An Interview with Wharton’s Admissions Gatekeeper

And the acceptance rate? Last year it was 16.8%. You’re probably much closer to 18% or 19% now.

I don’t even know that. I don’t have that figure in front of me. But I don’t think we’ve had tremendous differences in our acceptance rate.

Okay. So this past admissions cycle there was some controversy at Wharton over a leak of the questions you ask applicants who are interviewed. How did that impact the process?

It really was no problem. It’s not about knowing the answers. It’s the thought process and how you behave during the interview. Interviews are meant to be real-time conversations. We always like to see how they respond. And the interview again is only one part of the process. Besides, many of these questions and how applicants answer them are posted on the different bulletin boards out there.

Doesn’t that surprise you?

It’s a little bit surprising. Because applicants say they are concerned about the process and then they go and share what they say with everyone else. I’m more surprised that they voluntarily share that information. It’s not about having a prepared packaged answer that we seek. That’s not what we’re looking for. So it doesn’t provide a leg up or an advantage.

So tell me what it was like when you came back to Wharton as an admissions officer. You had been an applicant who got through the screen and now you were on the inside. Any surprises?

Well. I had worked in the admissions office as a second-year student so I thought I was familiar with admissions. But once I came in the biggest surprise for me was just how hard it is. There are so many amazingly talented applicants that you unfortunately can’t take. It becomes really personal.

You get to know these people from their applications. You spend weeks and months reading about them. Often times, You get to meet them. It becomes incredibly personal. So the part I didn’t expect or wasn’t as prepared for was the fact that it really is hard to turn away so many wonderful people. You wish you had a spot for them in the class. That was probably a surprise and a hard one at that.

Are there any unusual things candidates do to get your attention?

The best way for an applicant to get our attention is to use the application. That really is the place on paper and in the interview to get our attention. And that is where the best kind of attention getting can happen. That is where you can tell us all about you and what you want to gain from this experience and what you are going to bring to the table. I would encourage any applicant who wants to get our attention to really put their effort on doing that in the best way possible. They should just tell their story and be genuine, direct and clear. That’s the best way to go about it.

What are some of the common mistakes applicants make?

I always encourage applicants to start with self-refection. They need to understand who they are and what choices they’ve made. What appeals to you? What doesn’t? What do you want to learn? You really have to have a great understanding of yourself. That is an important first step. If you have that in your head, it will come out far more naturally and direct on paper. That is the way to have a compelling application: by really knowing yourself and being honest and open with us. You shouldn’t try to be someone you’re not. That’s the greatest mistake. Trying to force fit a story or tell us what you think we want to hear.

About The Author

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.