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MBA Admissions Interview Primer: Group Interviews

In this, our third installment of our interview series, we’ll take a closer look at an MBA interview permutation—the team-based interview or group discussion. You can view the first two parts of this interview series here: open versus invitation-only interviews and blind interviews versus non-blind interviews.

What Is the Team-Based Discussion for the Wharton MBA?

Several years ago, the admissions office at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School partnered with the Wharton Innovation group to launch a new evaluation method, the team-based discussion (TBD). As its name suggests, as part of the TBD, applicants are placed into a group with five to six other applicants for an interactive discussion about real-life business scenarios, designed to reveal to the Admissions Committee how each applicant approaches and analyzes specific situations.

The way teams of applicants are assembled is simply a function of who signs up when. Each participant will receive a prompt for the TBD in advance, and Wharton recommends spending about an hour in advance preparing for the discussion.

While initially held on Wharton’s Philadelphia campus or in various cities around the world, Covid protocols moved the TBDs online. Starting in the 2023-2024 admissions season, Wharton confirmed that all admissions interviews will be virtual going forward. They are still conducted by Admissions Fellows, a select group of second-year MBA students.

Here’s the prompt applicants received in the 2023-24 application season:

“This year’s question tasks you and fellow TBD participants to name and design a new course on a cutting-edge business topic for Wharton’s Pre-baccalaureate Program. As part of the Wharton Global Youth Program, this opportunity for exceptional junior and senior high school students introduces them business education. The idea is to inspire talented young people to analyze the world’s complex challenges as they take their first steps toward becoming leaders who will transform the global economy.

“Your team’s challenge is to develop a course on a cutting-edge topic for the generation of young business leaders coming behind you. You’ll name the course, outline the topic and themes, identify faculty to lead the course, and decide on learning outcomes and assessment methods.”

So, what’s the best way to approach the TBD, you ask? We consulted our resident expert, Alex Brown, who worked in admissions at Wharton for several years. Here’s his take:

“Wharton really values decisions backed up by data, so when you make a point, support it with facts,” he says. “As you make your way through the given scenario, be sure to take logical steps from one point to the next and communicate your thought process when it’s relevant.”

In a group exercise, it can be easy to get sidetracked by details. “Always keep the big picture in mind,” Brown urges. “You can also consider these team-based discussions are a good test of emotional intelligence. Testing your ability to read the group dynamic, allowing you to determine your most effective role within the group. Should you lead, should you listen and contribute only when appropriate, should you facilitate and draw others into the conversation?”

What’s Wharton really after with the TBD? “You want to show the Admissions Committee that you work well in a team environment, can adapt and show a keen sense of understanding not only of the problem at hand, but of the dynamics of the group as the discussion unfolds. Oftentimes the most important skill you will need is the ability to listen, before contribution,” Brown says.

“The other interesting aspect to this type of interview is that it is really hard to prepare for,” he notes. Prepping the specific scenario is obviously important, but this does not help you much in terms of how to contribute as part of a group situation made up of similarly motivated peers who all want the same outcome, he says. “Having a good sense of self awareness and being able to correct your own tendencies will be extremely important,” Brown advises.

Even with the implementation of the TBD—which, incidentally, is required for admission—Wharton still gives applicants an opportunity for a short one-on-one conversation with an admissions team member immediately following the team exercise. Often, the first questions applicants are asked as part of this one-on-one interview pertain to how they think they did during the TBD. But these brief individual interviews also provide an opportunity for applicants to make their case for admission. “This is a great chance to share your story, goals, career plan and passion for the school,” Brown says. “Treat this portion of the interview as you would treat any of your resume-based interviews.” he offers.

Though the innovative format may seem nerve-wracking to many applicants, the schools that have chosen to implement a group exercise have done so in great part to get a better feel for how applicants will take part in an actual business school classroom. The whole reason you’re going through this application process is because you want to end up in one of those classrooms. So just relax and pretend you’re already there.

See the other parts in our MBA Admissions Interview Primer series:

MBA Admissions Academy

Episode 20: Interviews I: The Basics

mba team-based discussion interview