An Interview with Wharton’s Admissions Gatekeeper

Is there any one part of the strategy that you feel delivered the most payback?

I wouldn’t point to one tactical thing, but we partnered with a lot of people and we built a lot of momentum around this. We really went at this in a very thoughtful, broad way and wanted to engage as many people as we could in the conversation.

Did you do any targeted marketing in terms of direct mail or brochures?

Back in ‘09, we realized we wanted to speak more personally to more constituents of our applicant population. Women were part of that, but we actually started doing this with military candidates, candidates coming from the retail, real estate and energy industries, as well as candidates coming from the Middle East and Southeast Asia. We started creating customized emails that highlight things about Wharton that related to their areas of interest.

How active were Wharton alumnae in the effort to boost female enrollment?

They are the featured stars of the show when we do our presentations around the globe. We use them to tell their own stories and to talk with applicants one-on-one and share their experiences in the program. It’s a great way for applicants to learn about the program firsthand. They don’t want to hear me. They want to hear directly from those who sound more like them.

And the Wharton Women in Business club has been amazing. Their leadership has been a key supporter and partner in this. They’ve done a wonderful of helping women applicants better understand the program. Quite frankly, there are a lot of myths out there about business school for women in particular.

What are the myths?

There are two things. There is certainly a myth about the competitiveness and the cutthroat nature of business school. I think there is also an opportunity build more awareness around what business means. You can leverage an MBA degree in industries like retail or in organizations in the social sector which historically didn’t have the degree as part of the value proposition.

I don’t know if you follow Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg as closely as I do, but she has been in the public eye lately between her commencement address at Barnard, her TED talk, and the recent article about her in The New Yorker. She actually said something that resonated with me in her Barnard graduation speech. This may not be a myth about business school but it is more of a mentality that there should be a conversation around.

She pointed out that in 1981 the gender mix at undergraduate institutions first reached 50/50. That was 30 years ago. But somehow in the workplace and in business school something got lost. It’s not the same even split. She made the point that women tend to be planners. They are thinking about the next step, about balancing their professional and personal lives, and thinking about how to incorporate a family and other priorities. Often, women opt out. Women will start to think about the options they may want in the future, and as a result, they take their foot off the gas pedal in their careers.

She said women should commit themselves and go for it until that moment when you are faced with that personal/professional choice. Then, you can make the choice. I think business school is inherently an opportunity to add to the options that a women or anybody really would have in their life, professionally and personally.

I love this idea of leaning in and embracing it and looking at business school as a way to build your options, whether you want to leave the workforce and raise a family or opt out for a little bit. If you are going to come back in, having the degree, the network, the credibility, and the contacts are only going to help if you decide to come back into the workforce. So I think that conversation is happening more now than it has in the past. For women, business school can create more options, rather than reduce them.

Of course, one way to increase enrollment of women and other non-traditional business school students is to do what Harvard Business School has done with its 2+2 program. You market directly to undergraduates, have them apply in their senior year, then defer their enrollment until they get two years of work experience under their belts. Has Wharton considered a similar program?

There isn’t one right answer for everybody. It is a personal decision and only you know best when it is the right moment professionally and personally to apply to business school. We really value people who own that and make that decision for themselves. About 20% of our incoming class is in this bucket of having two to three years of work experience. The only difference is they went into the workforce, learned some things and then applied.

To get to 45% did you have to make any sacrifices in quality?

For us, we actually saw even higher quality than we had in the past. Because of all this awareness and buzz, we saw women making up a larger portion of our applicant base than they had historically. And more women were choosing to come to us than they were, so yield was higher than it has been in the past. It was these two points in the equation that drove us to this mark.

So last year applications to Wharton were down 9% and this year they were down a further 5.7%. How come?

At the start of the cycle, I was chatting with our dean and said, ‘I have a feeling applications will be down again this year.’ That ended up being the case. I think there were probably two main reasons. First, the macro economic issues in the world are causing some people to stay in the work place. After living through a period of uncertainly in the past coupe of years, some may want to hold fast to their jobs and not take the risk. Other people in emerging markets have really robust professional careers and they see more opportunity in the jobs they already have. Secondly, there is the growth of competitors in other markets, mainly in Europe and Asia. We are lucky to have a deep and talented application pool to draw upon every year. So we don’t sacrifice anything in terms of quality.

Yet, even though Wharton’s applications were down, you ended up enrolling a slighter larger class. So this year’s entering class is 845, up from 817 last year. What did that do to your overall acceptance rate?

It’s not the largest class we’ve ever had. It is slightly higher than last year, but for us it is a reflection of the growing talent in the application population and us wanting to bring as many of the best and brightest from around the world into the program. That’s why we have a slightly larger class than last year.

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