Getting Into Wharton: Does College & Work Pedigree Trump Merit?

by John A. Byrne on

The Wharton School graduation this year

Mark Goldberg had every reason to believe he would be among the incoming MBA class this fall at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

Without taking a prep course or even buying a study book, he had pretty much aced the GMAT exam with a score of 770 out of 800–50 points higher than the 720 median for this year’s entering class.

Goldberg earned his bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University with a triple major in economics, international relations and East Asian studies. He pulled down an impressive 3.6 grade point average–a tenth of a point above last year’s Wharton average.

And he racked up nearly three years of work experience in finance, the subject that has long brought Wharton world acclaim. Even better, he accumulated his financial acumen in the hottest economy in the world—China–at a boutique investment bank in Beijing. That experience, plus his professional proficiency in Mandarin, made Wharton and its international Lauder program an ideal match.

AT FIRST, SURPRISE AND DISAPPOINTMENT. THEN SHOCK.

But then came the unexpected ding, or rejection, in March. “At first,” he says, “I was surprised and disappointed, then I was shocked. I thought I was a really good fit with the school and the program.”

Why would Wharton turn down such an obviously qualified candidate for admission?

Wharton, of course, is one of the world’s most selective business schools. It accepts fewer than 17% of the more than 6,800 people who apply to its full-time MBA program. An application could get tossed in the rejection pile due to poorly written essays, less-than-enthusiastic recommendation letters, or a weak admissions interview.

Wharton doesn’t publicly address why a specific individual is turned down, but a close examination of the undergraduate universities and companies of this year’s incoming class suggests that Goldberg may have simply lacked the pedigree of his elite counterparts to make the grade.

Schools never publicly release the school and work backgrounds for admitted students. But Poets&Quants obtained the information for Wharton’s Class of 2013 through social media website Facebook, where the incoming class maintains an active presence. We analyzed the data for more than 600 members of this year’s 845-strong incoming class, verifying the undergraduate backgrounds of 613 students and the employers of 544 students.

IS ELITE MBA ADMISSIONS SOMETHING OF A ‘NAME GAME?’

What the data shows is that admissions at Wharton is something of a name game, in which the doors to graduates of less prestigious companies and schools are either less open or completely closed. The upshot: many highly qualified applicants appear to be getting squeezed out because they went to a state school, worked for a no-name company, or lacked the connections to have someone important put a good word in for them.

Of course, it’s hard to tell from the data exactly why a particular candidate was accepted or rejected, but at the very least the numbers suggest that for those without some other big differentiating factor, the nod is going to go to the person with the stronger credentials. That leaves a lot of applicants, with outstanding achievements, standing on the outside looking in.

Admissions consultants say the results are not especially surprising. “School and job pedigree count more than schools would like to publicize because the mythology of admissions is that everyone starts equal, and schools are open to all comers,” says Sanford Kreisberg, an MBA admissions consultant. “But schools are not equally open to all comers, and job pedigree especially can be critical, even more so than schooling. You are not getting into Harvard Business School or Wharton from the local bakery or real estate office.”

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  • Andrew

    What were his results at other schools?

  • already here

    I go to Wharton and there are LOTS of people from no name schools. I also happened to have graduated from JHU with a comparable GPA in science. I have a fairly random background and a lower GMAT score. My bet is that he did not write the best essays or he dropped the ball in the interview / recommendations. I applied to a handful of schools and had similar acceptances across the board. The admission process is unquestionably subjective (I was rejected by NYU, but got into CBS and Wharton) but I think that it is more accurate than most people think. GMATs and GPAs need to be supplemented with very very very strong essays, interviews and recommendations.

  • Guil

    I don’t like this kids attitude or the attitude in the essay. This helpless and victim mentality is obnoxious. The guy pulled a 3.6 at Johns Hopkins and then went into high finance. Here’s the issue, because he is fluent I imagine he is of asian decent and he went into high finance he was grouped into two very large and competitive buckets. Most high finance kids are ivy league 3.9+ and majority of asian canidates pull a hell of a lot better GPAs than 3.6s.

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