Several prominent MBA admissions consultants, with access to inside information on the web, are coaching their clients for forthcoming applicant interviews with the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Poets&Quants has learned.
What makes the practice especially noteworthy is that this year Wharton has launched a new process that requires all applicants to answer three of six “behavioral” questions. So knowledge of the questions would allow applicants time to prepare thoughtful answers and score well. Applicants unaware of the new format and the questions would be facing this interview process totally unprepared.
The consultants have gained access to an audio slideshow presentation intended to train Wharton alumni who conduct the interviews. The slideshow includes all six questions, suggestions for follow-ups, as well as detailed guidelines for how to grade the applicants’ answers. The upshot: applicants willing to pay for help are gaining inside information that makes it far more likely they will do well in the crucial interview session that is the last hurdle to an acceptance.
Like most schools, Wharton is in the midst of interviewing first-round applicants. An estimated 900 applicants have been invited to interviews so far, through Wharton will likely interview as many as 2,700 of some 7,000 expected applicants to the Class of 2013. Wharton says that roughly 500 Wharton alums have been enlisted to conduct the sessions. Second-year MBA students and admissions staff also will do some of the interviews.
The leaking of Wharton’s questions and grading framework coincides with a boom in the MBA admissions consulting business. As many as half of all applicants to Harvard, Stanford and Wharton are thought to be using consultants to gain an edge in getting into a prestige school. In some cases, applicants are paying well in excess of $5,000 for coaching on how to fill out their application forms, write their admission essays, and prepare for interviews. Many of the consultants are either alumni of or former admissions officials at many of the world’s top business schools.
“While anything is possible, I sincerely doubt that any of our consultants would be engaging in this sort of behavior,” says Graham Richmond, co-founder of Clear Admit, who like his partner, Eliot Ingram, are Wharton alums. “Unlike most firms in the space, we are not a loose network of independent contractors, but rather a tight-knit group of full-time employees. If the allegation is that we have ‘insider’ information of some kind, then it’s false – unless you consider field reports from current applicants who have interviewed with the school to be insider information.”
Richmond and others note that some questions have leaked out in online discussion forums at BusinessWeek, GMAT Club and Clear Admit, along with blog posts by applicants who have been invited to the interview and are reporting back the results of their sessions in detail. Nonetheless, the more important ethical question concerns the access that allows some applicants who pay for consulting help to better prepare for their interviews due to the leak.
80% OF WHARTON APPLICANTS ARE QUALIFIED FOR ADMISSION.
The 25-minute presentation, which Poets&Quants has obtained from a simple website link without a password, is given by Ankur Kumar, deputy director of MBA admissions at Wharton. She counsels alumni on how to conduct the newly introduced behavioral interviews and grade the answers on a scale of one to four. She says that 80% of Wharton’s applicants are qualified for admission so that the interviews are intended to give the admissions office better information to winnow down the competition.
Some alums, however, with connections to admission consultants have shared the link into the website that carries the presentation. These consultants are using that inside information to help their clients prepare for the interview sessions.
Wharton does not appear all that concerned about the leaks. “Our admissions team is quite confident in the interview process, anticipating full well the possibility of questions being leaked through various sources and interviewees using admission consultants to prep,” says Malini Doddamani, a Wharton spokesperson, in an email response. “Knowing those situations, the team believes the benefits far outweigh the risks for us and for all our peers that also have this problem.”
Wharton also believes that the answers from applicants will be varied enough to make better judgments. “Whether one uses a consultant or not,” adds Doddamani, “the key to success is in the manner of answering and the ability to navigate through the turns of the interaction. Questions just serve as a ‘starter.’”
“Wharton seems to be taking its damage control cues from BP (British Petroleum,” says Sanford Kreisberg, a Boston-based admissions consultant known as HBSGuru. “First, they were in denial about leaks. When the leaks become undeniable, they started saying they don’t matter. In reality, the unprepared applicants are forced to commit to a story, often the first thing that comes to mind, on the spot, while the prepared kids are building Potemkin Village answer sets. Being prepared versus coming into this cold is a huge disadvantage.” Kreisberg has written an open letter to Wharton, urging the school to publish the questions in fairness because of the leaks.