Former Wharton Admissions Deputy: How To Get Into Your Target MBA Program

Nellie Gaynor, an MBA and graduate admissions consultant and former admissions associate director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, predicts a competitive year for MBA applicants this cycle, in part because so many applicants who deferred in the 2019 and 2020 admission cycles will be among this year’s pool of candidates. Travel restrictions, moreover, have been lifted in many countries, allowing more international applicants to apply, and coronavirus vaccines are now widely available for adults and children alike.

But that’s not all, Gaynor says.

“In terms of the job market, we see recruiters also projecting a growing demand in hiring MBAs,” she tells Poets&Quants. “It’s going to continue to be an increasingly competitive year. And here’s the reality; there are space limitations at universities.”


Nellie Gaynor

Gaynor has seen many trends emerge throughout the years.

“In 2007, global perspective was a really hot topic. It evolved,” she says. “Then it was private equity, then entrepreneurship – like private equity and hedge funds. And now big data, data analytics, data science is big.”

Gaynor started her career in 2003 as a senior student finance advisor. She moved on to become an admissions counselor at Rutgers University, her alma mater. After a few years, she became the associate director of admissions and student affairs at The Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania.

“I’d been in higher education for some time. I wanted to take a step back and see how students were entering the admissions funnel,” says Gaynor about the time she became the associate director of admission at The Peddie School, a co-ed boarding and day school in New Jersey.

Eventually she went back to The Wharton School, but this time as an associate director of admissions. She was there for six years until moving to IvyWise as an MBA and graduate admissions consultant during the pandemic.


Among the reasons for an ultra-competitive admissions cycle in 2021-2022, Gaynor also sees a higher interest in graduate-level courses in general, from finance to data analytics and data science to marketing. This trend, she has noticed, is emerging through undergraduates who are about to graduate and have missed out on their college experience due to Covid-19.

“They’re looking for ways to continue their education through graduate school,” she says.

Round one applicants have already gone through the application process this year. Round two deadlines are in January. “Some schools, depending on where you’re looking, may have a round three or four,” Gaynor says. “We don’t usually advise students to apply that late in the application season, just because the admissions team has already filled up a large majority of their class at that point.”

Applicants have two months to get their application together, she says. The biggest challenge is creating a personal narrative that helps distinguish themselves from other candidates. It is the “only way that candidates are going to be able to control the narrative and bring their unique perspective,” says Gaynor.

Letters of recommendation are also an important part of the application, and she advises applicants to have conversations with their recommenders. “Try to help them frame what qualities you want them to highlight. But that is kind of out of your hands, right?” says Gaynor, which is why the personal narrative pleads the best case.

“Take the time to think why you want to get an MBA, how an MBA is going to fit into your short-term and long-term career goals and how the particular school is going to help you get there,” she says.


Covid-19 forced universities to be more flexible when it came to standarized testing, such as GRE and GMAT. But Gaynor advises caution when submitting a waiver for testing.

“It becomes the applicant’s responsibility to make a compelling case about their analytical skills, problem-solving abilities, and quantitative aptitude to succeed in a rigorous curriculum. This can be demonstrated in a variety of ways through professional experience, certifications, academic credentials, undergraduate coursework, and any other additional coursework they may have taken to try to help boost their application,” she explains.

For example, one of the students Gaynor was advising went through this dilemma of submitting test scores. A graduate of the University of Mumbai with an engineering background, her GPA was a 9.37 out of 10. She ranked 98th percentile in her class. She also had work experience through Ernst & Young that nicely showcased her abilities.

Yet this student, who was applying to a master’s in business analytics program, had low GRE scores. Her quantitative aptitude score was below 160 and her verbal aptitude score was below 150 (the scale ranges between 130 to 170).

“You see that her strong academics would tell a different story than what her GRE scores are,” she says, adding, “I think it’s taking an individualized approach for each student to figure out what is going to be the best strategy for you in the admissions process.”


Gaynor’s advice to the student was to apply for a GRE waiver because there were other strong elements in the application that would help her stand out.

“Covid-19 gave applicants some flexibility, but a lot of schools are already back to their pre-pandemic policies,” she says. Even if schools keep offering waivers, Gaynor thinks that students will still submit their standardized test scores because “that helps them continue to distinguish themselves and increases chances for scholarships.”

Ultimately, a well-rounded application is important. But it’s also important to visit the campus virtually or in-person and engage with the student body through information sessions because it paints a picture of the school’s culture, says Gaynor. “It will ultimately determine if the school is a good fit for you.”

“There’s more than 10 MBA programs that you can apply to. I wish students would consider more options,” she says. “Date the school and figure out what’s going to be a good fit.”

See the next page for more of Nellie Gaynor’s admissions advice.

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