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September 10, 2010

Wharton MBA Essay Questions for Fall 2011 Admission

In this post, I analyze the essay questions for Wharton for Fall 2011 admission.  You can find my post on Wharton Lauder Essays here.  My analysis of Wharton interviews can be found here. I updated my analysis of Essay Option 1 on 12/25.

As a matter of disclosure, I should indicate that I am a sponsor of the Wharton Japan Club. I don't think this unduly biases my perspective. You find testimonials from my clients admitted to Wharton in 2009 and 2010 here.

I must apologize for the delay in putting out my Wharton analysis. I have been working on it and playing with it in mind for a few months. In that time, I also worked on the essay set with one client, which was very useful in helping me think through these questions.  I especially wanted to mention my gratitude to my longtime colleague and friend, Vince Ricci, for discussing the Wharton questions with me.  We were joined by another experienced consultant who wishes to remain anonymous.  Vince videotaped our discussion of Wharton. You can find an edited version of that conversation below:

You might find it helpful to watch the video first before descending into what follows.  The video really is a good summary of some of key points that I will elaborate on below.

I think Wharton's radically changed essay set reflects the fact that Wharton is de-leveraging itself from an over-reliance on placing its graduates into jobs on Wall Street.    As the financial crisis has shown, in such a market Wharton, more than Stanford or HBS (The only schools it really wants to compare itself with), found itself in a weak position. Also adding to the headache for Wharton, has been the rise of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business as real competitor to Wharton’s standing.   "Everyone" always assumed that the Chicago MBA was not as well balanced as PENN’s.  Of course, the job placement numbers and overall ranking at Chicago in recent years suggest that maybe this is not the case.  It did not hurt Chicago to have an admissions director who radically diversified who Chicago accepts and was also really, really good at marketing her program.  Of course, it also hurt Wharton that the person in question, Rose Martinelli, had been head of admissions at Wharton.  After Rose left Wharton, nothing really changed in the admissions office until they hired J.J. Cutler in 2009. For more about J.J. as well as my predication that he would shake things up in 2010, see here.  Now looking back on the staff changes, it seems J.J. was, indeed, brought in to clean house. J.J.  is a consumer marketing guy, not a finance guy.  His MBA is from Wharton.  For the first year of his tenure, he clearly studied what was going on and now he has acted: He blew up the old application that Wharton had been using with for years.  I have also noticed that some of the admissions team have changed.  You can find the admissions team here.  In sum, it is a new day at Wharton.  To add to this change, J.J. now oversees both admissions and career services.  BusinessWeek referred to this change as "a sharp reversal of traditional university administrator roles." The integration of admissions and career services under a single person is worth considering because what might mean is that the actual reality of the job market for Wharton grads is likely to be more directly communicated to admissions staff. Certainly it will be even more present in the thinking of J.J. It is therefore particularly important that one articulates goals in Essay 1 that are highly realistic.  

If you ask generic questions, you get generic answers.  Wharton’s essays had always been one of the easiest for my clients to handle.  In fact, my advice, both in this blog and to my clients,  had been to start with Wharton, Kellogg, or Tuck, but not anymore in regards to Wharton.  Unless you are only applying to Chicago and Wharton, I would never start with Wharton because (1) You will have more word count for your goals for almost any other top MBA program and (2) it is advantageous to have a portfolio of content prior to selecting which of the optional questions to write.  In fact,  this year, I eliminated paragraphs in both my HBS and Stanford analysis about them being bad schools to start with.  Given that MIT (no goals essay), Wharton (as will discuss here), and Chicago (4 pages to do whatever you want with, so better already have some content in place) are such bad schools to start with, I could not possibly tell anyone that the very well formed set of essay questions that Stanford asks is not good to start with.  Even with HBS, the questions themselves provide a significantly greater amount of overall direction and structure than you get with Wharton. 

In the preface to the Fall 2010 Essay Questions (They mean for entering in Fall 2011), the following is stated:
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 you be yourself.

This statement is really important because it provides some guidance as to what Wharton wants:

1.  Provide both personal and professional content.

2. Be personal and analytical, not merely descriptive.

3.  Make sure you are stating things as briefly and effectively as possible.  Don't waste your words.  Use them carefully. Keep your essays within the word count.  That is what "succinct" means! 


Required Question: What are your professional objectives? (300 words) 

You might think that 300 words is not enough to convey your professional objectives, but if you think that you don’t have to explain why you need an MBA in detail, it is not actually bad length.

If Columbia Essay 1 is an “Extended elevator pitch,” Wharton’s Required Question is an elevator pitch.  I suggest you read my analysis of CBS 1 now.  After you are finished, read the rest of this post.


1.     What do you imagine your professional future will look like?  You need to give Wharton admissions a very clear image of your future.  You may or may not include a chronological framework (Short, medium, and long term), but if you don’t, you better make sure that you are still presenting something that effectively combines both ambition and realism.  A purely abstract dream or visionary statement could easily come across as unrealistic or ungrounded if not handled carefully.  However you write this, have a strong first sentence that immediately answers the question.  For most applicants this probably means either stating your ultimate professional objective or a statement related to your professional vision.

2.     What motivates your professional objectives?  That is to say, why are these your objectives? While the question does not say “What are your professional objectives and why are they your objectives,” if you are going to be “introspective, candid” and “yourself,” as per Wharton’s overall instructions, you had better also explain “why.” Clearly a drawn-out explanation based on a detailed examination of your past experience cannot be conveyed here, so provide a clear analytical answer as why your goals are what they are.

3. SHOULD YOU MENTION WHARTON OR WHY YOU NEED AN MBA? Yes, if it helps to explain your professional objectives, but I would certainly keep such “Why MBA?” and “Why Wharton MBA?”  statements to mere logical argument and not focus on the details. Unless it is intuitively obvious why you need an MBA, it may very well make sense to briefly explain why in this essay.  For example, if you are already well on your way along a certain professional path and wish to stay on that path, it does make sense to explain why an MBA is necessary at this point in your career.  If you are changing careers, you might want to briefly mention that you view an MBA as necessary to make this change effectively. Of course a simple analytical explanation is all that I am talking about, not a full elaboration of all the possible benefits of an MBA in general or a Wharton MBA in particular.  Optional Essay 1 is the ideal place to discuss in detail why you need an MBA from Wharton.

Respond to 3 of the following 4 questions:

    Option 1: Student and alumni engagement has at times led to the creation of innovative classes. For example, through extraordinary efforts, a small group of current students partnered with faculty to create a timely course entitled, “Disaster Response: Haiti and Beyond,” empowering students to leverage the talented Wharton community to improve the lives of the Haiti earthquake victims. Similarly, Wharton students and alumni helped to create the “Innovation and the Indian Healthcare Industry” which took students to India where they studied the full range of healthcare issues in India. If you were able to create a Wharton course on any topic, what would it be? (700 words) 
    IF YOU HAVE ENOUGH TIME TO WORK ON THIS ESSAY, I suppose you could treat this one as optional, but frankly I think that would be particularly stupid.  Here is why:

    1. Unlike the other three optional questions, Wharton gives you up to 700 words for this one.  Why, I wonder?  For some reason, they think you will need more words for this one and consider it worth giving them to you.

    2.  This is the only question where you can easily discuss why you want to go to Wharton in detail.  I suppose you could try doing that with another one of these options, but if you did, it would not certainly not be focused on the actual question being asked.

    3.  This question is so unique that it is Wharton specific. That is to say, there really is no way you could have easily written this one for another school.   From my perspective, whenever a school asks such an optional question, it is always best to answer it if you really want to show your passion for the school.

    4.  I can't think of a better question for actually demonstrating both why you want to attend Wharton and also what you can contribute.


    What morons who answer this question will do: They will simply not focus on the actual question, but on the extended explanatory preface. In particular, they will look at the first sample course provided, Disaster Response: Haiti and Beyond,  and feel the obligation to address a pressing political, social and/or environmental issue even though their own goals as stated in Essay 1 have nothing to do with that. (Of course, if your goals relate to such issues, you should most certainly focus on them).   If they think deeply about the second example, Innovation and the Indian Healthcare Industry, perhaps they will avoid this error. This second course, while taking place in India, actually really is focused on a core area of Wharton's curriculum, healthcare management, as well as one of the country's covered by the Lauder program (Actually the newest track at Lauder is Hindi).

    The core question:  If you were able to create a Wharton course on any topic, what would it be? 

    The short answer to this question: A course on a topic that would really relate to your goals as discussed in Essay 1.

    The above sentence is my core strategic advice for this question.  What follows is just a discussion of mechanics.

    Steps for Answering this Question:

    1. Identify a topic that really relates to your goals.

    2. Identify resources at Wharton (faculty, research activities, clubs) that would support this course.  If no such resources exist, ask yourself whether this is really a course that Wharton would or should offer?  Consider that your proposed course represents a really core academic need that you have, if admissions readers at Wharton can't see the connection between your needs and their school, you lose. I would treat this as an opportunity to explain what you want from Wharton, so if Wharton really has nothing to support your proposed class, find another class.

    3.  Think about what research questions the course would address.  YOU DON'T NEED ANSWERS, BUT YOU DO NEED QUESTIONS.  In fact, if you have all the answers, you don't actually need to take the course.  Assume that the questions you wish to address are not only your questions, but ones that would appeal to other students.  If you ask your questions in such a narrow manner that they only relate to your goals,  there is good chance that the admissions reader will decide that you can't actually propose a viable course.  That would be a bad conclusion for the reader to come to.

    4.  Be willing to do some background reading so you sound like you know what you are talking about.  You need not be an expert, but you must have sufficient command of the basic facts to explain what the course would be, why it is worth offering, why it is interesting to you, why it would be interesting to other students, what resources at Wharton could be utilized for it, what core issues would be examined, and what the expected impact of the course might be on the participants.  Here are some possible sources of information:

    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 MBA), Chicago GSB Podcast, Net Impact, and Harvard Business IdeaCast. INSEAD, IMD, LBS, and, of course, Wharton also has podcasts.

    5. If appropriate, bring your own past experience into your discussion of the course.  This will show how you can contribute not only your perspective, but also your past experience to the course.  If you are selecting something where you don't think your past experience is particularly relavant, that is fine as long as the topic clearly aligns well with your goals, which it should do in any case.  

    Option 2: Reflect on a time when you turned down an opportunity. What was the thought process behind your decision? Would you make the same decision today? (600 words)


    TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And sorry I could not travel both
    And be one traveler, long I stood
    And looked down one as far as I could
    To where it bent in the undergrowth;        5
    Then took the other, as just as fair,
    And having perhaps the better claim,
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same,        10
    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.
    Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
    I doubted if I should ever come back.        15
    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.        20
    This must be the single most quoted poem in MBA essays. Don't use it.  Don't use any poems, unless you write it.  I have nothing against poetry. I like Robert Frost and even the sentiment expressed in this poem. You might be wondering why I am starting this, especially because the question is focused on an opportunity that you did take. The reason is very simple, if you did not take one opportunity, you had to have taken another. To connect to Frost, you either choose one road or your choose another.

    This is really a great question because it can be used in so many ways.
    Opportunities take many forms, so to help you focus your thinking about this one:

    1. Think about a situation were you really did have a viable opportunity and choose not to take it.  I stress the word "viable." If the opportunity you turned down was not really viable, it will make for an effective topic.

    2. Think about why choose not to take this opportunity. You must be able to explain your reasoning very clearly. I would say that a least a third of the essay should focus on explaining your reasoning at the time.

    3.  Think about whether you made the right decision.  The interesting thing about this question is that you may or may not have made the right decision.  This essay, can, in fact, be used to discuss a bad decision. If you do so, I don't suggest also writing on Essay Optional Three (Failure) as your overall set would perhaps not necessarily provide you with sufficient opportunity to focus on your accomplishments.  If you think you made the right decision, explain why.  If you think your decision was both right and wrong, be careful because you may find it difficult to provide an effective response in the space provided.

    This topic lends itself well to employment, academic, and personal opportunities (I can't suggest covering romantic opportunities that you turned down).  Your answer may very well have an ethical dimension to it.  Also, depending on the situation, it might very well focus on your leadership abilities.

    I think Wharton is asking this question so that they can really asses the way you think.  Help them understand that you posses the capability for both explaining your past thought process as well your present perspective.

    Option 3: Describe a failure that you have experienced. What role did you play, and what did you learn about yourself? How did this experience help to create your definition of failure? (600 words) 

    The only part of this entire essay that I could really utilize from my analysis of Wharton from prior years was part of the following. The last part of the question is the twist.

    EVERYTHING BUT THE TWIST: Describe a failure that you have experienced. What role did you play, and what did you learn about yourself? 

    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 about yourself 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 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 about yourself.

    THE TWIST: How did this experience help to create your definition of failure?

    I have intentionally separated out this part of the question because it actually stands apart.  It is a reflection on the prior part of the question. In essence, they are asking you to consider not only learned from this particular failure, but what you learned about failure in general. Now, why would they do that?

    I think the twist can actually looked at as product of our times. The financial crisis that began in 2008, the Lehman Shock, as it is sometimes known, really was a massive failure that we all, to a greater or lesser extent are living in the shadow of.  Such generational business traumas necessarily reflect themselves in the kind of questions that schools ask.  Consider that Enron and similar scandals involving MBAs lead to a rise in ethics questions both in MBA applications and interviews, not to mention in curriculum. We are living in a time of failure. Hence it is reasonable to ask you to reflect on your own definition of failure. 

    The twist can also be looked at as another way for Wharton to determine the depth of your thinking. It is easy to enough for almost anyone to explain what the learned from a failure, but it requires a further level of reflection to actually explain how that failure impacted your overall definition of failure. 

    BUT I DON'T HAVE A DEFINITION OF FAILURE!  Well there are two options:
    1. Don't write on this topic because you avoid it by selecting the other three.
    2.  Come up with definition of failure that aligns well with the failure story and learning that you will discuss in the first part of this essay

    Option 4: Discuss a time when you navigated a challenging experience in either a personal or professional relationship. (600 words)
    After the failure bummer question I just discussed, I think it is time for a musical interlude.

    Just as the title of this classic Jimi Hendrix song, Wharton is asking "Are you experienced?"  If you have never experienced navigating a challenging personal or professional relationship, you are not actually a human being. Which is it to say, that anyone can answer this question.  To be human is struggle in our relationships with other people.  The topics for this one are too numerous to mention, but here are a few likely themes: trust, empathy, courage, ethics, emotional maturity, stress management, teaching others, learning from others, negotiating, ending a relationship, establishing a relationship, repairing a relationship, working in a team, leading a team, interacting with a subordinate, interacting with a supervisor, and disagreeing with someone.  As with Essay Option 2, I can't recommend writing about a romantic personal challenge. If you select this topic, it is important that if you write Essay Option 3 (Failure), you don't make this challenging relationship a failure story.

    This question is  a behavioral question.  For a full discuss of such questions as well as some other examples of such questions, please see my analysis of MIT and Stanford Essay 3.

    This really essay is a great way of focusing on how you interact with other people.  It is perfect designed to highlight soft skills.  Keep the focus of the essay on the relationship itself.  How did you work through whatever personal or professional challenges you faced when dealing with a particular individual or group?  Effective answers will provide a sufficient explanation about who you were interacting with and explain exactly why you found this situation so challenging.

    Given the available word count, there really is sufficient space here to provide a very detailed analysis of the challenging interaction you experienced.   While not applicable to all stories, the leadership grid that discuss in my MIT and Stanford 3 analysis is highly to be applicable to this essay.  While you must explain the challenge you encountered, it is equally important that you explain how you worked through the experience.

    Finally, while it is not necessary to explain what you learned  from the experience, since the question does not ask that, make sure you are providing a strong interpretation and not just a description.

    In my next Wharton post, I will deal with the Lauder questions, after that, I will update (as necessary), my previous post on the Wharton application form.

    Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to. Before emailing me questions about your chances for admission or personal profile, please see "Why I don't analyze profiles without consulting with the applicant." If you are interested in my graduate admission consulting services, please click here.

    -Adam Markus
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