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August 11, 2012

Wharton MBA Essay Questions for Class of 2015

In this post, I analyze the essay questions for Wharton for Fall 2013 admission. You can find testimonials from my clients admitted to Wharton in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 here.  Wharton has again changed both its essays and has a new approach to interviews.  For my most recent post on Wharton interviews, please see Preparing for Wharton Interviews for the Class of 2015.

Wharton is a relatively essay set to start with. Given all the changes that have taken place this year with top school's essay sets, Wharton looks like a relatively good school to start with.  This year, most of my clients are starting with Columbia, Wharton, or Stanford.  The required question for Wharton on your professional objectives/Why Wharton is a very standard question and so is Essay topic 3.  Essay topics 1 and 2 are rather Wharton specific, but not completely without potential recyclability. 
In the preface to the Class of 2015 Essay Questions, 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. Personal content can be expressed in academic, personal, extracurricular, and even professional contexts. Personal means giving insight into who you are as person and not just what you know or what you can do.  Professional means providing Wharton with a clear understanding about your capabilities in a professional context, about your ability to overcome challenges and/or accomplish something.
2.  Be analytical, not merely descriptive. It is very important that you engage in a sufficient amount of interpretation of your actions and not merely a description of what you do. Your objective is help guide your reader's interpretation of what you write, so that they perceive you in the way that you intend.
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!  I advise all my clients to stay within the word count these days.  A few years ago, 10% over was no big deal, but given the general focus on shorter essay sets, I see no point to giving Wharton more than they want. 

Required Question: How will Wharton MBA help you achieve your professional objectives? (400 words)

If you are having difficulty determining what your goals are and/or why you need an MBA in general, please see my analysis of Stanford Essay 2. In that post I provide a detailed method for thinking about goals and need for an MBA. Here is how I suggest you think about Wharton's specific essay question:

What do you imagine your professional future will look like?  You need to give Wharton admissions a very clear image of your future.  I suggest including a clear post-MBA career goal and a longer term vision/goal.  A purely abstract dream or visionary statement could easily come across as unrealistic or ungrounded if not handled carefully, so be relatively specific about the short-term. Career changers (those planning on  changing industry and/or function after MBA) should explain why they want to change their careers and how Wharton will enable that. Career enhancers should explain how an MBA will enhance their careers to continue along the pathway that thy are already on. 

Keep discussion of your past experience to a minimum unless it directly explains why you need an MBA or what your goals are.  The question does not call for a summary of your professional experience, so you need not provide one. You should surely refer to your past experience in order to explain what you want to do in the future, just keep in mind that this is not the place to describe your past experience, but only to analyze it. Let your resume and application provide those details because you don't have the word count  for them here. 

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 to what motivates your professional objectives.

While you should be explaining why you need an MBA in general, you need to make sure that your reasons for wanting an MBA align well with Wharton. You should also learn about the curriculum, clusters / cohorts/ learning teams, Learning @ Wharton, community involvement, clubs, and WGA in order to determine what aspects of Wharton really relate to your professional objectives. You need not mention the names of particular courses as long as it would be clear to your reader that your learning needs align well with Wharton's offerings. For example, it is really a waste of word count to mention the names of particular finance courses if the main point you are simply trying to make is that you want to enhance your finance skills. Every admissions officer at Wharton is well aware of the programs major offerings.  If you have a particular interest in a more specialized course or studying with a particular professor, it might be worth mentioning it as long as it is an explanation of why you want to study the subject and not based on circular reasoning. 
An example of circular (tautological) reasoning:  "I want to take Advanced Corporate Finance because I am interested in developing advanced corporate finance skills." 
This kind of bad circular reasoning is so common in early drafts I see from my clients and in the failed essays of reapplicants that I am asked to review. Usually it takes place within a paragraph consisting of many such sentences. These sentences actually convey nothing about the applicant. The admissions reader wants to learn about you, not about their own program. If you don't explain what you need and why, you are not actually answering the question, you are just writing something dull, surface level, and without positive impact.
An example of an actual explanation:  "While I have been exposed to finance through my work at MegaBank, I presently lack the kind of comprehensive understanding of corporate finance that I want to master at Wharton to succeed as a future leader of cross-border M&A."
By focusing on very specific learning needs and explaining those needs in relationship to one's goals and/or past experience, admissions will be learning about you and really be able to understand what you need from Wharton. Mentioning a course name is not important if the learning need is already something obviously obtainable at Wharton.
A more complete explanation would include additional details about the kind of issues that the applicant is interested in learning about and/or specific ways the applicant intended to apply what he or she would learn at Wharton.

While your core reasons for wanting to attend Wharton should be made clear in this essay, if you write on the first of the three topics below, you will have a further extended opportunity to explain why Wharton is right for you. It is also possible to elaborate on why Wharton with the other two options below, but it is certainly less direct. I don't necessarily think writing on the first topic is inherently better. If you are very clear about your professional objectives and connect them well to Wharton, the required essay is all you need. 

Write on 2 out of 3 essay questions, 500 words each.

Wharton is again giving applicants options as to which specific questions to answer. I don't think it can be said that one of the questions below is generally preferable to another.  This will just vary by applicant. However, Essay Option 3 is the only relatively generic topic amongst the three questions and one that you will likely use for other schools. It is also perfect for professional stories.  Given Essay Option 3 advantages, my guess is that most applicants will write on it as well as either Option 1 or Option 2. 

ESSAY OPTION 1: Select a Wharton MBA course, co-curricular opportunity or extra-curricular engagement that you are interested in. Tell us why you chose this activity and how it connects to your interests. (500 words)

This question is Wharton specific. That is to say, there really is no way you could have easily written this one for another school. It provides an excellent opportunity for actually demonstrating both why you want to attend Wharton and also what you can contribute.
Steps for Answering this Question:
1. Identify a Wharton course, co-curricular opportunity or extra-curricular engagement ("WCCE"). If this WCCE does not relate directly to goals, it had better relate to revealing something else important about you. For instance, your favorite team sport that is played at Wharton, your religion that is part of a Wharton student club,  your sexual orientation,or a hobby.  
2. It is critical that you discuss your own experience and/or values in detail. The last thing you want to do is just tell Wharton about its own WCCE. Assume they know what it is. What they don't know is why you are interested in this particular WCCE that you are discussing. As  mentioned in my discussion of the why Wharton/professional objectives essay above, you need provide full explanations. In fact, the balance of this essay be a discussion of why you are interested in a particular WCCE in terms of its relationship to your interests, not on the WCCE itself. 
3. Brainstorming your answer: In the following chart, I have suggested how to brainstorm and organize this essay.  First identify a WCCE, next identify 2-4 aspects of this WCCE that appeal to you, next explain why you this particular WCCE, next explain exactly how each aspect of the WCCE connects to your interests, and finally be very clear that you can identify what Wharton is learning about you. 

Essay Option 1: How to brainstorm your answer

Wharton MBA course, co-curricular opportunity or extra-curricular engagement

(Pick one such course, opportunity or engagement and then below break it down into 2-4 aspects)
Why did choose it?
You can provide a total answer to this or answer it through explaining different aspects of the activity.
How does it connect to your interests?
Your interests can be academic, professional, and/or personal.
What will Wharton Admissions learn about you?
Through discussing your interests, Wharton should be learning about your values, strengths, goals, and/or what you can contribute to the Wharton community.
Specific aspect of activity :

Specific aspect of activity:

Specific aspect of activity:

Specific aspect of activity:

(You can copy and paste this table in a Microsoft or Google document file. It works!)

ESSAY OPTION 2. Imagine your work obligations for the afternoon were cancelled and you found yourself "work free" for three hours, what would you do? (500 words)
This is what I would call a "Gift Question." Gift questions are always about making best use of the resource that is being given. Best use should directly connect to your personal or professional motivations, core values, life experiences, interests, and/or strengths.   Some gift questions are really generous and rise to the level of fantasy-"If you could travel to any time and place, where would you go and why?"- but Wharton's gift is decidedly realistic and actually pretty cheap. I would not treat this question as a test of your imagination per se, but rather a test of your realism at making best use of very limited free time.  
Three hours in the afternoon: This question is both time specific and time limited.  Unless you usually work on the weekends, you have three hours off on a workday afternoon.   This clearly limits the kind of activity you can engage in. This makes the question extremely realistic, but also means that it excludes activities that involve other people who would be working and excludes activities that would take more than three hours (No, you don't have time to take an out of town vacation, but you can sure go get a workout at the gym near your office!).  
Work Free: Don't write about work.  Somebody will, but clearly the point is not that you will do more work, but that you will do something other than work.
Doing what you always do anyway: If you use this essay to discuss what you already have time for, you are not actually use the gift for anything special.  My suggestion is that even if you discuss an activity you regularly, make specific and special use of this time.
Doing what you wish you had time for: Given the highly realistic nature of the gift, most answers are likely to fall into this category.
The reasons are just as important as the actions: Keep in mind that just discussing what you would is not enough because it is the meaning of what you would do that Wharton admissions really needs to understand.  The significance of how you would spend the time in terms of what it says about you is at as important as what specific activity you engage in.

ESSAY OPTION 3. "Knowledge for Action draws upon the great qualities that have always been evident at Wharton: rigorous research, dynamic thinking, and thoughtful leadership." - Thomas S. Robertson, Dean, The Wharton School
Tell us about a time when you put knowledge into action. (500 words)
Don't get turned off by the quote that begins this question. Actually just ignore the quote since you don't need to refer to it in your essay. This is the most generic of the three essay topics and easily reusable for HBS 1 and Stanford 3 amongst others. The question is in fact asked in standard behavioral question style. See my analysis of Stanford Essay 3 for a discussion of behavioral questions in general. The methods I outline in that post fully apply here. 
Regarding this specific question, I think the first thing to consider is just how absolutely open-ended the topic is. Almost anything one does involves the use of knowledge. However, clearly the admissions committee has something more specific in mind:  A situation where you effectively used your knowledge to implement something. To what extent you you do the actual implementation yourself is less important than your ability to go from taking your knowledge to making into reality. If you do actually handle all the implementation then to the extent possible, explain what you did.You should be writing about a situation with a clear positive outcome where you added value. While the story need not be on a professional topic, it should be on a topic where the outcome is clear and that best showcases your ability to effectively implement based on an idea, a specific insight, or overall expertise.

ADDITIONAL QUESTION FOR REAPPLICANTS: All reapplicants to Wharton are required to complete the Optional Essay. Please use this space to explain how you have reflected on the previous decision on your application and to discuss any updates to your candidacy (e.g., changes in your professional life, additional coursework, extracurricular/volunteer engagements). You may also use this section to address any extenuating circumstances. (250 words)

An effective answer here will do the following:
1. Showcase what has changed since your last application that now makes you a better candidate.
2. Refine your goals. I think it is reasonable that they may have altered since your last application, but if the change is extreme, you had better explain why.
3. Make a better case for why Wharton is right for you.
For more about reapplication, please see "A guide to my resources for reapplicants." 

OPTIONAL SECTION FOR ALL APPLICANTS: 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, or questionable academic performance, significant weaknesses in your application). (250 words)

As with other school's optional questions, do not put an obvious essay for another school here. 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. If you have no explanation for something negative, don't bother writing about it. For example if your GPA is 2.9 and you have no good explanation for why it is 2.9, don't bother writing something that looks like a lame excuse. This is more likely to hurt than help you. In the same vein, don't waste the committee's time telling them that your GMAT is a much better indicator than your GPA (the opposite is also true). They have heard it before and they will look at both scores and can draw their own conclusions without you stating the obvious. That said, if you have a good explanation for a bad GPA, you should most certainly write about it.

In addition to GMAT/GRE, TOEFL, and GPA problems, other possible topics include issues related to recommendations, serious gaps in your resume, concerns related to a near total lack of extracurricular activities, and  major issues in your personal/professional life that you really think the admissions office needs to know about.You can certainly write on something positive here if you think its omission will be negative for you, but before you do, ask yourself these questions:
1. If they did not ask it, do they really need to know it?
2. Will the topic I want to discuss significantly improve my overall essay set?
3. Is the topic one that would not be covered from looking at other parts of my application?
4. Is the essay likely to be read as being a specific answer for Wharton and not an obvious essay for another school?
If you can answer "Yes!" to all four questions, it might be a good topic to write about. 

-Adam Markus

I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.
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