Wharton Posing New Applicant Questions

The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School yesterday (June 18) made some substantial changes to the essay questions it is requiring new MBA applicants to answer. But the school apparently decided against the addition of a more innovative test it had piloted for some third round candidates earlier this year.

The labor-intensive test involved inviting groups of six candidates to campus for a recreation of an interactive discussion in an MBA classroom.

Unlike Harvard Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business, which both cut back on the number of MBA essays this year, Wharton maintained its requirement for three questions. But only one of the three, requiring applicants to state their professional objectives, is retained from last year.

Instead, Wharton completely revised the section of its application that asks candidates to write up to 500 words each on two of three new questions:

1. Select a Wharton MBA course, co-curricular opportunity or extra-curricular engagement that you are interested in. Tell us why you chose this activity and how it connects to your interests. (500 words)

2. Imagine your work obligations for the afternoon were cancelled and you found yourself “work free” for three hours, what would you do? (500 words)

3. “Knowledge for Action draws upon the great qualities that have always been evident at Wharton: rigorous research, dynamic thinking, and thoughtful leadership.” – Thomas S. Robertson, Dean, The Wharton School

Tell us about a time when you put knowledge into action. (500 words)


Wharton said its first round deadline for the 2012-2013 application season will be Oct. 1, with notification by Dec. 20. The second round deadline has been set for Jan. 3, with notification by March 23. Wharton has yet to provide specific dates for its final third round deadline, but will be sometime in March, with notification in May.

The changes are perceived to be a positive development for MBA admission consultants. Says Sanford Kreisberg, of HBSGuru.com, “This is Christmas in June for consultants. Sure, Ivy liberal arts types who work for McKinsey might be able to figure this out for themselves, but even then, you never know. But for some poor go-getter in Asia or Euro dude with one eye on the returning drachma, or some U.S. guy at a Fortune 1000 company, those last two questions are head scratchers.”

Last year, Wharton’s two-of-three option question was significantly different. The options were:

A) Reflect on a time when you turned down an opportunity. What was the thought process behind your decision? Would you make the same decision today?

B) Discuss a time when you faced a challenging interpersonal experience. How did you navigate the situation and what did you learn from it?

C) Innovation is central to our culture at Wharton. Keeping this component of our culture in mind, discuss a time when you have been innovative in your personal or professional life.

The school also slightly rewrote the question about objectives. This year Wharton poses the 400-word question this way: “How will the Wharton MBA help you achieve your professional objectives?” Last year, it was: “What are your professional objectives?”

(See following page for Kreisberg’s advice on how to handle the new questions)

  • Kimberly Caswell

    Great Article. Thanks for the info, super helpful. Does anyone know where I can find a blank “2013 The Common Application AP-1” to fill out?

  • Rekia

    Good day. I was wondering if I could write art as what I would engage in for three hours.

  • Jennifer Millman

    In order to answer Wharton’s required application essay question, you must be concise. The Admissions Committee “is interested in getting to know you on both a professional and personal level. We encourage you to be introspective, candid, and succinct. Most importantly, we suggest you be yourself” (http://www.wharton.upenn.edu/mba/admissions/apply-to-wharton.cfm). Most applicants struggle to answer this question because they haven’t taken the time for introspection and an honest assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. In order to convey your best self, write the essays as though they would be read by a trusted friend. Then, with the help of a friend or editor, eliminate the clichés, generic statements and vague phrases that inevitably fill any first draft.

    With only four hundred words, you need to get right to the point. Your professional objectives should include your short-term, post-MBA goals as well as your long-term career goals. Think in terms of positions (a C-level job at a consumer goods company), accomplishments (decreasing high school drop-out rates as a social entrepreneur) and achievements (being recognized as an innovator in the green technology sector). In order to answer this question, you need to give specific and focused career goals. If you are still unsure of your post-MBA path, you can still give your most likely options… (read more at http://www.thehonesteditor.com)

  • Gil Levi

    Last week Wharton published new essay questions for 2013 candidates. Below is Aringo’s analysis and some tips for answering Wharton’s questions:
    “The Admissions Committee is interested in getting to know you on both a professional and personal level. We encourage you to be introspective, candid, and succinct. Most importantly, we suggest you be yourself.”

    Yours will be one of the expected 8,500 applications to Wharton this year, so how do you get yours to stand out? First of all, follow instructions: be introspective, candid, and succinct. Get their attention by giving them a sense of who you really are. Wharton cares a lot about leadership, teamwork, intelligence, initiative, commitment to community, and intellectual curiosity. Keep those things in mind as you write all of your essays.


    “How will the Wharton MBA help you achieve your professional objectives? (400 words)”

    There is no right answer here, but there certainly are wrong ones. A bad answer falls into one of two traps: a generic approach to “Why Wharton” and career objectives that are unclear or unrealistic or both. That means, you should do thorough research regarding the career path to your goals and how Wharton can help you get there, but it is not a place to take wild risks and get unnecessary attention, unless you have a stellar story to go along with your professional objectives, like a multi-million dollar family business that you intend to lead.

    A good career plan is one that is based on your past experience and a clear understanding of how you can get there from here. You should always include the ways in which your past experiences have helped prepare you to this point, how Wharton will help you acquire what you lack in terms of knowledge or experience, and how you will progress in your career after earning your MBA. Even if you are a career changer, you should explain how your past has brought you to this point. For example, if you are a lawyer switching to business, state clearly how your legal background has given you skills and experience that you can leverage in a business career and why you need Wharton to help you get what you lack. Your ultimate goals should be ambitious and even “dreamy” because schools want grads to become rich and famous, but your path needs to be realistic. One suggestion is to find role models and emulate their career paths.

    Answering “How will Wharton get you there” involves deep, personal research, beyond what you read on the school’s website. Talk to alumni, call leaders of clubs, make personal contact to get an authentic “feel” for the culture of the school. They will appreciate the effort and see that you’re serious about the school, which could help protect their yield. Relate specific features of Wharton – whether the vast course selection or special programs abroad – to your own personality, background and goals. Avoid clichés by being personal and specific.

    Only 3 years ago, Wharton allocated 750-1000 words to an essay about your goals and Why Wharton. Today, they are giving only 400 words, which is why this essay must be complemented by either Essay 1 or 2 below …


    “1. Select a Wharton MBA course, co-curricular opportunity or extra-curricular engagement that you are interested in. Tell us why you chose this activity and how it connects to your interests. (500 words)”

    Our advice here is to complement the first essay with either this or the next essay, but probably not with both. In both essays, you need to show what your interests truly are and what you hope to a) gain from the program but also, b) what you bring to the table that no one else can. Here’s an opportunity to stand out from the crowd and get the adcom people to think, “Wow, this candidate will really add something to the class.” One word of caution: don’t use this as a catch-all for lots of clubs and courses. Since ask for one, and you should focus on one. If you are very clever, you can choose one that has several facets.

    Standing out from the crowd here is probably harder to accomplish if you choose a course (although it’s possible), but there are plenty of opportunities to choose a co-curricular opportunity or extra-curricular engagement that can demonstrate your understand of the school and your commitment to becoming an important contributing member of the Wharton community. You can also use this essay as an opportunity to show your past track record of engagement with organizations or schools, and how you will continue that commitment at Wharton. Our suggestion is to worry less about choosing the “right” course, opportunity, or engagement, and focus on choosing the one that will show the most about you, your background and your potential contribution.

    “2. Imagine your work obligations for the afternoon were cancelled and you found yourself “work free” for three hours, what would you do? (500 words)”

    Advice here is basically the same as for Option 1 above. The main difference is that Option 1 is a safer option, and we advise tackling this question only if you have a truly spectacular answer. First, it has to be really believable. You can’t say, for example, that you would run to the nearest inner city school and work with the children if you have never volunteered with school children before. A spectacular answer would provide the adcom with a little window into who you really are, something super cool about you that they might not otherwise know. Basically, if you have a great answer for this, you’ll know it. If you don’t, you’ll probably know that, too, and we don’t advise manufacturing an answer, because the reader is likely to see through it.

    “3. “Knowledge for Action draws upon the great qualities that have always been evident at Wharton: rigorous research, dynamic thinking, and thoughtful leadership.” – Thomas S. Robertson, Dean, The Wharton School.
    Tell us about a time when you put knowledge into action. (500 words)”

    Finally, an achievement story. Hurray! We strongly recommend answering this one, and the story can be from either a personal or professional context. The most common mistake in an essay like this is listing too many facts and not including enough of the process and introspection and reflection that Wharton wants to hear. Wharton loves candidates with intellectual curiosity, and this is an interesting context to show that off. Choose a big accomplishment and dive deep into it – and make sure this does not read like a recycled, generic achievement story. Show how your action was the natural outgrowth of the knowledge and experience you had acquired previously. Show how you dealt with the challenges arising when practice diverged from theory or when you didn’t do something as well as you could have or something didn’t turn out as you expected. Show how you were rigorous and dynamic and thoughtful (but don’t tell them outright because that’s not good form).
    While an essay like this is ideally about something objectively impressive (you dealt with millions of dollars or led dozens of people or convinced upper management to change accepted processes, leading to remarkable results …), you can still impress the reader even if you did not found your own NPO to save political refugees. You need to highlight not only what you did but how you did it, how you handled obstacles along the way, what you thought and felt, and most of all, your potential for thoughtful, effective big-time leadership down the road.

    “All reapplicants to Wharton are required to complete the Optional Essay. Please use this space to explain how you have reflected on the previous decision on your application and to discuss any updates to your candidacy (e.g., changes in your professional life, additional coursework, extracurricular/volunteer engagements). You may also use this section to address any extenuating circumstances. (250 words)”

    Do not reiterate what they already know about you. Use this very small space to add value to your application by telling them something new that could impact your chances for admission.


    See here some additional info and tips for applying to Wharton: http://www.aringo.com/Wharton_MBA.htm
    Wharton essay samples: http://www.aringo.com/Wharton_MBA_Essay_Examples.htm

  • jimbo

    The day I read the “3 work-free hours” questions I actually had just gotten the afternoon off.  It was 112 here in Arizona and my a/c was on the fritz.  I’m guessing that sitting in front of a fan in my underwear is not a good answer.

  • Forel

    Nice post, thank you.
    It might be just me (engineering background), but these questions sound easier to me than last year’s.
    They are quite plain and straight forward, and it seems that it won’t be too difficult to come up with a good answer.

  • hbsguru

    Ha, ha me too, but a better answer would be, I would dream, and spend the time disconnected fr. the day-to-day and see what emerged and then I would ask myself why I dreamed about x or y, and was that a regret or something I could do, etc. If related to actual stuff in your life, that could work–similar to meditation for go-getters.

  • hbsguru

    Calling your mom could be a good answer if it was a gateway event to explore your background and influences on your life –basically you’d turning the question into Tell us about your background and the major things that have influenced you-but the ‘frame’ wld be that despite how impt your mom and your family have been –and elaborate on that–you are often too ‘busy’ and distracted to show appreciation or even set up a reg. communication pattern, e.g. on Sundays–so this unexpected gift of an afternoon off could provide the space to both initiate a call, express how much she means to you (or any impt person, does not have to be mom, you could write a letter to a mentor as well, and execute the same shtick ) and also do something organized like say, Mom, I am going to call you first thing on Sunday fr. now on.
    That is one way, the most common, to use the call, another way is if there is a complex family history that is now at some stalemate, you could use this gift to break that–essay wld briefly go thru the history but focus more on your personal inventory of ways to improve and what you have and have not done, etc. That wld also work, depending how it fit in with material you have in the other essays and what is in resume. As noted, one mistake essay writers make is just restating some deal at work which does not add a whole lot of value to what adcom already knows about you fr. resume and recs. That being said, there are ways of talking about deals which are value added, but I will save those tips for later, like maybe after you hire me. 🙂

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