Interview with Wharton Director of MBA Admissions, Ankur Kumar

January 09, 2013 | by janleeks

In this interview, Ankur talks about Wharton’s new Team Based Discussion as part of the school’s MBA Admissions process, and offers admissions advice for applicants.

Ankur, you yourself are a Wharton MBA grad. Where were you when you received the call to say you had been admitted to Wharton?

I missed my call. I was at work and I’m sure my cell phone was buried somewhere in my bag but I had been refreshing the online system to see if there had been an update. I remember checking it and seeing the positive news. I had applied and it was not a well-publicized fact at my firm, so I couldn’t necessarily scream for joy at my desk. But I remember going to the bathroom and doing a little dance of joy. Having a moment of excitement and being able to celebrate in that way is always burned in my memory.

In admission terms, does it look like a good year for the Wharton MBA?

Absolutely. What we’ve seen from round one in terms of the quality and diversity of the application population – industries, geographic backgrounds, gender, interests, different types of communication, leadership interaction styles  – it has been a great first round. I’m feeling positive on the year so far.

Are you able to compare from year to year?

We try to use as objective measures as possible in what can be a subjective process. The crux of the admissions puzzle is that it can feel very fluffy and intangible to folks outside of this world. Because we look at our candidates in such a multi-dimensional way, you can never compare two individuals. After all, there is no way to take two people and line them up side by side and do a fair comparison. So it is more about looking at each of our candidates in an individual holistic way – their context and a broader context.

But we do have a feeling for what our applicants look like over time.  We see an evolution in different industries that are represented in greater numbers – new industries such as cleantech that didn’t exist before, or retail or social impact where historically there hasn’t been a strong value proposition for getting an MBA. We end up being a remarkable and accomplished group of applicants, and have the tough job of selecting the class from among them.

So is it always about quantity over quality in the applicant pool?

We are concerned with quality – our primary interest is ensuring that every year we have a continued wonderful quality of candidates from all those different backgrounds coming to us. That to us is the true measure that we focus on.

There are so many factors that come into play that affect application volume in any one year that you cannot control – macro factors, industry level factors, country level factors, individual applicant context, timing, personal ROI calculation…

My goal is to help build awareness around the Wharton MBA and to help our candidates to understand what the program is about, our values, our culture, what the opportunity means for them, and to help them determine if this is the right fit for them.

We’re not going to be the right fit for everybody. An MBA is a generalist degree that allows you to pursue so many different career paths and options.  It arms you with the knowledge, the network and the credibility to navigate the twists and turns of life, whether in a proactive or a reactive way. If they make that choice then we make the decision whether they are the right fit for us, but we are focused on awareness so that they can make the right choice for themselves.

With a record percentage of women now in the Wharton MBA classroom, what is the next goal?

We are thrilled by the fact that we have now had 40% or more women for the fourth year in a row. The 40% threshold is symbolic for us. It signifies and contributes to a larger discussion about women in business, and women in business school. Being a part of that conversation is what we are really most proud of.

Our work is by no means done, not for Wharton, not for business schools, and not for the business community. We have to continue to ensure that we can meet the needs of women in our program – we talk of mentorship and sponsorship, we engage our female alumni in this dialogue to help. So I think this is a first step, and a very symbolic one for the industry. We still have our work ahead of us.

And there are many other populations that are important for us. Our definition of diversity is very broad – it includes academic background, industry background, geographic exposure, gender, military, LGBT, students of color, communications and leaderships styles…

We seek to bring in this mix of diversity into our program. This is the heart of innovation, ultimately leading to new industries, new companies, and a better dialogue.

So we organize a series of campus days for women, students of color, LGBT, military, and also host industry panels to help applicants understand things like Real Estate at Wharton, or Health care at Wharton or energy at Wharton, or entrepreneurship at Wharton. There are lots of resources to help our applicants learn more about us.

What has the new Team Based Discussion brought to the Wharton admissions process?

Several important things. We took a step back and looked at our process holistically, and we partnered with our innovation group and looked at all the different pieces of our application process. Looking at academic backgrounds and achievements, exceptional professional trajectories and accomplishments, individual personal qualities such as judgement, self awareness, their thoughtfulness, their communication style, their leadership style, how they interact with others. These three areas collectively make up our evaluation process and are all considered equally important.

In thinking about how we could evolve our process, the TBD emerged for two primary reasons:

1)   We often heard from our applicants that they sometimes felt limited in their ability to showcase aspects of themselves in their written application. The TBD is the chance for them to show us, versus telling us in the written application or the one on one interview about themselves.

2)   We really want our applicants to understand us, and give them a chance to experience first hand what Wharton is all about, and what are the values that are core to us – things like intellectual curiosity, interpersonal engagement, flexing and developing their management and leadership and communication styles. So for us, because teamwork is such a hallmark of the Wharton experience (on average our students will be involved in 15 to 20 teams during their time here, whether in or outside the classroom), we also felt this was a great opportunity for our candidates to experience it first hand. Many of them may have worked in teams before coming to school, but they may be hierarchical with clear lines around reporting and accountability, so giving them a chance to work in a team with their peers where there isn’t necessarily a formal responsibility or accountability structure was a way for us to help them understand what their experience at Wharton was going to be like.

How does the Team Based Discussion help you to assess applicants?

Given the diversity that we seek, this is an opportunity for us to see first hand the diversity around how our applicants communicate, their different styles of leadership, how they engage with their classmates, how they will contribute to each other’s experience. We are able to get a lens into the diversity around those very important qualities, and see them in action versus having heard about them in the past with the written application or the one on one interview.

Our admissions process is very holistic, so there isn’t one thing that gets a candidate in or keeps them out. The TBD has added to our process – it is another component to see and understand our candidates. We go back and review applications in their entirety post TBD and 1 on 1 interview, just as before.

How is the Team Based Discussion organized?

Applicants have two forums in which they can interview with us, both of those happen in the same period of time. They are a required part of our process.

The vast majority of interviews happen on campus here in Philadelphia. We have a group of 2nd year students – admissions fellows – that we have selected and trained to conduct interviews. That has always been a part of our process at Wharton. We are a very student-driven program and having a student perspective on our application is important to us.

The admissions team does travel to other US and international cities, and we conduct interviews in that form as well.

Does the Team Based Discussion give you a genuine sense of the candidates, or is everyone on their best behavior?

We absolutely get to see our candidates in their true form. The admissions team has had a similar experience wherever the TBDs were held. Candidates really embraced this new addition to our process, and we received overwhelming positive feedback from our round one candidates about both the TBD and also their overall interview experience.

A number of candidates said ‘please don’t get rid of this!’ We have no intention to remove the TBD.

It really does give them a chance to get a good sense of who we are at Wharton, and how we operate – they walk away saying that they really understand the team based dynamic of our approach, inside and outside the classroom. They also really enjoy the chance to meet each other as fellow applicants, which put a lot of them at ease – meeting motivated, accomplished, like-minded movers and shakers.

We see a lot of connections that are made, we see a lot of business cards being traded and contact info being exchanged – there is a lot of camaraderie and collaboration.

They do the Team Based Discussion first, then have the one on one interview afterwards. All around the world we see teammates wait for one another, and are supportive of one another, with high fives as they are finishing, going for drinks or dinner afterwards.

It is surprising to hear about the level of support – aren’t they all competing with one another for a place?

The Team Based Discussion is not set up to be a gladiator style experience! We make it very clear to applicants that they are not competing against one another in that setting.

We could be taking everybody or perhaps no one from a TBD. It comes back to our applicants and their true understanding of who we are and how we operate and what we want to bring to the program, which is a collaborative and supportive nature and community.

This is why we launched it, we wanted them to understand and to see and experience what we are all about – I think it has resonated, it has stuck, it has translated.

What sort of behavior do you observe during the discussions?

No two teams are alike, and it is interesting to see how teams approach the same questions, coming up with different answers and a different process to arrive at their conclusions. We are able to see the impact that each individual has on a particular team, how they navigate the discussion, and how they operate. We see people pushing back on ideas, those looking to learn more about what their colleagues are saying.

I think some of the best groups are digging and pushing each other, and that’s exactly what happens in our classroom and why they are coming to learn – to push their thinking and push the thinking of their classmates. We saw that in spades throughout the TBD.

How do you prepare the selected applicants for the Team Based Discussion?

After our candidates are invited to interview we send them two prompt questions that we want them to think about in advance, with the opportunity to put some thought into it. That said, it is not supposed to be a heavy investment of research or thought process.

We are eager to hear what our candidates ideas are in response to the questions that we pose, but we are far more eager to understand their thought processes, to see how they interact as a team to come to a consensus or a conclusion, and how they navigate that discussion.

We learn a lot of interesting things from their ideas, but it isn’t about a right answer at the end of the day, but about the process and how they navigate that together as a team.

Has the experience and earned its place in the process?

The Team Based Discussion is contributing in a positive and meaningful way to the admissions process – it gives us a chance to see our applicants in action and see them in the 3D form that they are. It also gives us great additional information to incorporate into this holistic review of their application, alongside all the other pieces that they share with us.

Does the Team Based Discussion enable certain candidates to shine? Or have the opposite effect?

Because our application process is so holistic, the TBD has allowed us to understand aspects of our candidates in a different way than we were able to before.

There isn’t this standard or generic checklist of what we want every individual to bring. It comes back to the diversity – communication styles, leadership styles, team dynamic, … TBD has given us the chance to see those things in action. As we are going through our applicants’ files we are always trying to visualize them in the program and I think this has really added some richness to our ability to visualize them here at Wharton.

What advice do you have for the Team Based Discussion, and the Wharton application in general?

We are seeking to understand our candidates, and the written application and in-person components (the one on one interview and the Team Based Discussion) are vehicles to do that. We’re not able to get into our applicants heads, so we leave it to them to tell us about the choices that they have made and the experiences that they have had, and the impact that that has had on them, what they want to do and why. We encourage our applicants to be themselves – your genuine true selves.

The way to stand out is to be yourself. You can never compare two people and do a side-by-side comparison. We are all too unique, and have our own ways of thinking and processing and our own outlook on life and the world.

I encourage our applicants to be reflective and thoughtful, and have a good understanding of themselves. It is hard to communicate that to anybody else unless you have a good understanding of yourself first.

That would be my guidance across all aspects of the application and extends to the Team Based Discussion. It is not intended to be a stress test, it is meant to give our applicants a window into Wharton first hand – a chance for them to be themselves, and show us how they operate and what makes them stand out.

We encourage them to be genuine, and come prepared to have fun. There is a lot of levity in the sessions and a lot of applicants enjoyed the experience and had a good time.

Do you think other business schools will follow suit?

We launched the Team Based Discussion because it was the right thing for our process at Wharton. It reflects our values around teamwork, intellectual curiosity, our culture and community. All I can say is that it is the right fit for us.


Also on the Fortuna Admissions Blog:

10 Tips for Acing the MBA Interview


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