Bad Karaoke, In-Law Recommenders: All In A Day’s Work for An Adcom

She joined Penn’s undergrad admissions in 1990 as an associate director, a job she held until 1998 when she moved over to the graduate School of Education as director of admissions. Two years later, in 2000, she joined Wharton as an associate director of admissions. “I learned an incredible amount about the pieces of the puzzle that helped get students into an entering class on campus,” Hodara says. “There was a lot of road running. By September, you are out on the road, visiting high schools, making evening presentations and learning about juniors and seniors. I spent a lot of time in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana, and eventually moved on to work with mostly international applicants in Europe. Once we got back to campus, it was all about reading files and making the trudge across the Walnut St. bridge to my apartment with hundreds of files. I was in my mid-20s and it was a dream job.”


When she switched to Wharton’s admissions, it was like learning a new language. For one thing, prospective candidates for an MBA program brought a completely different mindset than undergraduates to the process. “The graduate students are trying to figure out in the beginning if this is the right thing to do,” she says. “On the MBA side, there is much more of a self-evaluative process. People wonder, ‘Is this the right next step for me? And if it is, how do I figure out what is the best fit?’ A lot of the students I had met were trying to figure out if they should be looking for another job or going to graduate school.”

Unlike undergrads who more often than not came with hovering parents in tow, prospective MBA candidates were far more independent. “MBA applicants are pretty much self-sufficient,” she says. “You are not interacting with parents and guidance counselors. It requires a very different set of interactions. Every so often we would get a parent sitting in on an info session. But generally the helicopter parents were missing.”

The difference between assessing an undergraduate applicant vs. an MBA candidate? “One very big difference is that when you are looking at 17- and 18-year-olds, they all have two academic teacher recommendations and a part-time job,” says Hodara. “You are looking at a very consistent applicant group, unless they are a violin prodigy or someone who has been in Olympic training. Whether a person is from California or London, it’s pretty much the same.


“With graduate applicants, all bets are off. The personalities were more developed and they had a better sense of what they were doing and why they wanted to get an MBA. They were more reflective and more self-aware. There were incredible paths and decisions people were making. They could be retooling a career. There is no consistency. So it was really trying to strip away the titles of their jobs and see what contribution they really made—and what contribution they could make to Wharton. It required detective work to understand what each file meant.”

And, she found, it was hard not to befriend some of the people she had to assess. “There were always individuals that we would get to know because they would show up for every single event,” she says. “There was one guy I had met in Moscow who was there for three days and he showed up for six different things. He kept talking about his cat and how he wanted me to meet his cat. For our last event, he actually brought his cat. He was really working the whole personal angle.”

Ultimately, the candidate was admitted to Wharton. “He had a great profile, recalls Hodara. “He did bring the cat to Wharton. But I’m sure he didn’t bring the cat to class. It was holed up in his apartment for two years.”


Another memorable applicant who made a vivid impression was a young female violinist and conductor. “This young woman saw herself as wanting to be involved in arts management but lacked the business vocabulary to do so,” Hodara says. “I was always a champion of non-profit candidates who had the mission in mind but not the road to get there. They wanted to bring clean drinking water to Africa or run a language school in Korea. In my last few years at Wharton, there was a growing sense of that, including people who wanted to help their family grow a small Midwest grocery chain. Those were the candidates that you really took notice of.”

Consider the student whose mother-in-law wrote a letter of recommendation for him. “Although it was not glowing by any means, and was an odd choice since we really preferred two letters from people he had directly reported to, he felt that she would be an honest assessor of how he did in his job as ‘Dad’ as she lived with the family full time,” says Hodara. “It did give us additional, and unusual insight, but this is certainly not something we would have recommended for most applicants to attempt!”

Or the applicant who left so many blanks in his professional information that we were left scratching our heads as to what he actually did for a living. “None of his references would tell us much either although they all assured us he was legit,” she remembers. “Turns out not really anyone’s surprise, that he worked for a foreign government in military operations with incredibly high security clearance. He did matriculate and go one to be one of our strongest student leaders. We just liked to refer to him as Jason Bourne.”

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