a “teacher” dynamic). The problem? This is a distorted version of teaching.

A teacher, remember, must have knowledge of “the whole of the thing,” per Aquinas. Surely, no one on a forum possesses such knowledge. Rather, surely no one is sharing such knowledge. The true experts can’t afford to share it all or they would never have clients and would then starve to death. Those who attempt to share everything don’t have full knowledge 99.9% of the time. There is almost no chance that you are going to get a comprehensive vantage point from forums. Instead, you will get disparate pieces of the whole (best case scenario), conflicting points of view, self-serving diatribes, puffery, PR, and other potentially misleading pieces of information. Of course, that is looking at forums as moral and professional cesspools, where people are driving by commerce (guilty!), ego (guilty again!), some sort of bizarre Second Life need for user name acclaim that exists only online and not in “real life” (not guilty; I don’t even understand this), and a variety of other highly negative drivers. If we see only the worst in forums, it’s not a place you want to be going for guidance.

How about if we see the best? The “best” is once again presented by Aquinas and it’s more a byproduct of learning than an agenda-driven creation. He explained that teaching and learning are ultimately active things, rather than purely contemplative exercises and Schall goes on to say that as social creatures, we have a desire to share action, rather than hold it in. He writes, “There is an excitement in knowing the truth [which] flows over naturally into our social nature. We want to explain to others how we arrived at or came to know the things seen.” So it’s primarily a positive thing that drives teaches and students to share what they know and what they are learning. However, since most learners are only in the early stages of learning while they are sharing (far from the knowledge of the whole), that makes most of this admirable but dangerous to follow. And we know we can’t trust the “teachers” here because the competitive aspects require them to hold back much of their knowledge (or at least make it so hard to properly order and understand that someone must pay for it).


In all, there is no sure right or wrong way to do anything in this life. If you want to run for mayor without a campaign manager, go for it. Maybe you will ignore the old paradigms and break new ground … or maybe you will literally do everything wrong and lose an election you could have (or even *should have*) won. Same for going to trial, same for getting in shape, same for anything, really. However, there is some comfort in knowing a few things, thanks to the long-ago teachings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, especially in light of how toxic and “zero sum” the admissions world has become. The first is that we all have it in us to learn. The second is that knowledge sharing is mostly a positive thing, born out of our inherent natures. The third, finally, is that teachers are usually a pretty good thing. I think even old Tommie A would say that if you can add one to your life – and be the kind of student who maximizes the benefit – you might want to do so.

If you are looking for a good teacher in the form of a truly knowledgeable admissions consultant, shoot us an email at mba@amerasiaconsulting.com. We are looking for more of the “third kind” of clients.

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