How to Present a Winning Wharton Application [Episode 342]

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Learn what makes an applicant stand out at Wharton [Show Summary]

What is Wharton looking for? What about its new deferred admission programs? Most importantly, what do you need to do to get in? If these questions reside in your head, listen in! Wharton’s Director of Admissions, Blair Mannix, is our guest today.

Interview with Blair Mannix, Director of Admissions for the Wharton MBA program [Show Notes]

It gives me great pleasure to have on Admissions Straight Talk for the first time, Blair Mannix, Director of Admissions for the Wharton MBA program. Blair first came to Penn as a graduate student where she earned her master’s in higher education management in 2010. She joined Penn’s undergrad admissions staff in 2008. She’s been at Wharton since 2012 and became Director of Admissions just about one year ago.

Let’s start with the basics. Can you give me a brief overview of the distinctive elements of Wharton’s full-time MBA program? [2:17]

Philadelphia is one – I feel like I work for the Philadelphia Board of Tourism sometimes. It is difficult to have a Wharton experience without a Philadelphia experience and vice versa. The second thing I would say is we are proud of the way we approach the teaching of business. We like to provide content in a variety of different ways, since we know students learn best in different ways. We are big on rolling our sleeves up here.

What’s new at Wharton? [4:57]

The first two are massive updates to our physical plant. This fall we will be opening the Wharton Academic Research Building (WARB), which will be the home of academic research for Wharton, Penn, and Philadelphia. In the spring of 2021 we will open the Center of Entrepreneurship, which will be the hub for undergrad and graduate entrepreneurial endeavors. We also have two new centers in finance – the Harris Center and Stevens Center. The dean has poised us to really stay ahead in finance for the next 10-15 years.

Wharton has two deferred admissions programs, the Moelis Advance Access Program and the Advance Access program. Can you tell us about them? [7:15]

I feel very strongly that this is where MBA programs need to go. So many students have told me they don’t feel like they could take risks between undergrad and grad school. We want to lock in the talent early so they can go out and impact the world. Moelis started two years ago, so we have had two admitted cohorts, and they have just been Penn undergraduates. Eight weeks ago we launched Advance Access globally, so anyone from around the world can apply and work 2-4 years and then come back for an MBA. With the two cohorts thus far, we have seen a mix of people following a more traditional pre-MBA path, and others who have really taken a risk. We want people to feel free to do what they want. In terms of the size of our first Advance Access cohort, it will depend on the talent. We don’t have a hard number.

Can you go into the purpose of some of the different elements of the application? [11:15]

  1. The resume and work history,
  2. Wharton’s essays,
  3. Two professional recommendations, and
  4. The Wharton TBD and individual interview

Resume and work history: The length, depth, and breadth of your adult life live in your resume and transcript. Essays and recommendations are a snapshot of a moment in time, so I really stress the importance of the resume and transcript. Recently we have begun tracking outcomes of our students, and with the help of a data scientist, we are able to evaluate things like GPA through career trajectory, how applicants interact with the community, and how it all transfers to success at Wharton. Each piece of the application is predictive of success in the program, and that is important. It’s not random but very purposeful. Everything we ask for, we need.

Essays: The essays use words to help us evaluate talent. The first essay is what do you want professionally from the Wharton MBA. We want students to do self-reflection on why they want this degree. We want students to explore the pivot moment (when they decided they wanted to do this) and unpack the talent and treasure they can bring to the MBA. Spend the time and really think about the top three things you will get out of the program. The second essay is a direct response to our students – in focus group after focus group: they felt the MBA application process didn’t give enough opportunity to reflect their humanity. So we now ask them to describe an impactful experience not reflected elsewhere in the application. Anything that defines you.

Recommendations: Recommendations are a little different. I believe in creating the correct evaluative levers. Three years ago we changed the LOR format. I have been evaluating applications for 15 years and the one thing that kept coming back to me is most recommendations to business school have a rubric at the top of the form. As an evaluator, there is no motivation for me to fill out the right side of the rubric. Everyone would check top 1% or top 5%. If you see top 15% that looks like a blight. So we now ask recommenders to use adjectives to describe applicants, and these are words that are helpful to evaluate success.

Team Based Discussion (TBD) and Interview: We launched the TBD in 2012 and we did it for a few reasons. First, there is a lot of evidence that behavioral interviews are not predictive of success at all. Extroverts shine over introverts. We determined that method wasn’t going to work for us. Second, Wharton is a team-based learning environment, with students in about 17 teams in the two-year program. We want to stress that the interviews are just a piece of your application. We have students who have great apps and not great TBD, and vice versa. Individual interviews can talk more about TBD info, and follow up on that. It depends on where the interview takes itself.

What do you look for now or emphasize more now than you did 7 years ago when you first arrived at Wharton? [28:14]

I’m going to go back to us tracking outcomes. We started this five years ago so I have five years of data to look at. What is great about this approach is I know I have biases, but the data allows me to put them away as much as I can. It used to be, “This type of person will do well at Wharton…” but with no real assurance. Now I don’t have to guess, now I know. Instead of sticking to GMAT scores, I now know they have no bearing on student success. The type of students we can admit are much more varied because the criteria has opened up, which is really nice. Also, the market has changed. Employers are vastly different. The number one employer was Amazon last year. One thing we hear a lot is that recruiters love Wharton students because they are innovative, roll up their sleeves, and are gutsy. Those types of characteristics are more tactile and easy for us to gauge.

For the class of 2021, the overall GMAT range was 540-790 and the mean GMAT was 732. The average GPA for students on the 4.0 system was 3.6. Especially in the GMAT, that’s a pretty wide range. What do you look for besides stats? How does one get in with below average stats? [32:48]

From our data we have seen an inflation in overall GMAT scores. We are not cherry-picking higher GMAT scores more than we were before, but scores are just rising overall. Bottom line we want to know if this student can handle the curriculum, survive and thrive, but we look at everything else, and sometimes that matters more to us than a B- in statistics. If you have a lowish GMAT and good GPA we are not concerned.

In a recent interview with you and Director of MBA Student Life Eddie Banks-Crosson, that I found on the Wharton website, you said “the first kind of top-line cultural piece that helps us matriculate the class we do every year is a concept we call ‘read-to-admit,’ which means for every application we’re reading in the Office of MBA Admissions at Wharton, we’re looking for reasons to admit the student, and not looking for reasons to deny the student.” And later on in the interview, you said “What we are fundamentally is a school, and we are trying to enroll people that we think will grow the most from this program, not the people that were perfect coming in.” You get lots of applications from people who can grow in the Wharton program and who are admissible. Probably more people fit into these categories than don’t How do you weed it down? [37:22]

We look at who is admissible, who can grow in the program, what students can give to the program, and how much can we help them in the program. A lot of students can grow, but can I help you as much as other students? And what can you give back?

What do you want to accomplish as Director of Admissions at Wharton, a position you’ve held for a little over a year? [38:38]

Two things – one, to be more transparent about our process by doing things like this podcast, webinars, blog posts, and more. Second, I want to democratize the information about admissions, so not just people with higher economic status have more information about us. Internally, we are always continuing to refine mechanisms we use to assess for talent.

What aspect of the admissions process do applicants underestimate the most? [40:33]

The entire process. It is arduous, not easy, and people underestimate the time it takes to apply to all these schools. So what I am really thinking about is how to make the entire system more student-friendly.

How would you respond to an applicant who says I really want to apply, but I’m concerned about graduating into a recession? [42:27]

I’m going to paraphrase a recruiter from an investment bank. He said, “I’m a b-school grad and feel so strongly about this. Whenever anyone talks to me about opportunity cost, I respond this is an investment in yourself. I would go back to school three times over.” Most of our graduates will be planning to work for 40 years. Recessions don’t last for 40 years. Think about a 40-year career ROI.

What would you have liked me to ask you? [44:02]

I like to talk about our passion for fair evaluation and selection of our candidates and reducing bias and noise in the admissions process. I also would love to talk about the misconceptions about Wharton. Students come to Wharton and say, “I had no idea this place felt like this. I am really surprised by the passion, energy, and humility.” I hate when students say that to me because it feels like I didn’t do my job. People think we are super competitive, but we are super collaborative. People think we are cutthroat, but we’re not. People think Philadelphia is a detriment, but it’s not.

Related Links:

• Wharton SOM MBA
• Beyond the Profile: The MBA Class of 2021, an interview with Blair Mannix and Eddie Banks-Crosson
• Wharton’s Admissions Webinar
• Wharton Admissions Fellows
• Wharton 2019-2020 MBA Essay Tips & Deadlines
• Mock Wharton TBD
• Get Accepted to Wharton, an Accepted webinar recording
• Accepted’s MBA Admissions Consulting Services

Related Shows:

• Applying to Wharton Lauder? Do Your Research!
• A Bain Consultant-Turned Wharton MBA Starts Her Own Business
• Wharton’s Executive MBA, Where East and West Meet and Mix


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