P&Q’s MBA Admissions Director Of The Year: The Wharton School’s Blair Mannix

Blair Mannix, director of MBA admissions at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, has been named Poets&Quants‘ 2022 MBA Admissions Director of the Year. Here, she meets with University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill and other officials. Wharton photo

There’s a baseball cap in Blair Mannix’s closet, emblazoned with a number in a bold white font. It was given to her by the Wharton Women in Business club whose members wore identical caps around campus in 2021.

The number? 52 — the record-setting percentage of women in Wharton’s MBA Class of 2023.

It wasn’t just a milestone for the world’s first collegiate business school with a history dating back to 1881. It was a milestone among all the M7s — the vaulted “magnificent seven,” widely regarded as the most prestigious business school on the planet.

The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania is the first — and so far only — M7 school to achieve gender parity in a full-time, residential MBA class. No other school in the top 15 in our latest ranking has enrolled 50% or more women in their MBA classes. It is an especially major achievement because Wharton’s yield rate–the percentage of admits who enroll in the program–falls significantly below that of Stanford and Harvard, the school’s biggest rivals for talent. At Stanford, 94% of applicants invited to enroll do so. At Harvard, it’s roughly 83%, while at Wharton the yield rate is 67%.

“Obviously, it was a great day,” says Mannix, director of MBA admissions at Wharton since 2018, on achieving the milestone. “For (Dean) Erika James, for my own career, it was a great day. But it’s not like I woke up in October 2020 and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ We let the talent dictate the class profile.”

GENDER PARITY — TWO YEARS RUNNING

As impressive as the milestone was at the time, more impressive perhaps is the fact that Wharton repeated the feat a year later, enrolling 50% women for the MBA class of 2024.

Nicolaj Siggelkow, vice dean of the Wharton MBA

The secret to Wharton’s admission success – not just in gender parity, but in other underrepresented groups as well – is its intentioned efforts to increase its applicant pools while identifying true drivers of candidate success, says Nicolaj Siggelkow, vice dean of Wharton’s MBA program and the David M. Knott Professor and Professor of Management.

“There’s amazing work from Blair and her team, and Maryellen Reilly (vice dean, graduate student affairs), to ensure the admissions process is unbiased and more data-driven. The days are over where a single admissions officer would read a file and say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” he told P&Q during an interview this fall.

“The other thing that they have done is to dig deeply into success drivers and to track them for career outcomes. It’s all about getting a better understanding of the factors that allow us to identify great candidates. I’ve only this year really started to appreciate this because I’ve had the chance to more deeply observe this process,” Siggelkow says.

“It is quite a difficult task to build an MBA class because you never know who’s coming and who is not coming. Some people apply to lots of schools and get great offers. How to predict who will ultimately come to Wharton and who will not come used to be an art. Now, it’s a little bit like ‘Moneyball.’”

BLAIR MANNIX, P&Q’s MBA ADMISSIONS DIRECTOR OF THE YEAR

For leading the first admissions team to achieve gender parity at an elite business school and for repeating the feat a year later during an industry-wide decline in applications, Blair Mannix is Poets&Quants’ MBA Admissions Director of the Year.

While we routinely highlight outstanding programs, professors, and deans at the end of each year, Mannix is the first and so far only admissions director to earn this distinction.

And, it comes at a particularly turbulent year for the MBA admissions game.

One of the top stories from the 2021-2022 admission cycles was the dramatic decline in applications. At least 16 of the top 25 business schools reported rather dramatic drops, while two schools (Northwestern Kellogg and UC-Berkeley Haas) did not report application numbers this cycle. MBA applications fell 24.8% at MIT’s Sloan School of Management in 2021-2022, 15.4% at Harvard Business School, and 16.5% at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. At Wharton, applications were down about 14%.

Blair Mannix, director of Wharton MBA admissions

Meanwhile, a string of high-profile MBA admissions officials has left or announced their departures over the last 12 to 15 months, stepping away from their respective schools including Columbia Business School, Michigan Ross, UC-Berkeley Haas, Northwestern Kellogg, and Carnegie Mellon. Kirsten Moss at Stanford and Chad Losee at Harvard coincidentally announced their intentions to step down on the same September day.

Despite the turbulence, Wharton seated a 2024 MBA Class that was not only 50% women, but also 23% Asian American, 7% Black/African American, and 5% Hispanic. Eleven percent of the incoming MBAs are first-generation students. Of the 877 students enrolled, they are 35% international, representing 77 different countries.

The class of 2024 also increased its percentage of LGBTQ+ representation to 8%, up one point from the previous class and an all-time high in the category.

Diversity in MBA classes is, of course, about bringing a wide range of perspectives into classrooms to reflect an increasingly global workforce. But, it’s also about fairness, and about finding talent in places where opportunities might not be as apparent as in the traditional pipelines to elite institutions.

“You should reflect the talent pool that’s out there in society. If it’s not, then the question should be, why isn’t it?” Siggelkow says. “Is it the fault of society or is it our fault (in elite business schools) of not finding the right people?”

NEXT PAGE: Mannix’s unique path to elite MBA admissions director

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