Wharton’s MBA Gatekeeper

Wharton students generally say there are three primary myths about the school: 1) Wharton is a finance school; 2) Wharton students are cutthroat competitors, and 3) Philadelphia is less than desirable city to live in. I know you, too, would agree that all these statements are false, but what do you think is the biggest misconception about Wharton?


I still think the biggest misperception probably revolves around this notion of Wharton being an overly intense finance school. You still hear that in a lot of places. That seems to be the same as it was some time ago. The perception is that it is intense and competitive, but they are myths. We have put a number of things in place to make it more team oriented. Our students are very competitive, but while they are here we try to build an environment where people can make mistakes and try out new things. It’s an intense place in a good way, and most of our students are very busy and active while they are here.

And what about Philadelphia?

I was an undergrad here, too, and I’ve lived in Philly my entire life. The city and the school have gotten much better in the last 20 years. Philadelphia is a city that has been on the move for the past ten years. It’s a surprisingly livable city, and it’s an accessible town. You have a train station that gets you to New York or Washington easily and an airport that can get you to any place in the world. We have world-class restaurants, and we’re close to the beaches and mountains.

Before you turn into a Chamber of Commerce spokesman, let me ask you what does an ideal applicant to Wharton look like?

I don’t think there is an answer to that. Most of it is in the way they look at problems and solve problems and their curiosity. I am not necessarily interested in what they’ve done, but what they have done with the raw material they have been given and how they have done that and why. I’m looking for people who are intellectual, but practical and driven.

We are a fact-based and data-driven school. We are not a charisma style, oriented approach. We let the data drive us and help lead us to the solutions. This idea of global sensibility is important as well.

But there has to be an ideal applicant of some kind.

There is no one ideal applicant. Because Wharton is a bigger program, not every applicant has to have everything. We don’t have targets or quotas or goals. We let the pool evolve.

So when applicants apply to Wharton what other schools are they sending applications to?

We see a lot of crossover with Stanford and Harvard. And there are times when we often compete with other schools for people who are interested in finance that can include Chicago and Columbia. A good number of Wharton applicants tend to apply to INSEAD and London Business School. Some might apply to the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in China or Indian School of Business (ISB) in India.

What do you see as the most important differences between Wharton and Harvard?

We are probably a lot more similar than different. Both schools are of very high quality and have a similar size. There are curriculum differences, both in terms of the way we teach and the flexibility of the curriculum. At Wharton, you can waive courses if you have the right background. In fact, the only courses that can’t be skipped are business ethics, leadership, and communications. If you are an economics major, for example, you can waive those courses. So that gives you flexibility to take more courses outside of Wharton. A lot of students want to take classes at the law school, things like Legal Entrepreneurship. This generation is really into more flexible.

Harvard teaching is exclusively by the case method. We do a mix of simulations, experiential learning, lectures, and cases. The cultures of the two schools are somewhat similar. We have a large and prominent undergraduate population. We have a faculty that is more research oriented. Both schools have pretty big executive education programs. Philadelphia and Boston are similar types of cities. Stanford is very different. Philadelphia is not Palo Alto.

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.