Wharton MBA bound: things I wish I'd known during the app process

Hello all, I'm new to this forum but thought I'd kick things off by trying to offer any advice I can on aspiring b-school applicants preparing for the fall 2016-17 application cycle.


I did consulting at a boutique for several years, was dinged w no interview at HBS, and interviewed at Stanford and Wharton, ultimately getting dinged at Stanford as well. I'm Wharton bound this fall and can think back to this time last year when I was prepping for the GMAT and beginning to think about essay topics and recommendation writers. Some of these tips may be obvious but here's my $0.02

Work schedule

Assuming you know at least a few of the schools you're applying to, look at the applications of the schools right now and understand what the task entails. Now that you know what you have to do (GMAT, essays, recs, short answers, etc.) develop a workplan in Excel and sync it with your personal/work calendar so you're aware of deadlines. With deadlines so far off, it's easy to ignore these reminders so give yourself +50% more time then you'd really need. For me, I gave myself May-June to do the GMAT, then June-Sept to write essays. I told my rec writers of my plans in July, and sent them reminders 3, 2, and 1 week before the school's deadlines.

With the workplan in place, do some high-level reading

Read blogs the free school guides available from the various admissions consultants, chat with friends who are already at b-school, chat with colleagues who have already graduated from b-school... this will give you an initial feel. Some of the stuff the say will be irrelevant (e.g., "I was sponsored at Wharton so I just traveled and skipped class for 2 years") but at least 50% should be helpful in guiding you.


With a general feel of the schools you want to apply to, that's great motivation to study for the GMAT because no you know what you're working towards. You can see the end of the tunnel a bit more clearly. I used the official materials, Manhattan, and CR bible. In short I:
- 2 weeks: Dabbled in all areas (CR, SC, PS, etc.) to understand how the questions are worded
- End of week 2: Took an initial test - got a 650 (average quant and low 30s on verbal)
- 4 weeks: Worked through 30-60 mins of verbal and 30-60 mins of quant everyday (2 and 2 hours each on weekends). I initially used the official materials
- After the 3rd week of studying I began taking Manhattan tests every week. They're notoriously over-difficult on math, which is great. Based on my actual GMAT, my verbal score was in line with reality.
- So I'm 5 weeks in and I take my first MGMAT - 650. Well isn't this great. No progress assuming all tests are created equal. Luckily, they're not. I'd add 20-30 points to your MGMAT scores.
- Fast forward 5 more weeks and I'd taken all the MGMATs (one each week), progressed through nearly all the official guide materials (all 3 books), and was ready to tackle the official practice exams from GMAC
- At this point I knew I was bad at DS and CR, so I dedicated 80% of my prep time to them and 20% to others. Similar to the MGMAT approach, I took 1 exam every Saturday, simulating actual test scenarios (woke up at exact time, ate the exact same meal, etc. all as if it were the test day)
- My scores climbed from 690 to 750 over this period of taking the official exams
- With my last exam on a Saturday and my real exam the following Saturday, I spent the subsequent 6 days reviewing my mistakes in prior MGMAT and GMAC tests
- The day before, I didn't touch anything and just went to the gym
- Test day: 750... 100 points above my initial 650

On to your essays

Felt a bit burnt out so took 2 weeks off after doing the GMAT, then began pondering essay topics.
To be honest, essays are important - hell, admissions consultants have built an entire industry out of them! But I'd say the success of your essays are 80% content and 20% writing ability. So don't feel the need to use these consultants unless you're really struggling on content development.
One interesting fact is you can have free calls with these consultants and they'll flat out tell you what they find interesting about your profile.. which should stoke some content ideas for your essays. In the end, I chose not to use a consultant. Maybe I would have gotten into Stanford if I had.
Your undergrad, company name, and GMAT are far more important factors to the adcom in my opinion. No name undergrad? Better have built some insane NGO... in Africa... by yourself. Mid-market bank? Better get a 790. The fact is there are plenty of people with 720s, mid-market banks / boutique consulting, and non-top 25 undergrads. So in a way much of your application is already created by the time you even consider applying. But to move that needle just a little bit you should either a) read this post 2 years before you're considering applying, or b) try to compensate for areas which are lacking by boosting your gmat score (assuming you can't redo undergrad or change jobs)

Recommendation writers

There are initial segments here: people who support you and people who don't. Then there are sub-segments... want autonomy in writing them vs. want you to write them and they'll sign... you're just another rec they need to write vs. you have a strong relationship w them and they care about you... etc. etc.
Figure out early the type of person your rec writer is, because it may reveal a need to reconsider. I had a phone call with a former Partner I thought I was close with, and he basically told me he was too busy. All those late nights realigning autoshapes to fit his 'style' ?? Didn't seem to remember those.
I learned more about the personal aspects of my current and former bosses during the 2 month rec writing process than I did after 4 years of working under them.
Ask them what they want - do they want you to write anecdotes so they can remember that time the client said "Brian this is exceptional work" ?? Do they want e-mail reminders 1, 2, 3 weeks before the deadlines? Do they want you to read the rec before they submit it? These are all things you should spell out with them early on so you're both on the same page. Effectively, it's a mini work schedule.


Adam Markus' blog had some pretty good advice here... don't just memorize answers to questions. Create anecdotes and then fit those anecdotes to the questions asked. I didn't get in to Stanford, but I still feel like this was the best approach.
For Stanford, your chemistry with the interviewer is an outside variable. Get your story sound, have some anecdotes ready, know the program inside out, but understand there are things you just can't control... and get comfortable with that fact.
For Wharton, think about your background - are a banker? a consultant? an NGO? ex-military? Your training is unique so when you're sitting in a room with 5 other applicants trying to solve the question prompt, think about what value you bring. For example, consultants pride themselves on structured thinking. So I basically just structured the entire discussion. Added maybe 1-2 thoughts on things that are unique but I positioned myself as the guy who would summarize all the thoughts. It worked.

That's all I can think of for now. Happy to answer any questions people may have.

Comments (27)

Feb 1, 2016

Great stuff. What are your plans after the MBA?

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Feb 1, 2016

Congratulations of your acceptance to Wharton.

I applied to several schools for R2, so still on the tail end of the application process. I didn't apply to UPenn, but nonetheless the group interview interested me.

Can you write a bit more about how it was? Did you feel that people were "playing a game" or "too strategic" in their comments, which are two things I've heard about the process? In whole, did you find it a better experience than the more traditional Stanford interview?

Best Response
Feb 9, 2016


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Feb 1, 2016

stellar post

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Feb 5, 2016

thanks for posting! good info

WSO's COO (Chief Operating Orangutan) | My Linkedin

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Feb 5, 2016

Congratulations! I strongly agree with you on the point "Your undergrad, company name, and GMAT are far more important factors to the adcom". Stories in essay are important, but there is a quantitative threshold that candidates need to pass to get into an elite business school such as Wharton.

We hear a lot of those "How I got into Harvard with 650 GMAT" or "How I got into Wharton with a 620 GMAT", those are always going to be rarities and something else about their profile that made them stand out.

Bottom line: Do try to score as high as possible on GMAT and if you have a chance to join a blue-chip company for a decent role after undergraduate, I believe it adds credibility.

Feb 5, 2016

Can you give an example of your structured thinking?

Feb 6, 2016

^ not sure if this is the correct way to do this. Pls let me know if no.

Hello - happy to see this is helpful for some. Please let me know if there are any broader topics you'd like to hear about and I'm happy to write new posts about them. I'm hear to learn about the banking industry but think it's important to give back as well. To answer your questions:

Plans after MBA: I'd like to pursue a summer in banking or at McKinsey/BCG (not Bain). And based on how that goes, I'll either take the offer or do something around global strategy (eg, Google, Samsung). Rationale being: I've always found the banking suit interesting from a skill set / understanding of how capital markets work, perspective, and view an MBA as really the only channel to jump into that arena. Have former colleagues who have loved and hated their summers at Goldman, Evercore, Morgan Stanley, so want to see what I think of it. I'm not interested in Bain because from what I've seen the types of projects you get at McK and BCG are far superior to those at Bain or other boutique shops. I have no interest, at least for now, in private equity so doing due diligence work at a Bain and then using that as an exit opp doesn't seem attractive to me.

Wharton interview and thoughts on Stanford alum interview: I view myself as pretty normal in the traditional sense so I found interviews enjoyable, because I had a legit logic behind my reasons for pursuing various aspects of my life (career, location, industry, undergrad, undergrad major, this b-school over that, etc.), and the opportunity to explain that logic, to me, was fascinating - it's not everyday you can explain to someone your thoughts on the world and what interests you. Plus, everyone likes talking about themselves. Overall, the Wharton interview was very positive and while, yes, many have a plan to game the system and be fake, as soon as the countdown clock starts on the little ipad next to your table, most of that 'gaming' is thrown out the window (at least that's how I felt) and natural instinct kicks in. In my 6 person group, 2 people in particular found it hard to interject because they couldn't identify a slice of the discussion they wanted to drive. And by the time 75% of the discussion was done with, they weren't really up to speed with what was going on, they sort of just glazed over and watched. This, I think, is their natural instinct. It's easy to game someone for 5 mins but when you're in a dynamic conversation that's really hard to predict I think the probability of gaming it is much lower. On the Stanford side, I take responsibility for blowing that (see: Steve Harvey) interview. I struggled to adapt to my interviewer's style. She seemed a bit doubtful from the start on my passion for my stated post-MBA goals, despite my background making it a natural next step. I should have adjusted in real time and seen her perspective a bit better... instead I just assumed she got it and moved on. That was a mistake. Overall, I prefer Wharton's interviews to Stanford's because you're surrounded by the best of the top applicants, many of whom likely were admitted to HBS and Stanford in the same cycle. That exposure really tests your social and intellectual dynamics in real time. On the flip side, I also think it's more difficult to judge. Having second year students evaluate your performance I find OK but not believable/trustworthy.

Why was I successful coming from a boutique: When I say boutique I'm referring to what I think of as the second tier consultancies beyond MBB (OW, ATK, Strategy&, Deloitte, Parthenon, etc.). I went to a top 25 school, so naturally my profile was noticeable but not over the top attractive. I know that some schools' adcoms give all the consulting applicants to the same person, all the PE applicants to the same person, etc. For whatever reason they can't pick all MBB. So, I guess among the non-MBB applicants I was towards the top of the pile. I think my GMAT being higher than the average, a bit of international project work I had, and my rec writers really helped me get in the door. I was pretty insane in terms of coaching my rec writers to say exactly what I wanted. And where they wouldn't comply / follow my rules - I called them out on it. They're all smart enough to know that b-school is a huge deal for my career so they were OK with my craziness.

An example of structured thinking: You have 100 ideas, and you rank them from 1st to 100th, then you put them in tiers - 1-10 as first tier, 11-30 as second tier, etc. That's structuring something. Or, you have people throwing out random ideas during your Wharton interview on what the answer to the prompt should be. You say - hey, let's all chill out and take a breather, and organize our thoughts a bit. Then, as the experienced consultant you are, you record everything on a piece of paper, extra similarities across them (they all have XYZ), and then construct a 'master' answer that incorporates both common aspects and the 'best' aspects (as judged by the group). That's structuring something live in a dynamic conversation. After I did that, I could see in my peripheral that the 2nd years viewing us were writing down vigorously so I knew that I'd done something right. And from then on I just kept doing it.

Feb 7, 2016

Can you elaborate on what your post-MBA goals were and how the Stanford interviewer was doubtful?

Feb 9, 2016

Congrats on your acceptances! Do you mind if I shoot you a PM? I am in the same boat and was wondering if I could ask you some questions about your experiences.

Feb 10, 2016

Fire away

Feb 11, 2016

The MBA application is ultimately a marketing tool. I think what would better help these pre-MBAers is how did you sell yourself to these top-schools in which you were ultimately successful in gaining an admission. The background you presented seems to be 1 of 10,000, and also note the mantra known throughout M7 schools is that a top gmat score doesn't get you in, and a bad GMAT score definitely will keep you out. Essentially, the GMAT is a check mark for these schools and is not least of which a factor that determines admission over other applicants; it just gets you a ticket to play in the pool of "possible candidates". There must have been something else to your application. If you said I'm a top 25 ugrad working in consulting with aspirations of banking/MB(B) and a 750 gmat score, I think you would likely have been passed over...

Just my .02s

Feb 15, 2016

I disagree on your point in terms of GMAT vs. positioning. If you have a GMAT above the average, top school, top/2nd tier employer, your chances are already pretty high. Positioning yourself to the max vs. positioning yourself to be OK I think has a far smaller impact than a 700 vs. a 750 GMAT.

The variability in what you can write about is so wide that reading 10 applications is just that... 10 data points on what got people into their schools. And you'll never see the 1,000s of other data points that did and didn't get applicants in. For how to prepare, I suggest people spend more time trying to get a GMAT above the average and less time trying to think about a compelling essay topic, simply because the essay topics/positioning of yourself should come naturally. People aren't spending 50 hours thinking of essay topics. But hopefully they're spending 50 hours studying for the GMAT.

But to answer your question, my positioning was something to the extent of:
1) Thought big in terms of my aspirations and ensured they had buzzwords relevant to current trends: green, startup, etc.
2) Connected the dots from my personal interests to why I did consulting to why MBA to how all those three prior dots make me a logical leader in the green tech space.

Feb 10, 2016


Feb 8, 2016

So basically how many months did you take to prepare for the GMAT? I've just started in order to apply for the MBAs in September and I'm already getting nervous...

Feb 8, 2016

Dude, congrats! Also headed to Wharton this fall and didn't have a golden background. The thing that I'd say is that at Wharton, and especially at Harvard and Stanford, you need something special or unique driving you in. I didn't come from an ideal role beforehand (i.e., not MBB or top PE), so I had a few strengths that drove me in, namely strong performance at work, dedication to charity, and a very high GMAT. Each piece of differentiation is critical. I think that my profile with a 720-range GMAT probably wouldn't have gotten a second look, and the same goes for if my total impact at work and ECs had been significantly smaller. Each weakness in the profile must be offset by some sort of strength - don't expect adcoms to blink at weaknesses.

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Feb 10, 2016


Feb 8, 2016

Thanks, Cork! I'm happy to provide more info about the process and about my background if you want to PM me!

Feb 9, 2016

Congrats on your acceptance.

One of my younger sister's got admitted into Wharton last year.

Good luck!

Feb 12, 2016