Why Most Applicants to Wharton Fail

Wharton is a super elite business school, make no mistake about that.  Note and shameless plug: The Wharton/Lauder program is even more exclusive. Every year thousands of applicants submit their applications in hopes of joining the ranks of Wharton MBAs with a unique life-long access to cutting edge business thought and education, an exceptional and powerful alumni network, very handsomely paid jobs (for the rest of their lives), and a good chance at extreme wealth and power anywhere they go. A Wharton MBA changes one’s life for the better. It has changed my life for the better, and I know my life and career will remain on a steep upward trajectory for very many years.

There is a lot to gain, stakes are high, and people from all over the world spare no effort or expense to get into Wharton.  They take the GMAT over and over until they enter the much coveted 700 points club, they hire very expensive consultants to hold their hand and “improve their profiles”, sacrifice vacation time to visit campus, schmooze with current students, try to befriend the professors, and write hundreds and hundreds of emails to the adcom with questions about the wonderful school life at Wharton.  They also spend days and days in front of the computer on the wonderfully informative GMAT Club forum (I am a regular contributor) and a competing resource on BusinessWeek.com (not a fan at all) in hopes of getting that tiny bit of information, if only a hint, a slight glimpse into the future and what awaits.

However most applicants fail to gain acceptance, and the failure tastes very bitter. There is a number of reasons why this happens, and one of them is bad luck, but everything else being equal, it is the quality of application itself and a lack of the overall application strategy that prevent the email-spewing “profile improvers” from getting in the door.

Below is my attempt at painting a picture of an applicant who will never get in:

Five main traits of an applicant who will never get admitted to Wharton

1. Cluelessness

My experience with dozens of applicants shows that the absolute majority of these people are clueless kittens.  Often people approach me after they have submitted an application to Wharton, and after a few minutes of conversation it becomes clear they have absolutely no clue about the application process or the components of the application itself. Most importantly, they lack any substantial understanding of themselves, and so their applications most certainly revealed that.  Without this understanding they cannot really tell the world who they are and why they are unique in any detail.

Despite the fact that absolutely every book on the topic of MBA admissions out there stresses the importance of self-reflection before you sit down and start writing, few people do it in a systematic way. Most applicants assume they have all the information about themselves stored in their heads anyway, and all that examination of self is for someone else to do.

A very thorough examination of one’s weaknesses, strengths, dreams, aspirations, sins and merits is an absolute must if you want in at Wharton.

2. Low scale

Many candidates are afraid to think big or pursue mega goals. Mega scale scares the living soul out of them, and so they settle on tiny tactical goals, which they pronounce “realistic” and therefore “believable” and “comfortable” when they explain why they need the education. Quite often applicants conceal their true goals and claim other “more interesting” goals in their blind quest for the non-existing magic recipe to get in (many people mistakenly think that candidates with certain goals have a better chance than others). This is exactly the opposite of “change the world” type of aspirations—true and sincere aspirations—one would meet among the Wharton MBAs.

Dream big, aim high if you want in.

3. Fear

The miniscule scale breeds a lot of fear.  I must admit fear is what paralyses most applicants at some point, and I—too—fell prey to that feeling when I was an applicant myself, but I overcame that emotion because I clearly understood its crippling effects. However most applicants just do not get rid of the chills. Looking at the above paragraph, I must say that it is a chicken and egg problem as fear is probably what makes them aspire for the “realistic” and the “comfortable” in the first place.

They are afraid that there is no cure for their lowish GPA in undergrad, that their community contributions were tiny (so they urgently start teaching math to unsuspecting inner-city kids or helping the equally unsuspecting homeless guys hold their bowls at the soup kitchen). They repeatedly ask themselves questions about “the true cost of MBA” and map put “opportunity costs”, i.e. they are afraid to make changes in their “comfortable” and predictable lives, take drastic and powerful turns to change themselves and the world along the way, and continue with the penny counting. These people are scared that their unpaid speeding and parking tickets from five years ago will be a major obstacle, and they also think that deviating from a one-page format of the CV will be a major roadblock on the way in.

A Wharton MBA applicant just like any good businessman or a warrior has to be fearless to succeed.

And by the way, one must actually truly care about community contributions, it comes naturally, and cannot be faked.

4. Lack of strategy

Most applicants that I have had the pleasure of communicating with did not even bother constructing the big picture. At best they just looked at the application process as a recovering alcoholic looks at his life, i.e. “one day at a time”.  In most cases, they discover what exactly the application form contains the moment they decide to populate it with information. Needless to say most of these guys and gals end up on the curb. You can spot these characters early on: they usually post questions on GMAT Club that sound similar to “Do you know what we should write in Section A?” or “My GPA was 3.456, is it OK to round it up to 3.5?” This type of comments just reveals that the candidate has not followed an organized, disciplined approach to the application.

What one really needs is a very detailed strategy, an aggressive and multidimensional plan, and a clear understanding what kind of tools the school gives you to deliver the message you want the school to hear. Of course, this rides on the premise that you do not have Cluelessness (see #1 above) or Fear (see #3).

The better the strategy the higher the chances at acceptance at Wharton.

5. Poor execution

Most people mistakenly think that the application is limited to writing, photocopying undergrad transcripts and performing other types paper shuffling.  Some go as far as writing a blog about how the stapling and the trips to the FedEx office, and some even manage to damage their submitted applications beyond repair by blogging about how the paper shuffling was done in their particular case (yeah, I am looking at you, Chris). This is just one example of poor execution.

I am convinced that visiting the school has a huge impact on the quality of the application. Now, there is visiting and there’s visiting.  Remember, most candidates who visit the school have no plan and are Clueless (see #4 and #1 respectively above) and so they just show up in Huntsman Hall, bounce around from wall to wall, sometimes they sit on classes and generally have the facade of what “should be done”. Of course, they take a tour of campus in a group of equally unprepared applicants, and leave thinking that the “Campus visit” check box is now filled and they have gained advantage over everyone else. Wrong.

Poor execution permeates every step an unsuccessful applicant makes: from misspellings on essays (one female applicant in 2011 wrote about her experience in conSLuting” for example) to using smiley faces as punctuation :)   These people spend hours thinking about the color and brand of the suit to wear for the interview instead of actually preparing for the high-stakes conversation itself, and so on.

Good strategy has to be executed to perfection if you are seeking admissions at Wharton. The color and brand of your suit add absolutely nothing to your success.

So if anything above, my dear reader, describes you in some way, your chances of getting in at Wharton are zero. No need to fret about the seeming unfairness of the admissions process if you have been denied this year. It should help if you can regroup and start from the beginning, i.e. get rid of the Cluelessness, Low Scale, Fear, Lack of Strategy and Poor Execution, and the world might smile at you with its happy Wharton MBA smile.