An Interview with Wharton’s Admissions Gatekeeper

by John A. Byrne on

Wharton Director of MBA Admissions Ankur Kumar

Even though the email popped into her inbox at work more than six years ago, Ankur Kumar remembers the exact date she got the message with the heading: “Your Status Has Been Updated.”

It was March 24th, 2005. Like any applicant, she anxiously clicked on the email from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and found out that the school had accepted her for admission to its highly prestigious MBA program. She stayed as composed as she could at her office desk, then quietly rushed into the women’s room where she did a little victory dance.

“It’s a moment you never forget, a life-changing moment,” she gushes. “I remember having to literally compose myself before I checked because if it was not going to be good news, I didn’t want to have an emotional moment in front of the entire office. It was a wonderful moment and it still makes me smile.”

Now, on the other side of that process as deputy director of admissions, she can do a victory dance of another sort—for admitting an unprecedented number of women in Wharton’s incoming MBA class this fall.

For years, the percentage of women enrolled in top-ranked business schools stubbornly remained in the 33% to 36% range. Kumar had helped Wharton assume a lead over all top schools two years ago by putting together an incoming class that was composed of 40% women. But this year, she outdid all expectations in pushing the number of first-year women to 45% of the class. What’s more, she managed the increase in a year when applications were down by 5.7% and enrollment rose by 3.4% to 845 students.

Kumar says she was in her office, finalizing the composition of the Class of 2013, when she realized Wharton had hit the new record. “We were literally running the numbers, and we all did a double take when we saw it,” she says. “We couldn’t believe our eyes. It was a fantastic moment for us. It definitely was a wonderful surprise.”

Only months earlier, Elissa Sangster, the head of the Forte Foundation, conceded that she had given up hope that in her lifetime female enrollment would ever equal the numbers at law and medical schools. With a full five-percentage point improvement at Wharton in a single year, however, UPenn’s business school is now just slightly below its law school, where 47.6% of the students are female, and its med school, where 49.3% are women.

How did Wharton do it? Kumar says the school has been laying the groundwork for this accomplishment for the past three to four years. Working closely with the student club, Women at Wharton in Business, the admissions office has done everything from pairing prospective students with current Wharton women in an “e-mail buddy program” to chartering a bus to bring undergraduates from Bryn Mawr to the school to meet with MBA students and Bryn Mawr alumnae in business. The club also organized coffee chats for women in 21 U.S. cities and 6 countries, hosted four Women Visit Days on-campus in the fall, replete with mock application interviews, class visits, and leadership seminars.

Kumar said Wharton pulled off the feat with no sacrifice in the quality of the class, a function of both increasing applications from women as well as the school’s ability to convert a higher percentage of accepted females into admits. In a wide-ranging interview with Poets&Quants, she also partly attributes the second consecutive fall in applications to new competition from B-schools in Europe and Asia, explains why Wharton will no longer use second-year students as first readers on MBA applications, and claims that the leak of the school’s essay questions last year had no impact on the admissions process.

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  • Spearhead

    Good luck to everyone applying to Wharton next year. Hopefully the waitlist is among the processes they are changing. As an applicant last year I was placed on the waitlist for over 4 months without any details as to where I, or for that matter anyone else stood. No updates, no emails, nothing! Needless to say that such a long period of uncertainty coupled with zero communication was frustrating. Unlike HBS, Chicago, Ross or a number of other top schools, Wharton is quite inconsiderate about how they treat waitlisters. As long as they are going to revamp their selection process they ought to look at the WL.

  • Alex

    While I didn’t apply to Wharton, I do know several people who applied in rd 1 and were waitlisted all the way into the summer WL period. Stringing someone along for 6+ months seems unnecessarily cruel. While Wharton is a great school, I’ve heard more bitterness associated with their WL process than any other business school’s. It definitely needs to be changed.

  • Marlene

    I add my disaqapointment of Wharton’s whole admission process and particularly the horrid waitlist. Compared to other BSchools (Ross, Tuck, Kellogg and even Columbia), Wharton operates an aggressive waitlist. Unfortunate waitlisters have to suffer months without any communication until the reading message update. Surely, the famed Wharton admissions team can do better? The entire admissions experience was unpersonal and has caused dismay among many applicants.

    As a woman, I wish to learn from the best possible students in terms of intellectual capability. Wharton’s selling point of increasing female ratio does not impress me. I would like to know the admission rate by gender. Any thoughts?

  • Mark P.

    Agreed, another WL here, 7 months until the day I said enough, I accepted admission at another school and withdrew from Wharton. Sincerely, this AdCom is hurting Wharton’s image.

  • Thiago

    PQ: And the acceptance rate? Last year it was 16.8%. You’re probably much closer to 18% or 19% now.

    Wharton’s Kumar: I don’t even know that. I don’t have that figure in front of me. But I don’t think we’ve had tremendous differences in our acceptance rate.

    This is a priceless question and very telling non answer from an interviewee who proclaimed in the same interview “I was very quantitative and loved numbers.” I wonder why Wharton’s Kumar is suddenly so coy to share new acceptance rate with readers, surely this can be retrieved and dissected easily just like its 45% female ratio? After all, Wharton is a self proclaimed quantitative rigorous Business School. At least PQ tries to dig deeper and I think the estimate is close to 20% for 2011.

    With regards to Wharton’s much complained waitlist: If Wharton does massive groundwork for this accomplishment by hosting Women Visit Days on-campus, information events and customized emails to target groups. Can Wharton also devise a better communication strategy to waitlist candidates. It needs only a fraction of efforts and represents some courtesy to applicants. Given the huge number of waitlisters, we are talking about many people who have undergone costs and efforts. I think people are prepared to get dinged, but they don’t like to be strung along.

  • Arthur Dullsworthy

    It seems probable from the larger class size and the large number of disappointed waitlisters that Wharton experienced unexpectedly higher yield. It may well be accepting the same 16% as last year.

    Inteestingly, the increase in applications from women along with an overall decline in aapplications implies a very significant decline in applications from men. What does this mean? I’d argue that the school is experiencing a shift in its core applicant constituency and they’re attempting to make it up by increasing applicants from the seven sisters. Nothing wrong with that. Girls from Wellesley, Smith, Bryn Mawr and Holyoke are the brightest and most intellectually serious students in the country.

  • Galina

    Well, at least Wharton stays true to its core sector finance as largest feeder. Imagine the outcry it may have caused if Wharton had decided to admit more industry folks and cut finance by a few points, God forbids! The breakdown with rising female applicants and falling overall volume does indicate falling applications from men. With 45% women acceptance, guys need to be more competitive and may think twice. The yield factor, maybe the HBS finance rejects this year took up their Wharton offer gladly.

    What is the fuss about Wharton’s poor waitlist, is it really that bad? I don’t hear misgivings about waitlists from other programmes.

  • Arthur Dullsworthy

    Wharton could only help itself by limiting intake of analysts and PE wannabes. One or two easy and reasonable changes to the tax code and the PE biz is wiped out for all time. Also, limit exemptions from the the ’33 and ’34 Acts.

  • Guiseppe

    I would like to see the correlation of Wharton alumni and income development post MBA by gender. Given that recent stats have shown a gender income gap among MBAs, would the increase of female intake at Wharton lead to slightly lower average salaries for Wharton MBAs in the future. In the short term, 45% women intake won’t cause impacts. But in the long term, it would be fascinating to see changes across areas. More women oriented events, women only scholarships and new classes.

  • Sangeev_S

    I think Wharton is boxing itself into a corner of Jumbo Gmat, women and finance applicants. Maybe it is the obesession with ranking that drives Wharton to this unhealthy mix, but the long term benefits are questionable. Though having a good reputation, Wharton is increasingly putting off male applicants. The reality is that MBA workplace is mostly populated by men. Just a piece of social engineering.

    It is unlikely that Wharton maintained same acceptance rate with rising yield given fall in total applications and larger class size. The yield was in the low 70%, a rise would have to be significant.

  • IgorV.

    Wharton is banking on application growth from women and risks neglecting traditional male applicants. I wonder what drives the trend
    1) applications from men has declined graudally in recent years and Wharton tries to increase female applications with growth potential as a result
    2) Wharton puts all its resources in wooing women and hence neglects men. With rising female %, men vote with their feet and apply somewhere else.

    My recent consultation with an admissions consultant was rather interesting. After reading my profile, he advised me to avoid Wharton due to its recent concentration on women. He believes that I would end up on the WL at best and recommends other B-SChools that are friendlier to men.

  • Sherry

    Why are men getting so upset about Wharton accepting 45% women? You’re still in the majority, guys, despite overall numbers of male college graduates dropping below that of females. Statistically speaking, there should be more women in any given graduate program than men. Just because finance has traditionally been male-dominated doesn’t mean there aren’t women interested in it today. (We also figured out long ago that girls can do math, they just aren’t encouraged to go into the areas that use it.) I would think that Wharton would be considered not “male-friendly” if the percentage dropped to, say, 35. Oh, wait, that’s the percentage of women the other “big names” admit, isn’t it?

  • Keiber

    @Sherry

    While they sound well meaning, your reasoning is horribly flawed and rather embarrassing to read.

    [1] % of college grads by gender has and should have no co-relation to MBA admissions. Everyone who has an undergraduate degree isn’t a prospective MBA applicant. And business schools (or men, for that matter) aren’t responsible for far, far more women than men getting undergrad diplomas in psychology or anthropology and then working as secretaries or in nurseries and so on after graduating.

    Less than 25% of the applicant pool getting half of admissions isn’t “equality”.

    Now, if you make the case that women need positive discrimination/affirmative action in business schools, and their admissions need to be in line with their numbers in society, not how many of them apply and certainly not based on how many are competetive, it’d be a different matter.

    Lets at least not use false analysis to argue that something horribly unfair is happening to female applicants now.

  • Sherry

    @Keiber
    While I will give you that yes, the number of college graduates does not equal the number of people who qualify for b-school (I was a little ticked at the assumption that a higher number of women in a particular class means that men were somehow pushed out, forgive my speaking too quickly) the assumption that 25% of the applicant pool getting half the admissions means favoritism toward women is still pretty darn offensive. Isn’t it possible that these applicants were actually better qualified? Is it not possible that Wharton is trying to make their b-school welcome to both sexes instead of being a good-ol’-boy network? I don’t think affirmative-action measures are called for–I think women need to know that any b-school is an option if you’ve got the chops to make it, regardless of sex. At least, that’s how it should be.
    And you’re right, it isn’t the fault of business schools that women get more degrees in the liberal arts and “soft” science–it’s the fault of stone-age gorillas that tell young girls that despite being good in math and science, they can’t handle it and should instead become secretaries and child-care workers. (Admirable careers by the way, they have to put up with a heck of a lot.) Sadly, in this day and age, women often have to be more qualified than men in order to get equal treatment. I think it is natural that more would apply to a school that openly says they value women as much as men and that their culture is non-exclusive.

  • Juan Manuel

    wharton’s admissions team is an organizational nightmare…that is why they have so many problems related to the waitlist (they can’t manage it),and why they have so many interview nightmare stories among internationals trying to find a slot (they can’t manage it)..

    i also find it sickening when they blatantly talk in terms of what really amounts to “quotas” for women…

  • Vladmir

    Great School but dare I say the franchise is showing a little cracks? I think more insight is warranted into Whartons de fecto no 3 ranking. Alot of unhappy international alumni that I know of. Common criticism is that the school does not take into account the alumni’s recommendations, in particular from interviews. The interviews seem to some as just part of the process not a n imp facto in the desicion. It would be worthwhile if P&Q for its next ranking really delved into Wharton. I don’t think all is well there !

  • Alois de Novo

    Wharton’s problem is that it has international alumni.

  • Magnus

    @ Juan: Wharton’s infamous massive waitlist does need an overhaul and the swtich to adcom interviews has caused great inconvenience for international applicants with some horrid stories. Add the termination of ‘loan program for internationals without US cosigner’, this kills the major funding source for most internationals. The dogmatic quotas for women discussion does make me uncomfortable and goes agains the notion of meritocracy.

    @Vladimir: The cracks at Wharton are getting bigger and threatens the structure. Booth and other BSchools are rising fast and will take the number 3 ranking from Wharton.

  • Alois de Novo

    I wish HBS would kill off their loan program for foreigners.

  • DIM

    Wharton is right – women have not had same opportunities and I welcome their move in accepting more females, some of which have families and kids and still find the way to get their education. As far as loans – there should be no loans for anyone, if one could not make money in 4-6 years to pay for the school then I don;t want to listen to their BS on how they have been great in business and in the community, I just don;t care, I want them to be able to take care of self and earn and save enough to pay for their education – that, in my opinion, is a good measurement of their success and leadership. 

  • Ddmin

    Vladimir, Booth… take a look at the statistics and tell me exactly what is so special about Booth, ok, a nice building I guess, what can they POSSIBLY teach in MBA program that is sooo special, MBA is just an overall BDegree, that is all, I personally don;t like Booth and will never hire anyone from there, they are rednecks from midwest, period…

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