Many highly qualified applicants appear to be getting squeezed out because they went to a state school, worked for a no-name company, or lacked the connections.

By John A. Byrne
August 8, 2011

( — Mark Goldberg had every reason to believe he would be among the

incoming MBA class this fall at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

Without taking a prep course or even buying a study book, he had pretty much aced the GMAT exam with a score of 770 out of 800 — 50 points higher than the 720 median score for this year’s entering class.

Goldberg earned a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University with a triple major in economics, international relations, and East Asian studies. He pulled down an impressive 3.6 grade point average — a tenth of a point above last year’s Wharton average.

And he racked up nearly three years of work experience in finance, the subject that has long brought Wharton world acclaim. Even better, he accumulated his financial acumen in the hottest economy in the world — China — at a boutique investment bank in Beijing.

But then came the unexpected rejection, in March. “At first,” he says, “I was surprised and disappointed, then I was shocked.”

Why would the school turn down such an obviously qualified candidate?

Wharton, of course, is one of the world’s most selective business schools. It accepts fewer than 17% of the more than 6,800 people who apply to its full-time MBA program. An application could get tossed in the rejection pile due to poorly written essays, less-than-enthusiastic recommendation letters, or a weak admissions interview.

Playing the name game

Wharton doesn’t publicly address why a specific individual is turned down, but a close examination of the backgrounds of this year’s incoming class suggests that Goldberg may have simply lacked the pedigree of his elite counterparts.

Business schools never publicly release the school and work backgrounds of its admitted students. But Poets&Quants obtained the information for Wharton’s class of 2013 through Facebook, where the incoming class maintains an active presence. (The incoming classes at Harvard Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business do not have active Facebook groups.) We analyzed the data for more than 600 members of this year’s 845-strong incoming class, verifying the undergraduate backgrounds of 613 students and the employers of 544 students.

What the data strongly suggests is that getting into Wharton is a name game where the doors are either not as open or just plain closed to alumni of less prestigious companies and schools. The upshot: many highly qualified applicants appear to be getting squeezed out because they went to a state school, worked for a no-name company, or lacked the connections to have someone important put in a good word for them.

Of course, it’s hard to tell from the data exactly why a particular candidate was accepted or rejected, but the numbers suggest that acceptance often goes to the person with elite credentials.

Admissions consultants say the results are not especially surprising. “The mythology of admissions is that everyone starts equal, and schools are open to all comers,” says Sanford Kreisberg, an MBA admissions consultant. But, Kreisberg adds, “you are not getting into Harvard Business School or Wharton from the local bakery or real estate office.”

This is not the bargain most applicants think they’re signing up for. At its worst, rampant credentialism could spell a return to a variant of the old boys club, where outsiders, regardless of merit, are often excluded.

While the system can undermine egalitarianism, it does boost the likelihood that Wharton’s graduating MBAs will have successful careers and earn far more money than others. It has been said that the dirty little secret of a highly ranked business school is that it only accepts those who have already been successful and then takes credit for their success after they leave with the degree.

Wharton argues that admission to its MBA program is fair and open to all based on merit. Ankur Kumar, deputy director of admissions at Wharton, says the incoming class comes from about 250 different undergraduate institutions. “Being a preeminent business school, it’s only natural that ourselves and our peers will have people in each of our classes from other preeminent institutions,” says Kumar. “But it certainly is not a prerequisite.”

Wharton also denies that candidates have a leg up if they come from an elite firm. “By no means is that a prerequisite,” insists Kumar. “So just as with undergraduate institutions, it’s no surprise we are going to have people come to us from top institutions.”

Kumar also takes issue with any conclusions drawn from a sample that represents about 73% of the incoming students, claiming that it may not be fully representative of the incoming class.

Which names are the right names?

Though Mark Goldberg went to prestigious Johns Hopkins, that institution apparently lacks the cachet of the many of Wharton’s major feeder schools. This year, for example, one in three of Wharton’s first-year MBAs hail from one of the eight Ivy League schools.

The largest single group of students in Wharton’s class of 2013 had their undergraduate diplomas stamped at the B-school’s parent university, UPenn, whose undergrads make up an estimated 7.3% of the class, with more than 60 of the 845 students enrolled. Next? Harvard (6.5%), Princeton (5.4%), and Yale (3.8%), all members of the Ivy League.

And the top 25 feeder schools make up two-thirds of the entire class. That leaves a very small window for everyone else.

Goldberg would have been at even a greater disadvantage if he went to a public university. Of the 613 MBA candidates in the sample whose undergraduate degrees could be verified by Poets&Quants, there’s not a single student from Arizona State, Ohio State, Michigan State, or Penn State — four of the country’s largest public universities.

“That’s odd and a little bit disturbing,” says Steven C. Currall dean of the school of management at UC-Davis. “It raises questions … because diversity doesn’t only mean gender and race. It also means experience, background and geography.”

A similar pattern can be seen in the work backgrounds of the incoming Wharton class. The top six feeder companies this year are McKinsey & Co., Boston Consulting Group, Bain, Goldman Sachs GS , J.P. Morgan jpm , and Morgan Stanley ms . Nearly one in five students (19.2%) worked for one of those half dozen tony firms.

Not surprisingly, McKinsey & Co. is sending the single largest contingent to the Wharton School. As much as 5.5% of the entire class of 845 admits come from the prestigious management consulting firm.

McKinsey is not merely a feeder to Wharton, it is also the school’s top recruiter, having scooped up 44 MBAs — roughly the same number of McKinseyites (46) estimated to be in this year’s incoming class. Of course, some of those McKinsey alums came from the pool of high potential employees who are attending business school on the firm’s dime, with the caveat that they must return to the consultancy for a certain number of years or repay the cost of tuition.

None of this could have helped Goldberg who worked for what he calls a “no-name-local firm” in Beijing.

A vicious circle?

To some extent, the insularity is self-fulfilling.

“If an applicant is coming from a top-tier firm, that speaks pretty highly for their ability to handle the analytical rigor of the program,” says Kimberly Raynor-Smith, a former associate director of admissions at Wharton and currently an admissions consultant at The MBA Exchange. “All the top-tier firms only hire at the top undergraduate schools and then they help groom these same people to go to a Harvard or a Wharton. They have people who help their young people prepare their applications to these schools. So it all works in a cycle.”

Wharton did accept at least three Johns Hopkins graduates in this fall’s entering class, but each worked at breeding grounds for MBA applicants: Hopkins graduate Deepa Gandhi worked for both Lehman Brothers and Polo Ralph Lauren rl ; Lauren Allen worked for PA Consulting Group and the International Finance Corp., and Erik Philipp was a captain in the U.S. Air Force.

Alumni of public universities who gain acceptance invariably have work experience at well-known organizations. The four Wharton admits in the sample from Purdue University this year worked at McKinsey, General Electric ge , Booz & Co., and Caterpillar cat , respectively. The three admits from Rutgers University in the sample hail from Accenture, Barclays Bank BCS , and H.I.G. Capital, a private investment firm with a family of private equity and venture capital funds. H.I.G. itself has a cream-of-the-crop pedigree, having been founded by former partners at The Blackstone Group bx and Bain & Co.

For Goldberg, the rejection leaves him standing outside a firmly shut door. He has since returned to the U.S. and hopes to try again next year. This time, Goldberg says he just might hire an MBA admissions consultant to help him spin his story. “I didn’t do it last time because I had some ethical qualms about it,” he says. “But maybe that will help next time.”

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