Menlo Coaching Review – An Interview with Alice van Harten

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I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Alice van Harten, co-founder of Menlo Coaching, to learn more about her college admissions consulting practice. In our hour-long Zoom call, we discussed Alice’s motivation for growing a college admissions coaching service, common misconceptions parents and students tend to have about admissions consulting, what separates Menlo Coaching from other firms, and much more.

Before getting into the edited down transcript from our Q&A session, I’d like to provide a brief introduction. As an undergraduate at the Dutch equivalent of a non-competitive state school, Alice recalled asking a representative how to get into Cambridge for graduate school. She was told, basically, “not to bother.”

Fast forward a bit, after completing her Ph.D. at Cambridge and postdoc at Stanford, Alice found herself at a crossroads and decided to make the pivot into business, securing offers from McKinsey, BCG, and ultimately landing at Bain. She jokes, “I may have been the first and last ancient philosopher they ever hired.”

While at Bain, Alice started helping colleagues tease out their personal and professional stories for their MBA applications. Word quickly spread online of the integrity and commitment she brought to the engagements—the words of that Cambridge representative serving as a guiding principle of how not to treat applicants—and things started to take off.

Today, Menlo Coaching stands around 30 employees strong, with a host of talented and dedicated admissions consultants, test prep instructors, and other team members serving high school and college students, as well as young professionals pursuing their MBA and established executives targeting EMBA programs.

As one of the most in demand MBA admissions consultants, what was the motivation for growing a college admissions service?

I think at a personal level, it’s that I really enjoy working with young people, having previously taught freshman students at Stanford. When I was studying classics, my dream was to become a high school teacher. So, I really like that demographic and am really excited to work with them, and there’s much more variation. Also, you can have a really big impact on high school students: shaping how they see themselves and the things they want to do. It’s much more than just where they go to school.

What’s one of the biggest misconceptions parents have about hiring a college admissions consultant?

I think a couple. One is that the college admissions coach or consultant doesn’t make the difference. So, it just needs to be done, but it really doesn’t matter exactly how it’s done. They think it’s mostly about keeping the kid on track. Either the kid can write or the parent can write, so it’s all taken care of, but in reality, it’s really so much more than that.

Another point that I see a lot is that families who send their kids to private schools are told that “it’s all covered, no extra help is required.” So the school really advises against working with a consultant, and the families think they don’t need additional support.

Garrett: How do you push back here and what do you like to say to these parents?

Alice: I tell them that you may get the essays done and the applications submitted, but what you won’t have done, what you won’t have included is someone who has an exclusive focus on coaching your kid. Pushing them to the max, integrating activities outside of school, and being the dedicated advocate while tying it all together. This goes above and beyond what the school is capable of offering any individual student. Their job depends on the overall class pool ending up in the best possible spot rather than any individual student.

And now for students, what are some of their misconceptions about working with an admissions consultant?

To start, and it’s perhaps one that they share with their parents, is that it’s about completing a checklist. Like there’s a certain type of checklist where if you mark off just the right combination of projects, internships, extracurriculars, that you’ll end up in a coveted spot. They make the mistake of starting from a checklist rather than themselves.

And then in tandem with that, and of course this comes with being a teenager, is the misconception that they are solely measured against others. Now, while to a certain extent that’s true that they are measured against others, what they fail to realize is that they will only ever have the biggest successes if they are the best person that they can be (i.e. the best version of themselves). And so again the starting point is in them.

Walk me through the primary benefit of working with a (relatively) smaller/boutique college admissions firm?

My team and I are personally committed to our clients. I tell clients when they sign up, “you become my personal project.”

Early on at Menlo Coaching, we were faced with the challenge of whether to cash in on our initial success by hiring a whole bunch of people with fancy degrees who maybe weren’t necessarily the best at actually coaching students. Instead, we made the choice to provide what we thought would be the best possible service and not compromise on that. When you work with a larger firm, I think that processes start to happen, so you start to lose a bit of the personalized attention. Whereas at Menlo Coaching, you are our personal project.

How do you prepare students for the transition from high school to college and beyond?

As a result of our exposure to applicants at all levels of education (college to grad school to professional education for executives), we see the impact of successful and unsuccessful choices early on and how they follow you. Additionally, and this is not something that parents know that they are buying, but it is something that we are throwing in whether they want it or not: our team is extremely dedicated in seeing the students succeed once in college. 

As former freshman lecturers at Stanford, both Leslie and I have seen firsthand what can go wrong with that first year, and I would say that about one-third of my Stanford students did not do well for reasons that could have easily been prevented e.g. being too wedded to how things were done in high school, not fully understanding themselves, their strengths, etc.

We look at the long term and the long term matters to us. We have a broad understanding of the many career paths that the student might want to pursue given our MBA experience. And working with high schoolers, we’re naturally asking questions such as “Hey, what might you want to do in the future? What should be your major?” So, it’s much easier for us to help them project that into the future in a way that is meaningful and realistic.

Menlo Coaching states, “We pride ourselves on helping students start ventures and initiatives. Whether you’re an artist, an engineer, a scientist or a writer, we can find you problems to solve, questions to answer, and people who need your skills.” Could you share any memorable examples?

Yes, so one initiative that comes to mind is a student who we helped with brainstorming how she could deliver and build out tutoring services in her home country of Turkey following the earthquakes. Another example is a student who was trying to provide university-level job search training for international students. So, he was initially doing this in a very ad hoc way. But after ideating on the venture together, we guided him toward setting up a fully online training program that helps international students looking for North American internships.

Additionally, and this ties in with the previous question, our MBA clients have done a lot of fun and interesting things, including various social ventures similar to the examples I just mentioned. So, when working with high schoolers, we can draw from this wide array of experiences and even make connections for them through our MBA clients who may be able to provide best practices and advice.

Some students are drivers (active/engaged/passionate about the college search process) while others may be more like passengers. Can Menlo Coaching be a good fit for both types of students?

I think we lend ourselves well to both types. Specifically, for the students in the driver’s seat, the challenge is to help the student see that it’s not necessarily smart to pursue everything, but that it’s wise to go deep on just a few. For these higher achieving students, we help them to gain the edge on one or two meaningful activities rather than to keep adding activities.

I also enjoy working with passenger students as long as I have the buy-in from them, and they are committed to the engagement. I think it’s the former teacher in me, that I want to help students thrive and find their passion and motivation for university. A recent passenger-type student comes to mind who seemed to be dragging her feet on tasks. During one conversation, it became clear that to me that she was insecure and a bit scared, and we discussed that. She showed vulnerability and that allowed us to troubleshoot and identify what needed to be done. It was very rewarding to see her progress after that and achieve a good offer.

With respect to school lists (target schools vs. safety schools etc.), how often is there a meaningful misalignment and how do you address that going into the relationship? Additionally, what is your philosophy on shaping a school list?  

First of all, I want to be really clear about that before we set the agreement. The last thing I want is to lure the parents by telling them, like, “hey, yeah, sure, don’t you worry, we’re going to make it happen.” So, I tend to be clear about that upfront.

At the same time, I understand that parents and students do want to include ambitious schools and want to have at least tried, so it’s really about finding that right balance. We want to help students to get into the best school for them and I explain the dynamic of getting there, which is to build a balanced list and one that includes only schools that will be a good fit for the student if he or she ends up attending.

I also point to my own trajectory. Although I started my academic career at the equivalent of a nonselective state university in the Netherlands (Leiden University), I went on to earn my Masters and PhD degrees at the University of Cambridge and complete a postdoc at Stanford University. Basically, you don’t need to start out at Harvard in order to eventually play in the top league.

Is there an important question you think I might have missed?

I think it’s important to mention that we have a vetting process, so it needs to be a good fit for both of us. For example, are your goals realistic? Is there a possibility for us to add meaningful value to the student’s pursuits? Also, is this someone who’s open to feedback? While it is a genuine selection process, it is also true that if you are a reasonable person and open to coaching and we have a space, then it can be a great fit.

What excites you the most about your work?

Without question, it’s the personal interaction with the clients, the students. I very much enjoy that, everything about it. The core of our business at Menlo Coaching is this commitment and excitement about our clients, and while it started with me personally, it’s something we’ve professionalized, so it’s now part of the business.

I have a strong personal commitment to doing the right thing, i.e. to do right by our clients. I think that commitment is something that we’ve managed to keep as a business and that I’m very proud of. So much so that I think it’s one of my proudest achievements with credit to my partner David because he’s been mostly on the hiring front for finding people who are like that. 

This also informed our decision not to grow too fast, but find the right people. We’ve rejected people with Harvard degrees in favor of people with degrees that are really not worth mentioning because they brought the right skill set and the right attitude to our work.

To close us out, when you’re not coaching students, how do you like to spend your time? Any notable hobbies or interests you’d like to share?

Of course, my favorite thing is to spend time hanging out with my own kids. As a side note, I was advised not to mention that because apparently everyone says that, but I do think parents value knowing that you yourself are a parent. As a parent I know what kids are like, and I know what you are doing when you entrust me with the care for your children.

Aside from my kids, I enjoy lifting heavy weights and designing knitwear, drawing on traditional Scandinavian and Northern European patterns. I take my knitting into the gym and then as I rest in between sets, I knit.

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