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The Wharton TBD Prompt: Former Wharton Admissions Staffers Weigh in on How to Prepare

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Clear Admit’s LiveWire blew up last week as Round 1 applicants to Wharton shared whether or not they’d received a coveted invitation to interview. Yesterday, Wharton Admissions Director Frank DeVecchis chimed in with his own advice for participants. “Relax and be yourself!” he tweeted. Easy for him to say.

Imagining that some of you are less than completely relaxed—especially given that Wharton has changed up its team-based discussion (TBD) prompt this year—we’ve consulted with two experts who formerly worked in the school’s admissions office for their advice on how best to approach things.

In a departure from prior years’ prompts—which were somewhat more abstract—this year’s prompt serves up a scenario that MBA students could very well encounter while at Wharton. The prompt instructs applicants to picture themselves as a member of Wharton’s student-run Conference Committee and come prepared to pitch an idea for a one-day, high-impact conference for their club.

Not so hard, right? Here’s the rub: Each of the five applicants in the TBD brings his or her own idea for a conference and has one minute to pitch it to the others. Then, the group together selects just one of those ideas to develop further as the real heart of the exercise.

Wharton Gets Tricky with Its Prompt
“Certainly this prompt gets closer to really understanding how someone will contribute during their time at the school, so it has value beyond seeing how someone interacts in a group discussion,” says Alex Brown, a Clear Admit consultant who worked for several years in admissions at Wharton. But as for the part where the group determines which of the ideas to run with, “That could get ‘tricky’,” he says.

Tricky indeed, agrees Graham Richmond, another former Wharton admissions officer who also happens to hold an MBA from the school. (Richmond co-founded Clear Admit before going on to launch his own firm advising schools on the admissions process.) “All the work you do in advance might be for naught, since you have only a 1-in-5 chance that your ‘great idea’ for a club conference will be chosen by the group,” he says.

“Talk about a tough dynamic,” he continues, “since many will assume that if their idea is chosen they will have a slight advantage out of the gate…and they therefore may be reluctant to let it go/to not battle a bit for their idea to be chosen.”

How to Prepare for the Pitch
Putting aside for a moment that particular wrinkle, let’s think about how to approach preparing your individual conference idea to pitch to the group. Richmond sees this as a two-part exercise, beginning with picking the club conference you want to present.

In coming up with a conference idea, Wharton invites applicants to consider themselves either as part of an existing club or as one that has not yet been created. “The former might be a bit easier to work with, since there could be a precedent to build from,” Richmond says. This route also offers an opportunity to show your knowledge of what happens at the school, Brown points out. If you do opt to propose a conference for a club you think Wharton needs, just be sure that whatever you propose isn’t actually something that could fall within an existing club’s bailiwick, Richmond cautions.

Whichever path you choose, assume that the conference you propose should be consistent with your goals and your candidacy. “View this as an opportunity to highlight important aspects of your application,” Richmond suggests. “In other words, this is your chance to show that you are the corporate social responsibility gal or the energy sector guy, etc.”

Once you’ve decided on a club—if it’s an existing club—you need to dig in and do your homework on what has been offered in the past. “You might even reach out to current students in that club for insights and to better understand the current state of offerings,” Richmond says.

Next, once you have a great sense of the club you will focus on (or create) and you’ve dreamed up a topic that could be truly important for said club to forge a conference around, you then need to figure out how to pitch it…in one minute or less. “You need to present your idea in a way that is concise, compelling and convincing—without sounding cocky, condescending or close-minded,” says Richmond.

Great. Another easy task. Did we mention that this Wharton TBD is a little tricky? That’s just the two-part process for preparing your pitch. Next up: You need to really consider the team-based part of the TBD. Richmond advises thinking about this along two tracks, one in the event that your idea is chosen and the other if it’s not.

How to Prepare for the Discussion
“If your pitch is picked, then you need to think about how you will work with the team to flesh out your idea and incorporate what the group might add,” he says. “Your goal here is to be seen as an inclusive leader who works well in teams.”

If yours is not the idea the group decides to run with, then it’s time to pivot quickly to finding a way to jump on board with someone else’s concept, says Richmond. “You want to look for ways to marshal support for the idea and have a really productive, friendly brainstorming session with the group.”

Some applicants might worry that demonstrating leadership skill and vision as part of the TBD will be hard until it’s their idea that’s chosen. Not necessarily the case, Richmond says. “I would argue that the person who helps identify another TBD team member’s idea as the one to pursue—and rallies support for it while striving to include all TBD members in the process—might actually be just as well served (if not better) than the person who’s idea is chosen…”

So chew on that a little as you think about how hard to fight for your idea to be chosen.