University of Pennsylvania (Wharton) Essay Analysis, 2011–2012

This year, Wharton is again asking candidates to first respond to one required question, then choose two from among three additional question options (versus three out of four options last year)—and two of the three options are brand new queries.

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

Just 300 words to answer such a broad question? Yes, 300. Once you get over the seemingly limited structure of this essay, you will realize that your assignment is really fairly straightforward: state your goals. However, you do not need to present them in the traditional short- and long-term sequence, and can instead discuss the bigger picture of what you see for yourself in your professional future. (We suspect Wharton may exclude these parameters because, in truth, few people actually end up pursuing the narrow goals they offer in these statements when they are required to be so specific.) You are also not required to rigidly define your professional objectives by naming a particular industry or job title, so you could instead 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, though, you must explain the reasoning behind your stated objectives (the “why”).

As you start to write, keep in mind that you do not need to offer a lengthy work history; the question does not ask for it, and the word count will not allow it. Still, you may want to devote approximately 50–75 words to providing some basic 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 this context will lend credibility to your ambitions by establishing a purpose behind and a foundation for your ambitions.

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, important statistics, social life, academic environment and more, please check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Respond to Two of the Following Three Questions:


1. 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 business schools try to learn about applicants through their mistakes. A thoughtful description of a missed opportunity—an error of omission rather than commission—can provide the admissions committee with valuable information about a candidate’s values, motivations and thought processes. Whether you declined to start a business, accept a project (big or small), take time off to travel or take advantage of any other such chance, the admissions committee wants to hear about how you weighed your options and understand your perception of the risks inherent in either choice.

Of course, turning down the opportunity in question may have ultimately been the right choice, in which case you made no error of omission at all. For example, perhaps you made a bold move and eschewed a job offer from an investment banking firm to pursue a less lucrative path, or chose to gain external workplace experience rather than joining a family business. Nevertheless, 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.

Finally, do not overlook the final element of the question: Would you make the same decision today? We suspect that most candidates will choose to share the story of a decision about which they still feel confident and will simply reaffirm that they made the correct choice. However, if your answer would instead be “no,” be sure to include a brief explanation as to why not (ideally—though still succinctly—clarifying what you have learned as a result). Either way, make sure that your essay includes a response to this part of the school’s query.

2. Discuss a time when you faced a challenging interpersonal experience. How did you navigate the situation and what did you learn from it? (600 words)

Here Wharton is interested in understanding your diplomacy skills, asking how you manage your emotions under pressure and would optimize a tricky situation. Start by considering flash points in your professional career—moments that involved notable tension or conflict—to identify a fitting story for this essay. However, you need not focus on a situation that was sensational in nature. For example, if you skillfully persuaded a stubborn supervisor to change his mind on an issue, or if you discovered a way to turn a typically hypercompetitive team member into a cooperative one, you have a valid story to tell. As always, keep in mind the how element of your story—Wharton wants to hear about the process you used and the way you exercise judgment, so you will need to explain your actions and intentions to the admissions committee. Then, you must reflect on and share what you learned from the experience. In this regard, you should reveal that you developed or uncovered a new skill and, ideally, explain how you expect this ability to continue to be useful in the future.

3. “Innovation is central to our culture at Wharton. It is a mentality that must encompass every aspect of the School – whether faculty research, teaching or alumni outreach” – Thomas S. Robertson, Dean, The Wharton School

Keeping this component of our culture in mind, discuss a time when you have been innovative in your personal or professional life. (600 words)

To many applicants, the word innovation seems “loaded,” so they tend to shy away from questions that discuss this topic for fear that their innovations may not be innovative enough—as though you must be working in a lab full of volatile potions or developing a new tool for Google to be qualified to respond to this kind of question. Let us assure you that your experience with innovation need not have had global implications (though if it did, fantastic!), but simply needs to have involved a creative approach that allowed a task to be performed in an improved manner. So, if you discovered and implemented an off-the-shelf scheduling system that saved your company development costs and increased efficiency, for example, or identified a simple brand extension for a product, you are in fact an innovator. In your essay for this question, simply describe the “before,” offering a narrative about the situation that reveals the central problem or opportunity, and then explain how you created or pinpointed an interesting and effective solution/response. Most importantly, reveal how you implemented your plan. Then, take a moment to reflect on and share the impact your actions had on both your environment and you.

Additional Question for Reapplicants: All reapplicants to Wharton are required to complete the Optional Essay.  Please use this space to explain how you have reflected on the previous decision on your application and to discuss any updates to your candidacy (e.g., changes in your professional life, additional coursework, extracurricular/volunteer engagements). You may also use this section to address any extenuating circumstances. (250 words)

Whether you have improved your academic record, received a promotion, begun a new and exciting project, increased your community involvement or taken on a personal challenge of sorts, the key to success with this essay is conveying a very deliberate path of achievement. The school wants to know that you have been actively striving to improve and that you have seized opportunities during the previous year to do so because a Wharton MBA is vital to you. Responses to this essay question will vary greatly from one candidate to the next, because each person’s needs and experiences differ. We are more than happy to provide one-on-one assistance with this highly personal essay to ensure that your efforts over the past year are presented in the best light possible.

Optional Section for All Applicants: If you feel there are extenuating circumstances of which the Committee should be aware, please explain them here (e.g., unexplained gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, or questionable academic performance, significant weaknesses in your application). (250 words)

However tempted you might be, this is not the place to paste in a strong essay from another school or to offer a few anecdotes that you were unable to use in any of your other essays. Instead, this is your opportunity, if needed, to address any lingering questions that an admissions officer may have about your candidacy, such as a poor grade or overall GPA, a low GMAT score, a gap in your work experience, etc. In our mbaMission Optional Statement Guide, available through our online store, we offer detailed advice on when and how to take advantage of the optional essay, with multiple examples, to help you mitigate any problem areas in your profile.

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