mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with University of Pennsylvania – Wharton Director of Admissions Ankur Kumar

Recently, we at mbaMission were fortunate enough to speak with Ankur Kumar, the new director of admissions at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Here are some highlights from our conversation, followed by the full transcript below.

  • During the upcoming admissions cycle, Wharton plans to pilot a group interview exercise, which could become a mandatory application component in the future.
  • Students often see class profiles as a set of preferences, but they only reveal the industries that students came from immediately prior to business school; industry experience is much deeper than it may appear.
  • Wharton is seeking quality experience, not a target age or number of years of work experience.


mbaMission: So my first question is, Wharton kind of caused a stir when it switched to behavioral interviews last year, and I was curious why the change was made and what Wharton was trying to learn that it maybe couldn’t learn from its previous process.

Ankur Kumar: At Wharton, we’ve always been behavioral in our application process—both in the written application and also in the interview component. We’ve always wanted to get to know who our applicants are, and how they think. And so, understanding what defines each of our applicants as individuals is truly key for us.

What we did is tweak our interview questions, with the goal of getting at the core of what we wanted to learn about you—the applicant—in person. We always want to see how our candidates respond in real-time conversations, not unlike the conversations they have every day in their professional and personal lives.  We want to continue to understand how they behave in and navigate throughout those discussions, and conversations really give us a good sense of how they’re going to be as future MBAs and alumni.

mbaMission: So have you been satisfied with the results, and are you planning any additional changes to the process going forward?

AK: Every year, we’re amazed and blown away by the talented and accomplished applicant population from which we are very lucky to be selecting.  I always say that the hardest part of the job is actually selecting the people to join the class.  As any good admissions office will, we’re always looking to evolve our admissions process. Our essay questions are always evolving, our interview questions are always evolving, and that simply reflects the evolution and the innovation in our program. So evolving our process is just par for the course in our world.

One change we’re excited to announce is that, for the coming admissions cycle, we will be piloting a new team-based exercise. This exercise is designed to allow candidates to demonstrate, firsthand, their intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, teamwork and leadership skills, among others.

For this year’s admissions cycle, the pilot will essentially be a ‘beta-testing’ of this exercise. Any candidates asked to participate in the pilot this year will do so voluntarily, and without bearing on their applications.  More details will be forthcoming, but we are very excited about this new opportunity.

mbaMission: Sure, I see. As you probably know, applicants tend to adhere to stereotypes. So for many, Wharton is a finance school, even though it has, for instance, an enormous marketing faculty or the unique Lauder Institute and Lauder Program. What do you think Wharton should be known for that it’s not known for? What is a quiet strength of the school?

AK: I don’t know, do we do anything quietly here? [Laughs] Actually, there are probably two things I want to make sure to highlight.

First, our approach at Wharton to teaching business: it’s analytical, it’s data-driven, it’s fact-based, and it’s quantitative.  And that’s the case across all business disciplines that we are teaching. So often, that approach and those words that I’ve just used—“quantitative, analytical, data-driven, fact-based”—are mistakenly viewed as synonyms for “finance.”

While we hold the preeminent position in finance, we are also the only business program to be ranked within the top five in every discipline that we teach, and that’s the case whether you’re talking about management, marketing, business and public policy, operations or entrepreneurship.

From a candidate perspective, no matter what your interest is, at Wharton you don’t have to pick and choose… You literally can have it all.  We have 220 faculty; they span 11 academic departments and 25 research centers.  Wharton offers the most breadth and depth across business disciplines, compared to other top programs.

The second thing I would mention is how diverse Wharton is, in all senses of the word.  Our approach to learning is that students learn best from those who are different from themselves.  Bringing together people with a diversity of experiences and thoughts is at the heart of innovative thinking – it’s what drives innovation. So we seek to craft as diverse a class as possible, across different dimensions. Wharton has the most women—45% of the class—of any top business program; we have the most global top business program; and we seek mature students who bring a rich set of experiences to Wharton—professional, personal and academic diversity.

mbaMission: All right. Conversely, then, can you think of an area in which Wharton is perhaps not as strong? Or maybe an area the school would like to build on?

AK:  One challenge that every business school has is that business and industries are always emerging and evolving, and so naturally, we’re emerging and evolving as well.  

For example, clean tech is an example of where there wasn’t as much of an industry ten years agoor even when I was in schoolas there is today.   And so Wharton has evolved with it. You now see students coming into the program with backgrounds in these fields.  Programming has been developed around the industry; a student club now supports it; clean tech employers recruit our students, and there are broader initiatives happening across Penn. We are often on the cusp of trends, or evolving with them.

mbaMission: Right. So, aside from professional disciplines, would you say there is a personality type for which Wharton might not be the best fit? Is there a particular type of individual that you would expect to struggle in the Wharton program?

AK: As I mentioned earlier, the class is incredibly diverse. And I say diverse meaning in all senses of the word.  That diversity can  include industry background; it can include academic background; it can include geographic perspective—if you lived or worked somewhere in the world; it can include different experiences in life, professionally and personally.  And I know from me and from my own time in the program that a lot of the benefit that I derived, was from being able to learn from my classmates who had different academic, professional and geographic experiences.

And, as I said earlier, we have more women in our program than any other business program, and we remain the most global of all of our peers as well.  We have 73 different countries represented within the incoming class; 37% of the incoming class is coming from outside the United States.  Nearly 60% of our class has worked outside their home country, and they’ve worked in over 45 different countries, which is pretty amazing.  There are over 75 different languages that our students speak; three-quarters of the incoming class fluently speak a language other than their native tongue.   Over two-thirds of our students studied subjects other than business in undergrad.  So when you hear those facts, it’s hard to say there is a type of person who won’t succeed at Wharton.

mbaMission: Right. That’s great. So I’d like to ask about the faculty. Specifically, can you tell me about any professors who maybe aren’t known necessarily for their publishing or research work but rather for their speaking style, teaching style, unorthodox techniques—anything like that? Does anyone in particular come to mind? These are the types of things that are hard for candidates to get a sense of through a Web site.

AK:  There are many examples of our faculty who are quite innovative and are pushing the envelope in the classroom.  One example is [CIBC Professor of Entrepreneurship and eCommerce] Karl Ulrich, also our vice dean for innovation.  Karl teaches a course called “Innovation, Problem Solving, and Design”; the entire class is focused on developing a process around the formation of new ideas and the development of new products. He literally runs the class as an innovation tournament—students are constantly experimenting with different ideas and making prototypes, and at the end of the course, they have a product prototype upon which they can build a venture, as the output.  

Another professor who is also really popular is Kartik Hosanagar [tenured associate professor of internet commerce], who teaches a course called “Enabling Technologies.”  The class is an applied approach to new technology and new media; assignments include making viral videos and then figuring out what makes some more profitable than others.  You can see how real-time and applicable this is to social media and to the technology we’re seeing in the real world right now.

mbaMission: Right. Can you talk a little now about what a typical day in the life of a Wharton first-year student is like?

AK: How students spend their time outside of class very much depends on the individual and what they’re hoping to accomplish and what they’re interested in doing.  Any given student could spend their time outside of the classroom involved in any number of student-run professional or social clubs, as we have a hundred-plus clubs.  Or you may be doing research with a professor outside of your in-classroom time because you have a particular interest and want to study something more in depth with them. Students also have used their time outside the classroom to start businesses, so working with Wharton Entrepreneurial Programs or the Small Business Development Center.

Students also use their time outside the classroom to explore and have experiences in industries that they’re looking to get into. There’s a student who—we don’t have class on Friday—spent every Friday interning at a retailer here in Philadelphia because they were looking to get into the industry and wanted hands-on experience.  So, you’ll find students doing any and all of those things sort of in their typical day and week.

mbaMission: Right, okay. You know, you seem like a pretty nice person to me, but candidates have a tendency to really fear the admissions committees, feeling like their future is in the admissions committees’ hands.  I mean, do you see any reason for someone to be fearful of you at all?

AK: [Laughing] I think I’m a pretty nice person, so I hope not.  I’m an alumna, so I’ve been through this process myself. I certainly know what it’s like to go through the application process.

We are advocates for the applicant, so we truly are on the applicant’s side.  I certainly don’t take this responsibility lightly now that I’m sitting on the other side of the table. It’s a true privilege, to be part of setting the direction for Wharton.  So, no reason to fear; again, I’m an advocate for the applicant, and we want to bring in the best people that we can to the program.

mbaMission: Right. Now, when you actually pick up an application, where do you start, and how do you read it? Can you kind of walk us through the process a bit?

AK: Sure! I read every application, literally from the start to the end, cover to cover, so it’s as simple as that.

mbaMission: Are you trying to just get an impression of someone, or do you actually sit down with a checklist and weightings and that sort of thing?

AK: We know how much effort and thought our applicants put into their applications. And so our philosophy is one that is rooted in being holistic and being iterative.

We look at the application in its entirety.  We ask for information on all parts of an applicant’s background: academics, their professional trajectory and accomplishments, of course, the essays and recommendations—because we think it’s really important to get this well-rounded perspective on them.  We then have multiple admissions team members provide their input on an application before any major decision is made.

mbaMission: I see, okay. Wharton’s average GMAT has risen in the past few years to about 720. Is this linked in any way to a kind of confidence that with a 720—up from 710, or 700—someone can manage the course load better? In other words, is this number rising for a particular reason—other than, I guess, applicants trying hard?

AK:  When we think about the GMAT or the GRE—we also take the GRE also at Wharton—the score is never viewed in a silo; it’s all part of the holistic review of someone’s academic capabilities and academic achievements.  We consider their GMAT in conjunction with their undergraduate record, as well as what else was going on for them when they were an undergrad: were they really involved with extracurricular activities, were they supporting a family, were they working, that sort of thing.

There isn’t a magic bullet with the GMAT; there is no score that will get you in or keep you out.  You’ll see on our profile that there’s quite a wide range around that average. That says something about the way that we look at the GMAT, in the context of the other academic pieces and in the broader application.

mbaMission: Got it.  Wharton has been very clear that its waitlist is closed.  Can applicants really do nothing to advance their candidacy while they’re on the waitlist? For example, if an applicant were to submit a letter on his or her behalf from a current Wharton student, would you turn that letter away?

AK:  We want to maintain a process that is equitable and has parity in it for all of our applicants.  When someone is on the waitlist, it’s really because we’re waiting for all the moving pieces and parts of the cycle to sort of settle.  It’s not necessarily about needing more information on the candidates; it’s about seeing, quite literally sometimes, whether there’s actually a seat or seats in the class available.

mbaMission: Right. But to that point, Wharton has so many alumni; I’m sure that many feel that they have the right to your ear. So, does alumni contact really matter in the consideration of an individual candidate? Have you ever ignored the recommendation of a very well-placed, high-profile alumnus or alumna who’s connected to the school quite strongly and has kind of campaigned on behalf of a particular applicant?

AK: Our alumni have always been a very important part of our process. They are the stars of the show at our information sessions.  People don’t come to hear me speak; they come to hear from our alumni and the panel and hear about their experiences.  

Similarly, when our candidates are admitted, our alumni host them and have welcome events. And so, we welcome alumni recommendations, too.  We actually have a portal on our Web site for alumni that allow them to send their recommendations directly to me.  

That said, having a recommendation from a Wharton alumnus or alumna is certainly not a prerequisite for admission. Most of our class doesn’t.  Again, this is due to our holistic evaluation process.

mbaMission: Assuming that you have a very strong applicant—the same, the exact same applicant—who can apply in Round 1, Round 2 or Round 3, can you reflect on whether his or her chances vary depending on the round? And if Round 3 tends to be more challenging, why exactly is that? Why give away so many places in the earlier rounds, knowing that more applicants are coming?

AK: We are pretty clear in our messaging that if you’re serious about coming to business school in a given year, apply in Round 1 or Round 2. Between those two rounds, it’s really your call, whether that’s early October or early January. But in Round 3, quite frankly, anything can happen.  There are years where we’ve admitted a three-digit number of folks [in Round 3], and there are years where we admitted no candidates in the third round.  If you’re serious about coming to business school in a given year, don’t wait until Round 3.

mbaMission: Right. You mentioned the GRE before, and I think candidates have this perception—it’s a myth, I would say—that the GRE isn’t viewed in the same way as the GMAT, as being of the same level of quality. And I was wondering if the admissions office at Wharton has ever really looked at and compared the GMAT data with the GRE data in any way. Have you done any studies like that?

AK: This past year, we accepted the GRE for the first time.  There are people in the first-year class who took only the GRE and were successful in our process. So from our perspective, we don’t prefer one or the other.

We offer both for a couple of reasons. One is, quite frankly, that some of our candidates are interested in pursuing dual or joint degrees, which already require the GRE.  Second, for Wharton, the GRE has been the standardized test that our own PhD program has taken for many years, and we know the quality and caliber of those students.  Candidates should simply take whichever test makes sense for them.

mbaMission: I forgot to ask something before, when we were talking about Round 3. So let’s say I’m a strong candidate, and for whatever reason, I could only get my application together in time for Round 3, and I ultimately didn’t get in. Would you say you have different expectations for me if I were to reapply in the next Round 1, which might be only a few months away?

AK:  There are a variety of reasons why someone may not be successful in our process. And I mentioned before, sometimes it really comes down to the logistics—unfortunately, sometimes there just isn’t a space available. So if an applicant is unsuccessful in Round 3 and they’d like to reapply, we welcome it.  We have many people who are very successful reapplicants every year; there isn’t a different threshold to cross when you’re a reapplicant.  

What we’re looking for is, in the time that you’ve had to reflect and to sort of think about your candidacy and identify some opportunities to strengthen, what have you done?  Of course, if you’re a Round 3 candidate, you’ve literally only had a couple of months. So tell us what you’ve been doing, tell us what you’ve learned, tell us what you’ve been thinking about—that’s all we’re looking for.

mbaMission: Right. We’ve seen a lot of news lately about changing class compositions at some of the top business schools, such as how Harvard is apparently moving away from finance, though the largest percentage of its class still comes from the finance industry. Wharton seems to have gone in the opposite direction. Do you have any kind of mandate for your class composition? Did your class last year include more finance candidates for a particular reason?

AK:  We see fluctuations every year in the make-up of our class, which is more a reflection of changes in our applicant population than anything else. There are emerging industries, emerging economiesin which an MBA hasn’t been a part of the conversation necessarily until now. We have people coming to us from such diverse backgrounds that really, the class profile only tells one small dimension of the story. 

The class profile simply shows the industries that our students came from immediately prior to business school, which is not an entirely full picture. However, if you look at the entirety of our incoming students’ industry experience throughout their careers, their industry experience is pretty tremendous and quite deep across industries and sectors. Using this broader perspective, the class has much more richness from industry experience than maybe that one data point necessarily indicates.

mbaMission: I think you’re right. I think people can sometimes really oversimplify or look at one thing as a trend in this arena. To finish up, do you have anything else you’d like to share about the Wharton program or admissions at Wharton? Something you want people to know for sure that they might not know already?

AK:  At Wharton, we value experience.  There is not a certain number of years of work experience or a particular age that we seek; rather, we value candidates coming into our program who’ve had a rich set of experiences in whatever industry they’ve chosen to work, for however long they’ve chosen to do that.   Having maturity and perspective and thoughtfulness—really being able to bring their reflections and their lessons and their questions to the program, to their classmates, to their professors—that is the heart of who we are, and our culture as well.

mbaMission: Excellent. Thank you so much for your time!

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