University of Pennsylvania (Wharton) Essay Analysis

Note: The following essay questions pertain to the previous academic year. This section will be updated when the new question are released in early to mid-July of 2008. 

This year, HBS finally offered applicants some flexibility. Meanwhile, Wharton is taking some of its flexibility away. Wharton is moving from its old system of two mandatory essays and several choices for the remaining two essays toward a system of three mandatory essays and a single choice in the final question. Complementing the limited flexibility in terms of specific questions, Wharton’s first three questions only allow you to discuss single events/experiences. Thus, because of these limitations, candidates must be particularly considerate of the choices that they make, in order to ensure that they offer the Admissions Committee multiple dimensions and showcase their strengths.

1. Describe your career progress to date and your future short-term and long-term career goals. How do you expect a Wharton MBA to help you achieve these goals, and why is now the best time for you to join our program? (1,000 words)

Because of significant overlap from one MBA application to the next, we have produced the “MBA Mission Personal Statement Guide.” We offer our guide to candidates free of charge, via our online store.  Please feel free to download your copy today.

As for Wharton itself, experience has shown, and successful candidates who have gone on to work with Wharton admissions have confirmed, that Wharton pays special attention to “Why Wharton/Why now” and that your reasons must be thorough and compelling. This is not exactly news, as every school wants to see this emphasis, but Wharton is more inclined to “ding” those who don’t nail this section. Your “Why Wharton” rationale should not just offer praise for the school, but should illustrate your clear connection, academically, professionally and socially (meaning that you understand the environment that you will be entering).

2. Describe a failure or setback that you have experienced. What role did you play and what did you learn about yourself? (500 words)

The best failure essays are often those that show reasoned optimism and tremendous momentum toward a goal – a goal that is ultimately derailed. In most cases, you will need to show that you were emotionally invested in your project/experience, which will enable the reader to connect with your story and vicariously experience your disappointment. If you were not invested at all, it is hardly credible to discuss the experience as a failure or learning experience.

With respect to setbacks, the door swings open to a range of personal experience as well. For example, you could not discuss an injury that prevented you from competing for an elite college athletic competition as a failure, but it would certainly qualify as a setback. You can carefully consider setbacks in which you bear no responsibility for creating the situation. In such a case, again, it is crucial that you show that you were emotionally invested, that events were going in a certain direction and that the situation quickly turned in an unfavorable direction.

Of course, the second part of the story, the reflective element, is vital. It is very easy to offer trite and clichéd statements about your response to the problem and what you learned about yourself (Note: everyone learns resiliency – consider another key learning). It will take time to truly create a unique statement about your road forward and lessons learned, but the payoff will come in an essay that is much more personal and self-aware than thousands of others.

3. Tell us about a situation in which you were an outsider. What did you learn from the experience? (500 words)

The word “outsider” is the key to the first part of this essay; outsider is a broad word, which allows you to discuss far more than culture shock. While you can be an outsider while traveling abroad or even while experiencing a different culture in your own backyard, you can also suddenly become an outsider in an environment that was once entirely familiar to you. (For example, if you were to close a big deal and resentment were to follow from colleagues.)

Once you establish that you were facing unique circumstances and that you were clearly on the outside, it is crucial that you show how you responded and how you influenced this situation to make it amenable to you and others. Then, the reflective element (“What did you learn…”) must be explored in depth. Much like in essay two, it is not sufficient to trot out clichés and state that you learned that humanity is universal. You will need to truly contemplate your “takeaways” and illustrate the enduring impact on your decisions or world view. 

4. Please Complete One of the Following Two Questions:

Where in your background would we find evidence of your leadership capacity and/or potential? (500 words)

In this essay, you have your first opportunity to offer more than a single experience in one essay. It is possible to select two instances (three would likely be pushing it) in your background that showcase your distinct leadership skills. If you do choose to select two experiences, you would be wise to offer those that highlight different aspects of your style. For example, an “on the field” athletic leadership may exemplify strength of personality, while work experience might highlight skills of persuasion and diplomacy.  Regardless of the story or stories that you select, it is important that you prove to the Admissions Committee that you have an understanding of how you have your own style and that you can be effective in leadership roles. Although there is no specific request for reflection in this essay, it would still be appropriate for you to contemplate your actions and show self-awareness.

Is there anything about your background or experience that you feel you have not had the opportunity to share with the Admissions Committee in your application? If yes, please explain. (500 words)

Essentially, this question is a “catchall” in which the Admissions Committee is ensuring that they will not miss anything vital. If you happen to have unique experiences that do not fit neatly into the questions above, you can explore them here. While this question is open-ended, it is still a mistake to create an essay that lacks scope. This should not be a collection of ideas that you could not incorporate above, but a focused and compelling statement about your candidacy.  It would be wise for you to think through a thesis statement before you start to write.

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