University of Pennsylvania (Wharton) Essay Analysis, 2010–2011

The admissions committee is interested in getting to know you on both a professional and personal level. We encourage you to be introspective, candid, and succinct. Most importantly, we suggest you be yourself.

1. Required Question: What are your professional objectives? (300 words)

Just 300 words? Yes, 300. Once you get over the unusual structure of this essay, your assignment is fairly straightforward: state your goals. They do not need to be presented in the traditional short- and long-term sequence, however. Wharton gives you the opportunity to discuss the bigger picture (likely a nod to the fact that few people actually end up pursuing the narrow goals they offer in these statements). You are not required to rigidly define your professional objectives by naming a specific industry and job title, but instead you may discuss the type of organization you want to be a part of (a series of start-ups, for example) or the kind of responsibilities or effect you would like to have in your career. Whichever approach you choose, however, you must explain the reasoning behind your stated objectives (the “why”).

As you start to write, keep in mind that you need not offer a lengthy work history; the question does not ask for it and the word count does not allow it. Still, you may want to devote approximately 50–75 words to providing context for your goals before you state your professional objectives, especially if you are a career changer or plan to pursue a highly atypical, particular and/or competitive career path (managing a sports franchise, for example). Providing some basic context will lend credibility to your ambitions by establishing a purpose behind and a foundation for your goals.

Because Personal Statements are similar from one application to the next, we have produced the mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which helps applicants write this style of essay for any school. We offer this guide to candidates free of charge, via our online store. Please feel free to download your copy today.

For a thorough exploration of Wharton’s academic program/merits, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, academic environment and more, please check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

2. Respond to 3 of the following 4 questions:

Student and alumni engagement has at times led to the creation of innovative classes. For example, through extraordinary efforts, a small group of current students partnered with faculty to create a timely course entitled, “Disaster Response: Haiti and Beyond,” empowering students to leverage the talented Wharton community to improve the lives of the Haiti earthquake victims. Similarly, Wharton students and alumni helped to create the “Innovation and the Indian Healthcare Industry” which took students to India where they studied the full range of healthcare issues in India. If you were able to create a Wharton course on any topic, what would it be? (700 words)

Given its long lead-in, some may find this essay question confusing or even daunting. You may be wondering, “How do I even start to conceive my response?” However, try not to be concerned and instead simply focus on the final sentence: “If you were able to create a Wharton course on any topic, what would it be?” This question is actually far more open ended than you might realize. You could, for example, envision a course based on an existing area of expertise of yours and then discuss what you would hope to learn from the class that would improve your capabilities in this area as well as what others might also gain from the offering. Or, you might consider an area in which you have no expertise but do have an intellectual interest and believe could be equally beneficial to your fellow Wharton MBA candidates. We want to stress and are underlining this point for emphasis: You do not need to conceive of a course in corporate social responsibility. One requirement for success in this essay is of course to thoroughly examine the school’s current and recent course offerings so that you do not conceive of a “new” class that in fact already exists!

As you explain what your proposed course will be about, consider taking some time to also explain the origins of your interest in the topic, why you think the course will be important to you and others and what the course might be like functionally (e.g., suggested guests speakers, field trips, projects). Take care not to delve into the world of fantasy—such as envisioning a class visit by Bill Gates on Monday, Warren Buffet on Tuesday, etc.—and do not pander to the admissions committee, but recognize that you can use this essay to reveal your knowledge of the Wharton experience by mentioning certain school resources and explaining how these offerings could be used in the class.

Reflect on a time when you turned down an opportunity. What was the thought process behind your decision? Would you make the same decision today? (600 words)

Many schools try to learn about you through your mistakes. Thoughtful descriptions of missed opportunities—errors of omission rather than commission—can provide the admissions committee with valuable information about candidates’ values, motivations and thought processes. Whether you declined to start a business, accept a project (big or small), take time off to travel or any other missed opportunity, the admissions committee wants to understand the manner in which you weighed your options and your perception of the risks inherent in either decision.

Of course, you may have made the right choice in turning down an opportunity and thus made no error of omission at all. In such a case—maybe you made a bold move and eschewed an offer from an investment banking firm to pursue a less lucrative path or chose to gain external experience rather than joining a family business—you will still need to show that you thoroughly considered your options and demonstrate that the decision you made, while difficult, was ultimately correct. Again, clarifying your thought process in weighing your options is key.

Describe a failure that you have experienced. What role did you play, and what did you learn about yourself? How did this experience help to create your definition of failure? (600 words)

When schools ask about a failure, they want honesty and expect you to take responsibility. You will certainly not impress the admissions committee if you elect to answer this question and then fail to own up to your role in whatever problem(s) existed. Let us be unequivocal: your essay will be an utter failure if you try to lay the blame solely on others.

As you construct this essay, start by showing positive momentum toward your goal—even if only your idea was promising and the process turned out to be a disaster from the start—and then reveal how things went off track. The sharper the contrast between expectations and reality, the more compelling your essay will likely be. After all, if you had nothing to lose in the situation, what kind of impact will your story have on the reader?

A curious aspect of this question is the request for a “definition of failure.” Many applicants will start their essays with a statement like, “My definition of failure is X, but as a result of this experience, it became Y.” We caution you against using such an opening line. Doing so shows a lack of creativity and will likely lead the admissions committee to lump you in with the mass of other candidates that take this bland approach. Instead, you could offer your definition implicitly via the conclusions you draw from the experience you describe. If you are able to avoid writing the phrase “My definition of failure is,” this will be refreshing for the reader.

Discuss a time when you navigated a challenging experience in either a personal or professional relationship. (600 words)

Clearly, the admissions committee wants to understand how you manage yourself vis-à-vis others and get a feel for your level of emotional intelligence. For this essay, you do not need to limit yourself to considering only loud and public conflicts; instead, give some thought to instances in which you experienced clashing styles or values. Maybe you struggled to motivate someone or had a different understanding of or view on an ethical issue. The emphasis here is not on the problem itself (though discussing a truly difficult situation is helpful) but on your navigation of that problem. You will need to demonstrate your level of emotional intelligence by describing how you attempted to resolve the issue, whether you were successful or not. Clearly conveying your thought processes and actions with regard to how they affected the desired and actual outcomes is crucial.

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