What’s Right With Wharton, and Wrong With How We Measure Admissions Success

Wharton admissions

It was the Wharton School‘s turn to make headlines last week, and not in a good way. The Wall Street Journal ran a piece looking at the decline in the school’s MBA applications over the past four years and asking, “What’s Wrong With Wharton?” The announcement five days later that the director of MBA admissions, Ankur Kumar, was resigning her position effective Oct. 4 triggered a flurry of theories linking her departure to the drop in applications. It has even been suggested that the Journal article was in some ways responsible for her resignation.

Such speculation is unfair to Kumar, who is handling the media frenzy with dignity. The timing of her decision, made well before the Journal article was published, is entirely personal, she says, and unrelated to applicant numbers.

There are only a handful of positions in the business school world that could provoke such keen interest, and director of MBA admissions at Wharton is one of them. The role of gatekeeper at one of the world’s leading business schools means that your every word will be dissected for hidden meaning among thousands of MBA hopefuls. You are also implementing an admissions strategy that affects a generation of MBA students while navigating the minefield of institutional politics and the demands of faculty and alumni.

By focusing on the fall in applications, and the idea that Wharton has “lost its luster,” it is easy to forget the real goal of B-school admissions, which is to put together a talented and diverse class that fits with the culture of the school. On that score, Kumar’s team has done a good job in recent years, as evidenced by the school’s improving yield. This key statistic shows that more applicants who receive an offer to join the Wharton MBA program are saying yes, which typically means that they are a good fit and prize a Wharton education over any other.

The quality of admitted students is also on the rise, if measured by the average 725 GMAT score of the incoming class. This is a record for the school and 7 points higher than the year before, placing Wharton second only to Stanford Graduate School of Business.

The school can also claim the highest percentage of women in a top MBA program, with an unprecedented five years in a row when women made up at least 40 percent of the class. This figure was unthinkable just a decade ago and is testament to the school’s considerable efforts to mobilize resources and make this happen. But Wharton hasn’t stopped there, building an MBA class with a broad definition of diversity that takes into account academic and industry background, nationality and ethnicity, military service, LGBT status, even communication and leadership styles.

For the all-important job market, post-MBA career data suggest that Kumar’s admissions team was putting together the sort of class that recruiters want to hire. Wharton graduates this year had one of the best placement records in the school’s history, with 97.8 percent receiving job offers within three months of graduation and median base salaries rising to $125,000, up from $120,000 the year before.

In a post-Lehman Brothers world, Wharton’s historic ties with the financial industry have proven to be a liability in the Bloomberg Businessweek and Financial Times rankings. But the school remains a powerhouse of finance and has many more strengths. The entrepreneurial community is one example, quintupling in the past six years, with a higher percentage of students starting a business at graduation than at Harvard Business School.

Of course, innovation and change are rarely painless. The introduction of a “team-based discussion” component to the MBA admissions process under Kumar’s watch points to a courage to consider innovations and help manage applicant expectations about what the program would be like. While it may have dissuaded a few non-native English speakers, it has been well received by participants, who welcomed the opportunity to showcase who they were and experience the interaction and values better that define the school’s culture.

Attracting applications for applications’ sake is a poor measure of luster. Anxious alumni should trust the school to keep an eye on what really matters in MBA admissions: quality.

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