Why Wharton Will Go By The Numbers

Wharton's Locust Walk on a recent fall day.

Wharton’s Locust Walk on a recent fall day.

The last couple of weeks have not been good for the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. First, a story in The Wall Street Journal claimed that the school could no longer be considered among the top three with Harvard and Stanford. Then, the school’s director of admissions announced her resignation only a day after the round one deadline for MBA applicants.

All this is on top of last year’s loss of long-time MBA program director Anjani Jain to Yale University’s School of Management and this year’s earlier announcement that Wharton Dean Thomas Robertson would leave his job next June.

What impact will all of these events have on this season’s crop of some 6,000 applicants? Admission consultants say Wharton will be running admissions strictly by the numbers: GMATs and GPAs, with essays, recommendations, the team-based discussion and interview playing less a role. The reason: The school’s embattled admissions team will be fearful to take any chances on candidates who could lower the school’s reported numbers in the wake of all the negative publicity Wharton has now received.

‘IT’S COVER-YOUR-ASS TIME AT WHARTON’

Wharton achieved record average GMAT scores of 725–up seven full points–for this year’s incoming class. The scores for the enrolled Class of 2015 ranged from a low of 630 to 790. Only five years ago, when Wharton received 7,328 applications for its MBA program instead of 6,036 for a seat in his latest incoming class, the average GMAT score was 715–ten points lower. The average GPA was 3.6, up from a sliver from 3.5 five years ago.

With a 17.2% decline in MBA applications over the past five years, many believe the school is less likely to risk any reportable numbers that could reinforce the Journal narrative of a school that has lost its mojo. “It’s CYA (cover your ass) time at Wharton right now,” affirms Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com and a leading admissions consultants. “If you are the next director, all you are going to do is say you are not going to admit any difficult, complex cases. You are going to make sure the numbers are in line.”

Kreisberg believes that Wharton will want to maintain its new record for next year’s class. “The lowest GMAT score for a white male at Wharton could be 680 or 700, not counting special cases like being Donald Trump’s niece or nephew,” he adds. “And you would probably have to be from McKinsey with a 3.8 from Yale or Harvard to get into Wharton with that 680.”

‘WHARTON WON’T WANT A SIGNIFICANT DROP IF AT ALL POSSIBLE’

Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com, also believes Wharton will attempt to protect its GMAT scores. “If their average GMAT ends up dropping, it will only do so a little,” she says. “Wharton won’t want a significant drop if at all possible. I think their yield is more likely to suffer as a result of the publicity.”

Indeed, many consultants believe the only reason Wharton pushed its GMAT numbers to a record high was because the school thought it would help offset the bad news of yet another year of declining applications. “Somebody gave an order to pay attention to the numbers, either overtly or tacitly,” suggests Kreisberg.

That way, Wharton had some good news on the admissions front to report in a year when its applications fell by 5.8%, just as rivals Chicago Booth reported a 10% increase and Columbia Business School had a 7% rise. Both Harvard and Stanford were up, too. Besides the drop in applications, the Wall Street Journal noted a market shift away from Wharton’s strength in finance to technology and entrepreneurship, and a years-long decline in the rankings in concluding that “something at Wharton doesn’t add up.”

A NO-RISK ADMISSIONS POLICY LOOKS HIGHLY LIKELY

Several MBA admissions consultants reinforced the story line by telling the Journal that Wharton’s luster has recently faded. Eliot Ingram, a Wharton alum and CEO of Clear Admit, said that one of the firm’s clients turned down a $70,000 scholarship from Wharton this year to attend Harvard Business School because the applicant believed HBS had a stronger global brand. “We’re hearing (applicants say) Stanford, Harvard or nothing. It used to be Stanford, Harvard or Wharton,” the Journal quoted Jeremy Shinewald, founder of admissions consultant mbaMission.

The likelihood of a no-risk admissions strategy for this cycle is reinforced because Wharton has no immediate plans to replace Ankur Kumar, whose last official day as director of admissions and financial aid, was Friday (Oct. 4). Her job will be temporarily filled by Maryellen Reilly Lamb, who had only gained oversight of the admissions function in August when she won a promotion to deputy vice dean of admissions, financial aid and career management. So Wharton’s adcom staff of six full-time people will be one leader short.

“For the short term, I am doing the job,” Lamb said in an interview with Poets&Quants. “We are going to be looking but probably somewhere down the road. Right now we are in the thick of round one and want to get a better sense of the team and the process and who the right person might be to fill the position. There will be a search at some point but it’s not going to happen immediately.”

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.