Behind Wharton’s record-breaking female enrollment

July 25, 2011, 4:42 PM UTC

) — Even though the email popped into her inbox at work more than six years ago, Ankur Kumar remembers the exact date she got the message with the heading, “Your Status Has Been Updated.”

It was March 24, 2005. With no small amount of anxiety, she clicked on the email from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and found out that the school had admitted her to its prestigious MBA program. She stayed as composed as she could at her desk at consulting firm Marakon Associates, then quietly rushed into the women’s room where she did a little victory dance.

“I remember having to literally compose myself before I checked because if it was not going to be good news, I didn’t want to have an emotional moment in front of the entire office,” Kumar says.

Now on the other side of that process as deputy director of admissions at Wharton, she can do a victory dance of another sort — for admitting an unprecedented number of women in Wharton’s incoming MBA class this fall.

For years, the percentage of women enrolled in top-ranked business schools stubbornly remained in the lower-30% range. Kumar had helped Wharton assume a lead over all top schools two years ago by putting together an incoming class that was composed of 40% women. But this year, she outdid all expectations in pushing the number of first-year women to 45% of the class.

Kumar says she was in her office, finalizing the composition of the class of 2013, when she realized Wharton had hit the new record. “We all did a double take when we saw it,” she says. “We couldn’t believe our eyes. It was a fantastic moment for us.”

How did Wharton do it? Kumar, who was named deputy director in May 2010, says the school has been laying the groundwork for the past three to four years. We caught up with her on a recent trip to New York City where she was attending alumni and admission events.

Did you have an explicit goal to enroll a record number of women at Wharton?

This wasn’t an overnight occurrence. We didn’t wake up one day last year and say we we’re going to get here. There wasn’t a target per se.

We did a couple of things in terms of events. Two years ago, we started having women visit days on campus, so there are four days every fall where women can sign up and come and spend a day with us where they really get to learn more about Wharton and speak to other Wharton women to hear their perspectives and experiences. That has been a great success and part of the reason we got here.

We also have been partnering with a lot of organizations, internally and externally — the Forte Foundation, the women’s undergraduate associations at Penn, the Seven Sisters schools, and with undergraduate women at Harvard, Sloan, and Wellesley.

Our women students and our alumnae have been telling their stories. I think their visibility, their achievements, and their personalities have resonated with women. And that has translated into women being an increasingly larger part of our application population.

How active were Wharton alumnae in the effort to boost female enrollment?

They are the featured stars of the show when we do our presentations around the globe. We use them to tell their own stories and to talk with applicants one-on-one and share their experiences in the program. It’s a great way for applicants to learn about the program firsthand. They don’t want to hear me. They want to hear directly from those who sound more like them.

And the Wharton Women in Business club has been amazing. They’ve done a wonderful job of helping women applicants better understand the program. Quite frankly, there are a lot of myths out there about business school for women in particular.

What kind of myths?

There are two things. There is certainly a myth about the competitiveness and the cutthroat nature of business school. I think there is also an opportunity to build more awareness around what business means. You can leverage an MBA degree in industries like retail or in organizations in the social sector which historically didn’t have the degree as part of the value proposition.

I don’t know if you follow Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg as closely as I do, but she has been in the public eye lately between her commencement address at Barnard, her TED talk, and the recent article about her in The New Yorker.

She actually said something that resonated with me in her Barnard graduation speech. She pointed out that in 1981 the gender mix at undergraduate institutions first reached 50/50. That was 30 years ago. But somehow, in the workplace and in business school, something got lost. It’s not the same even split

She made the point that women tend to be planners. They are thinking about the next step, about balancing their professional and personal lives, and thinking about how to incorporate a family and other priorities. Often, women opt out. Women will start to think about the options they may want in the future and, as a result, they take their foot off the gas pedal in their careers.

She said women should commit themselves and go for it until that moment when you are faced with that personal/professional choice. Then, you can make the choice.

To get to 45%, did you have to make any sacrifices in quality?

We actually saw even higher quality than we had in the past. Because of all this awareness and buzz, we saw women making up a larger portion of our applicant base than they had historically. And more women were choosing to come to us than they were before, so yield was higher than it has been in the past.

Last year, applications to Wharton were down 9%, and this year, they were down a further 5.7%. What gives?

I think there were probably two main reasons. First, the macroeconomic issues in the world are causing some people to stay in the workplace. After living through a period of uncertainly in the past couple of years, some may want to hold fast to their jobs and not take the risk. Other people in emerging markets have really robust professional careers and they see more opportunity in the jobs they already have.

Secondly, there is the growth of competitors in other markets, mainly in Europe and Asia. We are lucky to have a deep and talented application pool to draw upon every year. So we don’t sacrifice anything in terms of quality.

Yet, even though Wharton’s applications were down, you ended up enrolling a slighter larger class than previous years. So this year’s entering class is 845, up from 817 last year. What did that do to your overall acceptance rate?

It’s not the largest class we’ve ever had. It is slightly higher than last year but, for us, it is a reflection of the growing talent in the application population and us wanting to bring as many of the best and brightest from around the world into the program. That’s why we have a slightly larger class than last year.

And the acceptance rate? Last year it was 16.8%. You’re probably much closer to 18% or 19% now.

I don’t even know that. I don’t have that figure in front of me. But I don’t think we’ve had tremendous differences in our acceptance rate.

This past admissions cycle, there was some controversy at Wharton over a leak of the questions you ask applications during the interview process. How did that affect the process?

It really was no problem. It’s not about knowing the answers. It’s the thought process and how you behave during the interview. Interviews are meant to be real-time conversations. We always like to see how they respond. And the interview is only one part of the process. Besides, many of these questions and how applicants answer them are posted on the different bulletin boards out there.

Doesn’t that surprise you?

It’s a little bit surprising. Because applicants say they are concerned about the process and then they go and share what they say with everyone else. I’m more surprised that they voluntarily share that information.

Any advice for aspiring Wharton MBAs?

The best way for an applicant to get our attention is to use the application. They should just tell their story and be genuine, direct, and clear. That’s the best way to go about it.

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