Wharton To Ask Rec Writers For ‘Essays’

Wharton School operations and innovation management professor Christian Terwiesch teaching class – Ethan Baron photo

After a major review, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School has decided to ask recommenders of its MBA applicants to effectively write two short essays on the candidates they are recommending.

The changes, effective with the upcoming 2017-2018 admisssions cycle, occured after the school surveyed more than 1,200 writers of recommendation letters and asked about their experience with the process. Vice Dean Maryellen Reilly, who deemed the overall “significant,” said they were being made “in an effort to get a deeper understanding of a candidate’s personal characteristics and their impact on others throughout their career.”

It’s a major changeup, in part, because business schools have been reducing the number and the length of essays for MBA applicants for several years now. At least on the surface, it seems ironic that a school would now decide to essentially ask recommendation writers for a pair of 300-word essays. The move also comes not long after several schools have moved to a common rec letter format to make it easier for recommenders to provide support for their candidates to several schools.


But Wharton ostensibly thought it could improve on the current system after asking rec writers for their perspectives. “Utilizing their valuable feedback, in conjunction with conversations with writers at a variety of companies and Wharton stakeholders, we have revised and improved how recommenders provide information on who a candidate is both personally and within an organization,” wrote Deputy Vice Dean Maryellen Reilly in a blog post about the change.

Several MBA admission consultants, however, weren’t nearly as enthusiastic about the change, largely because they saw it as an additional burden on recommenders. That could encourage more recommenders to ask applicants to write the essays for their approval. “For the personality traits, the good news is that Wharton is trying to get authentic and thoughtful responses from recommenders, rather than literally ‘check-the-box,'” says Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions. “Because there are truly no right or wrong answers, hopefully, students won’t be as anxious about not being top at everything.  For the qualitative questions, It’s great that the essay question specifically says up front, “give examples.”  Maybe that will bring more substance into some of the high-praise-but-fluffy recommendations that don’t differentiate candidates in the least.

“On the downside,” she adds, “moving away from the common application questions that have been asked by other top schools really does put more of a burden on the recommender. That has all sorts of repercussions that increases anxiety for the student and might even mean that Wharton loses some applicants.  Not sure that’s an optimal outcome for anyone.”


Linda Abraham, founder and CEO of Accepted.com, agreed. “Even those inclined to write their own recs are more likely to succumb to the time-saving temptation of you-write-it-I’ll-sign-it if they have to write two additional, distinctive responses to the open questions posed in the Wharton rec,” she says.  “This would be especially true for applicants applying to more schools.”

Jeremy Shinewald, founder and CEO of mbaMission, sees an upside and downside to the change. “Unquestionably, relative to other schools, Wharton will get more thoughtful and colorful letters from those who take the recommendation process seriously – the questions almost force that outcome,” he says. “Unfortunately, they may also serve as a catalyst for those recommenders who may not want to put the time in and who may not put the time in and decide to shirk their responsibilities altogether. Because a truly excellent letter of recommendation can be a very powerful differentiator for any applicant, we strongly advise our clients to meet with their recommenders and discuss the process and more so what it means to write a standout letter.

“In doing so, we always advise our clients to be ready to diplomatically push back against a boss who says “write it yourself.”  There is a reason why the schools want recommendation letters – they want insight that an applicant just can’t objectively and compellingly state about themselves. So, we may emphasize an extra level of preparedness for pushback to our Wharton applicants, because it will serve them well. They will have a better chance of getting in if they can persuade their recommenders to embrace the process.”


Wharton’s Maryellen Reilly Lamb

Reilly said the new approach will break letters of recommendations into two sections:

1) A selection of positive personality characteristics. Recommenders will be asked to choose three characteristics from a list of ten that best describe the candidate they are recommending.

2) Two free-form questions:

Question 1: Please provide example(s) that illustrate why you believe this candidate will find success in the Wharton MBA classroom. (Word count: 300)

Question 2: Please provide example(s) that illustrate why you believe this candidate will find success throughout their career. (Word count: 300)

Wharton’s online application is expected to open in early July. The round one MBA application deadline at Wharton this year is Sept. 19th.


  • Mark

    Ya it’s wild. They are like the red headed stepchild of the M7. No wonder they have such a bad reputation like none other.

  • MBA Applicant

    This is a dumb move on W’s part, everyone zigs and they decide to zag?
    I do find think it’s sort of funny how W gives a middle finger to ranking groups (PoetsandQuants, US News, etc). “Nah we won’t report that” “nope no comment” “nah can’t disclose” “yea we’ll charge you as much as we want”

  • Joe

    Wharton once again shows how out of touch and delusional they are. Add to that how you have the pleasure of having the world’s highest level of debt if you go there. And no one can really even tell how good the employment stats are when they are the only school that won’t report all their student’s data.

  • hbsguru


    and not only Wharton prof, but also the 2nd author of a recent article, a “Wharton People
    Analytics researcher . . . .” Not making this up. That is real Wharton title.

    At least adcom is not alone in Wharton screwball department.

    Selflessness at work leads to exhaustion, says a Wharton prof, and hurts those you intend to help

    Helping colleagues too much also causes more stress and conflict at home

    People who protect their time can give the most long-term contribution
    We’re always being encouraged to help others before we help ourselves.

    And in the workplace putting your needs before those of your colleagues is often seen as selfish behaviour.

    But new research says being selfless at work can backfire.

    Giving at the expense of your own well-being damages your chance of long-term success.

    The authors found that although
    ‘givers’ are valuable people in the work place, they’re also the most
    likely to burnout as a result of their generosity

    an article, Wharton School professor, Dr Adam Grant and Wharton People
    Analytics researcher Reb Rebele explore the ‘generosity burnout’.

    They believe that selflessness at work leads to exhaustion, and ironically often hurts the people you intended to help.

  • hbsguru

    Nutty and of marginal value. I’ve read thousands of recs, answering all sorts of formats. The
    “truth” comes out in the wash, no matter what the format.
    This is some academic idea generated by an adcom that seems to have scant contact with real world where people actually have jobs and etc.
    Not to mention Xmas in July for admissions consultants.
    My advice, alas, is to get one of these people to write your rec:

    “the school surveyed more than 1,200 writers of recommendation letters and asked about their experience with the process.”
    and have them send back a “wink” meme.

  • OG

    I actually like these questions. They are much better than the ones asking you to rate the applicants level of communication on their peers (top 5%, top 20%?). Id much rather have my recommenders answer Whartons questions instead of Stanford.

  • Mp Santos

    Too much work for recommenders, treating them more like applicants rather than people who are actually being majorly inconvenienced to provide recommendations for applicants. I wouldn’t want to recommend anyone to this school anymore.