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What Wharton Wants

Thinking of applying to the University of Pennsylvania's B-school? Arm yourself with info from our online chat

Getting into the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania is no easy task. Admission to the school, which was recently ranked No. 1 in BusinessWeek's first-ever rankings of undergraduate business programs, is highly coveted. But only a little more than 16% of the 4,201 applicants in 2005 snagged a seat at the prestigious program.

Still, there are ways to get your foot in the door. Recently, Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, and Tiffany Fujioka, associate director of the Wharton undergraduate division, shared the inside scoop on how to get accepted. They fielded questions from Francesca Di Meglio B-schools community manager and reporter, and an audience of prospective students in a live-chat event. Here's an edited transcript of the online conversation:

Lee Stetson

Dean of Admissions

University of Pennsylvania

I'm 17 years old, and I attend the International School in Munich, Germany. Is there a smaller chance of getting accepted at your school as an international student?

Stetson: Only if you're applying for financial aid. We have a reduced number of aid grants for international students.

On another note, what do you think is the most important part of the application for those seeking to become undergrads at Wharton? What should their focus be?

Stetson: In addition to being academically strong, a student must present an overall outstanding profile, both inside and outside the classroom. In the case of Wharton, applicants need a very strong mathematics background, including calculus.

I play tennis at a very high level, so I would like to know how important sports are in terms of getting accepted?

Stetson: Penn is in the Ivy League and competes at the Division I level. We recruit top student athletes from around the U.S. and world. It can be to [an applicant's] advantage if he or she is truly exceptional.

I'm an aspiring student who would like to apply early decision. Every time I hear about Wharton applicants (or Penn in general), there seems to be a very high achievement level in academics (SAT/ACT). How much do these standardized test scores play a role in the admissions game?

Stetson: Early decision is almost equally competitive as regular decision. A student who has scores below the averages for Wharton will have less of a chance of being admitted but shouldn't rule themselves out. We look at the entire student profile.

I am a Brazilian citizen studying at the American School of Milan. Due to the fact that my family and I are constantly on the move, I haven't always been able to take the classes I wanted to. Although I'm a full IB diploma student, I'm taking standard instead of higher-level math. Nevertheless, my SAT scores and math teacher recommendations are likely to demonstrate my strong ability in math. Will not taking higher-level math be a serious disadvantage?

Stetson: It could be. However, we will realize your unique circumstances and judge you accordingly. You should still try to enroll in the most challenging math curriculum.

How competitive is it to get into the combined BA/MBA program?

Fujioka: Wharton offers a combined BS in Economics/MBA program to students enrolled in Wharton. Students apply during their junior year, and admission is highly competitive because they're being compared to traditional MBA candidates.

What are the requirements or personal qualities a student should have to be accepted and integrate him- or herself into your college culture?

Stetson: A student needs to have a zest for learning and involvement in activities that shows a commitment to some pursuit that is their passion, which could be a leadership role or an outstanding musical talent or a wonderful record of community service [see, 4/26/2006, "Exchange Rates and Cheesesteaks"]. They also could be working in a job at McDonald's to contribute to the family income. Then, they need to tell us what they've learned from all these various experiences.

How common is it for Wharton students to double-major in something outside of business?

Fujioka: Students at Penn cannot double-major between schools. If Wharton students want to pursue a major outside of business, they must apply for a dual-degree program. This means that they must complete the degree requirements for both schools. About 30% of Wharton seniors will graduate with more than one degree, so it's more common than you may think. We also have about 15% of our students pursuing minors, which are just six to eight courses and can be easily added into their Wharton requirements.

What's the workload like for freshmen at Wharton?

Fujioka: Great question! The workload for Wharton freshmen is actually very similar to the students in Penn's three other undergraduate schools. They all are generally taking math, foreign language, and critical writing. The main difference that Wharton freshmen encounter is that they're enrolled in our Management 100 course: Leadership and Communication in Groups. In this course, students work in a team of 10 on a project for a nonprofit organization. The projects require a lot of time and effort.

Does Wharton allow students to defer their admission to take a gap year? Can students enroll in the spring?

Stetson: All students at Penn after admission have the opportunity to request a gap year. That would include students in Wharton, Arts & Sciences, Nursing, and Engineering. They have to write to the dean of admissions after making a commitment to attend and ask for a year's deferral. They cannot enroll in any other university or college. Our students only enter in the fall semester.

I'm not sure if business is right for me. Can I transfer into Wharton if I decide to apply to Arts & Sciences at first?

Fujioka: Transferring internally into Wharton from another school at Penn is a highly competitive process.

Stetson: We believe in a one-university concept. Students can move between the four schools at Penn. Requirements differ a bit in each school, and one must perform well initially to transfer.

How much importance is given to the verbal part of the SAT for non-native English speakers? Are good scores in English on the IB Diploma or the TOEFL test able to compensate for a lower SAT verbal score?

Stetson: We understand that students for whom English is a second language might have a slightly suppressed verbal score. We take that into consideration, but we would expect them to thrive in an English-speaking environment. We do look at the TOEFL and their English scores in the IB.

If I know I want to get an MBA, does it make sense to major in something other than business as an undergrad?

Fujioka: I think about this in a few ways. First, I think it's difficult for high school students to know that they want to get an MBA. The reason behind this being that, unlike law or medical school, an MBA isn't required to practice.

Second, only 35% of our alumni will ever go back for an MBA even up to 15 years after graduation. So while students with liberal-arts degrees essentially need to go back for an MBA, students who attend Wharton don't. It's an option rather than a necessity.

How separate are Wharton students from other Penn undergrads?

Fujioka: Wharton students are fully integrated with the rest of the undergraduate students at Penn. You live, take classes with, and participate in extracurricular activities with students in [Arts & Sciences], Nursing, and Engineering schools.

What's dorm life like for freshmen?

Fujioka: Freshmen will live in one of 11 college houses on Penn's campus. The majority of freshmen are concentrated in Hill College House and the three houses located in the Quadrangle. However, all college houses are integrated with freshmen and upperclassmen, as well as graduate students and Penn faculty and staff.

Is it harder to get into certain majors or concentrations than others?

Stetson: The most competitive programs at Penn are our joint-degree programs, such as Huntsman (international study and business) and Management & Technology. Otherwise, there's very little difference by a student's interests, since they tend to change once they're here.

Where do most Wharton grads end up after graduation?

Fujioka: Wharton students are heavily recruited by a number of different companies and agencies. Immediately after graduation, about 60% of Wharton students will go to work directly in the financial-services industry. About 20% will go to work directly in consulting. Those industries employ the most Wharton graduates. However, many students will work in these industries for just two to three years and then either go back to graduate school or switch industries.

Would you encourage contact with the regional representative?

Stetson: All admissions to Penn are handled through the undergraduate admissions office. We have 20 regional directors who mentor their regions carefully. If a student has particular questions, they can determine who is their regional director and contact him or her by e-mail.

Are interviews a required part of the admissions process? What role do interviews play for the admissions committee?

Stetson: Our alumni interviewers provide that service for Penn. They're available in a student's hometown, and we don't have interviews as such on campus. Interviews are part of the process but shouldn't be seen as a stressful part of the experience. They aren't required.

What's your acceptance rate, and have applications been going up or down in recent years? Are you looking to accept more students—as more are in the population now?

Stetson: Our entering class is stable and has been for a number of years. Our applications have been climbing rapidly over the last five years. The overall admissions rate for Penn is 17%. The regular decision rate is 13%.

How does affirmative action play into your decision? Also, what are the top three regions from which you accept students?

Stetson: We look at students from all backgrounds and all individual experiences. We especially recruit students from underprivileged backgrounds. While students arrive from all over the U.S., the most likely entering group will be from the Eastern Seaboard, from Washington to Boston, and the West Coast, especially California. All 50 states were represented in the last five classes.

Why is it worth it to go to a private school like Penn vs. a public school that's a lot cheaper?

Stetson: That's a very good question. My view has been that it's a matter of fit. Usually, national selective private colleges and universities have a more diverse population geographically. Therefore, one may meet and interact with students from different life experiences. Also, given the healthy financial-aid programs that many private schools offer, the difference between public and private expenses may be insignificant.

Is Greek life a big part of the Penn experience? Are students very cutthroat or supportive at Wharton?

Fujioka: About 30% of Penn students participate in Greek life. However, fraternity and sorority life doesn't dominate student life at Penn, as there are so many different clubs and organizations on campus and so many things to do in Philly.

Students at Wharton aren't cutthroat. While everyone here wants to succeed, so much of the culture inside and outside of the classroom is centered around teamwork that students cannot afford to be cutthroat. What we do have is a spirit of competition, which is a healthy thing. Students see how hard their peers work and how much they accomplish, and it motivates them to do more. It is a huge motivator and confidence builder.

Can you offer any pointers for writing the application essays?

Stetson: The essay portion of the application has become increasingly more important in our selection process. Because we aren't able to meet every single applicant, those essays are our chance to get to know the students behind the numbers.

Is the career-services department very helpful in finding internships and on-campus job interviews?

Fujioka: Penn has one of the best career-services offices in the country. There are staff members dedicated solely to working with students in each individual school. They offer résumé critiques, mock interviews, and job search and graduate school advising.

Every year, hundreds of companies come to Penn to recruit students, and career services manages the entire on-campus recruiting process. The vast majority of students find their internship and full-time jobs through on-campus recruiting at Penn [see, 5/9/2006, "The Wharton Way to Wall Street"].

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