Wharton undergrads: Tough job market? What tough job market?

With graduation just a few weeks away, the latest crop of Wharton undergrads has been eagerly received by an otherwise so-so job market.

(Poets&Quants) — On a blustery April afternoon, dozens of undergraduates filed into a high-ceilinged auditorium in the University of Pennsylvania’s Huntsman Hall. They had gathered to see tiger mom Amy Chua and her husband talk about their new book as part of the Authors @ Wharton Speaker series. The room was packed.

A young, grinning professor went to the podium to introduce the program. This was the last speaker event of the spring, but he had good news.

“We’ve just lined up our first speaker for next year,” he said. “Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal.”

A collective “oh!” rose from the audience. Thiel is an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and hedge fund manager—he was the first outside investor in Facebook, and he launched a fellowship to pay students to drop out of college and create their own businesses. The crowd buzzed; students shifted in their seats. In the main building of the Wharton undergraduate business program, this is the sort of news that gets people very excited.

But Thiel will be hard-pressed to find drop-out candidates on this campus in Philadelphia. With graduation just a couple of weeks away on May 18, the latest crop of Wharton undergrads is being eagerly received by an otherwise so-so job market for most undergrads. A Who’s Who of America’s Corporate Elite have been waving some hefty job offers at the roughly 650 students in the class of 2014, making freshly minted Whartonites are among the most richly paid business undergraduates in the world.

More than 80% of the class is expected to receive average signing bonuses of nearly $10,000, on top of annual bonuses at over $26,000 each, more than what many MBAs get. And the base salary for these undergrads? While the numbers aren’t in, last year’s class averaged an enviable $67,986 — and this year the average is likely to be slightly higher.

Wharton is one of the most respected, and selective, undergraduate business programs in the country. The University of Pennsylvania has a 12% acceptance rate, and it doesn’t break the statistics down by school — though rumor has it that Wharton is harder to get into than Penn. It’s not difficult to understand why: Besides the obvious rewards after commencement, students at Wharton have the opportunity to take classes in any of the four undergraduate schools at the University of Pennsylvania, while also studying with leading professors of business and innovation in their own program.

Lynda Yang, a sophomore interested in business and journalism, knew she wanted to go to Wharton from halfway around the world. At her high school in Shenzhen, China, Yang founded a company that sold USB drives in the shape of bracelets. Each bracelet said “I <3 SZMS”; her target consumers were students, parents, and teachers at Shenzhen Middle School, or SZMS. She sold over 600 USB drives and ended up hiring 11 employees (all of whom were her friends, she says).

During her senior year of high school, Yang went on a multi-week U.S. college tour, where she and her family visited seventeen colleges, including Yale, University of Chicago, Wesleyan, and University of Pennsylvania. When she returned to Shenzhen, she knew she wanted to go to Wharton.

“Because of my strong business-related experience, I thought Wharton was the best place for me,” Yang said.

Wharton has an exceptionally pragmatic undergraduate program. Students work on actual problems from the business world through group projects.

Vivek Jois, a junior with a triple concentration in finance, statistics, and management, described an emblematic moment from his Wharton career: his first group project. In freshmen year, all Wharton students are required to take Management 100, a class that breaks students into teams of 10, and assigns them to a non-profit in the Philadelphia or New Jersey area. The students must plan and execute a community service project over the course of the semester, diving right into applied business curriculum from the very beginning. Jois believes group projects like this one are unique to a Wharton education.

“What MGMT100 ultimately teaches you is that when you put a diverse group of individuals together, you can really drive some impressive results, regardless of any one person’s personal business background,” Jois said in an email.

Lisa Xu, a senior from West Chester, Pa. who works as a Wharton peer advisor, says during her time at Wharton, she’s seen the effects of group work firsthand. In freshman year, she says, students were competitive and aggressive in groups — it wasn’t always easy to work together. By senior year, she says group members worked efficiently with each other. She ascribes this difference in behavior to Wharton’s emphasis on teamwork.

Group work can be intense at Wharton because students have a reputation for competitiveness. Souhail Salty, a senior from Menlo Park, Calif. who transferred to Wharton from the College of Arts and Sciences, says the reputation has merit. Many of Wharton’s classes have an imposed grading curve, he says. And Wharton students are more professionally focused (they are in a pre-professional program, after all) and tend to have their eye on the post-graduate jobs they’re working towards from the start, according to Salty.

About 54% of Wharton students in the class of 2013 went into finance and 21% went into consulting after graduation. About 50% of students in the class of 2013 moved to New York after graduation.

The dominance of finance and consulting can be both exciting and frustrating to students on campus. Lisa Xu says that she was surprised by the lack of diversity in terms of concentrations among Wharton students when she arrived on campus. She described meeting people freshmen year who dreamed of starting their own businesses; now they work at Goldman Sachs. If you’re not swimming in one direction or the other, the current will just pull you,” she says.

Salty says it can be easy to forget the hundreds of jobs Wharton students can hypothetically seek out. You can get a bit of a skewed perspective,” he says. “And you think, “If I don’t get one of those two types of jobs [in investment banking or consulting],” you think, there’s no other jobs out there.”

Regardless of what field students are entering, the job prospects for Wharton graduates are quite good. About 84% of students had secured a job by graduation. The average senior in the class of 2013 had 11.5 interviews and 2.2 job offers, according to Barbara Hewitt, senior associate director for career services at Penn. The numbers are slightly skewed because nearly 40% of students accepted offers after their junior year summer internships; those students frequently don’t interview at all during their senior year. Many other students received job offers from their summer employers but did not accept them, and those students tend to interview more selectively with employers than they might otherwise, Hewitt said.

Students at Wharton are a disciplined and devoted bunch, working to achieve in one of the most challenging undergraduate business programs in the country. And you can tell the future is often on their minds.

As we finished our interview, Yang turned to me and asked, “What are you planning to do with the next few years?” Then she laughed and said, “That’s such a Wharton question. We’re always asking each other — what are you planning for the summer? For after graduation?”

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