B-School Insider Interview: First-Year Student, UPenn Wharton, Class of 2015

Recently, we spoke at length with a Wharton first year about his experiences at the school thus far. A finance major, this student spent several years after graduation working in an entrepreneurial fellowship before joining a high growth-tech firm. There, he was part of a leadership development program in operations, sales and marketing. He chose to pursue an MBA to see where business school could take him next.

mbaMission: How do you like being in Philadelphia for your MBA?

Wharton First Year: It’s great. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the kinds of opportunities that are in Philadelphia. I think it gets disregarded as a big city, because a lot of people are coming from New York, and there’s so much more culture, I’d say, and opportunities [there] because of the amount of people, and it’s bigger. But for me, Philadelphia is a great upsize, given I was in the Midwest prior.

mbaMission: I could see that. How do you think Philadelphia is as a setting for a business school in general?

WFY: I think it’s great for a couple of reasons. I mean, obviously it’s got a big-city vibe, so there’s a lot of people here. There’s definitely a downtown scene with culture and everything that comes with a bigger downtown in terms of art and sports, you name it. From a business school student perspective, I think being in a larger city helps because you can get more speakers to come to campus. I think that’s something that’s undervalued when you go to a smaller school or a school that’s not in a large city. It’s harder to attract big-name speakers to campus. We draw a lot of people because Philadelphia’s a major hub, but also, it’s so close to New York. It’s a quick train ride down. It’s like an hour and ten minutes on the Acela. So Philadelphia’s great, has all four seasons, if you’re interested in that, and a lot of the students live in one part of town, which is about 20 blocks from campus. And it’s definitely got more of an artsy, European feel.

mbaMission: Sure. Where do most students live?

WFY: In this section of town called Rittenhouse Square. Like I said 25, 20 blocks east of campus, but it’s across a bridge, across the Schuylkill River. Most MBA students don’t live in University City, which is where a lot of undergrads live, but I think predominately, most of the grad school students live across the river, which again is more downtown in Center City.

mbaMission: So does that mean people typically have cars, or do they take public transportation?

WFY: Mostly public transportation and taxis. Very few students have cars. I think a lot of it’s just a parking issue, but for the most part, I’d say 95% of students live in Rittenhouse, and I’d say of that group, 2% may have cars. The ones who don’t live in Rittenhouse probably do have cars, and that’s because they’re probably in more suburban areas. Rittenhouse is also one of the more  expensive areas of Philly, so some students choose to live in much more affordable housing, but unfortunately, you forego some of the social scene, because everyone else lives in the area.

mbaMission: That makes sense. So why did you choose Wharton for your MBA?

WFY: A couple of things. I knew I wanted to go to a top business school, and so there you cut it down to I’d say ten, maybe five schools. I was looking to be in a bigger city, since I came from a smaller Midwest city, but also as an LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] student, it was important for me to have that larger city experience. So that knocked off maybe some other top schools, like Duke [Fuqua] and Dartmouth. I applied to four schools I thought were top caliber, and of the ones where I was admitted, Wharton was the best in terms of not only brand name, but [also] the opportunities it gave me. There are a lot of things that I think Wharton does really well, but also being closer to [where I grew up] was a huge plus. So again, it’s a great name, it’s obviously a top school, a huge school, which I was kind of nervous about, but actually I found to be a really good thing. I also received some scholarship money, so that was a nice icing on the cake.

mbaMission: Definitely. So did you know when you were applying to business school what you wanted to do post MBA, or were you open to different things?

WFY: I had an idea, but I definitely didn’t have anything solidified, and I think part of business school is figuring it out—you don’t know what you don’t know. I wanted to learn from my classmates, which gets to my point earlier about why a large school is helpful. You could say community is not as strong maybe as if you went to a school with a much smaller class size, in the middle of nowhere or in a much smaller city, but one of the good things is that between the two classes of 1,600 students, there is someone who has done what you might be interested in doing long term, whether that be marketing or finance or whatever, right? I was considering possibly going into strategy within the higher education space, and wouldn’t you know, one of my classmates worked in strategy for Yale University prior to coming to Wharton. So the size of the school, and the alumni by extension, really is one huge benefit.

mbaMission: That totally makes sense. So you were basically going to business school thinking you wanted to further your career but maybe not 100% sure of what that career would be, so you really just wanted to go to a good school.

WFY: Exactly. For me, I thought maybe consulting would be a good option. I knew I wasn’t going to get into banking, but I really wanted to see what other students had done, what my interests were and my skill set and kind of identify that in business school. And I think I have reaffirmed what I thought I was good at, what maybe I’d want to do long term, and can kind of match that up with career opportunities.

mbaMission: Got it. So how has Wharton met your expectations so far?

WFY: As far as academics, it’s definitely kept me challenged, especially first semester, when you’re taking a lot of core classes. There’s a reason Wharton is known for its quantitative background. There were a lot of quant-heavy classes first semester. I think some individuals applying to business school view the experience as a two-year vacation, and for some students at certain schools, it might be. But at Wharton—I can only speak to Wharton—it isn’t like that at all. Don’t get me wrong—we have more than our fair share of fun, but we also work hard.

I wanted to come here to push myself and definitely did that. The nature of the curriculum helps build community, When everyone’s experiencing so much together, it helps people bond and build relationships. Every first year is going through the same core classes. So in terms of academics, I definitely think it met, if not exceeded, my expectations. As a finance major in undergrad, I think these classes definitely exceeded the level of intensity I had hoped.

Student life, I’ve been more than impressed. I think that’s one of the big areas where Wharton might be branded incorrectly to the outside world, but student life here is much more fun than I was expecting. I think a lot of people get this idea that because Wharton is very quant focused, because it’s located in a big city, because we have off on Fridays, that there isn’t much of a community. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a huge community here, and I’ve found that it’s been a really welcoming environment, and that’s something I didn’t expect because of third party write-ups about the school.

I think people think of Wharton as this quant jock school, which sometimes misleads people to think the student body might be less social. My really good friend is going to Kellogg right now, and Kellogg’s known as this really fun, social school. I’d say Wharton probably matches Kellogg. I think a lot of the top schools do. I think Wharton helps to facilitate a positive student life and overall B-school experience.

Wharton is on par, as I expected, as far as career services, but that’s because I expected a lot from Wharton to begin with. And it’s been in the business school scene for so long, obviously as the first business school, so I think it has it down to a science in terms of the fundamentals of what individuals need for career services. And they start early, right in the pre-term.

mbaMission: Sure.

WFY: So in pre-term, you’re immediately immersed in career services, and they realize that a lot of students are career switchers, so those students might need services immediately. In undergrad, you had to be proactive, but for Wharton, they’re reaching out to you and making sure you’re on the radar, and they’re checking in with you. It’s not intrusive or like they’re babying you. It’s like, “Hey, we recognize that you want our help. You’re paying a lot of money to go here, and we want you to get a lot out of your experience.” And for many people, that’s landing a great job after school. They recognize that if you do well in your career search, you’re going to recommend Wharton to others.

mbaMission: Right. You mentioned the core curriculum, and you seemed to think that that was beneficial as far as getting everybody up to speed and providing that shared experience, but as far as laying the foundation for further learning in your elective classes, do you feel it was pretty effective? Do you feel like what you learned is going to be useful?

WFY: Yeah, so I think it was twofold. Obviously, it gives you experience in the basic fundamentals in business, but it also gets you immersed in your one class of 70 for the entire first year. It really gets you to build a community and close ties. It’s helping you academically, but it’s also helping you facilitate a social network that I think is a major part of the business school experience. The core classes seem to be—and this is not the appropriate terminology, but I’m going to say it—a necessary evil. I think students would rather take elective classes in subjects they want to actually learn more about and dive deep into a certain subject area. So not just management, but management with a specific function, or finance with a specific direction. So I think your broad classes are needed to teach all the basics, but most students prefer to take electives.

So again, I think students enjoy their second semester of first year and their second year much more than their first semester, academically, because these are classes they want to take, but I imagine every business school that is set up similarly must experience the same thing to some extent.

mbaMission: I would think so. Some people get more out of the core than others, of course.

WFY: Right. So I was a finance undergrad, but if you didn’t have a business undergrad, that might be a huge learning curve. Because if I had some trouble with the quant, there might be somebody who came from a nonprofit or had a law background who might really struggle, but I think all the resources are there to make sure they’re successful. I don’t think there’s any reason a student should not be successful, and we have non-grade disclosure, which is a huge benefit to making sure you take risks and do things you may not do normally. I wasn’t really sure about that policy initially, but I can’t imagine going to a school that doesn’t have that now after going to Wharton, because it really does let you choose whatever you want to do and really take risks in classes and in clubs where maybe you would have played it safe otherwise.

mbaMission: Sure. Can you test out of any of the core classes?

WFY: You can, yeah. So for starters, you can test out in the very beginning of the semester, in August. Students can also show proof that they have either taken a class in undergrad or have some sort of skill set that meets the requirements for the class. I think 40% of students place out of at least one class. But I think they really encourage you to take the full core to make sure you understand the basics—because even though I took stats in undergrad, stats is slightly different here—but I also think to make sure you’re getting that full experience. So those individuals who only take one core class are missing a lot of that cohort component and the social component.

I think it’s a give and take. You may not want to sit in a class you’ve already taken for a year, but you get to hear feedback in class from 69 other students who you’ve never met and want to know more about. And there’s definitely allegiances toward your cohort and your larger clusters, so I think that being in class with those individuals makes you feel more part of that community, which I would argue is very important.

mbaMission: Especially at a school with 1,600 students, I would think.

WFY: Exactly.

mbaMission: So how would you characterize your classmates? What’s a typical Wharton student like?

WFY: I am far more impressed than I expected in terms of the quality of my peers and what they’ve done in the past, and their intellectual and social capabilities. So that’s probably one of the biggest pluses in terms of what I was expecting from Wharton. I’m continually impressed with my peer group. I mean, my learning team of six people—I’m not sure how familiar you are with how this works at Wharton, but you’re in a larger cluster of 210, which is divided into three cohorts of 70 students. Then from there it goes to a pod, so divided into three or four, and from there, you’re in teams of six or seven. So I was in a learning team and did all my group projects with that team for the entire first semester. And it’s an intentionally diverse learning team, in terms of background, culture, gender, race, you name it, and they’re really trying to make sure you understand that in a business setting, you’re not going to have one homogenous group that really is dominating the workforce, right? And I think that’s good, especially for someone like myself who didn’t have a really diverse background or work experience.

So on my learning team, it was me. There was a girl who worked in banking at Goldman for five years. A guy who’s half Brazilian who worked in private equity and was coming from Los Angeles. Another woman who had started and sold two companies, and she was from Turkey—both of them were e-commerce businesses. Another one was a guard for the Taiwanese president, and he ended up working at McKinsey for two years after. And the last one came from China to work at an investment bank in New York.

mbaMission: Wow.

WFY: So here I am with those five amazing people, and then me—I worked at a small tech start-up in the Midwest. [Laughs.] But my point is, again going back to my being continually impressed, we didn’t find out until a month into our discussions what all of us did—and really, you guarded the president of your country?

mbaMission: Right.

WFY: And people aren’t bragging here; they’re very humble on the whole, which is great.

mbaMission: That’s very cool. So can you help me understand what the pod system is like? I understand cohorts and clusters and learning teams, but what does a pod do?

WFY: Yeah, this is a way for second years to help mentor first years. So we have Student Life Fellows that are charged with one pod of three learning teams to make sure that everyone in that group is having a good student experience, maximizing their opportunities and ensuring no one falls through the cracks. There’s a Leadership Fellow who is also assigned to a pod to make sure that every person is pushed to develop their personal leadership skills. Basically, the pod helps create a group of 18 that hits the sweet spot for initiatives and events that are too big for groups of six but too small for groups of 70.

mbaMission: That makes sense.

WFY: Pods are definitely the least mentioned of the cluster, cohort, learning team delineations. They’ve changed student life here to a cluster format; everything’s around the cluster. So it’s pretty much like four larger groups versus 12 smaller groups. But then the pod was developed from that concept.

mbaMission: I see. Thanks for explaining that. You spoke about the career development office a little bit. What kind of resources and assistance has that office provided for you so far?

WFY: Yeah. Every day at lunch, there seems to be a different career services meeting or function of some sort, whether it’s bringing in a guest speaker to talk about an industry or an alumnus who works in an industry—really giving you breadth of the tech, consulting, banking, entrepreneurship, marketing industries and their background. A lot of these are working in conjunction with a student club. So the students lead it, but they [career services] definitely offer support. And in terms of some of the basics, especially during the very first month of school, they were there to provide those resources. They were able to meet with students one-on-one to go over individual career tracks. They do a survey at the very beginning of the year that basically takes down your personality traits and what you’re interested in learning and where you’re successful, and they kind of plot out what possible careers you might want to research further.

They’re there as much as you need them, really. I’ve never been denied for a meeting or had an individual tell me they’re not able to meet. In fact, they’re often willing to stay late. Another thing I will say is a plus is that a lot of our career services staff have experience in particular industries, which I think is huge. And for a lot of driven MBA candidates, you want to trust someone who has knowledge of the industry you’re trying to break into. And so you have these career services staff who have actually worked in banking, who have actually worked in internal strategy positions and so on. So these are people who have done some pretty big things and have had the jobs that we’re going after, so they can speak to a level of actual commitment and involvement and what it takes. It also increases their legitimacy, which I think is very unique. I’m not sure if every business school has that, but that’s a big win for Wharton.

mbaMission: I could see how that might make a difference, because you know the person who’s guiding you has actually been there.

WFY: I trust their opinion more, because some of them have held the jobs that we are initially looking to get.

mbaMission: Right. What other resources at the school do you feel have been particularly helpful or interesting?

WFY: There’s just so much at Wharton, right? If you can think of it, it exists, and I just never expected that. I talk to my friends who are in smaller schools, and resources are limited. There’s a club for almost everything here at Wharton. There’s even breakouts within clubs, so there’s the Consulting Club, but there’s also the Health Care Consulting Club. The opportunities are endless, and I think sometimes students spread themselves too thin because they want to get involved in everything. So you see second years kind of scale back and really take on one leadership role, whereas first years are doing a lot of different clubs and really getting immersed in the student life.

And the speaker series—I’m blown away by the level of speakers that we have that come to class, as well as individuals who just speak on the executive level, and a lot of it is because they’re Wharton alums. We have these things called Power Dinners where they bring in some pretty big-name speakers for dinner. And it’s 12 students and that individual speaker, so you get a really intimate setting with that one individual. I was in entrepreneurship class yesterday, and we had the CEO of a company that just started up in 2010, and it’s valued right now at over $100M. He was teaching our class, and it was a class with 18 people. I wouldn’t say that’s common every day, but the fact that that level of engagement exists, I think it’s pretty rare.

I think the student life office has really done a big push recently. I think the biggest thing from this interview, if you want to take something away, is that student life has changed here at Wharton, compared to three years ago, even. There’s been a really big push for culture. They’ve actually appointed a student life dean [deputy vice dean of student life] who is in charge of fully immersing himself in student life. His name is Kembrel [Jones], and he really just makes sure that every student is happy. He knows almost every student’s name and attends a large percentage of the events on campus. Each individual cluster has their own associate director who’s in charge of making sure that student life experience is up to par with Wharton’s high expectations.

And so I think in the past, you might have seen Wharton as this very transactional experience—go in, get a degree and leave. But now, they really are trying to build this cluster experience, and every individual cluster has its own cheer, its own mascot, its own colors. Throughout the year we have the Cluster Cup, which fosters friendly competition by engaging the clusters in different academic, sport and social activities.

The other thing the school did recently was it purchased a floor in a high-rise in downtown Center City, and that opened up the amount of study space immensely. So now students don’t have to walk 25 blocks to campus. They can actually walk five to ten minutes, depending on how far you live from this building, and there’s an open study space, open communal area, that everyone can walk to, which is huge. I think that helped fill in the gap of “I want to meet with my group and my learning team, but where are we going to meet?” Everyone meets at this one location that’s right in Center City, which is where most students live. That’s a big win, and that opened up in 2013. This is the first year students have experienced using it for a full year. And it opened to some great feedback.

mbaMission: Yeah. Are you involved in any specific clubs that you really like or that you feel have been really helpful?

WFY: Yeah, so I chose to be more of a depth versus breadth person here. In undergrad, I was student body president, and I got a wide variety of experiences there. At Wharton, I wanted to really focus on a few things and give myself a lot of free time to enjoy the experience and be able to add things to my calendar last minute. I’m involved with the WGA [Wharton Graduate Association] as well as the Tech[nology] Club and the LGBT Out for Business Group. Next year, I may try to stretch myself by joining the stand-up comedy club, maybe even the hockey club, which is very popular here on campus.

mbaMission: That sounds busy.

WFY: Yeah, I guess I didn’t do that great of a job at going in depth with one of two activities. [Laughs.] But I think that’s a big part of business school. If you have an hour to give, you fill it up somehow, there’s never a free hour. Right now I signed up for this interview, but there’s also two guest lectures going on concurrently that I’m missing. There’s always something on campus that you can work on or attend if you want. Which goes back again to this being a huge school, and I think that’s a huge plus.

mbaMission: Right. Well, you can always sleep after you graduate, right?

WFY: Yes, exactly, that’s what I tell myself.

mbaMission: So what kind of interaction have you had with the school’s alumni beyond what you’ve already mentioned? Did you contact anyone before you got in, or have you contacted them for your job search?

WFY: Job search, definitely, and career services encourages you to do that. You can always look through our database and find individuals who are working in the industry you’re looking at. I think a lot more of that networking happens for the less traditional paths, some of those companies that aren’t as big and don’t recruit on campus. I contacted a few alums in terms of helping me think through applying to business school, in terms of learning what Wharton was. And they were all very responsive. I mean, from my personal experience, you almost always receive a response within I’d say 24 hours or 48 hours, as long as you mention that you are a Wharton student. It all depends on their schedule and what they’re doing, but usually they’re very responsive.

mbaMission: Great. You talked about the facilities a bit, but I wanted to touch on that topic more specifically. Are there any really great parts of the facilities or any parts that the school could possibly work on?

WFY: Really, the addition of that extra study space in Center City is big, and I don’t think you really recognize what that means to the school and the student body until you come here and see the dynamic at play. Cutting the travel time by two-thirds to get to a study room everyone can meet at is pretty important.

Huntsman Hall is still relatively new, and it’s a great building, probably one of the better ones on campus. Most of the classrooms are set up with USB ports and power outlets built into the desk space. I’ve never had any issues with that. And there’s tech support on hand if you ever need any help with what they call “Whartonizing” your computer. There’s resources for that as well. If I ever have a problem with my computer, iPad or my iPhone, I just bring it to them, and they fix it.

mbaMission: That’s great. So let’s focus on the fun stuff, the social life. What can you tell me about that?

WFY: Yeah, so one of the big things I liked about Wharton was how active the LGBT community was here, and that they host the two most well-attended parties of the year. One is called the White Party, which happens in September. The other one is Wharton 54, which takes place in late March or early April. For the White Party, everyone just dresses in white, and Wharton 54 is usually ’70s themed. Every weekend, there is some event or party on Friday and Saturday, even Thursday night. So if there is an open day, you can bet that a student group is planning an event then. And it’s all over—cultural clubs, academic conferences, social clubs. There’s Dance Studio, the Charity Fashion Show, Fight Night—something that appeals to everyone.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Follies, too. It’s our annual show that’s student run and pokes fun at the business school experience. There’s also a ski trip that happens every year, and we went out to Breckenridge, Colorado, this past February. We usually go out west for one extended weekend, and I think Wharton sent over a thousand students. We just took over Breckenridge. Prices were high for United flights that weekend! [Laughs.]

I think one of the cool parts about Wharton is the amount of travel, which I really I didn’t expect before coming to Wharton. I went to Argentina over Thanksgiving break. I went to Tahiti and did a tall ship sailing leadership venture over Christmas. I went to Costa Rica for spring break, and I’m headed to Israel in May. And I think it’s pretty common for people to take a few international trips,  though it’s definitely not a requirement. And there’s also a decent amount of U.S. travel. We had a southern city tour earlier this year. They have West Coast treks. We also had a New England trek. And some of these treks are professionally focused, and some are purely social. I know a bunch of students went to New Orleans over fall break. I think some of the international students from other countries like seeing other parts of the States.

I’ve heard Wharton is above average in terms of the amount of traveling, and I’ve really enjoyed that. Obviously, it does cost money to travel, so that’s definitely adding to my loans, but there’s never been any time when I could travel with this many people. That’s the best part of the traveling—I can travel with a friend, maybe, or by myself when I’m older, but right now I have the opportunity to travel with 20 people who represent an unparalleled peer group. It seems like a no-brainer.

mbaMission: You’re definitely making the most of your experience, it sounds like. What’s been your general impression of the faculty so far?

WFY: There’s definitely no shortage of notable faculty here. I’ve been very impressed. In grad school, I’m trying to get a lot closer to my professors on a personal level, and professors are constantly willing to meet with you outside of classes. The entrepreneurship professors will talk about getting funding and how that process works. Management professors talk about possible jobs in the future and office politics and influence in the workplace. And a lot of them are really invested in their research and love to share that with you. Most of the professors—I’d say at least 70%—offer some sort of dinners or small-group lunches so you can get to know them on an outside-the-classroom level, which is great. You get to see them as real people versus just these one-dimensional individuals who come into the classroom and teach.

mbaMission: Absolutely. What do you think people more people should know about Wharton that they probably don’t?

WFY: I think the biggest thing is right now Wharton is at this crossroads where we’re a very finance-branded school, and that’s great. We do have an excellent finance program here, with top-notch faculty. But what people may not know is that we’re producing more entrepreneurs, by total number, than any other business school in the country. As at most business schools, entrepreneurship has witnessed a heavy increase in interest. I think Wharton is trying to determine the right way to balance marketing its classic finance strengths while also displaying its great resources for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Also, student life is much more fun—plain and simple. In a recent internal student survey, student rating of student life received its highest marks in the past 20 years. Wharton in general is more fun than it was ten years ago, at least in students’ perception. A lot of this newfound strength correlates with the resurgence of the student life office. An important part of the MBA program is not just getting education, but enjoying education while you’re here for those two years. I wish I had known just how much fun I’d be having right out of the gate at Wharton. I traveled to other business schools and did a lot of research—Wharton competes right up there with other schools in terms of the level of socialness as well as academic rigor.

mbaMission: That sounds great. Every time I talk to one of you students, it makes me want to go to business school, because it sounds so fantastic. Is there anything else you’d want to say about Wharton?

WFY: We’ve covered a lot. The leadership office is a huge win for Wharton. They actually have an entire office dedicated to leadership. I mentioned going on a Leadership Venture over the holidays, where students go to different remote locations, are placed in high-stress situations and are tasked with working on a team to achieve a goal—for example, climbing Kilimanjaro, trekking through Antarctica, facing the wilderness of Alaska. We also have individual executive coaches, which is a great new program. You get assigned an executive coach who works with you on ways to get you to become a better C-level executive in the long term. We constantly have speakers, leaders and authors coming in to talk about different works or research they’ve done. I think the leadership office is another big differentiator for Wharton.

mbaMission: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today about Wharton. You’ve given us a lot of great information.

WFY: No problem. Thank you!

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