mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with University of Pennsylvania-Wharton Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid JJ Cutler

mbaMission: Okay, I have a typical first question that I ask, but I’m going to ask it second this time because first I want to ask you, now that you’ve been Wharton’s admissions director for more than a year now, what you feel the hallmark of your tenure is thus far, and what changes do you feel you’ve brought to the school’s admissions process?

JJ Cutler: Well, given that I did not have deep expertise in admissions per se, I think that the changes that we’d like to make are still yet to be implemented. So I don’t think we’ve necessarily made any transformative change yet. It has taken me some time to get my arms around the admissions process, how it works. It’s changed a lot since I went to business school over ten years ago, and most of what I’ve been working on is understanding the strategy, understanding the process, understanding the vision, the goals of the school, making sure that admissions is aligned with those things. I mean, we’ve had great directors in here before me, and a great and talented team, so a lot of it has just been trying to understand what is happening and listening and learning over this past year. And now I think that part is a little more complete. It’s time to think about the changes that need to be made, and most of that will be implemented moving forward.

mbaMission: Okay, good. So the first question I usually ask is related to how people, as you know, often subscribe to stereotypes about certain business schools. What do you think Wharton is not known for that it should be known for? What are the underrated aspects of Wharton?

JJC: I think there are quite a few. I mean, because we’re a fairly large school and because we have a long history, I think the list of underrated parts of Wharton is pretty long. For us, I think it’s things like marketing and, in particular, interactive media, which is somewhat new and has become a real deep strength of ours. Real estate is an area that again, some people know about and some people don’t. It’s a real area of strength for us. And health care is a real strength of ours. Again, I think that some people know about it, some don’t.

Our entrepreneurial program is, from my perspective, second to none, and it’s varied and it’s deep, and it has a long history. And I think that’s sometimes an underappreciated part of our program. We have a fairly aggressive retailing initiative that over the last few years has really picked up a lot of traction and momentum. So I mean, those are probably the ones that come to mind more immediately as parts of Wharton that are maybe a little less known sometimes, but you know, impressive, deep and with long history.

mbaMission: Great. Is there a stereotype out there that you’d want to debunk with respect to the school? Something that you think people perceive about it that isn’t in fact true?

JJC: I think for us, the myth that is most associated with Wharton is that we are most well known for finance. And with that myth, you get a lot of other misperceptions  that are built around that. So you get rumors like, “We only want people with really strong quantitative backgrounds. We only want people who want to major in finance. We only want people who come from the investment banking world. We only have people who go work in investment banking after school.” So it’s kind of one myth around finance, and built around that are a lot of other myths about our students, about the culture —  that we’re cutthroat, that you have to work at a specific firm to come here, that you have to work at specific kinds of firms when you leave here.

So my basic sense on all of that is they’re all just misperceptions . We want well-rounded people. We get applicants from all over the world, across every industry. We have people who after business school go work in every industry. We certainly like people who are going to be able to handle our academic program, and our academic program is a fact-based, analytic, data-driven approach to solving problems. But we also want people who are creative. We want people who are intellectually curious on a variety of dimensions, not just on the harder quantitative skills. So that’s what we look for. And again, I think that because we have one of, if not the best finance departments and finance curriculum amongst our peers, we want to celebrate our heritage in the quantitative disciplines and our expertise in finance, , but we also have built over the years excellence across a whole lot more than that.

mbaMission: Definitely. So, you know how applicants are always on their toes and concerned that if they step out of line the tiniest bit, they’re going to be done in this process. Can you walk us through how an application is read at Wharton and also what state of mind it’s read in?

JJC: Sure. I’ll start with the process. And I’ll just tell you exactly how we do it, and then we can go from there. Every application gets read a minimum of three times. So typically, the first time that it’s read, it’s read by one of our graduate students. And it’s a fairly competitive process to become one of our graduate assistants. The graduate students read an application fully, all the way through. They’ll look at your academic performance, they’ll look at your essays, they’ll read your recommendations, they’ll look at your extracurriculars and other activities, and they will, of course, look at your work experience, and they will kind of summarize and rank all of those different features, both individually and then they’ll provide kind of a holistic summary.

Then the application gets read a second time in totality by one of the members of the Admissions Committee. And then I will typically read every application a third time. At that point, we’re really just trying to decide, do we want to interview this person or not? So, depending on how the application is doing at that point, we’ll either invite the person for an interview or the process will end for that person. And that typically happens about midway through each of our three rounds.

The interview can then take place. One of our alumni can do the interview in the city where the applicant lives or works. Or, the applicant can come here to our campus in Philadelphia and interview with one of the graduate students or Admissions Committee members. And then the Admissions Committee, we also will do what we call hub interviews at locations around the world, and typically we choose those locations to be central and accessible to where large numbers of applicants can interview with one of the Admissions Committee members around the world.

And then the interview report is placed into the file, and the file gets recirculated and read a fourth time by a member of the Admissions Committee. It is not the same person who read it the second time. At that point, we make a decision, and depending on how the round is shaping up, it may get read a fifth time or even a sixth time. Most applications at that point, it gets pretty competitive. It generally requires more reading and more discussion in a committee format before we will make a final decision, which could be “admit,” it could be “waitlist,” and it could be at that point the application is denied. And that’s the basic process. I could certainly go into a lot more detail about interviews, about how we do them. We can also talk more to your question about the mindset and the philosophy, so…

mbaMission: Right, just to be clear: are these progressive stages, where once an application gets past one person, it moves on to the next person and then past that person to you, or do all three stages occur no matter what a reader’s perspective on the application is along the way?

JJC: It’s the latter, not the former. All three stages occur regardless. I mean, the first person could fall in love with the applicant or not like the applicant at all—it doesn’t matter. It still going to get a full and complete second read by an Admissions Committee member and still will get reviewed by me before any final decision is made. So everyone’s application gets read three times, regardless of what the first reader thinks, to be perfectly honest.

mbaMission: Okay, great. I’d love to hear a little more about the interview process. How would you characterize the interview?

JJC: Our interviews are blind, and that’s, I think, a really important distinction for applicants to know about—what kind of interview you’re preparing for and what kind of interview you’re going to have. In our process, the person interviewing you has not read your application beforehand. So they will see your resume at the time of the interview, but they will not have met you before, they won’t have any preconceived notions about your application. This also means people need to be prepared to tell us a little bit about themselves, to kind of get the ball rolling. We won’t have the application, so we won’t be able to ask very specific questions about background or experiences. And I think some people prepare thinking we know those things ahead of time, and obviously, if you assume your interviewer knows those things, you handle the interview differently. So it’s really important to be prepared for different schools and different styles.

mbaMission: Okay, and going back to what I mentioned earlier, what can you tell us about the typical perspective of the readers as they go through each application?

JJC: I would say the overall perspective, and this is true for the interview, but it’s true, I think, for the whole process, is a positive perspective. So, we’re not looking for reasons to deny someone, we’re looking for reasons to admit someone. We appreciate that most of our applicants have put a lot of time and energy and thought and introspection into putting their application together. It’s hard. You have to make a lot of choices and decisions about what things you want to tell about yourself, how you’re going to use a limited amount of space to talk about yourself. You have to make a lot of hard tradeoffs about things you can tell us and things you don’t have an opportunity to tell us. And you know, for people who really throw their everything into their application, it can sometimes be, in a good way, a painful process, because you’re digging deep and you’re holding up the mirror. You’re thinking about your life and where you’ve been and where you want to go.

So we take that into consideration, and we read with an eye toward wanting to find all the good things about an applicant. We look for their strengths. We look for things that make them stand out, that make them unique. We look for their accomplishments. We look for positive parts of the application. Now at the same time, everyone has something, or more than one thing, in their application that they need to overcome. For some applicants, it might be their undergraduate GPA, which you can’t change once you apply. You can’t go back and do anything about it. So other parts of that application need to work harder to overcome those pieces, whether it’s somebody’s essays or recommendations or their work experience or their undergraduate performance. Everyone has something they need to work hard in another area to overcome. So we’re looking for how people choose to do that.

We think a lot about the judgment that goes into the application, and, as I mentioned before, you have to make hard decisions. I’m as much interested in why you chose the topic you chose as I am about the answer itself. I’m much more interested in how you think through the problem of why you picked this, what you’re trying to tell me about yourself by the recommender you chose, by the choices that you’ve made, by the decisions that you’ve been forced to make, by how you handle those things. I’m more interested in your thought process than necessarily interested in the answer itself or the story itself.

Each person, when you look at them in an application, it’s a bit like a puzzle, and you’re trying to put the pieces together and see if it hangs together. You’re looking for consistent themes, you’re looking for trends. You’re looking for what people have done already and trying to decide what will happen to them after they come through our program. And you’re thinking about all the different constituencies that you’re representing as you’re reading. You’re thinking about the faculty. You’re thinking about alumni. You’re thinking about employers. You’re thinking about other students, you know? It’s almost like the weight of those people is on your shoulder. So in our case, we’ve got 85,000 alumni. We’ve got over 200 faculty. We’ve got another 800 or more students. We’ve got all our employers that come to recruit. We’re trying to think about how this person will feel to all those different constituents.

mbaMission: So you talked a little about how it’s not a punitive process. That said, are there any pet peeves of yours or major mistakes that you feel candidates regularly make that they’re just not aware of?

JJC: I think the overall mistake that I see consistently is people who feel, who are trying to write or do things that appear not to be genuine, that appear to be designed to get [them] into business school. Right? I mean, for the most part, the best people and the best applicants are people who are just doing great things because they love them, because they want to do them, because they’re good at them, and they enjoy them. And it doesn’t feel like there’s a sort of strategic packaging together that’s taking place. It doesn’t feel overly orchestrated or forced. And I think that’s the biggest thing I see, is that people are so programmed or rehearsed and prepared and coached that they lose their own inner voice. That they lose their own passion, and when that happens, it’s just hard to know what’s authentic, what’s real, what’s genuine, and what is designed to be strategic or calculating.

Now this is not to say I don’t want people to be prepared. It’s not to say I don’t expect the quality of the presentation of the application to be very high. It should be. People should be prepared. People should be thoughtful. But there’s a difference between being thoughtful and prepared and being overly scripted and strategic and programmed. And that’s the biggest mistake that I think I see, is that it feels like people oftentimes do things or say things that they think we want to hear as opposed to just being true to themselves and being honest and real, and letting us decide, relying on us and our judgment and our expertise to determine whether the fit is there and what the next step should be.

mbaMission: Right. We put a tweet out asking for questions from applicants out there who are interested in Wharton, so we have a few from applicants who responded.

JJC: Okay, I think I saw that.

mbaMission: So here’s one. How has Wharton been affected by shrinking endowments? How has the school weathered the storm? Are scholarships down, for example?

JJC: Actually, both the University of Pennsylvania and Wharton have a long history of being a little bit more conservative and pragmatic with the way in which we manage our finances. In the boom times, I think that might have hurt the school, but in the last couple of years, in a relative sense, we’ve actually done quite well. So our endowment has not been as affected as other similar schools’, and the university in general has been able to weather the storm much better than others.

So in fact, our ability to fund financial aid on the MBA side is up a bit. And last year, we were one of the schools that was able to put together a very compelling international student loan for students who were outside the United States and did not have a co-signer. We were able to put together a very compelling offering when the CitiAssist program dissolved. And part of that is predicated on our brand, and part of that is predicated on the way we’ve managed our resources. We’ve been somewhat conservative for a period of time, and in this environment, that approach seems to be serving us quite well.

So overall, I would say the crisis hasn’t really affected us. If anything, it’s been good for us. We’ve been able to attract higher quality faculty. We’ve been able to hire staff, when other schools have not been able to do those things. There’s been a bit of a “flight to quality” in times like this—you know, the power of the brand is even more important—and for our school, that seems to have been a positive development.

mbaMission: Okay. Here’s another Twitter question: if I opt for the health care major or the Lauder Program, for example, and there’s higher demand for these programs, will my chances of being admitted be negatively affected? Will I only be compared against these pools?

JJC: For both the Lauder Program and the health care program, the process works roughly the same way as for every other student, with the difference being that you have to declare your intent to join those programs at the time of application. And those are the only two programs where those are binding decisions that you have to make up front. To the extent that more people apply to those programs, then yes, those programs do become, by definition, more competitive. You are both compared with the other applicants within those programs and compared with the overall applicant pool. And I would say that’s no different than anyone. So to some extent, every applicant is compared to applicants who have similar backgrounds and similar experiences and look similarly to other applicants. At the same time, every applicant is also competing with every other applicant. So in that regard, the Lauder and the health care applicants are not judged any differently than any other.

mbaMission: Got it. This is another question we received via Twitter: every program claims to have strong alumni, great professors, etc. What do you think truly differentiates Wharton from other top programs? What is Wharton’s unique value proposition?

JJC: Let me start by saying that I think, to some extent, we and our peer schools are far more similar than we are different. I think that for people who are applying to Wharton and are choosing between Wharton and other schools in our peer group, at the end of the day, there are more similarities than there are differences. Having said that, I think the biggest difference for students, for applicants, is the culture and the fit. And everyone says that. On some level, you can compare faculties, you can look at the numbers of alumni in different countries, you can look at the facilities. At the end of the day, you’re first and foremost picking a place that you’re going to live in for two years, and at this point in someone’s life, two years is a long time. It’s almost like picking a family. You know you want to find a place that you feel comfortable in, that seems to be a good fit for you, that’s going to challenge you, but that’s going to do it in a safe and comfortable way.

And I think for every applicant, how they answer that question is more about them than it is about the school. They need to come and touch it and feel it and meet other students, and get to know the faculty, understand the teaching styles and philosophies. They need to meet some of the alumni and see how that feels. And so I think it’s a very personal question on some level.

mbaMission: That was a great answer. Building on that, the Visit Wharton Program, would you say it’s to a student’s advantage during the application process to attend? Do you have any preference for people who’ve taken the time to visit the campus?

JJC: No, not really, and I’m thinking of how many of our students now who are from countries where it’s not easy to get to and from Philadelphia. Given how much [information] is available online and given how many alumni of ours are spread throughout the world, I certainly don’t think there’s any advantage from an application standpoint, in my view, in visiting or not. Do I think it helps the applicant make a decision? I do. So I think it helps applicants maybe understand their priorities in terms of which schools to apply to, and I certainly think once you get admitted, if you’re making choices between schools, I’d strongly encourage trying to visit. But it doesn’t help your chances in admissions. I would recommend it more from the applicant’s standpoint than necessarily from our standpoint. We don’t have any preference for people who’ve been here or not.

mbaMission: Okay. So, the dreaded third round—should it really be as dreaded as candidates believe? There’s definitely a kind of “don’t apply in the third round” philosophy out there. How do you feel about that philosophy? What would you tell applicants about applying in the third round?

JJC: Well, “dreaded” is a strong word, but I think it’s fair to say that the third round is not the ideal round for a really strong applicant. By the time we get to the third round, the reality is that a lot of things have already happened. So our ability to make decisions in the third round is different than it is in the first round. So my advice is to always use the third round as an absolutely last resort. So again, I would never say “dreaded,” but I think if you’re serious, and if it’s possible, you should apply in Round 1 or 2. Third round is—and we’re very clear about this on our Web site—just significantly less optimal for an applicant than Round 1 or Round 2.

mbaMission: Another thing you’ve been very clear about on your blog is that you don’t want to hear from people on the waitlist. But candidates seem to believe that there’s some trickery in this, that they can beat down your door in some way, and that this is some sort of test. So can you be unequivocal both in terms of candidate communication and third-party communication about candidates who are on the waitlist?

JJC: Sure. The first thing I’d say is, if you’re on the waitlist, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, by definition it means you are admissible. It means you are quite competitive, and it means you’re sort of still “in the mix.” Right? So your application is still viable, and you’re still in the discussion. It’s just that we need a little bit more time to see a few more different things, mostly things that are outside the applicant’s control, before we can make a final decision one way or the other.

So the first point is, we’re very serious when we say we don’t want people to contact us. It’s not a joke. It’s not a test. It’s not a trick. We really don’t want to hear anything else. And there are really a couple of reasons for that. One is we want to be fair to everyone. Two is the factors we’re waiting for have nothing to do with the applicant at that point. They’ve put their application together, like everybody else, and we are unable yet to make a final decision on their application. And that’s almost all about not yet having enough information about things external to the application. So more information about the applicant isn’t what’s causing our decision not to yet be made. It’s that we need more time to see what happens with other things that are outside the application. And that can be around class size. It can be that we need to see what the next round looks like. It could be that we need to see what decisions are made by other applicants.

So, we really don’t want more information. It wouldn’t be fair—we don’t want to allow people to reopen and resubmit materials unless we do that for everybody. And we really don’t need any more information at that point. We’ve decided that you are admissible; we just need a little bit more time to get a little more information before we can make a final decision. And so that’s how I would characterize the waitlist situation

mbaMission: It seems that Wharton will occasionally offer a deferral that hasn’t actually been requested by the applicant. You’ll admit someone, not for this class, but for the next class. How frequently does that happen and under what circumstances? Does this happen primarily to candidates who are on the waitlist?

JJC: At least from my time here, I can’t really think of a situation where that’s happened, but my sense is we would only offer a deferral in response to a request from a student, and we offer them pretty rarely. As I think I’ve said [elsewhere] before, a deferral is a fairly unique and special situation where you’re basically guaranteeing someone a spot in a future class. So we don’t take that decision lightly. I can’t think of a time where we’ve ever granted a deferral without someone requesting one first.

And I think the relationship between the waitlist and deferrals is…well, I don’t think there is a relationship. I think they’re totally independent, separate things. The waitlist is really about the current year. Deferrals are really, to some extent, unique situations for people who’ve already been admitted. Not waitlisted, but admitted. And for whatever reason—personal, professional—they would prefer not to come in the year they originally intended but would rather wait one more year. To me, those two things are completely disassociated.

mbaMission: Okay. Thank you for clarifying that. So how do you feel when someone says that Wharton is their number one choice? Is that at all credible to you?

JJC: It depends. I would say for the most part, it’s not that it’s not credible, it’s that it falls into the space of maybe an applicant telling us what they think we want to hear. Now I do think there are applicants who tell us that we’re their first choice, and then they have a lot to back it up with, either because of people they know or things they’ve done, or because they have a specific interest that aligns with something here. I mean, sometimes that’s credible. I think people tell us that because they think we’re concerned about our yield. They think that I’m trying to manage the yield, and to be perfectly honest, that doesn’t factor in at all.

I think for us, the rankings and the yield percentages and all of that, they kind of all matter in a big sense in terms of our brand and our reputation. But we’ve been doing this a long time, and we’ve been innovative for many years, in all parts of our program. And I think our brand and our reputation are quite strong. Plus, the rankings can sometimes be volatile; the methodologies are not always perfectly transparent. So to the extent that people think that telling me Wharton is their first choice because they think that is going to help me manage some statistics for a ranking or a poll, that’s completely false. It just does not factor in. If they’re trying to tell me Wharton’s their first choice because they’re trying to communicate their passion for the school to me, then sometimes that can be credible.

mbaMission: I see. Okay, last question. What can you tell us about the summer and full-time job searches? I know you’re not in charge of career services, but do you have anything to share on the topic? How do you think students have been faring

JJC: I talk to a lot of students anecdotally, and I work very closely with my counterpart in career management. As I mentioned before, employers are an extremely important constituent, and I think at the end of the day, students come [to business school] in part because they want to make their careers better and, for a variety of reasons, they’ve hit a certain point in their lives and their careers and are using this as an opportunity to invest in themselves, to either do something different or new or to move more quickly, or to make a difference in a different part of the world or some sector. So I’m very interested in and follow as closely as I can the employment trends.

Most of what I can tell you is anecdotal from having talked to students, and my sense is that our students are doing quite well. I think there are fewer jobs. I think the jobs that are there in the traditional spaces are more competitive. And I think that there are fewer jobs in the traditional spaces. So what I hear from students is they’re looking at things they didn’t originally think they’d be looking at when they applied. I hear a lot from students thinking about entrepreneurial pursuits, either [joining] small businesses that exist today or starting a business of their own, or higher growth businesses that they’re trying to break into that may not have been on the radar screen before. I see a lot of people looking at different industries that they had not originally considered.

I think people are much more prepared and concerned and are spending their time more wisely. They’re not throwing all their resumes out there and hoping one sticks. They’re being much more disciplined about what they want to pursue and what they’re passionate about. And I think people are being a lot more flexible about the macro trends and trying to sort of rethink and recalibrate both short-term expectations and short-term priorities. But with all that, my sense is that our students are doing quite well. And I think that speaks partly to the school, partly to our students, partly to our alumni, and partly to our career management office. And the combination of our brand and the students who come here—they’re resilient, they’re smart, they’re disciplined, they’re creative. You combine that kind of person with the resources and the alumni base, and you have groups of people who are very up to speed on what’s happening in different parts of the economy and are trying to make this challenging situation an advantage, and playing to their strengths and to the school’s strengths as well.

So mostly what I’m hearing is what I think you would call cautious optimism. But in some ways, we’re talking about this sort of crisis being an opportunity that’s too good to waste, that there’s a flight to quality, that brand matters, that this is a time when people can really leverage their capabilities and play to their strengths. So that’s the anecdotal answer. I don’t have data, but we’ve lived through downturns before. We had one earlier; in the last decade, in the early part of the last decade, we experienced a downturn. And so we’re looking very carefully at what happened during that downturn, what happened afterward, the data and statistics, in terms of jobs. Tactics we deployed to manage through that downturn. So we certainly have lived through this type of environment before and feel good that we will continue to make headway through this one as well.

mbaMission: Great. Is there anything else that we didn’t cover that you feel you would like to communicate to the people who will read this interview?

JJC: My only final thought is I would encourage people to apply. I think you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, right?

mbaMission: Right.

JJC: I think people sometimes choose not to apply to Wharton because they think, you know, we’re this kind of school or we’re that kind of school. Or that we want people who are this age or that age, or this gender or that gender, or this country or that country, or this industry or that industry. And what I’d like to do is encourage people to apply. I can’t admit someone if they don’t apply, and there’s no way of knowing if you don’t apply. I’m always trying to encourage people who think of themselves as different, or think they don’t fit the profile, or think that they’re not a Wharton person. I always encourage those people to apply. And so I would just like to encourage people, when they’re thinking through the process, to consider Wharton and to apply, and let the process and the system take over from there. And I think it’s a great time to go back to business school. I think it’s a great time to be at Wharton, so I’m looking forward to seeing great applications this year and in the years to come.

mbaMission: Great, great. Thank you so much, JJ. You’ve been really generous with your time, and I really appreciate it.

JJC: No problem!

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