Wharton Officially Rolls out Team-Based Discussion as Part of MBA Admissions Process

After piloting the program this past year, Wharton has announced that it will officially roll out its team-based discussion as part of the Wharton MBA admissions process. The news came in an announcement on the Wharton MBA admissions blog.

We were pretty skeptical when Wharton announced last year that it would run a small test of the program with a “randomly selected” group of applicants. Just knowing how stressed that applicants get about anything that involved performing in front of admissions officers in real time, we expected the pilot not to go well. This was our take when the news broke last fall:

An interesting idea for sure, but having been to countless MBA fairs and school-led information sessions, and having seen how many applicants fall all over themselves to hog air time and ask impressive questions, we can’t help but expect to see this behavior times ten in a group discussion. Applicants, in a desperate attempt to get noticed and “shine” in their 60 minutes with admissions officers, will be all too eager to take charge of a discussion, show off leadership traits, issue profound statements, and so on. Today’s applicants simply put so much emphasis on any interactions with admissions officers that they’re always “on,” and don’t know how to turn themselves “off.” Add in the competitive, zero-sum dynamic of a group discussion happening in a (presumably) fixed amount of time, and watch their mouths start moving. It’s going to be about as “real” as most reality TV shows are today.

We still feel this way to a large extent, but our visit to IESE in Barcelona earlier this month (keep watching this space for more on our tour of European schools soon!) helped us learn a lot about their Assessment Day, which is similar to what Wharton’s new program. IESE’s admissions team was clear in its love for IESE’s assessment and its commitment to continuing (and even expanding) it.

“But don’t applicants just fight for airtime?” we asked. “Yes,” they replied, “but not as much as you might think, and it’s easy to pick out those bad ones from the bunch.” (We’re paraphrasing here.) We also wondered about the risk of an otherwise terrific applicant who is maybe a bit introverted (schools do want to attract more applicants from outside the traditional feeder industries, after all) not getting enough airtime. “We will deliberately call on people and pull them into the discussion,” was their answer.

Okay, sounds good, but isn’t it still a zero-sum game? If you pull 30-40 applicants into a room and they all know that some of them will get admitted and some won’t based on their performance, can’t that still cloud things? The best learning for us here was that, while certainly not all applicants who visit Assessment Day are admitted, the vast majority are. (We don’t have exact numbers here.) So, it’s less a matter of dropping all of the applicants into the ring and seeing who’s left standing, and more a matter of using Assessment day as another read on applicants to make sure they’re not admitting anyone who over-sold themselves in their applications or simply isn’t a good fit with the school.

Coming back to Wharton, we still wonder how well this will work. but, if Wharton approaches it as less of a “Half of you will be admitted and half of your will need to take a hike” admissions hurdle and more of a “We like all of you and want to give you a better taste of life and learning at Wharton” opportunity, it may work. No matter how well the new program works, as leaders in the MBA admissions consulting space we consider it our job to know the process inside and out. In the coming months we will share more about our thoughts on how to excel in this type of evaluation format!

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