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Admissions Director Q&A: Ankur Kumar of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania


Ankur Kumar, a Wharton alumna, joined the school’s admissions team three and a half years ago. In 2010 she was promoted to run admissions for the MBA program.

Kumar, who received her B.S. in finance from Wharton and her B.A. in economics from the College of Arts and Sciences, worked in investment banking and finance before returning to Wharton to pursue her MBA in strategic management. Upon graduation, she went into management consulting.

Asked to leave management consulting to join the Wharton admissions team, Kumar jumped at the opportunity to shape the program and have an impact. “For me, this transition was really a chance to leverage the skills I enjoyed about finance and consulting and bring them to a program I feel very strongly about and that is personal to me,” she told us.

In particular, her time as a Wharton student helped her appreciate the importance of having a diverse class of students who come from all over the world and bring with them a range of ways of thinking about business, she says. This is something she has pledged to keep top of mind as she brings together Wharton’s future classes.

In the interview that follows, Kumar dishes up some details about the new team-based discussion component of the Wharton MBA application, shares what she’s most excited about with regard to Wharton’s new curriculum and more. Don’t miss it.

Clear Admit: What’s the single most exciting development, change or event happening at Wharton this coming year?

Ankur Kumar: There are a number of exciting things going on at Wharton so it’s hard to pick just one. In admissions, we just launched the team-based discussion, which is an innovative new component of our admission process. It will provide prospective applicants with a first-hand view of the collaboration and teamwork that is such an important part of the Wharton experience. We also have heard that applicants sometimes feel a bit limited in what they can showcase in a written application, so this will give them a chance to “show us” aspects of themselves in this setting.

On average, about forty percent of applicants will be invited for the in-person component, which will include both the one-on-one interview as well as the new team-based discussion. Our process is incredibly holistic, so every element of the application is important to us and one can consider them as weighted equally. No single component is make or break.

We did test the new team-based discussion component. We conducted two sets of pilots, one with students who are currently in the program and a second with our round-three applicants this past application season. Contrary to some concerns, applicants are not going to be stacked up against one another in the team-based discussion. Quite the opposite as we are keen to see how our applicants interact and work together, in addition to the individual qualities that each brings. Again, the in-person components are not make or break components. We review every file in its entirety after the in-person components before making our final decisions.

Another exciting thing going on right now is the launch of our new curriculum, which allows Wharton students even more flexibility than they had before in carving out their academic path in the curriculum. As in the past, we continue to have both fixed and flexible components of the curriculum. We continue to have a “core” curriculum in which students will take courses across the business verticals; courses including Marketing, Operations, Strategy, Accounting, and Finance and also across areas including Leadership & Teamwork, Ethics, Communications and Business & Public Policy.

Our new curriculum adds even more flexibility within that “fixed” or core portion in three new ways. First, students will have flexibility in terms of timing, meaning they can push off some core courses until their second year. This will allow them to start taking electives in their first year. Second, they will have flexibility in terms of content, which is to say that they will be able to pick and choose some of the content to fulfill certain required courses. For example, for the Operations core course, students can now choose a course from across different operations topics, from information systems to innovation. The third element of flexibility will be in the learning method. For some core courses students will actually be able to choose the delivery method of their course. Take the marketing strategy core course, for example. Students can take it in a simulation format or a lecture & case format. All these aspects of flexibility will allow our students to customize their academic experience even more so than before.

In addition to those academic aspects of the new curriculum, we have also grown our feedback and coaching offerings. In the past, students’ opportunities to receive feedback and coaching were primarily focused on their learning teams and some students participated in an executive coaching program. Now students will be able to receive feedback in all of their teams; on average students will be part of 15 different teams both inside and outside the classroom. This is a phenomenal opportunity for students to hone aspects of their leadership, management and communication skills in real time over the course of their two years. We also have extended our individual executive coaching opportunities so that everyone can engage with a coach to help them as they are navigating the next two years. I think this will be an exciting part of our students’ experience and development opportunities while at Wharton.

CA: What is the one area of your program that you wish applicants knew more about?

AK: One area that is a strength of ours at Wharton is the analytical approach we bring to business, across all disciplines from marketing to entrepreneurship to real estate to healthcare. One needs to be comfortable with and capable of using and analyzing data and information to make business decisions. Wharton students get that from the way we teach courses and also from being surrounded by people from many different backgrounds. Our students have a mix of academic backgrounds; three-quarters have studied humanities, social sciences, math and engineering. The way a philosophy major may approach a problem is different from how an engineer would; students also expand their analytical thinking by learning from their classmates. Our students are not just receiving a functional skill set but an approach that allows them to be very analytically grounded no matter what field they choose.

I’d also like to highlight the breadth and depth of the academic, professional and extra-curricular activities here at Wharton. It is simply astounding. Students come to Wharton to pursue specialized programs like Healthcare management or our three-year JD/MBA program or our joint degree with the Lauder Institute. Or they could be interested in energy or retail or starting their own companies. Or working in Asia or the Middle East or South America or Africa. There are so many different academic and professional interests that our students come to Wharton to pursue.

Academically we offer 18 different majors, and students can choose from 200 different electives – from accounting to strategy to marketing to finance to coursework in real estate, retail, social impact, entrepreneurship, private equity. The opportunities to have both breadth and depth of experience while at Wharton aren’t limited to academics. Our students are running over 100 professional and social clubs and travel around the globe through exchange programs, global immersion programs, global consulting practicums, global modular courses and leadership ventures. There is such a range of experiential opportunities that students can leverage for their academic, professional and personal development. No matter what their interests may be, our students have a community of peers, faculty and alumni and a set of resources at Wharton to support them down their individual path.

CA: Walk us through the life of an application in your office from an operational standpoint. What happens between the time an applicant clicks ‘submit’ and the time the committee offers a final decision (e.g. how many “reads” does it get, how long is each “read,” who reads it, does the committee convene to discuss it as a group, etc.).

AK: Our process is incredibly holistic and iterative. A candidate’s academic background, professional trajectory, personal qualities and communication and presentation skills are all important in our evaluation process. We consider them all to be equally weighted.

In terms of the tactical life cycle of an application, it is a very iterative process. Our goal is to get multiple points of view on every candidate. Several members of our admissions team will read a file before we decide whether to invite for the in-person components – which will now include both a one-on-one interview and the new team-based discussion. We don’t invite everyone to take part in the in-person components of the process, but you must complete them to be admitted.

Then, after the in-person components, there is another iterative process in which multiple admissions officers review each file in its entirety before we decided whether to admit, waitlist or deny a candidate.

CA: How does your team approach the essay portion of the application specifically? What are you looking for as you read the essays? Are there common mistakes that applicants should try to avoid? One key thing they should keep in mind as they sit down to write them?

AK: So, again, our evaluation process is incredibly holistic. We look at academic records, professional experience and recommendations to get points of view on applicants that are external to their own. And then there are the essays, which are an applicant’s vehicle to tell us more about him or herself.

They are all things that we value and care about equally, but the essays are an opportunity for applicants to tell us more about who they are and how they think.

There are a lot of “whats” that we learn through the application process – what they studied, the industry they work in, the name of their firm, what they want to pursue after the MBA. In fact, many applicants may look at themselves and define themselves by the “whats.” But more important from our perspective is the “why” and the “how.” Why have they chosen to pursue a particular path, how have they created opportunities, what have learned from them and how has that impacted the choices that they’ve made, how they think. The essays really offer a window into how they approach situations, opportunities and business and the world in general.

The only “should” in the application is to follow the directions and answer the questions we ask. In the essays, each of our applicants will interpret the questions in their own way and answer accordingly. We are looking for just this; each applicant’s unique take and perspective. My advice is always to be very genuine and direct with whatever information they want to share. Don’t overthink the essays – or any part of the application. Tell us who you truly are – not who you think we want you to be.

CA: Anything else you’d like to add?

AK: There are two final things I would like to highlight. The first is an additional program we have launched called Semester in San Francisco. This is a two-year pilot that will provide an opportunity for about 60 full-time MBA students to spend a semester at our Wharton West campus in San Francisco. We have had a presence there for about a decade and long offered our MBA for Executives, but now our full-time MBA students will get a chance to spend time out there close to Silicon Valley. Our first class starts there in September; it will be exciting to see this new program come to life.

Finally, I would like to invite our applicants to come visit us on campus. There is nothing like coming to see the program and Philadelphia firsthand. We have a great visit program that starts back up September 24. Prospective applicants can attend classes, go on a tour of campus, have lunch and meet with current students, and really get a feel for life at Wharton. Details on how to sign up are on our website.

We also have a number of special visit days for women applicants, LGBT applicants, applicants coming from the military, students of color and applicants interested in social impact. The Admissions team has also been traveling since May – and will we will continue to do so through early October – to host presentations on the Wharton MBA in cities around the globe as well. We also have several industry panels we host that allow applicants to learn more about real estate, healthcare, entrepreneurship at Wharton. We’d love to see our applicants at these events both on and off campus.

And we also have resources available online – our student2student forum is a great way to have your questions answered by the admissions team. And continue to check out our blog this fall for more application insights and information on the program.

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