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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 interview permutation—the team-based 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 at Wharton?

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.

“Our hope is that this will give applicants a glimpse into Wharton’s group learning dynamic, which is central to our program,” Karl T. Ulrich, then vice dean of innovation at Wharton, said about the TBD when it launched as part of the 2012-13 application season. “We believe that this type of assessment also serves as a tool to take prospective students ‘off the page’ and allows us to see firsthand the ways in which they can contribute to our community of diverse learners and leaders,” he continued.

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.

The majority of TBD interviews will be held on Wharton’s Philadelphia campus and conducted by Admissions Fellows, a select group of second-year MBA students. But TBDs will also be held in various cities around the world as part of each round. These sessions will be conducted by admissions officers. “On- and off-campus Team-Based Discussions will be conducted in the same way and considered equally,” Wharton’s website states. “There is no ‘advantage’ in choosing either option.”

Here’s the prompt applicants received in the 2022-23 application season:

“Wharton’s commitment to global engagement prepares MBA students for any challenge in the international business environment. As of the 2022 school year, all global travel at Wharton is back to normal operations. Wharton MBAs will once again have the opportunity to participate in a Global Immersion Program (GIP), a credit-bearing elective course, which is designed to provide a high-level survey of the economic, cultural, and geo-political drivers behind regions integral to the global economy.

GIP courses consist of three components: on-campus study sessions, international travel, and a final deliverable. By attending faculty lectures and traveling abroad to meet with local business leaders, government officials, and Wharton alumni, students have the opportunity to learn from a tremendous group of professionals while also immersing themselves in another culture and building strong relationships with their GIP cohort.
For the purpose of this discussion, you’ve been invited to be part of a team of students tasked with designing a new GIP. As a team, determine the following course requirements while clearly articulating your course’s desired outcomes:

  • a region of study for your GIP
  • a recommendation for company and/or government meetings
  • a recommendation for a cultural event or immersion to participate in while traveling
  • a recommendation for the final deliverable/assignment that students will complete after the GIP”

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