Alex Brown, an associate director of admissions at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, helped Wharton review over 7,000 applications this year. And he has lots of tips on making the cut at a top business school.
Brown's comments came during a live BusinessWeek Online chat on Apr. 26. He was responding to questions from the audience and BW Online's Jack Dierdorff and Mica Schneider. Following is an edited transcript of their discussion:
Q: Alex, a lot has been said about application volumes to business schools this year. With a rather fatigued economy, what's the impact on B-schools?
A: Our application numbers are the same as last year, but the quality appears very strong. From my peer schools, I understand that they're experiencing similar things.
Q: Was there a surge in applications in the last rounds, for instance, in February?
A: There was no application surge that I was aware of. Again, our application numbers this year look to be the same as last year.
Q: Do you have any sense of people wanting to sit out a slowdown in B-school -- or being nervous about getting jobs afterward?
A: I'm not sure that that's the character of the talent that's supplied to our school. The economy is always cyclical, and regardless of the economy, our school always provides a good reason to be here.
Q: Which schools does Wharton compete with most often for students?
A: Harvard and Stanford; and Columbia, Chicago, and MIT when you're talking a little bit more finance-focused.
(Editor's note: Alex Brown later clarified: "In general Harvard and Stanford. In specific academic areas, we also [compete with] MIT for entrepreneurship and finance; Chicago and Columbia for finance; Kellogg in marketing; and Tuck in general management.")
Q: Prospective members of Wharton's class of 2003 have some questions: What percentage of the class is filled?
A: Given that I've just returned from a 10-day trip and we've recently (i.e. today) released decisions, I cannot accurately answer. But if there's one spot left, you'll have a chance!
Q: What about people in limbo, otherwise known as the wait list? And does Wharton look more favorably upon reapplicants that have been on the wait list before?
A: The first thing reapplicants need to do is get feedback, and then they should look at that feedback as a basis for their reapplication. Clearly, those that were wait-listed perhaps had an application that was deemed stronger than those that were not successful in the first place. So one might assume that they have a reasonable chance. But don't assume that you won't get off the wait list this year.
Q: And third-time applicants? Has Wharton accepted applicants who have applied more than twice?
A: Yes, we've accepted people who have applied more than twice. I know this from anecdotal evidence, I don't know of the statistics. It is a lot of fun telling them they've been admitted! They're coming back, they're clearly motivated, they've had the perspective of [getting] feedback. And sometimes, they're not admitted [when they first apply] because we believe that they need more career development before business school. This applies to all reapplicants, not just third-timers.
Q: For those planning ahead, is there an advantage to applying earlier, during round one of admissions in November, vs. a later round, in January?
A: Given that our application rounds will be a new phenomenon for us this year, we wouldn't have any historical data on applying first round vs. second round. But as a general rule, applicants should try to apply earlier rather than later.
Q: Are dot-com applicants at a disadvantage this year?
A: This question comes up quite regularly. I don't think any applicant is at a disadvantage, assuming they present themselves as a unique individual with a unique set of experiences, and going to business school clearly makes sense for their career.
Q: How does working for a string of "dot-bombs" reflect on a candidate?
A: It depends if they created the bomb or they learned from that experience, and what they learned from [it]. In any set of experiences, we are interested in the decisions, and the reasons for those decisions, that the candidate made [while] pursuing that experience, [as well as] the takeaways of how that candidate developed.
Q: This is a popular question in our discussion boards: Do admissions committees look at other schools a prospective MBA has applied to when they consider the applicant?
A: We don't. I don't believe other schools do, but we're just interested in why you're applying to our school, not where else you apply.
Q: Are there ways for candidates to increase or decrease their chances once their application is complete. By respectfully emphasizing their candidacy, for instance?
A: We allow people to submit additional materials. However, we can never guarantee that they would be included in a review, once the application is deemed complete.
Q: What about those applicants with parental duties on the side. Does Wharton take into account parenting obligations?
A: We take into account everything that the candidate gets involved in and what's important to the applicant and what they're passionate about. Being passionate about your family should be considered a positive attribute of the applicant.
Q: A lot of people ask about admissions consultants in our forums: What are Wharton's thoughts on people spending $5,000 to hire an application consultant?
A: What is important [for an applicant] is to present who you are, what's important to you, and how that makes sense in terms of going to business school and what you can contribute. If you're better able to communicate that by paying for a professional service, then the service may be useful to you. But you cannot expect a service to write your essays. They can critique your essays and help you with them, but you can't just have someone write your essays. We always encourage our candidates to have other people read their essays, whether they're a professional service, friends and colleagues, candidates, or peers, and have them evaluate the content.
Q: Really, how important is the GMAT? Are one's chances of getting into a top school significantly better with a score over 700, as opposed to 650?
A: We're going to be looking at your GMAT and your undergraduate record, as well as any other academics, to determine whether you would be successful here academically. If you're struggling academically, you won't get involved in our community. Once we have a comfort level with your academic potential, as understood by your GMAT and academic record, it would no longer become a differentiating factor of your application. Getting a GMAT close to the average of the school you're applying to will be important. Getting a GMAT considerably in excess of the average would not guarantee admission.
Q: What's the average GMAT at Wharton?
A: It's about 705.
Q: This next question relates to the crucial area of work experience -- what kind and how much? What can recently minted undergrads do now to get accepted to grad school in a few years?
A: There's no specific type of work experience. But gaining experience that gives you exposure to take initiative, to get out of your comfort zone, to make a difference, to challenge the status quo, and making sure that work experience is interesting and is related to your potential career path [is important]. Clearly, though, we also look at your interests and your involvement in your community. And it is that passion and interest that may in fact be the differentiating characteristic of your application, and may be how you make Wharton a better place -- and your communities as you go forward.
Q: How much does having an Master's of Science degree help in gaining admission? In general, how does Wharton view candidates with graduate degrees?
A: I don't think it can necessarily replace the value of work experience. Having an MS degree would clearly support your academic potential, in terms of assessing your GMAT, your undergraduate degree, and so on. Beyond that, the differentiating parts are going to be leadership, teamwork, experience in the community, being a good person, goals, and being well-rounded. Now, if your Master's can help develop some of these other issues, then it can help support some of the rest of your application, too.
Q: Are the MBA/JD joint business and law programs a good idea compared to regular MBA programs?
A: MBA/JD is probably a good idea for the right person. Unfortunately, it's not a question of saying one program is better than another, it's a question of what is the best program to fit the individual's needs.
Q: Are people with green cards considered international applicants?
A: They're considered permanent residents. One thing to recognize is that we as schools don't have quotas by geography or by any of the metrics that one might consider. Each candidate, regardless of citizenship, gender, ethnicity, and industry experience, will be a unique individual. By the way, I have a green card.
Q: When most admissions officers speak of diversity, they often mention Asia, Latin America, and other regions. How about applicants from the former Soviet Union?
A: We see a number of applicants from the former Soviet Union, much as we do from the other parts of the world you mention. And much like candidates from all around the world, some are extraordinary and some are not. It's important, regardless of where you're from, to tell your story and be passionate about it. About 40% of our students are international, which is high among our peer schools.
Q: Has Wharton noticed a change in the percentage of women applicants this year, and do they have an advantage?
A: No one has an advantage in the admissions process based on diversity issues. As business schools, we do try to recruit a very diverse class. Our challenge is to focus our diversity at the recruiting end -- not when we make decisions. This means, if we want more women enrolled in our programs, we need to attract more women to apply to our programs. And we can do this by hosting special recruiting events for women.
Q: We've had a few questions about the alliance between Wharton and INSEAD. How does it influence admissions? And how will it change the experience that future MBAs have at Wharton?
A: I can't really comment on its influence on admissions, in terms of evaluation. But I'm sure it will attract some people to apply to our school that may not have applied before.
Our students will have access to INSEAD's campuses in Fontainebleau and Singapore, and by association, we will have additional access to networks in both Europe and Asia. I assume INSEAD sees the same advantage with this connection with the U.S.
Q: Surely you've seen some interesting attempts to grab the attention of the admissions committee. What's the weirdest? And does trying too hard to stand out from the pack help or hurt an applicant?
A: Absolutely, but we keep that confidential! There is a limit to how far you should push someone in admissions. Clearly, you don't want to overstep that limit. Different schools, perhaps, set different limits.
Q: How specific does one have to be about their future professional goals?
A: It's important to outline a clear reason [for] going to business school, what you expect to get out of business school, and how that connects with what you've done. One would assume that is going to relate to your future professional goals, so establishing that path forward is somewhat necessary.
However, we do understand that when people come to our business schools, they will perhaps get exposed to things that were not on their radar screen coming in, and therefore change their future plans. Given that they've thought long and hard about their future, they will think long and hard about how they change that direction, given the additional exposure to opportunities they've received. The other issue, to be quite frank, is that the breadth of resources that our business school offers can be overwhelming. If you come here without a focus, you could get lost.
Q: Would an applicant with over 10 years of experience and currently a manager be at a disadvantage for admissions?
A: There's always an ideal time for somebody to get an MBA. Whether you have two years, five years, seven, 10, you need to establish in your application why now is the right time. You need to consider what your experiences, both professional and personal, will contribute to our learning community, and simultaneously what you will draw from this learning community and how that connects with your goals.
Q: On the subject of grade point averages: Does a four-year college varsity athlete with community-service experience, a GMAT score over 700, and seven years of biotech experience have a shot even if he/she has a weak GPA?
A: It's important that, if there is a potential weakness in the application, you establish the context for the weakness and allow us to understand that it is no longer relevant or applicable. Be short, succinct, and address it in an optional essay.
Q: How important is the pedigree of an applicant's undergraduate college (i.e. Ivy vs. non-Ivy)?
A: We value performance over pedigree. That's part of the Wharton culture. We admit people from more than 200 institutions every year. There are not that many Ivies or Ivy-equivalents in the world. We are interested in why you chose to attend the school you chose and how you took advantage of that four- or three-year experience.
Q: Is it true that business schools do not like to admit alumni from their undergraduate institutions?
Q: Wharton will be attempting to market itself in new ways to candidates. Can you comment on this, and also outline any such initiatives?
A: We're in the process of developing a CD which we hope will allow us to do a better job of dispelling many of the myths of business school, and more particularly Wharton. In fact, today we've been shooting video for the CD, and it's going to totally rock! The notion of a CD is not new, and we'll launch it in July.
Q: With your allusion to myths about B-schools, what are some of them?
A: There are certain populations in more nontraditional industries that would not only benefit from [an MBA], but would contribute greatly to our community. Do I have that population clearly defined? No, but we're going to have a lot of fun trying to find them.
Q: Why should anyone get an MBA? Some people say that the MBA is, or will soon be, obsolete.
A: Who says that? The value proposition provided by an MBA program like Wharton is actually undervalued. We provide a knowledge platform to leverage from [for] the rest of a career, as well as a knowledge network that our students have access to throughout their careers. So, while each graduate may have a small domain of expertise, they have access to expertise across all industries and all business cultures. In our networked economy, I can only see that that advantage or value proposition will become more powerful.
Q: Can you sum up what prospective MBAs should be doing at this point in the admissions cycle? What about MBA hopefuls that were dinged this season?
A: If someone was not successful this year and they're considering reapplying, they should get feedback. To do so, they need to call our main admissions office after May 1 to schedule a 15-minute telephone conversation with an admissions officer in June.
Q: What does Wharton anticipate for the next admissions season for the class of 2003?
A: As we continue to innovate and reinvent ourselves, we can maintain our value propositions and serve the MBA candidates well. At this stage of this year, I'm not even thinking about next year. Summer = vacation!