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July 24, 2009

Wharton Fall 2010 Admission: Application Essay Questions

In this post, I will analyze the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania's Fall 2010 (Class of 2012) MBA essay application questions for first-time applicants.

Wharton: A real commitment to admitting diverse candidates
For Fall 2010, five of my comprehensive service clients were admitted to Wharton. You can find their results and testimonials as well as those from my other clients here. While not all five will be attending Wharton, they are a diverse group in terms of nationality, education, professional background, and goals. Their admission reflects what I really like about Wharton: Wharton uses a very holistic admissions process, does not discriminate against older applicants (unlike Stanford and HBS), and admits a very diverse group of applicants.

Changes at Wharton
ADMISSIONS DIRECTOR: Wharton has a new Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, J.J. Cutler. You can find a post I previously wrote about him here. For Fall 2009 admissions, he was conducting second round interviews. I would not be surprised to see him conduct more this year.

The Impact of the financial crisis
I will not comment at length on this issue as I want to get my facts right before doing so. That said, there can be no doubt that the financial crisis is having an ongoing impact on Wharton's graduates, students, and curriculum. I hope to provide greater insight into this issue in future posts. See my previous post on trends for Fall 2010 admissions.

The Essays
Wharton's essays have changed significantly.
You can find the full list of questions on Wharton's website, but here they are with the introduction that accompanies them:
Below are the essay questions for the Wharton MBA Class of 2012. We post the essay questions now to allow you to plan your application preparation this year. The full application, which will include questions for recommenders and other application requirements, will be available on our website in August. As you begin to think about your responses to these essay questions, remember that the Admissions Committee is interested in getting to know you on both a professional and personal level. We encourage you to be introspective, candid, and succinct. Most importantly, we suggest that you be yourself.
Essay 1 – (750-1000 words)
As a leader in global business, Wharton is committed to sustaining “a truly global presence through its engagement in the world.” What goals are you committed to and why? How do you envision the Wharton MBA contributing to the attainment of those goals?

Essay 2 – (750-1000 words)
Tell us about a time when you had to adapt by accepting/understanding the perspective of people different from yourself.

Essay 3 – (500 words)
Describe a failure that you have experienced. What role did you play, and what did you learn about yourself?

Essay 4 – (500 words) Choose one of the following:
a. Give us a specific example of a time when you solved a complex problem.
b. Tell us about something significant that you have done to improve yourself, in either your professional and/or personal endeavors.
Essay 5 (Optional) – (250 words)
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, inconsistent or questionable academic performance, significant weaknesses in your application).

Before analyzing each of these questions, I wanted to make a few general comments.

Learn About Wharton
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.

Starting with Wharton Essays?
I have usually told my clients to start with Wharton, Tuck, and/or Kellogg because all three schools ask questions that are typical MBA essay questions and generally useful content that, with varying degrees of modification, can be applied to other schools. While I mighty suggest starting with one of these three, just because you start writing essays for one school, don't assume you will not further modify it after writing essays for another. Since there is no point in submitting applications much before the deadline, make sure you are sending the best possible essays you can. My clients frequently find after "finishing" the Wharton essays that they decide to change one or more essays after working on one or more other applications. This is all part of an effective essay writing process, so take advantage of finding better answers as you write the essays for more schools. If your essay writing process is effective, there is a learning curve that you want to take full advantage of.

BIG WORD COUNT: Two essays at up to 1000 words each and two more at 500 each is quite nice. Much more than Columbia, Stanford, or HBS. Plenty of space to develop an refine your ideas before going on other more word count-limited essay sets.


1. As a leader in global business, Wharton is committed to sustaining “a truly global presence through its engagement in the world.” What goals are you committed to and why? How do you envision the Wharton MBA contributing to the attainment of those goals? (750-1000 words)

This question has been significantly revised from last year. Some will initially think that this question is somehow different from the standard "What are your goals? Why our MBA Program?" question, but actually there is really not much of a difference as long as your goals clearly show your intention to be engaged in the world. While this may sound big, it merely amounts to showing how you intend to have a career that will have significant impact. If you are writing essays for Stanford and/or HBS, this should be a rather natural thing to do. Essentially Wharton has copied the more abstract and awe-inspiring language of HBS ("career vision") and Stanford ("career aspirations"), so now your Wharton goals need to be discussed within the language of "commitment." Contrast the new version of this question with the old one that Wharton had been using for years- 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?- and you will see that they have tried to go from very straightforward language to something that sounds more visionary. Give them what they want. At the same time, you have up to 1000 words, so please make certain that you show exactly why you are committed to your goals.

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 a GMAC report on MBA ROI. )

(To best view the following table, click on it.)

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.

And whatever you do, mention something beyond finance at Wharton. This is especially true if you are coming from and intend to return to the financial industry.


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 in past years many applicants will have been able to successfully apply with relatively standard goals ("I want to be a consultant because..."), the question Wharton asks really requires you to make your goals interesting.

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 has 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. 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.

Given that you really need to make an argument which shows that you are committed to your goals and why Wharton will support those goals, here are some ways to think about structuring your answer:

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

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.

The question actually says nothing about career progress, yet many applicants will want to explain their commitment to their goals in relationship to their past experience. If you are discussing your past experience, make sure that you are analyzing and not merely summarizing your resume. Therefore interpret your career or other important parts of your past experience to connect it to your goals and why you want to go to Wharton. For those who little continuity between their past experience and future goals, use at least a few examples of your past experience emphasizing the transferable skills that you can apply to your future career.  For those whose experiences link directly with their goals, it  is certainly important to point that out, but just make sure your answer is focused on the future and not the past.

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 and help admissions believe in your commitment to your goals.

Essay 2 – (750-1000 words)
Tell us about a time when you had to adapt by accepting/understanding the perspective of people different from yourself.
Continuing with the "global business" and "global presence" theme found in Essay 1, here you will be asked to show you effectively adapt to diversity of perspective. This situation need not be professional. It need not be international. The key consideration is that it clearly be an important time because this really is the core accomplishment essay in the Wharton set. Considering that this Essay can be up to 1000 words, it better be something you have quite a bit to say something about it. This is a very open-ended question that admissions can use to understand how you relate to other people. When thinking about this essay, I suggest you focus on a positive situation where you...
(1) learned how to adapt to people with a different perspective; AND/OR
(2) demonstrated an understanding of group dynamics;
(5) demonstrated cultural sensitivity;
(6) demonstrated self-awareness;
(7) demonstrated the ability to integrate yourself into a new situation and have impact;
(8) demonstrated knowledge about the people with a different perspective.

My suggestions are inherently abstract because of the many possible ways of positively writing this essay.

Here is one possible way to structure this essay:
1. Explain the context: State the time, place, and basic situation
2. Explain what differences were between you and the other people.
3. Explain the steps you took to adapt in order to accept/understand the perspective of the other people. In the process of explaining each step, highlight a quality or skill you utilized in order to succeed.
4. Explain the result of your adaptation. What impact did it have on you, other people, and otherwise?
5. Discuss what you learned as a result.

Essay 3 – (500 words)
Describe a failure that you have experienced. What role did you play, and what did you learn about yourself?

For a number of years, Wharton has asked MBA applicants to analyze a failure  that they learned from. While the wording has changed over the years, the Fall 2010 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? Here is a standard definition of failure:

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.

The key constraint of this question is that whatever the failure 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.

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 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 or mistake is also very important.
The basic components of an answer:
1. Clearly state what the failure 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 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!

Essay 4 – (500 words) Choose one of the following:
a. Give us a specific example of a time when you solved a complex problem.
b. Tell us about something significant that you have done to improve yourself, in either your professional and/or personal endeavors.
These are both very interesting options that are clearly intended to be accomplishment focused. The first is an opportunity to highlight your problem problem solving capabilities (intelligence, initiative, intuition, professional expertise, and/or leadership). The second is an opportunity to show how you have grown personally and professionally.

a. Give us a specific example of a time when you solved a complex problem.
This is clearly a action focused question, but that does not mean that you can simply describe how you solved a problem. My suggestion is that you think about this in terms of action steps you took to solve the problem.

Identify the most significant things you did to solve the problem, these are you action steps.

For each action step identify:
  • What skills or qualities you demonstrated to complete this step.
  • The strengths you demonstrated to complete this step.
Clearly state the result of your actions. If appropriate, provide an analysis of what this solution meant to you.
It is also important that each action step reveal something distinct about you: The way you think, the way you interact with others to solve problems, your communication skills, or other abilities or qualities. This essay will become very boring if you simply focus on the details and not your underlying capabilities.

By all means avoid making this merely an essay focused on action. You really should provide admissions with a deep understanding of the way you conceptualize and solve problems. Think of this as an opportunity to analyze how you solved a problem, not merely as a description.

b. Tell us about something significant that you have done to improve yourself, in either your professional and/or personal endeavors.

This is a very open question. Any applicant should be able to answer it. It is especially useful to answer this question if you think that your other essays don't provide enough insight into you on a personal level. What is particularly important is that you don't merely describe what you did, but interpret its significance.

What do you consider to be a significant example of your self improvement and why? Think both about the short and long-term impact of this professional or personal endeavor on you. This is a great essay for discussing hobbies or interests that have been of great personal significance. This essay is a great way for applicants to help admissions understand your passions, your personality, your self-awareness, and your ability to grow professionally or personally.

Finally, keep in mind that you must convince admissions that what you are presenting is significant. Don't merely discuss something non-professional here because you think you need balance or must discuss a non-professional topic in the Wharton essay set. That is not the case. Tell them the best story you have about something important you did that helped you grow.

Essay 5 (Optional) – (250 words)
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, inconsistent or questionable academic performance, significant weaknesses in your application).

Wharton admissions specifically encourages 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 3000 words or more to talk about all the good stuff. Finally don't use this space to write about a new essay topic that was clearly taken from another school.

My analysis of Wharton interviews can be found here.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to. If you are looking for a highly experienced admissions consultant who is passionate about helping his clients succeed, please feel free to contact me at adammarkus@gmail.com to arrange an initial consultation. To learn more about my services, see here. Initial consultations are conducted by Skype or telephone. For clients in Tokyo, a free face-to-face consultation is possible after an initial Skype or telephone consultation. I only work with a limited number of clients per year and believe that an initial consultation is the best way to determine whether there is a good fit. Whether you use my service or another, I suggest making certain that the fit feels right to you.

-Adam Markus
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