An Interview with Wharton’s Admissions Gatekeeper

Even though the email popped into her inbox at work more than six years ago, Ankur Kumar remembers the exact date she got the message with the heading: “Your Status Has Been Updated.”

It was March 24th, 2005. Like any applicant, she anxiously clicked on the email from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and found out that the school had accepted her for admission to its highly prestigious MBA program. She stayed as composed as she could at her office desk, then quietly rushed into the women’s room where she did a little victory dance.

“It’s a moment you never forget, a life-changing moment,” she gushes. “I remember having to literally compose myself before I checked because if it was not going to be good news, I didn’t want to have an emotional moment in front of the entire office. It was a wonderful moment and it still makes me smile.”

Now, on the other side of that process as deputy director of admissions, she can do a victory dance of another sort—for admitting an unprecedented number of women in Wharton’s incoming MBA class this fall.

For years, the percentage of women enrolled in top-ranked business schools stubbornly remained in the 33% to 36% range. Kumar had helped Wharton assume a lead over all top schools two years ago by putting together an incoming class that was composed of 40% women. But this year, she outdid all expectations in pushing the number of first-year women to 45% of the class. What’s more, she managed the increase in a year when applications were down by 5.7% and enrollment rose by 3.4% to 845 students.

Kumar says she was in her office, finalizing the composition of the Class of 2013, when she realized Wharton had hit the new record. “We were literally running the numbers, and we all did a double take when we saw it,” she says. “We couldn’t believe our eyes. It was a fantastic moment for us. It definitely was a wonderful surprise.”

Only months earlier, Elissa Sangster, the head of the Forte Foundation, conceded that she had given up hope that in her lifetime female enrollment would ever equal the numbers at law and medical schools. With a full five-percentage point improvement at Wharton in a single year, however, UPenn’s business school is now just slightly below its law school, where 47.6% of the students are female, and its med school, where 49.3% are women.

How did Wharton do it? Kumar says the school has been laying the groundwork for this accomplishment for the past three to four years. Working closely with the student club, Women at Wharton in Business, the admissions office has done everything from pairing prospective students with current Wharton women in an “e-mail buddy program” to chartering a bus to bring undergraduates from Bryn Mawr to the school to meet with MBA students and Bryn Mawr alumnae in business. The club also organized coffee chats for women in 21 U.S. cities and 6 countries, hosted four Women Visit Days on-campus in the fall, replete with mock application interviews, class visits, and leadership seminars.

Kumar said Wharton pulled off the feat with no sacrifice in the quality of the class, a function of both increasing applications from women as well as the school’s ability to convert a higher percentage of accepted females into admits. In a wide-ranging interview with Poets&Quants, she also partly attributes the second consecutive fall in applications to new competition from B-schools in Europe and Asia, explains why Wharton will no longer use second-year students as first readers on MBA applications, and claims that the leak of the school’s essay questions last year had no impact on the admissions process.

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.