Wharton’s MBA Gatekeeper

Of course, Harvard is probably the quintessential general management MBA, right?

To some extent, Wharton is probably somewhere in between finance and general management. We are excellent at both. If you are hard core finance, I think Wharton is in some ways a great choice because people expect certain things from certain students. On top of finance, we have a strong and broad general management program. We have expertise in interactive marketing; we’re strong on consumer marketing side. We have a data-driven, fact-based mentality. People don’t come here just to do finance. They come to build expertise in that and then do something else as well like retail, real estate, and entrepreneurship. That sets us apart from the other finance-oriented schools.

What’s the most common mistake people make in applying for admission to Wharton?

People write what they think we want to hear. They get over coached and over prepared. Some people make excuses. They are not genuine. We just want people to be authentic and let us make the decisions from there. You just see a lot of people who have been over-managed in the process. It’s hard to see or hear their voice. Again, a lot of people who think there is a right answer, but we’re not looking for a single right answer.

Obviously there is a good amount of consulting going on.

People have their essays read by too many people and before you know it, the essays don’t say a whole lot. You feel like you are being sold as opposed to being told. Sometimes, coaches inhibit a real voice from coming through. Sometimes, they will pick recommenders who don’t know them and they waste an opportunity. But they’ll ask for a recommendation from someone just because the person might be well known.

So bring us through the basic admission process.

We have an admissions committee of six full-time people. We have a number of other people doing admissions operations and people more involved in recruiting as opposed to application. We are in the process of using new systems that are paperless and route applications electronically. We read every application three times. We hire and train admissions officers from the second-year student population who read the first round. So the first time, one of 50 to 80 second-year students generally reads it. A second read is done by an admissions officer, while the director then reads a third time and decides whether an invite should be extended to the applicant. We read it a fourth time after an interview. The process is reasonably comprehensive and iterative. We look at each element of the application. We have a formal set of criteria.

Are the readers grading each part of the application?

Things do get graded but there is also a section for overall comments. We are looking for past academic performance, certain skills, and values so different parts of those things get scored and graded. By the time I read them, you are almost watching a written conversation taking place. You are piecing together a puzzle. Context is important on dozens of dimensions. So that can be where you are from or what industry you have been in. If we have people who apply who used to be lawyers, we want the best of those people. The director tends to see every application.

And how important is the interview to this process?

If you are not invited for an interview, then the process for you is over at that point. The director signs off at everything from that stage. The process is designed to have one person look at it all. The bigger risk is the ‘not interview’ because you will never see them again. Typically, we interview from 30% to 50% of the entire applicant pool, and in a given year, we accept 800 to 850. So we have a pretty good sense of what our yields are that way.

I would imagine that so much self-selection is going on that these are hardly easy decisions.

Nothing is black and white. It’s always very gray. Very few of them are so clear cut one way or the other. The self-selection causes that. Most people who apply are really amazing. So there are very few clear-cut decisions. Two people can read the same app very differently.

Your round one deadline just passed earlier this week on Oct. 4th. If someone is applying this year to Wharton and didn’t hit that deadline are they at a disadvantage?

Between round one and two there is not a huge advantage. There is a small advantage in round one because the slate is clean. Round two is the biggest one and the most international. Applying in round one for an international student is a good thing to do.

Since you’re now looking after career services, I should ask you about the current job market. It’s still quite bad, isn’t it?

For our students, the job market is doing really good. It requires a little bit more flexibility in terms of their first choice. For entrepreneurs, it’s a great opportunity. Some industries seem to be coming back. A lot of companies have made cuts and now need to build a little muscle back up. The general demand for the kind of talent we see is really strong. T think the job market is going to be challenging in the short term, but there are lots of opportunities to be had for the right people. We feel pretty good about it. We are working a lot more creatively in terms of the companies we are bringing in to see our students. There seems to be some optimism in the air.

Given the still slumping job market and the high cost of an MBA today, is it really worth it? If you could get in today, would you want in?

It’s a big opportunity cost. It’s a very serious calculation. It’s very long term and requires a level of security and sophistication. A lot of people try to get into certain places and I have to say that a different-tier school isn’t worth it. At Wharton, the curriculum has gotten a little better since i was here as a student. The quality of the students is better. The faculty continues to grow. While they were impressive before, they are more impressive now. The school opened a new set of facilities in the early 2000s. It’s a pretty innovative place that continues to get better and better. I have traveled in the last year and one half all over the world and you really get the incredible strength of the brand and the alumni network when you do that. It’s a very humbling and impressive place, and it’s thrilling to be working here just because I never really thought I would do this.

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.