This is an interview with Shirag of Shemmassian Academic Consulting.
Hello, Shirag. Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.
I’m the founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting. My team and I help high-achieving students get into top colleges, medical schools, and other graduate programs.
What’s your educational background and how did it help you build the skills you use in your business now?
I graduated with my B.S. in Human Development from Cornell and my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from UCLA.
Through my own admissions processes, I’ve learned how to prepare standout applications that maximize our students’ chances of admission to the most selective schools.
I have no formal business background and developed my skills through trial and error.
For instance, I initially grossly undercharged for services and handled everything—advising, accounting, marketing—myself for years before hiring help.
Over time, I’ve better understood the value we provide to families, and also what my greatest strengths are. I feel more confident than ever about focusing on my “zones of genius” and asking for help in other areas.
Tell us about your superpower – getting accepted to great schools and graduating debt-free – and how you saw profit potential in it?
I went to a high school in Los Angeles that had very little college counseling support. I also grew up with Tourette syndrome and was discouraged from applying to elite colleges.
So, I became obsessed with learning everything there is to know about admissions and used that knowledge to get into top schools and win enough scholarships to graduate with my degrees debt-free.
Friends and family members took notice of my admissions success and asked for my help. The students I helped enjoyed tremendous success following my unique approach to top-tier admissions. Eventually, the demand grew to the point where I realized I could start a profitable business.
What was the turning point to finally charging for your services and turning that into a real side hustle?
During college and graduate school, I developed an interest in personal finance and entrepreneurship, but I never knew what type of business I wanted to pursue.
The answer became obvious when my passion for admissions intersected with many requests for help. I decided to launch my business in 2013 because I was tired of waiting for the “perfect moment.”
However, I was initially unsure whether anyone would pay for services, so I started small. I took on few students and charged little.
My confidence grew over time, as my students continued to get accepted to America’s top colleges and medical schools.
What was the course that helped you get the business off the ground?
In early 2015, I signed up for Ramit Sethi’s online business course, Zero to Launch. It includes step-by-step guidance to starting and growing an online business, from identifying the right business idea to improving website copy.
Ramit’s work really propelled my business forward in its early stages and I’ve since purchased several of his other courses.
How did you build a name for yourself in a rare niche such as School Admissions?
When I first began helping students, I wanted to send them helpful resources on various admissions topics. However, good information was scarce—and still is.
So, I decided to publish my own comprehensive guides, which brought traffic to our site. Students appreciate the straightforward, step-by-step guidance we provide in these articles.
College and medical school admissions are high-stakes processes with little room for error. They also heavily influence professional and networking opportunities.
Therefore, students and parents are highly interested in receiving strong support so they can maximize their odds of getting in. It’s my job to help them do just that, whether through providing great free resources or comprehensive support through every stage.
What were your fees in the early days and how have they changed over the years?
An early example was charging $1199 for a plan that now requires a $4999 investment.
I recall one student who was applying to medical school and needed help with dozens of essays. If I were to calculate my hourly earnings, I probably made below minimum wage.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that we’re not merely editing essays or having phone calls—we’re optimizing student’s application in a way that maximizes their admissions odds. Our prices now more accurately reflect the value of our services.
What strategies did you use to find new consulting clients?
Many prospective students learn about our work through word-of-mouth referrals. The majority, however, discover our comprehensive guides through Google searches of admission-related topics.
By making these informative and well-written articles available for free, we demonstrate our admissions expertise and create the expectation that students will receive an even higher level of support for paid services.
Read also: How Megan Became a Full-Time Pinterest Manager & Lander Her 1st Client in a Month
How does your revenue growth look like over the past few years and why do you think numbers are increasing?
Since I started the business in 2013, revenue has more than doubled each year. Part of this can be attributed to “accidental” growth from Google traffic.
We’ve since become more systematic in the way we publish content so we can reach more people. The acceleration of that growth is consistent with our fine-tuned efforts, as well as increasing word-of-mouth referrals.
You finally quit your day job this year. Why did you wait until now?
When I started my business, my goal was simply to generate additional income for my family while helping students get into their dream schools. While my business grew each year, I enjoyed my full-time job and wasn’t ready to make the transition.
In 2018, my wife gave birth to our son. Managing a full-time job and growing business made it difficult to spend my desired amount of family time.
Therefore, I made the tough decision in Summer 2019 to quit my full-time job so I can focus more on my growing family.
What were the biggest challenges to becoming a six-figure consultant?
Word-of-mouth marketing and organic search traffic snowball over time, which means they take more time to bear fruit than, say, paid ads.
I also used to manage every aspect of the business myself. The time I could devote to my business was therefore limited, and I capped the number of students I took on.
Over time, I’ve documented and honed my admissions system to help students efficiently without sacrificing effectiveness.
How do you structure your day now that you’re focused on your side hustle full-time?
After working out and eating breakfast, I spend my mornings answering emails from team members, students, and prospective students. Then, I turn my attention to tasks that maintain and grow the business.
I spend afternoons speaking with prospective students over the phone. I wrap up the day spending time with my family and answering emails before going to bed.
What are the main reasons why qualified applicants don’t get in the school of their choice?
There are several. The most common ones are:
- Grades and test scores are not competitive
Most colleges list the 25th to 75th percentile GPA, ACT/SAT scores, and other standardized test scores of accepted students. If a student’s stats consistently fall below a school’s expectations, their chances of acceptance are slim.
The same is true for medical schools. If an applicant’s stats fall below the average GPA and MCAT score for the school, admissions odds will be quite low.
- Not having a unique extracurricular profile
Since top schools receive applications from many students with perfect or near-perfect stats, it’s very difficult for schools to make admissions decisions based on numbers alone.
Years ago, “well-rounded” extracurricular activities could help a student gain admission to top colleges. Over time, developing a memorable specialty has been increasingly prized by admissions committees.
- Submitting cliche or otherwise non-memorable essays
College essays (e.g., Common App Essay) and the medical school personal statement allow applicants to communicate who they are: their background, their values, their thought processes, and their goals.
Students often read successful essay examples and use others’ framework to write their own essays, without reflecting on what they want admissions committees to know about them.
By first reflecting on the qualities and messages they want to send, students can identify the topics that will best highlight the reasons why they would be a great fit for the schools they apply to.
Do you think any skill can be monetized and turned into a business?
No. It’s important to identify an existing demand for a skill before turning it into a business.
Few companies in history have been able to create demand where there existed none. I encourage entrepreneurs to do appropriate customer research before starting a business.
Reddit, Facebook, and other online communities are a great place to start, but nothing beats speaking with potential customers directly about the types of problems they’re hoping to have solved.
What are some things you wish you knew when you were building your consulting business?
You don’t have to chase every opportunity that arises.
For example, in the early stages of my business, I wanted to build and sell online courses that would generate a steady stream of passive income. However, we were already having tremendous success with our one-on-one advising support services. Instead of spending time trying to develop a completely new product, I decided to double down on our proven 1:1 services.
I encourage entrepreneurs to identify one or two areas that work and focus on being the best in those areas instead of spreading themselves too thin.
Another incorrect assumption I made was that I had to do everything myself. Since hiring more support, I’ve learned that there are people who can do certain things just as well as I can, which frees up my time to focus on the things I am uniquely good at.
What’s next for you and Shemmassian Academic Consulting?
I continue to refine and improve my admissions system to ensure that we help maximize students’ chances of getting into their dream schools. I’m also excited to support more students over the coming years by increasing our marketing efforts.
I believe that if my team and I make daily progress and help students achieve their dreams, our success will grow over time.