In past years, the prompt the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School sends in advance to MBA applicants invited to participate in the team-based discussion (TBD) portion of its admissions process has been a closely held secret—for about two minutes. Historically, within days of invitations going out, it has been shared by someone (or someones) within the applicant community, drawing feedback and advice on how best to prepare. In fact, some admissions consultants have even crafted whole workshops around the topic.
This year, no dice. (Admissions consultants are still offering prep sessions and/or weighing in on strategies for performing well, but in more general terms about the format and not the prompt itself.) But we’ve heard not a peep—not in Clear Admit’s Interview Archive or elsewhere on the Interwebs.
What gives? We did do a little digging to try to ascertain what tactics Wharton is using to keep the TBD under wraps. Turns out, there’s a specific section stressing confidentiality in the invitation itself. (Applicants were willing to share that, just not the prompt itself.)
“As a reminder, the Wharton MBA application process is confidential and not to be discussed or shared with members outside of the Admissions team. To maintain the integrity of our process, as well as respect your fellow applicants, please refrain from discussing the specifics or specific individuals from your experiences in this next phase of the process.”
Was the allusion to a non-disclosure agreement—minus the actual signing of any legally binding contract—enough to zip applicants’ lips? Perhaps it’s the appeal to respect fellow applicants? Maybe it’s just the notion that failing to comply—if discovered—might jeopardize chances of admission? Or are applicants growing wise to what Wharton likely hopes they’ll understand anyway—that no amount of preparation focused on a specific prompt will guarantee success in an exercise that is designed to be spontaneous and organic?
We reached out to Wharton for official comment on its confidentiality clause and whether it’s become more strictly worded—or what else might be contributing to the tighter clamp down. But as of this writing, we have received no response.
Our sources have also revealed the general gist of this year’s prompt—namely that it is about creating or pitching a new leadership venture. If that information is correct, it would make it not dissimilar from last year’s prompt, which instructed 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.
The challenge inherent in this type of specific prompt—in contrast to more abstract prompts the school used in the first few years after introducing the TBD in 2012—is that each applicant brings his or her own idea for a leadership venture and has one minute to pitch it to the others before the group together selects just a single idea to develop more fully. This positions the negotiation around which idea to run with at the heart of the exercise, helping set the stage for an interaction that could truly mimic a Wharton classroom. As Graham Richmond (W ‘01)—a former Wharton admissions officer and Clear Admit co-founder—points out, it also renders potentially moot any substantial advance preparation about a specific idea.
“The research and prep work you do ahead of time might be for naught, since you have only a one-in-five chance that your ‘great idea’ for a new leadership venture 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.”
At the same time, it also serves as a very real scenario Wharton students could find themselves in as students. “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.
Brown also points out that applicants should go into the exercise realizing the different roles they can play in the discussion. “There are opportunities to show your strengths as a facilitator, an organizer, a time keeper, etc.” he notes. Applicants this year have also been attempting to use online forums, including Clear Admit’s LiveWire, to organize prep sessions with one another.
Barring that, or in addition, Wharton Director of MBA Admissions Frank DeVecchis offered the following advice in a blog post heading into this admission season. “When thinking about how to approach the TBD, the advice I most often give applicants is to reflect on your day-to-day interactions, both personally and professionally,” he wrote. “Each of us engages in TBDs every day of our lives. Pay attention to the role you typically play in those discussions, and when you get to the TBD, own that role! Are you the quiet consensus builder? The big idea person? The compromise negotiator? All have a role and usually flourish in our TBDs.”
As anxiety-provoking as it may be for some to have to head into an experience they can’t plan for completely in advance, that’s also kind of the point. As one applicant put it, “From this experience, I conclude about Wharton that this school is very focused on the interaction among people and the networks it can create through teamwork and group experiences. Also, that this interviewing process can show how people truly are and behave, which is so great to see and experience.”