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Admissions Director Q&A: Blair Mannix of The Wharton School

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Blair Mannix, Director of Admissions at the Wharton School

We are rolling along with our Admissions Director Q&A series and are thrilled to welcome Blair Mannix, Director of Admissions for The Wharton School. Blair has a rich history in higher education, working at Penn since 2008 and specifically in admissions at Wharton for nearly a decade. She has an undergraduate degree from Saint Joseph’s University and a master’s degree from Penn’s Graduate School of Education, where she studied Early Decision programs at selective universities.

In this interview, Blair talks about:

  • The life of an MBA application at Wharton
  • Admissions essay tips
  • The Team-Based Discussion
  • Deferred admissions
  • How COVID-19 is impacting campus visits and class instruction

…and more! Check out the abbreviated transcript below, or listen to the podcast episode (hosted by Graham Richmond and produced by Dennis Crowley) here – or in your favorite podcast app.

Clear Admit MBA Admissions Podcast
Clear Admit MBA Admissions Podcast
Episode 174: Admissions Director Q&A—Blair Mannix of The Wharton School

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Graham Richmond for Clear Admit (CA): What do you like most about working in MBA admissions at The Wharton School? 

Blair Mannix for The Wharton School (BM): Wharton is a really special place. What gets me out of bed every morning is the culture. It’s the team. Members of our admissions committee are some of the smartest people that I’ve ever had the privilege of being in a room with. 

I absolutely love never being the smartest person in the room. We bring in professors, professionals, data scientists and more to help us do the work we do as we go through our cycle, and it’s such a privilege to never be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, you’re probably in the wrong room. We’ve heard that quote many times, and that’s what I like about working at Wharton.

CA: Is there anything that you dislike doing?

BM: One of my life mottos is, “ask for forgiveness and not permission.” You know who doesn’t like that? Human Resources doesn’t like that. So that is difficult for me. Navigating policies, procedures and paperwork, the three Ps, is very difficult for a woman that likes to ask for forgiveness and not permission. So that has been a challenge in my managerial growth.

CA: What’s a stereotype about Wharton that you’d like to debunk?

BM: The idea that our students, faculty & staff are really cutthroat kind of gets me. People don’t think our students help each other with interview prep, but they do. People don’t think they run cases together for consulting interviews. They do. So this idea of a cutthroat student or faculty member is a pervasive stereotype. 

Also, I think we get this reputation for being very formal and buttoned-up. I certainly fell victim to that. I thought Wharton was a specific thing. And then you meet the people, and you realize that we are not stuffy or buttoned up. We’re just real people trying to do real-world good in the business space. And I hope to kind of be the face of that. A lot of people meet me, and they say, “you’re the first person I’ve met from the Wharton family, and you’re not what I thought you would be like,” and I take that as a compliment. 

Whenever people say, “I was on campus and it absolutely debunked the stereotypes I had about a Wharton student,” a lot of people get excited about that. But I actually get sad, because it means that we’re not doing our job well enough. So I just am working really hard to debunk those stereotypes. We’re not cutthroat, we are human beings. We’re not buttoned up, we’re real. And anybody will see that when they get to campus.

CA: What is something happening on campus, either currently or in the future, that you wish more people knew about? 

BM: Dean James is celebrating her one year anniversary as the first female woman of color Dean at a major business institution. And we’re obviously excited about that. She’s a year in, but we’re just getting to meet her in person over the next six to eight weeks because we’re coming back to campus. So it’s not super new, but it kind of feels exciting and new. It has been such a beautiful pleasure to work with her. I have a post-it note on my desk that said, “this is our time,” because I think that women in leadership are really going to turn a corner coming out of this pandemic. And she has absolutely been, I think, in my opinion, the face of that, at least for us.

CA: Could you walk us through what happens from when someone submits their application to the moment they get accepted? 

BM: The overall philosophy we have is one I call “read to admit.” When an application gets submitted, it is immediately read by two different application readers in a blind context. This means that both readers have no idea who the application belongs to and what the other reviewer thinks of its components. We think blind reads are important to reduce the chance of bias. 

We look at every single application in a committee setting before we release interviews. We look at the entirety of the pool to start crafting the class at the interview stage. So then, we launch our interviews. We interview less than 50% of everybody that applies per round.

We feel really strongly about observable visible behaviors, and that’s what our Team-Based Discussion tracks. Everybody gets the same prompt and they have plenty of time to prepare. The reason we like it is because you can’t game the system. Introverts do just as well as extroverts. 

After that, we get the results of those Team-Based Discussion interviews back and the applications are read again. Then we sit in a committee and make decisions as a committee of 7. We also bring in other experts from around the division to make sure that we’re making the correct decisions in each individual place. 

And then we release all the decisions together on the day we say we will. I never waver if I tell you they’re going to be out December 17. If I say they will be available at noon, they will be out December 17 at noon. So that is something I’m proud of. And that’s how it works.

CA: So it sounds like everyone gets roughly three reads of their file with the third read coming after the interview process is complete. It’s sort of a holistic review again at the end of the process — is that correct?

BM: Yes. I say consistently that the sum of who you are in the one hour or so that we’re interviewing you is not equivalent to who you’ve been for the last seven years of your career. Struggling for the A in organic chemistry as an undergrad does not define who you are.

Something I love the most about Wharton is that the leadership has given us, myself and the rest of the team, the clearance to craft a class of people that can learn from each other. So we’re consistently admitting folks that are really strong in the classroom arena and their career arena. But maybe they’re not the room runners, the people that know how to run a meeting and talk to people. That’s a skill that Wharton will teach you. Conversely, we admit a lot of students that are those room runners: people who know how to talk to people, but maybe didn’t get an A in physics. We want both of those types of people.

You need to drill it into the folks that are making these decisions that you don’t have to be perfect in every arena in order to be admitted or to be employed. We drill on biases and cognitive load. And we work really hard to make sure that we don’t get decision fatigue, and we’re not overloaded cognitively. And we’re making the correct decisions for every single human that comes through.

CA: Are there any general tips you want to give regarding the essay portion of the application process?

BM: This is hard because essay writing is so personal. My sister applied to a graduate program at Penn about three years ago and I was on the phone with her. She was so passionate about this degree and spent ten minutes telling me about why she wanted it. When she finished her story she asked, “Well, what should I write about?” And I said, “you should write what you just told me because it’s real. It’s from your heart.” Because if it’s real, then it’s going to make a good essay. 

Our essays have a word limit. Because I think that’s a precursor for success in the business world: being able to get yourself across in less words. I think this has been valuable to candidates because it really helps them focus on what they want out of this degree. 

CA: We noticed that there was a subtle shift between last year’s career goals essay and this year’s. This year, it seems a little bit tighter. How has it changed?

BM: It’s really the same question, but it’s just written better. One of the members of our admissions committee has a Master’s degree in English and is an absolutely beautiful writer, so he rewrote it. We talked a little bit about it internally and we thought that it would help to clarify what we were specifically looking for. So the question really isn’t different. We just think it’s written differently.

CA: Let’s talk more about the Team-Based Discussion as part of the admissions process. Can you talk about how it works and what people should do to get ready for the Team-Based Discussion at Wharton?

BM: If you are reading a person’s application before the interview and then sit down with the application, you can’t become inhuman in the moment. You’re going to see something that you’re attracted to, or something that you don’t like. And you’re going to be predisposed to like the candidate or not like the candidate when you go in. And we just thought that it was too noisy. 

We introduced Team-Based Discussion in 2012. And the reason we like it is because it really advantages candidates from all types of walks of life: introvert, extrovert, international, domestic. Again, we’re trying to reduce bias and noise in any place we can. 

We run this because we believe in it, but we also understand that it does create a little bit of anxiety. We are not trying to make your life more difficult. We give students a work-related prompt ahead of time, and they have a week or two to prepare a one-minute response. It’s all about how they work in teams. 

Wharton is going to continue to do Team-Based Discussion interviews virtually throughout the entirety of the 2021-2022 admissions cycle because of the success we’ve seen from conducting them virtually. The groups were much more diverse and the conversations got better because of the different opinions around the table. Secondly, we love that people don’t have to travel. So we’re just going to do the whole thing online. And then, as I mentioned before, we’ve used these in context with the rest of the application. 

CA: Do you have any advice for advanced access candidates? Who do you think should be focusing on a deferred path to an MBA versus the more traditional path?

BM: One of the goals for the Molas Advanced Access program program is to make sure that the vast market of students from state schools, public schools, private schools, small schools, big schools, liberal arts schools, stem schools, and research universities all know about it. Our main goal is to make sure that folks know about this program from north to south. So that’s what we’re spending a lot of our time doing, kind of evangelizing the program. Our hope is that once we get this idea out to folks, we can start to funnel them into the program.

To get to your second question, I want everybody to be focusing on this. I like to think that graduate management education is like a rocket ship to the rest of your life. If someone knows that they have the option to apply to a big MBA program as a young 21 year old, who knows what doors could be open to them? So that’s our hope. We can’t admit everybody that’s qualified right away, so we encourage candidates to try again if they don’t get admitted the first time they apply.

CA: Will incoming students be taking classes in person this fall? Do you anticipate allowing campus visits at any point during the admissions cycle?

BM: For in person instruction, we’re back. We’re not running the campus visit program this fall since I didn’t feel comfortable inviting the world into our offices four days after we get back to campus and we all need a little time to adjust. However, no decision has been made yet for the spring.

Lauren Wakal
Lauren Wakal has been covering the MBA admissions space for more than a decade, from in-depth business school profiles to weekly breaking news and more.