Invited round one applicants to Wharton are facing a new and novel admissions test: a team-based discussion
The early results of Wharton’s new team-based discussion format are now trickling back from mostly jittery round-one applicants who have sat through ordeal.
The early verdict on the Survivor-like test, which Wharton rolled out during the first week of the month? Based on interviews with admission consultants whose clients have already endured the unusual hurdle as well as a few invited applicants, the reaction is mostly positive.
But many report that their fellow applicants have been unnaturally, even painfully, polite during the 45-minute discussion and they’re leaving campus uncertain about their performance or their prospects for admission.
‘People are on high alert for politeness’
“People aren’t coming out feeling horribly negative,” says one consultant who preferred not to be quoted by name. “But they are saying that people are on high alert for politeness. Everyone is trying to be polite and respectful so it may not approximate reality.”
In the past, most applicants had a fairly good idea if they aced or bombed the interview. That’s less true with the new format, according to several participants. “People are a little bit bewildered,” says Angela Guido, a senior consultant with mbaMission. “Applicants had gone into the interview and had come out with a fairly strong sense of how well they did. This interaction is so different that people are not really sure.”
Wharton decided to add the novel test this year after a small pilot of the experience for about 30 round three candidates in the Class of 2014. The school expects to invite 40% to 45% of its applicants to the discussion followed by an admissions interview, though actual numbers will depend on the strength of the applicant pool in each round (See Wharton email invite to round one applicants).
Although one stated reason for the change was for Wharton to get applicants in “an unscripted environment,” MBA admissions consultants have quickly announced products to help applicants prep for the new test. The MBA Exchange, for example, has a half dozen simulated, video practice sessions for clients, while mbaMission created an online simulation for clients with two evaluators to critique communication, collaboration and demonstrated leadership skills.
The two prompts are not all that challenging
In advance of the campus visits for both the discussion and a shorter one-on-one interview, invited applicants were given two “prompts” and asked to spend about an hour prepping a response to both issues. They are:
- The Wharton School is committed to supporting our stakeholders as they acquire and refine the knowledge and skills they need to be successful professionally. As potential Wharton students, what is one key business skill that you think post-business school professionals must have in order to be successful, long-term, in their career?
- The Wharton School’s mission is to enhance economic and social good around the world by turning knowledge into action and impact. What is the most important societal challenge that could be addressed more effectively by the business community today?
Typically, four to six applicants are put together in a room and given one of the two prompts. “The evaluators basically sit back and do nothing in the session,” says one applicant. “So we’re not getting any feedback during or after the session.”
The shorter one-on-one interviews vary in content
Once it is over, applicants are given a 15-minute, one-on-one interview with an admissions staffer or second-year MBA who was in the room during the interaction. The “blind interviews” are being conducted without the applicant’s file and in some cases without even a resume, according to several candidates who have gone through them.
Applicants report that these quickie Q&As vary from a structured 15-minutes during which they are asked three behavioral questions, to a more casual and informal session. In the latter, applicants have been asked, “So what do you want to talk about?” “In that case,” adds one, “I had to generate the entire 15-minute session.” During some of the interviews, applicants are initially asked for their own assessment of the team-based discussion.
Given how new and different the exercise has been, the feedback has not been as negative as many expected. “The good news is that the ‘group grope’ turns out to be civil and even mildly interesting according to most candidates I’ve spoken to,” says Sanford Kreisberg of hbsguru.com. “The word is out that this is not talk radio or a Fox panel–hogging the mic, undercutting other speakers. Zingers are all verboten. The discussions are respectful, sometimes painfully so, and, amazingly, if you can have an out-of-body experience, interesting a bit.”
‘Some participants are overdoing it’
Dan Bauer, managing director and founder of The MBA Exchange, echoes that point of view, though he has had clients report back that some applicants have attempted to dominate the discussion a bit more. “In general, our clients are enjoying this open-ended opportunity to demonstrate their business savvy and interpersonal skills in front of the adcom,” says Bauer. “A few have observed that some participants in their groups were ‘overdoing it’ by trying to dominate the conversation rather than interacting and collaborating as a team.”
Jokes Kreisberg: “The new format is a triple decker sandwich with two pieces of poisonous bread and tasty treat in the middle: to wit, a fear-making set of instructions seemingly written by Big Brother, an interesting actual experience once you get over that, and a surprise: a toxic outcome, as the bottom slice, since, as per Wharton post-interview historical stats, only one of those five or six frenemies in your pal cohort are getting in. So it becomes Survivor-like, although that reckoning is not part of the direct experience.”
Whether the new test helps Wharton bring in a slightly better group of applicants is anyone’s guess. But the experiment is clearly innovative and different. “I think Wharton truly does have a commitment to innovation and they are really trying to do something new here,” says Guido of mbaMission. “They are acknowledging it is an experiment. They aren’t entirely sure how useful the information they get is going to be. But they are willing to be creative. To some extent, they are also trying to give applicants a taste of what it is like to be in business school.”
Discussion will also help weed out candidates who have a problem speaking English
At a very minimum, the new discussion will help Wharton filter MBA candidates with poor English-speaking skills. “Wharton can weed out those candidates with challenged spoken English which I had heard may have been a problem for Wharton in some cases given alumni interviewing with negative or overly dominant personalities, with static viewpoints, and with shaky public thinking,” explains Alex Leventhal, an admissions consultant at PrepMBA.com and a Harvard MBA.
“For me, one of the greatest skills I learned at HBS was thinking out loud in front of talented classmates,” adds Leventhal. “I am naturally introverted, but business people don’t always have the luxury to work the world out in their heads before they advance the argument. I was forced to do public math and analysis and it forced me to grow as a speaker. Wharton is smart to augment the one-on-one interviewing with this type of group conversation, and the most challenging part is that the group is asked to move towards a consensus on the issue. I suspect ‘there will be blood’ in some of the groups.”
Some consultants believe Wharton’s new test is a way to get past the brouhaha over both the leaking of the school’s behavioral interview questions two years ago and the uneven implementation of those questions by interviewers. “I think that Wharton has really struggled with it,” claims one admissions consultant. “They got terrible feedback. A lot of people were pissed off about the behavioral interview, especially if their interviewers weren’t well trained. So this is in part a reaction to what didn’t go well last time. They hope this will lead to a better experience from applicants. Having run similar exercises, I always thought it was challenging to decide who should be in and who should be out. I have serious doubts that this is going to work for Wharton long term.”
Prompts expected to change for round two candidates
During a recent online chat by a Wharton admissions officer, the school official said “we are looking for how you interact with a group of your peers to work on a real life business scenario. However, we are not looking for any one specific answer to the prompts—it is more about how you engage with your group and solve the problem together—just as you will do in our classrooms.”
The two early prompts will stay in place for at least all the round one applicants invited to interview, according to the Wharton official, but the topics will likely change for round two. Final decisions on round one are expected to be released on Dec. 20th.
If you’ve taken Wharton’s new team-based discussion test, tell us what the experience was like and whether you think it will give the school an advantage over rivals in crafting the best class.