Wharton’s MBA Gatekeeper
When J.J. Cutler applied for admission to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in 1995, the school accepted nearly one in four applicants and the average GMAT score of an entering student was 650 out of 800. These days, Wharton accepts about 17% of those who apply and the average GMAT score of an enrolled MBA is 718.
Cutler, Wharton’s deputy dean of admissions and career services, doubts very much he would pass muster with the school’s admissions committee. “I certainly am glad I’m not applying today because I probably wouldn’t get in,” he says. “It’s humbling and inspiring. This generation of students is breathtaking. They seem to be more accomplished earlier in their lives. These students may be the first that we have seen done so many things, from the different languages they speak to the cultures that they have been a part of.”
Cutler, who luckily graduated with his MBA in 1997, is something of an anomaly. No other top B-school official presides over both the route to entry as the head of admissions and the route to an exit, career services. He got both titles in July after having returned to the school as dean of admissions in early 2009. Cutler, 38, has since moved into the career management office where, given the still slumping job market, he expected to spend more time. Ankar Kumar, a 2007 Wharton grad, is now director of MBA admissions.
“Some people,” he concedes, “think I am a little crazy for taking it on and I might be. Admission people like to turn the class over to people who have to implement the program, while the staff goes off and looks for next year’s class. Admission tends to see things before everybody else in terms of trends and changes. We thought it would be interesting for someone in admissions to have some continuity in the life cycle of the student experience. To the extent we can carry that information over, it should be helpful to career services.”
Other than Rocky, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who more closely identifies with Philadelphia than Cutler. A native of the city, he got his undergraduate degree in communications at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s on the board of the Independence Visitors Center Corp. And when he graduated with his MBA, he joined Johnson & Johnson, just across the Delaware River in New Jersey. Over a seven-year stint, he helped to manage such big brands as Tylenol PM, Motrin and Pepcid—but also created an MBA recruiting strategy for the company. Cutler returned to Wharton after stints as a senior vice president of marketing for Philly-based Aramark Healthcare’s North American business and as a president of Lindi Skin, a start-up that made skin care products for people with cancer.
But describes the defining moment of his career as his decision to stop working and go to business school full time. So his return to Wharton seemed like a natural move for him. In an interview, Cutler talks about the most common myths about Wharton, how it compares with Harvard Business School, and what happens to an application when someone applies to the school.
Applications for the Class of 2012 fell by 9 percent at Wharton to 6,819, while Harvard Business School was up by 5 percent. How come?
This year we saw a settling down of applications to where it was a couple of years ago. But last year we’ll have been the largest number of applications we ever had. The size of the pool isn’t what really concerns me. Our acceptance rates are so low and the applicant pool is so deep and rich, that the size of the applicant pool isn’t that important. Our brand is such that we attract a very high caliber of students. The competition is intense. You are seeing the brightest and most talented people from all over the world.
How are these students different from you and your classmates back in 1995?
We are starting to see the impact of the Millennials. There is a sort of social justice component that we haven’t seen in a long time. The cynical argue that when the economy comes back, they will all run back to investment banking firms and investment management firms. We’ll see. They apply earlier in their careers. They want to pursue dual and joint degrees like a J.D./M.B.A. and take language classes and get involved in all the clubs and learn about all the regions of the world. This is probably a function of multitasking and their comfort with new technology. Their dreams and aspirations are much bigger and broader, and they see business schools as a platform to help them get to those dreams.