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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

July 17, 2008

Wharton Fall 2009 Admission: Application Essay Questions

Note: In addition the post below, see here for my analysis of the Wharton online application form.

In this post, I will analyze the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania's Fall 2009 (Class of 2011) MBA essay application questions for first-time applicants. You can find the full list of questions on the Wharton
Admissions Blog.

Even if you can't attend a Wharton event or visit the school, you can learn a huge amount about it. First, I suggest you view their online presentation. You should also make use of the student2student (s2s) discussion board and the MBA Admissions Blog! as these are great resources for becoming informed about Wharton.

The nice thing about Wharton is that you can write up to 10% over for any of the questions:

Essay length? We often get asked about essay length, specifically whether it is OK to go over the number of words suggested. Recognize we do not count words (this would take longer than actually reading the essay), nor does our online system count words (and therefore does not truncate the essay at the specific limit etc.)

+/- 10% is going to be fine (and remain unnoticed). Any more than this and it may become an issue as writing succinctly is a skill that is useful in business and business school. You should also realize your readers are reading multiple essays from multiple applicants so writing long essays is not likely to be a positive.

The exceptions to the above may be if you have a more unusual background (by business school standards) and feel you have a little more to explain (about your less traditional goals, experience etc.) In this case you may need to explain the nature of your experiences in more detail, but this does not give you the license to write at will!

I don't think there is a case where it makes sense to write much less than the suggested word count as the essays are going to be an important component to your application and should be used as such.

Thus over 10% is fine. In exceptional cases, more than 10% is fine. Say everything you need to say, but use good judgment. That flexible standard on top of a large word count, as well as the fact that Wharton has always asked mostly standard essay questions, makes Wharton a good school to start with. If someone is planning to apply to Columbia, Wharton, Stanford, and HBS, I would most certainly start with Wharton not only because of its essay questions, but because it is the easiest one of these schools to be accepted to. That said, it is no easy school to accepted to.

1. Describe your career progress to date and your future short-term and long-term career goals. How do you expect an MBA from Wharton to help you achieve these goals, and why is now the best time for you to join our program? (1,000 words)

The question breaks down into the following five components:
-Describe your career progress to date.
-Describe your future short-term career goals.

-Describe your future long-term career goals.
-How do you expect a Wharton MBA to help you achieve these goals?
-Why is now the best time for you to join our program?

It is not necessary to answer these five questions in the order that they are being asked (and as you will see, I don't do that either), but a good answer to this question will include all five components. 1000-1100 words may seem like quite a bit when compared to most other schools that ask a similar question, but if you provide a complete answer to this question you will likely find yourself initially exceeding this word count.

Before writing this essay, I suggest going through a formal process of goals analysis because it will really help you determine the most important things you need to tell Wharton.
You can use my GAP, SWOT, AND ROI TABLE FOR FORMULATING GRADUATE DEGREE GOALS for this purpose (see below). I think Gap, SWOT, and ROI analysis are great ways for understanding what your goals are, why you want a degree, and how you will use it. (Click here for the Businessweek MBA ROI calculator. Click here for a GMAC report on MBA ROI. )

(To best view the following table, click on it. For a word version, please email me at adammarkus@gmail.com)

How to use this table:

Step 1.
Begin by analyzing your "Present Situation." What job(s) have you held? What was/is your functional role(s)? What was/are your responsibilities?

Next, analyze your present strengths and weaknesses for succeeding in your present career. REMEMBER: WHEN YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT YOUR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESS DON'T ONLY THINK ABOUT WORK, THINK ABOUT OTHER ASPECTS OF YOUR LIFE. In particular, some of your greatest strengths may have been demonstrated outside of work, so make sure you are accounting for them.
Strengths: What are you good at? Where do you add value? What are you praised for? What are you proud of?
Weakness: What are you bad at? What are you criticized for? What do you try to avoid due to your own limitations? What do you fear?

, analyze the environment you work in right now. What opportunities exist for your growth and success? What threats could limit your career growth?

Step 2.
Now, do the same thing in Step 1 for your "Post-Degree" future after you have earned your graduate degree. IF YOU CANNOT COMPLETE STEP 2, YOU HAVE NOT SUFFICIENTLY PLANNED FOR YOUR FUTURE and therefore you need to do more research and need to think more about it.

Step 3.
If you could complete step 2, than you should see the "Gap" between your present and your future. What skills, knowledge, and other resources do you need to close the gap between your present and future responsibilities, strengths, and opportunities?

Step 4. After completing Step 3, you now need to determine how an MBA will add value to you. It is possible that an increased salary as a result of job change will be sufficient "ROI" for the degree to justify itself, but you should show how a degree will allow you to reach your career goals. How will the degree enhance your skills and opportunities and help you overcome your weaknesses and external threats? If you can complete Step 4 than you should be ready to explain what your goals are, why you want a degree, and the relationship between your past and future career, as well as your strengths and weaknesses.

The above table will also help you answer such common interview questions as: Where do you want to work after you finish your degree? Why do you want an MBA (or other degree)? What are you strengths? What are your weaknesses? What are your goals? Thinking about these issues now will help you to develop a fully worked-out strategy for how you will best present yourself both in the application and in an interview.

One very strong point of Wharton is that it can be used for a great variety of purposes. With 19 majors, over 200 electives, and a faculty of 250 students at Wharton have truly rich options to choose from. The downside to this is that many applicants just see the options, but don't focus enough on what they need from Wharton. Going through a formal process like the one I have outlined above will help you determine what you really need from Wharton. The more specific you are about that, the better. In addition to what you want from Wharton, think about what you can contribute to it. Think about Wharton's learning teams and clubs.


You need to make admissions excited about your future. To do so, you should think about whether your goals are compelling. Admissions committees ask applicants to write about their goals after graduate school, but can applicants actually know what will be on the cutting-edge in two or three years? While many applicants will be able to successfully apply with relatively standard goals ("I want to be a consultant because..."), try to go beyond the typical answer to make your goals compelling.

Be informed. Wharton Admissions needs to believe you know what you are talking about. If you are changing careers, no one expects you to be an expert, but you should come across as having a clear plan based on real research into your future. If you are planning on staying in your present industry, you should be well informed not only about the companies you have worked for, but about the industry as a whole. If you are not already doing so, read industry related publications and network.

Those who are changing fields should most certainly read industry related publications in their intended field. Think about conducting informational interviews with at least one peer-level and one senior level person in that field. Conduct a peer-level interview to get a good idea of what it would be like to actually work in that industry. Conduct a senior-level interview to get the perspective of someone who can see the big picture and all the little details as well.

Don't know anyone in your intended field? Network! One great way to start is through LinkedIn. Another is by making use of your undergraduate alumni network and/or career center.

No matter whether you are changing fields or not, learn what is hot now and try to figure out what will be hot by the time you graduate. Now, of course, this is just a plan and chances are that what is hot in your industry or field now may very well be cold in the future. The point is to come across to Wharton as someone who is not only well informed, but who has CUTTING-EDGE knowledge related to their goals. Some great general sources for learning what is hot:

From the Business Schools: Feed your brain with cutting-edge ideas from the best business schools in the world. Start with Knowledge @ Wharton. Other great sources of information include Stanford Social Innovation Review, Harvard Working Knowledge, Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business School Publishing, University of Chicago GSB's Working Papers, The University of Chicago's Capital Ideas, and MIT Sloan Management Review.

You may also want to do a search on iTunes for podcasts: My favorites are Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders (from the Stanford School of Engineering, but totally relevant to the GSB), Chicago GSB Podcast, Net Impact, and Harvard Business IdeaCast. INSEAD, IMD, LBS, and, of course, Wharton also have podcasts.

LinkedIn Answers: I would suggest that everyone join LinkedIn and make use of LinkedIn Answers. LinkedIn Answers is a great way to tap into cutting edge expertise (including my admissions advice!) Follow LinkedIn's rules and you will often be able to obtain excellent information.

Hoovers: For information about specific companies, Hoovers is just a great way to learn about key facts including competitors (a very useful way of knowing who else you might want to work for and to learn about an industry). While primarily focused on the US, Hoovers does have listings for companies worldwide.

Vault: For scope of coverage, this site is a must. Vault includes both career and admissions information. It includes both company specific and industry-wide information.

Other sources: Read magazines, websites, and books that relate to your intended field.

Assuming you have determined what your goals are and why Wharton is the right place to pursue them, you need to really explain why now is the right to time to go to Wharton. From my perspective, you really want to answer "Why now?" before describing your career progress because what you need to tell Wharton about your past experience will directly relate to why you want to go there now.
After all, if now is the right time, what has led to it?

Here is a way to structure this part of the question:
Argument 1: RELATED TO YOUR CAREER DEVELOPMENT. Discuss your career up to this point. Explain why now is the time. Write about your present, your goals, and the gap between them.
Argument 2: RELATED TO YOUR PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT. Discuss the intellectual and/or experiential reasons for wanting to do an MBA. Write about your strengths & weaknesses, your intended future. and the gap between them.
Argument 3: RELATED TO THE WIDER WORLD. What opportunities and threats exist in your present and intended future that an MBA can support (opportunities) or mitigate(threats)?

If you use the "GSR Table" that I presented above, Argument 1 relates to a Gap Analysis and Argument 2 and 3 to a SWOT analysis.

I think describing one's career progress is something many applicants actually have a great deal of difficulty with. The primary reason is that they don't actually think strategically enough about what they say about themselves. Wharton is asking one question with five parts to it, but the parts really do need to work together for the essay to be effective. Therefore interpret your career to connect it to your goals, why you want to go to Wharton, and why now is the right time to do so. Your resume will provide Wharton with a description of your career, but in this essay help them understand what it means by interpreting your career for them.

When you initially write Essay 1, you might find that it does not seem to be coming together as a single essay. If that is the case, you might simply not be telling your story in the right way. The way you tell your story will depend on your situation. Applicants with extensive experience whose goals connect directly to their past experience will be telling a story based on continuity, while applicants looking to change careers will be telling a story based on discontinuity. A story based on continuity is often easiest to tell in a fairly linear way because the future is based directly on what happened in the past. By contrast, a story based on a discontinuity should be told to emphasize the need for the change In either case, it is critical to explain why you want an MBA from Wharton.

2. Describe a setback or a failure that you have experienced. What role did you play, and what did you learn about yourself? (500 words)

For a number of years, Wharton has asked MBA applicants to analyze a failure or setback that they learned from. While the wording has changed over the years, the Fall 2008 application is no exception.

It is critical that you learned something meaningful about yourself. And your learning about yourself has to have been be important, otherwise why tell admissions about it?
Therefore the key constraint of this question is that whatever the failure or setback is, you have learned something important from it. While not stated, you may very well find that one way of showing what you learned is to discuss how you applied your lesson to a new situation. What is the difference between a failure and a setback? I think the easiest thing to do is look at standard definitions of both words:

FAILURE: 1. The condition or fact of not achieving the desired end or ends: the failure of an experiment. 2. One that fails: a failure at one's career. 3. The condition or fact of being insufficient or falling short: a crop failure. 4. A cessation of proper functioning or performance: a power failure. 5. Nonperformance of what is requested or expected; omission: .failure to report a change of address. 6. The act or fact of failing to pass a course, test, or assignment. 7. A decline in strength or effectiveness.

An unanticipated or sudden check in progress; a change from better to worse.

All setbacks can in some sense be understood as failures in sense of the seventh definition of failure cited above, but actually the difference is one of nuance: a setback does not carry with it any sense of finality. A failure conveys that sense of finality. To use the experiment example above, "a setback in an experiment" means the experiment could still succeed, but if the experiment is a failure, there is no chance for success. The only option is a new experiment.

I think it is useful to compare the Wharton question with Harvard's Essay 2: What have you learned from a mistake? (400-word limit) First, let's look at the definition:

1. An error or fault resulting from defective judgment, deficient knowledge, or carelessness. 2. A misconception or misunderstanding.

A mistake is wider in scope than a failure because not all mistakes necessarily lead to failure though human failures are certainly the result of mistakes. A mistake may lead to either a failure or a setback. A mistake may actually lead to a positive unintended outcome.
Like with the Wharton question, HBS emphasizes learning. I would, in fact, argue that the heart of any sort of "failure question," whether it is an essay question or an interview is what you learned. Also depending on what your role was, how you reacted to the failure, setback, or mistake is also very important.
The basic components of an answer:
1. Clearly state what the failure or setback was.
2. Clearly state your role.
3. Explain how you reacted to the situation.
4. Explain what you learned.

Depending on how you write this essay, you may find that if you are applying to both HBS and Wharton, it is possible to use the same topic. Given that you have 500 words (or more) for Wharton, if you are applying to both schools, I would start with Wharton first and than cut it down for HBS. I wish you every success in your failure story!

3. Where in your background would we find evidence of your leadership capacity and/or potential? (500 words)

Given the importance that Wharton places on leadership, I think you should think about your leadership capacity and/or potential not only in relation to your future professional objectives, but to your ability to be a leader at Wharton. You don't necessarily have to focus on a single story, but most applicants will in order to provide a fully developed example.

I have developed the following grid to help you outline leadership stories. The categories this grid employs may go beyond any particular schools essay requirements. Filling it out completely will help you write about your leadership in a way that will help convince admissions of your leadership potential.
CLICK TO ENLARGE. EMAIL me at adammarkus@gmail.com if you want the original excel version.

How to use the grid:

1. Decide on a specific story.

2. Identify the most significant things you did in the situation, these are you action steps.
3. For each action step identify:
  • What skills or qualities you demonstrated to complete this step.
  • The strengths you demonstrated to complete this step.
  • The kind of leadership you demonstrated.
  • What you still need to learn about leadership.
4. Think about the results and identify how they relate to your action steps. So, at minimum, you should be able to state the impact on others and/or yourself.

5. After completing the chart you will see that some aspects of your action steps may be repeated. If there is a total duplication and nothing new is shown, either you need to redefine the action step or you may decide not to focus on it very much.

6. Once you think you have two to four fully worked-out action steps, start writing your essay.

7. Next start re-writing. Eliminate duplicate points made between action steps. Make choices about what parts of each action to step to highlight. Given that there are usually word limits, you will have to make some decisions about what to include. Simply providing a description of your actions, is not enough. Consider what it signifies about you. Consider what your actions reveals about your leadership potential.

Finally, thinking and writing about leadership is an important part of preparing for interviews because you can be certain that you will have to talk about leadership. So, you might find that the parts of the outline you jettison now will become valuable when you will want to have alternative stories for your Wharton interview.

4. Please respond to one (1) of the following questions:

a. Describe an experience you have had innovating or initiating, your lessons learned, the results and impact of your efforts. (500 words)

b. Is there anything about your background or experience that you feel you have not had the opportunity to share with the Admissions Committee in your application? If yes, please explain. (500 words)

Before analyzing these two questions, I would point out that if you answer option a., there is no other question that specifically requires you to discuss anything outside of work. I think that is fine as long as you have given admissions insight into your personality. It is quite possible that you will have done so through what you write about in essays 1,2 and/or 3. I see no great advantage to writing about your hobby, international travel experience, if you don't feel you have a good topic. I have worked with many applicants who really were not interested in discussing their college tennis club or anything of that nature and I am glad that Wharton is making it easier for such applicants to avoid writing on such a topic.

a. Describe an experience you have had innovating or initiating, your lessons learned, the results and impact of your efforts. (500 words)
This is a new question for Wharton. It is a very open-ended question. While some will write about a work-related topic here, I don't think that everyone must. The key thing is to show your ability to effectively innovate or initiate. I would not write about failure here as you should do that in Essay 2. Instead, focus on telling a particular kind of leadership story which emphasizes your ability to innovate or initiate. You can actually use the Leadership Essay Grid above for this question as well. Make sure that the leadership story, or stories, that you tell in essay 3 complement rather than repeat the same story you tell in essay 4. I think a good structure for this essay is actually suggested by the question:

1. Clearly state what you innovated or initiated.
2. What actions you took to innovate or initiate something
3. The result and impact of your actions
4. What you learned

b. Is there anything about your background or experience that you feel you have not had the opportunity to share with the Admissions Committee in your application? If yes, please explain. (500 words)
Here you can write about anything that you think the Admissions Committee should know about you. I suggest writing the other essays first and then determining what aspect or aspects of your background or experiences you most want to emphasize.

Some applicants will have a particular story in mind, but for many this could actually take the form of a contribution essay.

One way I like to think about contribution questions is to use a matrix such as the following:

CLICK ON THE ABOVE TO ENLARGE. For an excel version, please email me at adammarkus@gmail.com.
I use the above matrix for all types of contribution questions, modifying the categories to fit the question. When it comes to contribution questions, I think it is important to tell specific stories that highlight specific ways you will add value to your future classmates.

Sometimes people write about aspects of their background that don't have any really clear added value and these are rarely effective. Yes, you may love reading science fiction in your spare time, but why does Wharton need to know that about you?

When you think about what to select here, closely consider what you are writing in the other essays and use this space to help Wharton learn even more about you.

You might very well find that you have unique contributions based on your international experience. While writing about international experience can be effective, it will not be if it becomes little more than writing something like "I am Japanese (or American, French, etc) so I can contribute a Japanese perspective." That is not good enough because it merely means that any Japanese candidate and not necessarily you could make this contribution. In such circumstances, dig deeper and come up with something better.

Finally, keep in mind that whatever you write, it should reveal something positive about you that will help Wharton determine why you belong at their school. Consider the following from the Wharton blog:

In fact, we find that ~75-80% of all applicants are admissible based on academic and professional experience. All things being equal, it is the more qualitative measures that come to the forefront in the evaluation process. Key differentiators in many applications become personal qualities such as leadership, management, communication skills, initiative, contribution to community, and integrity.

Your essays are one of the major places where these key differentiators are made explicit. 4 b. gives you the ability to completely control what personal qualities you emphasize, so make certain that you are using this essay to help Wharton reach the right conclusions about you.

OPTIONAL: If you feel there are extenuating circumstances of which the Committee should be aware, please explain them here (e.g., unexplained gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, TOEFL waiver request, inconsistent or questionable academic performance, significant weaknesses in your application). (250 words, maximum)

At their presentation in Tokyo in 2007, Wharton admissions specifically encouraged applicants to use this space if they need to because it is better to tell them the reason then to make them guess. Don't write anything if you have no concerns. If you read the above, it should be clear enough that this is the place to explain anything negative or potentially negative in your background. Wharton gives you four questions and 2500 words or more to talk about all the good stuff.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to.
-Adam Markus
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