How to get into Wharton’s full-time MBA program

BY Sydney LakeMay 14, 2021, 3:00 AM
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With more than 100,000 living alumni, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania is one of the largest business schools in the world. Its size is no indication of its prestige, however, as Wharton is also one of the most competitive MBA programs to get into each year. Wharton, which Fortune ranks as having the No. 4 full-time MBA program in the U.S., reported an 18% acceptance rate.

“Within an application, Wharton wants to see evidence that a candidate is reflective, leading by example, is driven, growth-oriented, and values diversity and impact,” says Susie Gruda, a senior admissions consultant with the MBA Exchange, an MBA admissions consulting firm. Candidates show this through essays, letters of recommendation, and the team-based discussion (TBD), Wharton’s group-style interview.

As with the admissions processes for other top MBA programs, test scores, GPA, and work experience play a role in the admissions process at Wharton. But these elements are just pieces of a bigger puzzle. Above all else, Wharton strives for a symbiotic relationship with its MBA students.

“We’re just as interested in what you’re going to bring to the Wharton family as what you’re going to extract out of it,” says Blair Mannix, director of Wharton’s MBA admissions.

Through conversations with Wharton officials and other admissions experts, Fortune compiled a list of 5 things to know when applying to the top business school.

  1. It’s not just a numbers game
  2. Ask yourself how you will give back to Wharton
  3. Wharton really cares about recommendation letters
  4. Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect for the interview
  5. Pick the best round for you to apply

1. It’s not just a numbers game

During the application cycle for Wharton’s class of 2024, 6,319 people applied to the full-time MBA program, and 877 enrolled. The average student had five years of work experience, a 733 GMAT score, and a 3.6 undergraduate GPA. Just like at any other business school, though, students who enrolled had a broader range of test scores, GPAs, and amount of work experience.

Hitting that average will get Wharton to look at an application, “but that’s not nearly enough to get an acceptance,” says Gruda, who earned her MBA from Wharton. 

Nonetheless, quantitative test scores and grades are important to Wharton. “It’s a more score-focused school, but that’s not the only element,” says Scott Edinburgh, founder of Personal MBA Coach. Quantitative scores, which measure math and data reasoning, tend to be more important to Wharton than verbal scores, he adds.

Is there one application element that stands out? No, Mannix says.

“It’s all really important,” she notes. That said, an applicant’s transcript and résumé don’t need to be “blemish-free,” she adds, thanks to Wharton’s “read to admit” admissions approach, which evaluates candidates based on their best day, not their worst. For every application that Wharton receives, admissions officers are looking for reasons to admit students and not to deny them.

2. Ask yourself how you will give back to Wharton

Wharton wants to see both sides of this coin through the two essay questions it poses to applicants. The first question is, “How do you plan to use the Wharton MBA program to help you achieve your future professional goals?” The second asks, “Taking into consideration your background—personal, professional, and/or academic—how do you plan to make specific, meaningful contributions to the Wharton community?”

“It’s not a school that someone could get into by writing this very high-level, flowery, well-written, dramatic prose,” says Edinburgh, an admissions consultant who started his business while he was a Wharton MBA student. “That might work for another business school. Wharton really wants the specificity.”

Through these two prompts, Wharton admissions officials want to know “that there’s a path; where you are on the path; [and] how Wharton fits on that path,” Edinburgh adds. Applicants should address short- and long-term goals, what makes their candidacy unique from a professional, personal, and academic level, and show that they’ve done their research about Wharton, Gruda says.

“We don’t really expect students to know what every nook and cranny of the next 30 years of their lives will look like, but giving some sort of thought as to how the Wharton MBA can help you pivot your career post–business school is really helpful to us,” Mannix says. “Those are some of the strongest essays we see every year.”

3. Wharton really cares about recommendation letters

Wharton requires two letters from “recommenders that have directly experienced a candidate’s work product and interactions with others over the course of at least two years and can offer honest, specific, and fact-based anecdotes and observations,” Gruda says.

Two prompts also guide recommenders in their letter writing: “Please provide example(s) that illustrate why you believe this candidate will find success in the Wharton MBA classroom.” And, “Please provide example(s) that illustrate why you believe this candidate will find success throughout their career.”

“I think that candidates would be really surprised by the depth of care that we [give to] these letters—underlining word for word who they are within their community and who they could be within ours,” Mannix says. “We really pore over these letters.”

4. Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect for the interview

After transcripts, résumés, essays, and letters of recommendation are evaluated, candidates may be invited to participate in Wharton’s group interview, the team-based discussion (TBD).

Several weeks before the TBD, candidates receive a prompt, or problem to solve, for which they prepare a one-minute presentation. On the interview day, four to six applicants will be grouped together, and each person must present an answer to a prompt while a moderator observes the group dynamic. 

A one-minute presentation doesn’t sound too tricky, right? Think again. For the next 30 minutes, the group then discusses how they would collectively solve the problem, and one group member must present the group’s final solution. But why the TBD, then, as opposed to a traditional one-on-one interview?

Academic research shows that behavioral interviews, which challenge interviewees to respond to situational questions, can be biased, Mannix says.

“At Wharton, we’re really trying to open the talent aperture and make sure that we’re getting the most talented students around the world in the least biased and least noisy way possible,” she adds.

Removing the opportunity to make quick connections with your interviewer like common undergraduate schools, hometowns, or work experience, Wharton officials can evaluate candidates without bias. After the TBD, however, candidates do have about 15 minutes alone with the admissions official to reflect on the group element.

Plus, the interview experience mimics what it’s like to be a Wharton student. “If we believe in teaching in teams, and we believe that business is a team sport, that’s why we feel strongly about a team interview,” Mannix says.

It is, admittedly, difficult to prepare for the interview process at Wharton. Gruda suggests practicing your one-minute presentation and thinking through several group scenarios. 

“It’s not your individual answer that’s most important, it’s how are you contributing to others, and are you the type of person that people would really want to be engaging with,” Edinburgh adds.

5. Pick the best round for you to apply

Wharton admits students through three rounds of applications each year with deadlines in the fall, winter, and spring. 

If a candidate’s application is ready to go in the fall, then Mannix suggests submitting during round one. The application rates for rounds one and two are similar, but round three can get a bit more competitive with fewer student openings available. Round three can be a good time to apply for those who have extenuating circumstances such as deployment or who are aiming for a higher test score.

But most important, remember that read-to-admit philosophy. “When students put in their applications, I want them to know that the people who are reviewing their talent are looking for their best days and not their worst,” Mannix says.

Check out all of Fortune’rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.