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

Blair Mannix welcomes the MBA Class of 2023 on Franklin Field at the University of Pennsylvania. Mannix uses two mottos to lead the MBA admissions team at Wharton: ‘Fair and accurate’ and ‘read to admit.’ Wharton photo

A UNIQUE B-SCHOOL ADMISSIONS ORIGIN STORY

As far as MBA admissions origin stories go, Mannix’s is pretty unique: She knew even as an undergrad student that she wanted to work in university admissions. She aspired to it. It’s not a job title she stumbled upon and happened to like.

Mannix grew up in Maryland’s D.C. suburbs and enrolled at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia to study political science and history. When she grew homesick early on, she transferred back to her home state, and then soon realized that it wasn’t a good move for her. She returned to St. Joseph’s, working closely with the people, mostly women, in the schools’ admissions offices.

“They absolutely saved my life,” Mannix tells Poets&Quants. “When I was about 19, I thought, ‘this is exactly what I want to do for a living.’ One, because they had helped me so much, and two, because I saw that they were public speakers. Even at a very young age, I knew that I was a public speaker in my soul.”

She took her first admissions job at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006 and literally sat at the front admissions desk, a place she’d found so much help in her college journey. The dean at the time wrote the playbook on selective admissions, and she soaked in everything she could learn.

She stayed in undergrad admissions for about six years, running operations, evaluation, and selection for 31,000 Penn applicants (which has since ballooned to closer to 50,000.) She moved to the Wharton School in 2012 to run the ideology and philosophy of admitting Wharton students, a data-intensive process that starts with the training of app readers to spot talent, and then doing all the math required to get a class in the door.

She became the Wharton MBA admissions director in 2018.

WHARTON’S SECRET ADMISSIONS SAUCE

The secret to Wharton’s admissions success is by and large, well, secret. In an ever-increasingly competitive market for top MBA talent – both from companies and among the schools themselves – and at a time when more people are publicly expressing their skepticism of the degree’s value, much of the behind-the-scenes process is proprietary and confidential.

In interviews, Mannix is delightfully open and animated. She comes across as less guarded and more transparent than many of her peers. Even when declining to answer specific questions about its secretive selection process, Mannix still seems approachable, likable, and, strangely enough, candid. Full of kinetic energy, she brings a strong sense of self-confidence to her job.

MBA admission consultants say she has shown exceptional support for Wharton’s applicants and students and a deep commitment to using data to make admission decisions. “She wants to “democratize” access to admissions information,” believes Linda Abraham, founder and president of Accepted.com, an admissions consulting firm. “In all my intereactions with her over the years, she projects a concern for the applicants as human beings.”

LOUSY AT MATH DURING HER PREP SCHOOL DAYS, MANNIX EMBRACES DATA

For a person who once joked that her math grades were the worst at the Connelly School of the Holy Child, a Catholic, college preparatory school in Potomac, Md., Mannix has completely embraced data and numbers. “Anyone coming in their careers right now would do best by themselves to track towards data, data science and math,” she said in an alumni interview with Holy Child. “I was not this person and didn’t get in touch with that side of my brain until I was 27 years old.

In fact, when Abraham first met Mannix at a trade association conference for MBA admission consultants, “she was talking with someone and ‘geeking out’ on correlation studies that were attempting to correlate certain aspects of the application with success in the program. Whenever you speak with her,” adds Abraham. “she backs up what she says with reliable information, frequently statistical.”

Consistent with her need not to reveal how Wharton quantifies soft skills and other aspects of its admission decision, she declines every effort to lend more light to the mystery of who gets in and who doesn’t. However, Mannix does share two of her personal mottos that she has printed on stickers given to every staff member and stuck to laptops, whiteboards, and in welcome kits around the Wharton admission’s office: “Fair and accurate decisions” and “read to admit.”

AN ADMISSIONS APPROACH BASED ON ‘FAIR & ACCURATE’ DECISIONS

Fair and accurate means the same, defendable standards are applied for every admit and are central to every decision – whether it’s to admit, to waitlist, or to deny.

Read to admit is a reminder to every staffer to read an application with positive intent–not to dwell on the fact that Wharton rejects 75% to 80% of the candidates who apply for admission to its full-time MBA program.

“The positivity we bring to every file is bedrock to the culture. We are looking for your best day, and that actually matters when you’re deciding at scale. It’s something that has been part of my soul for the 16 years I’ve been doing this,” Mannix says. It is a point she often expresses. “With every application we open,” she told one interviewer, “we are looking for reasons to admit you and not for reasons to deny you. That is a huge deal. Your application will be read by people who are looking at your best day and not your worst day, with positive head space and not negative head space. Just know that the people who are reading your story are on your side.”

‘WE PAY LESS ATTENTION TO THE GMAT THAN ANYONE WOULD EVER BELIEVE’

That philosophy was put to the test during the height of the pandemic when many schools began waiving standardized tests or going test-optional. Mannix held firm on the GMAT or GRE requirement for admission. Sitting next to her in Wharton’s admissions office is a full-time data scientist who has done more than one study that shows how predictive a test score is to one’s success in the MBA program. That is one of the reasons Wharton, with its data-driven culture, is holding on to the test, though Mannix insists in interviews that she and her staff pay less attention to the GMAT and GRE “than anyone outside my walls would ever believe.”

As she explains, Wharton is such a data-driven place. Admissions has a full-time data scientist on staff. Shares an office with her. She has done more than one study that shows how predictive testing is to one’s success in the program.

She did, however, extend some level of flexibility to applicants impacted by COVID in the 2019-2020 admissions cycle. Mannix extended the final deadline to apply by 14 days and agreed to review applications from candidates who did not yet have an official standardized test score. Instead, applicants were given until early August to hand in official scores. She also extended the deadline for recommendation letters an extra five days. The increased flexibility helped the school register a 21% rise in applications, vs. Harvard Business School’s meager 0.8% increase that year.

During its most recent application cycle, 6,319 people applied for the Wharton MBA program and 877 enrolled. (Wharton does not disclose its acceptance rate.) The average student has 5 years of work experience, a 733 GMAT score (the highest ever, tying last year’s record), and a 3.6 undergrad GPA.

But simply hitting these averages will not earn a candidate an invitation. Wharton is looking for indicators on where students go next, and what contributions a student will make to the Wharton community. For those candidates invited, Wharton does not do individual behavioral-based interviews, which research shows can be biased, Mannix says. Instead, the school uses team-based discussions meant to model the collaborative nature of Wharton’s classrooms. Four to five Wharton candidates are invited to the same interview and work together to present a solution to a given problem. That exercise is unique in MBA admissions.

“The team around me in MBA admissions are involved in every step of the process. It’s not a process where every decision rolls up to me,” Mannix says. “We have a robust committee, we come from a variety of different backgrounds, and the main tenor is we interview on ‘read to admit.’ They read applications and I need to see their point of view on talent. We’re getting people in the door that have a positive attitude on talent selection, and it really helps with our culture.”

“The team at Wharton, from the Dean suite all the way down, are the most fun, creative, innovative, character-driven, and lovely people. They have the best time playing in the sandbox.”

NEXT PAGE: Letting the talent dictate the class profile

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