Wharton | Mr. Private Equity Analyst
GRE 320, GPA 3.3
Harvard | Mr. PE Strategist
GRE 326, GPA 3.6
Harvard | Mr. Student Product Manager
GMAT 760, GPA 3.4
London Business School | Ms. FANG Tech
GRE 321, GPA 3.7
Columbia | Mr. CPA
GMAT 720, GPA 3.5
Wharton | Mr. Digital Health Start-Up
GMAT 710, GPA 3.3
Cornell Johnson | Mr. Sports Management
GMAT 690, GPA 3.23
Darden | Mr. International Trade
GRE 323, GPA 3.6
Harvard | Mr. Health Clinic Founder
GRE 330, GPA 3
Said Business School | Mr. Strategy Consulting Future
GMAT 720, GPA 3.98
Stanford GSB | Mr. Robotics
GMAT 730, GPA 2.9
Stanford GSB | Mr. Aspiring Tech Entrepreneur
GMAT 690, GPA 3.4
London Business School | Mr. Supply Chain Latino
GRE 320, GPA 3.4
Duke Fuqua | Mr. Operations Manager
GRE 328, GPA 3.1
Harvard | Ms. Media Entertainment
GMAT 740, GPA 3.3
INSEAD | Mr. Jumbo GMAT
GMAT 770, GPA 3.7
Wharton | Mr. Basketball To B-School
GRE 334, GPA 3.73
Harvard | Mr. E-Sports Coach
GRE 323, GPA 5.72/10
INSEAD | Ms. Insightful Panda
GMAT 700, GPA 87.5%
NYU Stern | Mr. Bioinformatics
GMAT 710, GPA 3.7
Harvard | Mr. Impact Investment
GMAT 760, GPA 3.2
Chicago Booth | Mr. Nonprofit-ish
GRE 333, GPA 3.81
INSEAD | Ms. Humble Auditor
GMAT 710, GPA 3.56
London Business School | Mr. Investment Finance
GMAT 750, GPA 2.2
Chicago Booth | Mr. Corporate Development
GMAT 740, GPA 3.2
Georgetown McDonough | Ms. Healthcare Tech
GMAT 680, GPA 3.2
Chicago Booth | Mr. Civil Engineer
GMAT 770, GPA 8.9/10

Getting Into Wharton: Does College & Work Pedigree Trump Merit?

Mark Goldberg had every reason to believe he would be among the incoming MBA class this fall at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

Without taking a prep course or even buying a study book, he had pretty much aced the GMAT exam with a score of 770 out of 800–50 points higher than the 720 median for this year’s entering class.

Goldberg earned his bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University with a triple major in economics, international relations and East Asian studies. He pulled down an impressive 3.6 grade point average–a tenth of a point above last year’s Wharton average.

And he racked up nearly three years of work experience in finance, the subject that has long brought Wharton world acclaim. Even better, he accumulated his financial acumen in the hottest economy in the world—China–at a boutique investment bank in Beijing. That experience, plus his professional proficiency in Mandarin, made Wharton and its international Lauder program an ideal match.

AT FIRST, SURPRISE AND DISAPPOINTMENT. THEN SHOCK.

But then came the unexpected ding, or rejection, in March. “At first,” he says, “I was surprised and disappointed, then I was shocked. I thought I was a really good fit with the school and the program.”

Why would Wharton turn down such an obviously qualified candidate for admission?

Wharton, of course, is one of the world’s most selective business schools. It accepts fewer than 17% of the more than 6,800 people who apply to its full-time MBA program. An application could get tossed in the rejection pile due to poorly written essays, less-than-enthusiastic recommendation letters, or a weak admissions interview.

Wharton doesn’t publicly address why a specific individual is turned down, but a close examination of the undergraduate universities and companies of this year’s incoming class suggests that Goldberg may have simply lacked the pedigree of his elite counterparts to make the grade.

Schools never publicly release the school and work backgrounds for admitted students. But Poets&Quants obtained the information for Wharton’s Class of 2013 through social media website Facebook, where the incoming class maintains an active presence. We analyzed the data for more than 600 members of this year’s 845-strong incoming class, verifying the undergraduate backgrounds of 613 students and the employers of 544 students.

IS ELITE MBA ADMISSIONS SOMETHING OF A ‘NAME GAME?’

What the data shows is that admissions at Wharton is something of a name game, in which the doors to graduates of less prestigious companies and schools are either less open or completely closed. The upshot: many highly qualified applicants appear to be getting squeezed out because they went to a state school, worked for a no-name company, or lacked the connections to have someone important put a good word in for them.

Of course, it’s hard to tell from the data exactly why a particular candidate was accepted or rejected, but at the very least the numbers suggest that for those without some other big differentiating factor, the nod is going to go to the person with the stronger credentials. That leaves a lot of applicants, with outstanding achievements, standing on the outside looking in.

Admissions consultants say the results are not especially surprising. “School and job pedigree count more than schools would like to publicize because the mythology of admissions is that everyone starts equal, and schools are open to all comers,” says Sanford Kreisberg, an MBA admissions consultant. “But schools are not equally open to all comers, and job pedigree especially can be critical, even more so than schooling. You are not getting into Harvard Business School or Wharton from the local bakery or real estate office.”

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.