Is Wharton’s Desire For Candor Compromised?

I was thrilled Thursday to be quoted in The Wall Street Journal’s “Frankly, Wharton Wants Candor,.” which focused on Wharton’s Team Based Discussion (TBD) and Harvard’s interview reflections. I disagree, however, with disingenuous arguments in the article that applicants who seek to prepare beyond a school’s recommendation are intrinsically less than genuine.

I sat in on several of Accepted’s mock team-based discussions and was impressed with the evaluative power of the TBD.  It is a great tool for discerning differences in interpersonal and communications skills.

I was also pleased with the feedback that we received from our mock TBD participants: 100% of those who provided feedback felt the mock interview to be a valuable practice. A dress rehearsal really. And professionals rehearse.

You can ad-lib a lie, prepare facts.

It is fallacious to think that practice leads to a lack of authenticity. You can ad-lib a lie and prepare facts. Winging it and honesty don’t correlate.  In fact, one has nothing to do with the other.

However, practice and preparation do correlate with achievement. In fact, they contributed to bringing applicants to the point where schools like HBS and Wharton invite them to interview.

Should students not study or practice so they can be candidly ignorant when asked to give a class presentation? Take a test? Should they wear jeans and t-shirts so they can be more “authentic”?

Would Wharton or Harvard want their students to ad-lib and improvise for job interviews?  Would they advise applicants to go to a job interview for, let’s say McKinsey or Goldman, and just “relax, be genuine,” and “enjoy the opportunity for [the prospective employer] to get to know you?”

Yeah, right.

And what about employers?  Why aren’t they upset when MBAs, with the schools’ support and urging, spend hours prepping for interviews?  As Accepted’s Todd King, author of Handling Wharton’s Team-Based Discussion, notes in an internal discussion:

“So, what do consulting and banking firms do in their hiring that allows them to bring on great people without complaining about ‘over-prepared’ recruits?  … they knew good and well that every candidate had thoroughly reviewed and practiced whatever big case-study book had been compiled by the school’s management consulting club.  Those firms found good people – and they didn’t complain about those people being extremely prepared; they expected it. “

Those elite firms want it. They seek employees who come to interviews practiced and prepared. They want employees who will check and double check their work. And they certainly demand that employees train and rehearse for roadshows and client presentations.

The ease of writing an email or carrying on a discussion isn’t the issue. Candor and honesty aren’t the question.

Applicants prepare, practice, and rehearse because they perceive the benefits of getting into a school like HBS or Wharton to be worth the effort and worth the $500 for Accepted’s Wharton Premium Interview Preparation. (This fee provides both a mock team and personal interview as well as written feedback and an individual post-interview consultation.)

Confusing winging it and wisdom

Perhaps, just maybe, as a result of the information freely given away by admissions consultants and applicants, as well as yes the increasing numbers of applicants seeking paid advising, admissions committees have a harder time differentiating between applicants. (See Looking Back on the Shrinking MBA Application )

Frankly, something is amiss when business schools confuse non-preparation and honesty, winging it and wisdom.  Is that something a lack of candor on the school’s part?

By Linda  Abraham, president and founder of, co-founder and past president of the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and author of MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.


  • Sky

    Mbaover 30…..the scale of social retardedness at the top graduate engineering schools is borderline sociopathic(trust me im in one)……i thinnk at b schools its just lack of initiative on peoples part outside of formal networking events or alchohol fueled events ..but that can be easily overcome….plus when you have 900 odd people in a sample setting certain characteristics do set in….also i believe thb school xperience and degree would take a full 5 to 10 yers to kick in

  • MBA below 30

    I participated to the TBD interview this year. To me, overprepared people clearly sounded fake.

    There is nothing to prepare, really, other than a couple ideas for the initial brainstorming. What will happen is totally random as it will depend purely on the randomness of the panel you will work with. Hence, you may just easily get caught of guard if you use the kind of service described in this advertisement.

    Just go there, try to have a good time and be yourself.

  • If that’s how you feel, then clearly you have no need for our services.

    However, Wharton’s reaction to the introduction of mock team interviews would indicate they disagree. Furthermore, the widespread use of mock team and case interviews prior to job interviews, would also indicate that practice helps. Finally, the criteria that Wharton uses and employes are not a black box. Some are stated clearly on their web site. Some would be the same as employers have for their employees who work in teams. And some can be gleaned from the experience of clients who are accepted and rejected.

    FYI, we are sometimes asked what applicants should wear.



  • Shaniqua James

    Remember Wharton’s behavioral interviews from a couple of years back? The shocker was the extensive and detailed matrix of criteria for evaluating interviewee responses. Unless you know what that matrix looks like as it was designed by Wharton, you’re can’t do more than tell interviewees to put on a clean shirt and smile. Nor is it possible for participants to know how they did because they don’t know how they’re being evaluated. My guess is that Wharton has finally come up with a true black box. It may be that the only way to get an advantage in TBD interviews is to take lots of discussion classes in college (makes HBS look like the best preparation for getting into Wharton). As for the HBS post interview reflections, there’s absolutely no reason to employ a sounding board. Either you ghostwrite or there’s no value proposition.

  • Social awkwardness? Interesting. I thought I had dodged that bullet by opting out of engineering grad school at Ga Tech and UMich; the last thing I thought I’d run into at b-school. We learn something new every day.

  • cheesestake

    Ah- but one can develop the interpersonal skills should they choose to focus their prep on this element. Listen, I’m at Wharton and will be doing my summer at an MBB- it all comes down to the interpersonal connection. You are right, at this level everyone does prepare. We are all too competitive not to. However, I can tell you the bigger issue that Wharton is attempting to address is the pervasive social awkwardness that hangs in the air of Huntsman Hall (though it is possible the undegrads are the problem). The chief complaint I’ve heard from the firm I’m summering with concerning recruiting my fellow classmates is that we are all “similarly” overprepared, to the point that we seem like robots- and truly no one really wants to hire a robot.

  • Thanks, MBA Over 30.

  • Shaniqua,

    We reviewed the correspondence from Wharton and online information from candidates who had participated in the TBD. Also, based on applicant feedback, there is some variability in TBDs depending on who is running them. Finally, the person who spearheaded this project for us (Natalie Grinblatt Epstein) is a former admissions director (not from Wharton) who used to conduct team interviews. Others on staff also have experience with team interviews. So it was a combination of publicly available information as well as our experience in both team interviews as well as MBA admissions. Again, the people who participated in the mock interview either said that our mock replicated the TBD in terms of structure or that there was one difference. Obviously we can’t replicate the group dynamics because that will vary for each group.

    In terms of the ability of the mock TBD to alter the outcome, the feedback we got from participants could be summarized as follows:

    1. The mock TBD made them feel more comfortable during the real TBD.

    2. The feedback they received from Accepted helped them know where to self-correct during the real TBD and also made them more effective during the real TBD.

    Regarding HBS’ post interview reflections, We serve as a sounding board. We critique. We edit and correct; We don’t write.


  • Shaniqua James

    How does this author know that her company’s TBD is the same as Wharton’s TBD? If TBD does have so much evaluative power, how is it possible to alter the outcome? Also, how is her company assisting HBS interviewees to write the post-interview email? It seems to me that ghostwriting is inevitable.

  • Well said!

  • Orangelives

    I think the problem really for the schools is that the candidates are largely prepared too similarly to each other. While the stories are individual, the treatment of the essays in terms of highlighting the strengths becomes very similar. That also applies to preparation for interviews, especially the standard questions.

    Also, it is true that some of the “finishing” on the essays results in truth being stretched to its limits. When a friend of mine who was accepted at HBS showed his essays to his manager, the manager (HBS Alum) remarked, “I will approve of it, but you obviously agree that this is not completely true”!! Agreed that he could have falsified information himself, but the push from his consultant to show those extra qualities in the particular essays egged him on.

    In my opinion, top 25% of admits at the top schools make it on the basis of outstanding application, for the remaining 75% it is merely a function of “crafting” the right kind of class by the adcoms. Perhaps the ad coms are right in complaining that if everybody was not so similarly prepared, they would be able to judge individuals better!!

  • Agree

    I completely agree with this article.

    I know far too many people that have tried and failed to get into good B-schools because of a misguided belief that they should just be ‘genuine’ (i.e. unpolished) and prepare off the cuff ‘train-of-thought’ essays to differentiate themselves. This just means that you are relying much more on luck than on professional careful preparation. This is behavior that no employer would find favorable and thus no B-school will favor. As an employer, if an MBA candidate gave me an off-the-cuff obviously under-prepared answer to a standard question this shows lack of commitment and a lack of common sense – how could you not prepare and rehearse for an obvious question?

    I think you have to combine ‘genuine’ with ‘professional’ as Linda proposes, and this means preparing good answers, polishing your essays etc to give your ideas/stories/opinions their best shot at making a positive impression as possible.

    For many it has to do with pride, not preparing for the GMAT/essays/interviews reduces your perceived escalation of commitment and makes it easier to say “well I didn’t really prepare for it so it isn’t as bad that I didn’t get in”. Relying on anecdotal stories of friends that wrote and submitted essays in one day in the last round and got into Harvard presents a severely skewed view of MBA admissions and will not work in your favor. Unless you’re really really lucky. Relying purely on luck is not something a top MBA should be doing.

  • Great post Linda. I wholeheartedly agree; besides, the practice can only help you enhance what you have, it cannot give you interpersonal skills that you lack.