Demystifying Wharton’s ‘Team-Based Discussion’

Wharton’s Team-Based Discussion can be daunting for some applicants. Two experts offer advice on how to navigate the process. Wharton photo

By requiring a group exercise as part of its admissions process, Wharton presents its MBA applicants with an added, often-stressful challenge in the form of the Team-Based Discussion. Getting their standard “prompt” in advance doesn’t necessarily reduce anxiety among those awaiting their session. Many candidates still wonder how the TBD process works and, more importantly, how their performance will be judged.

While talking with and reading about past TBD participants can be helpful, there’s no perspective more valuable — or actionable — than that of the select few Wharton graduates who actually moderated TBDs and reported their assessments to the admissions committee. As the first admissions consulting firm to introduce a specialized TBD prep service in 2012 when Wharton launched this requirement, The MBA Exchange is fortunate to have two former TBD moderators on its consulting team. Here are some first-hand insights, drawn from the sessions they facilitated, from Wharton MBA Class of 2015 alumnae Alina Zhitskaya and Inna Rudsky.

  1. How important is the TBD in earning admission to Wharton?

Alina Zhitskaya. Courtesy photo

ALINA: The TBD is a required component of the application process and serves as an important data point for admissions officers. While your “performance” in the TBD alone isn’t enough to get you in at Wharton, a substantial negative aberration from the rest of your application is probably enough to keep you out.

INNA: The TBD is just one of the many components Wharton uses to evaluate your entire candidacy. It’s critical because this is the only component of your application that allows Wharton to assess your teamwork and leadership skills in real time and in a real-world scenario alongside other applicants. Given the curriculum’s emphasis on learning teams, student clubs, social events, and activities, demonstrating your ability to engage with others to solve problems and drive outcomes is an important factor of the overall application package.

  1. What do you believe is the biggest misconception among applicants about the TBD?

INNA:  Many applicants think they need to have a big speaking role or “wear the leader hat” during TBDs, but that’s not necessarily the case, especially if this isn’t representative of your authentic behavior in a team-focused discussion in another environment, such as work. TBD teams demand diversity and contributions on varying levels. It’s important to bring the real you to the table and deliver meaningful input in a way that makes you comfortable, while still being conscious of the key goals in a group-based discussion.

  1. Can you describe the room and logistics where the TBD session is held? Is there a whiteboard or pad for notes?

ALINA: For the TBDs I moderated, participants were called into a small conference room with 4-5 other applicants. Each TBD session typically had 2 moderators, observing 2-3 applicants each. No pads or pens were provided, but participants were welcome to use their own. Most applicants brought a standard interview binder with a note pad. In some of the more recent TBDs, stop watches and white boards have been provided, but this wasn’t the case in earlier sessions.

  1. How does the facilitator watch and listen to the group’s discussion?

ALINA: Moderators use a rubric to record their observations and notes. They are generally looking not for the “brilliance” of each individual pitch or the final presentation, but rather how each candidate performs across a few key dimensions: clarity and logic of ideas/comments, presence & communication, leadership, and collaboration.

INNA: There are usually two facilitators who will listen carefully to the applicants during the TBD and take notes while evaluating applicants on a variety of metrics. They’re careful to observe behaviors, body language, general interactions and team dynamics. At the end of the TBD, each facilitator will conduct one-on-one interviews with about half the applicants from the session.

  1. When and how will I meet the other participants in my session?

ALINA: When you arrive for your session, you’ll typically be asked to wait in a reception area along with some other applicants, who you may end up seeing in your TBD session. There may be multiple sessions running concurrently, so just seeing someone in the waiting area doesn’t guarantee they’ll be in your TBD. Feel free to introduce yourself and chat with other applicants; this will help break the ice and establish a rapport ahead of your TBD. If they do happen to be in your session, you’ll have a natural connection with those folks in the room.

  1. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve seen an applicant make in his or her TBD?

ALINA: Poor “teamwork” etiquette is the worst behavior to show during a TBD. This can take the form of continuously dominating the conversation; interrupting others; regurgitating points made by others without moving the conversation forward; and/or showing irritation, aggravation or a bad attitude.

  1. What’s a good way to demonstrate leadership during the session?

Inna Rudsky. Courtesy photo

INNA: There are a few ways one can show leadership. An applicant can take the initiative in advancing the discussion through compelling comments and questions, sometimes by introducing a new perspective that builds on what was previously said. This can also include presenting a viewpoint that challenges the status quo, as long as it’s done tactfully and, if applicable, evaluate the pros and cons of a new solution. Leadership can also entail synthesizing multiple ideas and viewpoints in the room.

  1. What’s a good way to demonstrate teamwork during the session?

INNA: Communicating and collaborating with others effectively, even among divergent opinions, is key. Responding to feedback from others positively and addressing others professionally are both strong displays of teamwork.

  1. Should an applicant do anything if another participant is being overly quiet? If so, what?

ALINA: Drawing out a quieter or more reserved applicant can be a great way to demonstrate awareness and leadership in a team setting. One easy way to include such a participant is to specifically address him/her in a friendly manner, showing curiosity and interest in his or her point of view (e.g. “That’s a really great point from Kate. Hey, John – we haven’t had a chance to hear from you yet; what do you think about this approach?”). You can do this when it comes most naturally in the discussion; however, don’t interrupt anyone to put another person on the spot.

INNA: There’s a term I learned during my first year at Wharton called, “unearthing the silent minority.” It’s usually good for an applicant to draw a quiet individual into the conversation, either by asking what they think after a third applicant has expressed his/her thoughts, or simply encouraging the quiet member to share a perspective on one of the topics being discussed.

  1. Should a participant take notes during the TBD?

ALINA: There’s no “requirement” that you take notes and doing so won’t necessarily score you brownie points with the moderators. That said, it’s a good idea to jot down some quick notes when others are sharing their pitches, making salient points you want to go back to later, or synthesizing the final idea to present. Be careful not to focus so much on taking notes that you’re spending more time writing than listening or participating in the discussion.

INNA: It’s a good idea to take notes as there is a lot said in a TBD, and many applicants around the table represent varying viewpoints. To effectively consolidate or summarize information, or even address specific individuals and point to relevant topics or concerns those participants raised during the discussion, your notes will usually serve as a great aid.

  1. Is it beneficial to be the first one to speak at the start of the session?

INNA: Do what makes you comfortable! Being the first to speak won’t necessarily help or hurt you, as long as you plan and prepare for success in other key components, including team orientation, logic and clarity of thought, and poise and presence in your communication.

  1. How would you describe the post-TBD interview?

ALINA: The post-TBD interview is typically 10-15 minutes spent 1:1 with a moderator. The conversation will typically start with your reflections on the TBD. It’s important to demonstrate some insight beyond “it went well!” After you de-brief the TBD, your moderator may ask you some fit questions, which you should use to demonstrate your logic for getting an MBA education right now and your desire to attend Wharton in particular.


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