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Admissions Director Q&A: Maryellen Lamb of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School

maryellen_lambMaryellen Lamb was named deputy vice dean of Wharton MBA Career Management, Admissions and Financial Aid last fall, and she tells us that she absolutely loves the role. “I have a great job because I get to see both the comings and goings. I see Wharton students from when they just start thinking about an MBA through their time here as students and then as they advance in their careers,” she says. “It is so fun to watch really high-performing individuals reach even higher.”

Philadelphia born and raised, Lamb began her career in Princeton as a currency trader, but she found that the more successful she became, the farther away from Philadelphia she was forced to move. About 10 years ago she decided she wanted to return to Philly, and when she got a call from Wharton to come work in the Career Office as an advisor to students looking into investment banking, she jumped at it. “Over time, I have loved being at Wharton even more than I ever thought I could,” she says.

We are thrilled to have had a chance to speak with her earlier this week about her role, admissions and more. In the interview that follows she shares her excitement about the school’s new dean, helps define the full scope of diversity students can expect to find at Wharton and sheds even more light on the team-based discussion component of the application process. Enjoy!

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

Maryellen Lamb: I am really excited that we have a new dean in place. Geoff Garrett became dean of Wharton in July, replacing outgoing Dean Thomas Robertson. In the time that I have gotten to spend with him I have found him to be incredibly energetic and focused on all the right things. Right now he is asking a lot of questions and looking at the school in a very holistic way. I am excited to work with him on his initiatives, although it’s too early to know just what they will include.

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

ML: That one is easy to answer, although it comes down to a word that I think gets misunderstood a lot. That word is diversity. But I don’t mean that in the typical way people think about that word. It’s not just about having a class that is 40 percent women with students from 71 different countries. It is about the cultures and the languages, but it is also about the way students get to experience the program.

For example, for students who want to work in San Francisco and tap into the technology and venture communities, they can do a summer internship out there, they can organize a trek to go see a sector that doesn’t have as much representation on campus, or they can do one of our global modules. There are so many different ways and methods people can express and experience and explore what they are curious about, whether it’s through an international opportunity or something in San Francisco or something else entirely.

I find it can be hard to translate and explain this sense of diversity to prospective applicants. The other side is that once they are here and they start to share all that, it makes for this single community that is incredibly rich and diverse.

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.).

ML: One of the questions I get most from prospective applicants is, “What is the most important part of my application – the thing you are looking at the closest?” I always tell them that it is not about one particular data point on an application or one particular thing someone said in an essay. It is an incredibly holistic process, and we are trying to understand each applicants’ journey and not just their numbers. To this end, every application is reviewed by up to at least four different members of the Admissions Committee.

We have a multi-stage model. The application is first reviewed prior to the interview. Candidates who are invited to interview will then take part in our Team-Based Discussion (TBD). For the TBD we are looking to see how people perform in a team-based setting. We’ve found this part of the process to be great at identifying all the behaviors people demonstrate that we can’t pick up through the application or through a one-on-one interview.

Here again, I get lots of people asking me, “But doesn’t that just mean you end up with all extroverts, because those are who do best in the TBD?” It doesn’t mean that all we’re are taking are a bunch of extroverts. In fact, we haven’t seen more extroverts coming through at all since we implemented the TBD.

On the contrary, people who are not extroverts are performing really well in the TBD – sometimes by demonstrating an ability to really listen, sometimes by drawing someone into a discussion who has been particularly quiet. We find people using behaviors in the TBD that are very subtle but that are administrators are trained at observing.

So the TBD evaluation is added, and then the application as a whole gets another review. I’ve heard people say that in their TBD group there were five people and only two got in, so they assume the other three didn’t get in because of the TBD. It’s really not based on that – or not solely on that. The application as a whole gets reviewed another time with fresh eyes, and the TBD evaluation becomes just one more data point.

Then we meet as a committee and we think about everyone under consideration and how they are going to fit into the culture and the community.

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?

ML: The best advice I can give is not to view the essay as a place to tell me what you think I want to hear. Instead, it is a chance for you to express yourself a little bit more personally. What I want to see is something that we can’t otherwise see in the other components of your application. This is not the place to revisit something that appears on your resume or something one of your recommenders may have shared. This is really a chance for your personality to come through.

The best essays have something that really jumps off the page. That’s what we like to see. A lot of times people write what they think is safe, but when you read as many essays as we read, safe doesn’t really help. We are looking to see what is unique about you.

We have reduced the number of essays to one required and one optional. A range of considerations contributed to this shift, but one was that we want to relieve some of the burden on applicants. We understand that lots of candidates are applying to multiple schools, and we want to make the process manageable.

CA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

ML: While it’s too soon to say, application volume in our first round looks really good. We are very pleased with where we are in terms of that. I’ll just say again that I really do think I have the best job going. And finally, I hope that prospective applicants can really get to know Wharton, either through alumni or current students or through us in admissions.