The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania is, by most measures, one of the world’s top business schools. Indeed, the Financial Times’ annual MBA rankings named Wharton’s MBA program the world’s best for the seventh consecutive time this year.
Wharton’s enrollment is 1,600; last year it received more than 6,000 applications; a selectivity rate of about 27%. The man who decides who makes the cut is Thomas Caleel, Wharton’s director of MBA admissions. He was in China to interview prospective students, some of who will join the international students who comprise 45% of Wharton’s MBA program. He reveals Wharton’s admissions process and how international candidates are evaluated.
Q: Wharton already enjoys wide recognition and prestige in China. Is it still necessary to make special efforts to promote it?
A: Always. I get that question a lot on every major continent, in every major country. ‘Why do you bother? You’re Wharton.’ I think that, number one, it’s important never to rest on your laurels. Number two, there are a lot of misperceptions in the marketplace. What’s interesting to me is to go out and to speak to people and say, ‘Listen, you may not be thinking about an MBA, because you work in the government or you work for a not-for-profit or you’re an entrepreneur. And it might not be the right thing for you, but at least let me give you all the facts, so that you can make an informed decision.’ That, to me, is very interesting and I think you can never get comfortable with saying, ‘We’re Wharton and we don’t need to [promote ourselves].’
Q: To what extent does the applicant’s home country come into play in the application process?
A: We certainly take into account local factors in the context of how they’re going to fit into our larger community. I always get questions when I go overseas like, ‘What if I’m working for a local company?’ I just did my Africa trip, and that’s usually a big question there. ‘What if I’m just working for [a small bank]?I could never compete against somebody from JP Morgan.’ Well, the funny thing is I go to Canary Wharf and all these Goldman Sachs bankers in London say, ‘How do I stand out? I really wish I worked at a smaller boutique bank, because then I wouldn’t be like every other investment banker.” So the grass I think seems greener on the other side, but what’s important to realize is that we look at each person individually.
Q: What are the strengths of the applications you receive from China?
A: As a general rule, they are academically extremely gifted. The Chinese educational system is very rigorous; it’s very demanding, so we get very sharp critical thinkers. One of the things that we look for, though, is an involvement outside of school – how have they made a difference in their university? Did they just study all the time? Another thing is a broader awareness, not just a narrow focus on, ‘school, now work’. We’re looking for people who can step back and get the bigger picture.
Q: What are some weaknesses?
A: A very broad, general weakness, and this is not just China, is that there is a tendency to not believe me – and I spend a lot of time and effort traveling the world trying to educate people about the process – and believe what they read on a chat board. What you’ll see a lot of times is, [applicants] will latch onto something they see on a chat board, and you just get this list of canned answers. It’s unfortunate because we tell them repeatedly that there is no right answer, but they don’t believe us. I think that’s a weakness we’re trying to break in the China market: Getting people to tell us about themselves and their story, and not just regurgitate what they read on some chat board.
Q: How does an applicant who has worked at state-owned or private Chinese company compare to someone who has worked in a multinational firm?
A: To be honest with you, it really doesn’t matter. What we look for is why you’ve done things. So if you’ve worked in a state-owned enterprise, for example – great. Why? I always ask people why they’ve made the choices they have. I’m an entrepreneur by background, so when somebody says to me, ‘I want to be an entrepreneur,’ I say ‘Great. Why are you going to business school?’ I personally believe that as an entrepreneur, business school is very important, but I just want to know what they’re thinking about. I’ll say many times in an interview in China, ‘You’re at ground zero of the hottest economy, the place everybody wants to be. So why are you leaving?’ Because I just want to hear why they’re thinking that through. So if they chose to work at a multinational versus a local company, why? If they chose to go to Japan for two years, why? It’s not important that they did it, but why they did it.
Q: Does Wharton have any plans to start a Chinese joint venture program in the future?
A: At this point, no, and there are several reasons for that. First of all, the University of Pennsylvania is a research-focused institution and we believe that the core of who we are and what we do is our faculty. Financially, would it be nice to do a JV here? Yes. But the point of a global education, and of a Wharton MBA, is to tear yourself out of your comfort zone and to come to school in this global environment and be surrounded by very different, very smart, very accomplished people that challenge you to do your best in many directions. I actually think it’s a very good idea that we’re not [in China].
Q: What happens to an application after it’s been sent?
A: Let me give you a little insight into that. Our application process is online. There’s a [perception] that we do that so we can run an algorithm on it and just cut off part of the pool. Nothing is farther from the truth. It would make my job a lot easier, but what happens is, when we get the application, we actually print out the application and put it in a file, and on top of the file goes a case sheet. One of the most competitive things we have at the school is, we select, train and hire about 60 second-year MBA students as graduate assistants. They read the file and make notes on the case sheet. The pile is then passed to a full-time member of the admissions staff – I have six associate directors. They read it and make comments, and at that point the files are broken into two piles – one is ‘invite to interview’ and the other is ‘deny without interview’.
Q: What happens to the ‘deny without interview’ files?
A: I read all the ‘deny without interview’ files. Some of them I pull out and put in the invite pile, and then I’ll scan the invite list, and those go out. The applicants then interview in one of three ways, and it’s a blind interview, which means it’s just off of their résumé. It’s half an hour long. They can interview on campus with one of these trained second-year students; they can do a hub interview, which is where a member of the admissions committee, myself or one of my associate directors, comes out to Shanghai, Beijing, Mumbai, New Delhi, Tokyo, Seoul, London or Paris. The third way is with an alumnus. There’s no difference [who does the interview].
Q: What happens after the interviews?
A: Once the interview is done it goes back into the file, gets reread by a member of the committee, then I read all the interview files and then we assemble a committee and start to make decisions.
Q: That’s a pretty long process.
A: The reason I took you through that whole long process is for you to understand how individualized it is. So we look at you [for example] as an American journalist living and working in China, because you’re different from a Chinese journalist living and working here or an American banker in Switzerland. So it’s very important – it doesn’t matter if you have a 500 GMAT [score] or an 800 GMAT. We read your file – it’s the only way to really understand the individual. That’s why we have things like essays and recommendations and interviews.
Q: How many applicants got in last year?
A: The class of 2008 had 42 students from China – a little under 10%. [That’s] about on target. It’s important to realize that there’s no quota by any metric. So one of the main parts of my job is to travel to different countries and get yelled at by alumni. But what happens is you notice over time that application quantity and quality varies. Some years, we get a lot from China. Specifically, in 2004 we had about 500 applications, and then the number dropped off into the 200s, and then it picked back up to where we’re closer to 500 again. We were a little shocked by that, but I think that things develop naturally over time and different economic factors come into play, when the economy gets very strong in a region you see a decrease [in the number of applicants], it really depends.
Q: Which countries send the most applications?
A: I would say India – we’re receiving close to 1,000 applications a year – China is very strong; Israel, surprisingly; South Korea – those would be our leading international applicants.