It is not often that we make any major strategic adjustments from Rd 1 to Rd 2 with any of the schools, because once we have them pegged, they don't tend to move around that much. However, we are issuing a Public Service Announcement today to Wharton Round 2 applicants: proceed with caution when it comes to laying out your post-MBA plans. If your goal is even remotely hard to achieve, we strongly advise reconsidering that goal as it relates to your Wharton application. Let us explain.
As most of you who devour MBA-related content know, Wharton had a highly unusual change at the top of its admissions office this fall. We won't speculate on what happened or why it happened, but suffice to say that a Director of Admissions leaving in the middle of Round 1 is very unusual and could speak to some serious issues at the top of that office and possibly of that institution. It also has not been Wharton's finest hour the last year or so.
We don't care much about inter-office politics, rumors, or even rankings for that matter - what we do care about is how applications get read and decisions get made. Therefore, the only viable choice for us was to sit back and wait to see what happened in Round 1. Well, the results are in and while this is all opinion, we feel pretty safe about the following takeaways:
Wharton instantly became one of the most paternalistic schools when it comes to career goals.
If you have ever read any of our Columbia content, you know that that CBS is at least partially defined by how it handles career goals. They have long involved the career services office at unprecedented levels, which has a way of making file-reading an extremely conservative exercise. The hypothesis here is simple: admissions officers often have a "if you believe it you can achieve it!" sense of optimism about candidates, whereas career services folks deal with the gruesome reality at the end of that rainbow. An admissions purist sees likely success where a career services professional often sees great difficulty. At extreme ends of the spectrum - such as Venture Capital (almost impossible) or Management Consulting (a very steady path) - both parties are pretty much in agreement. However, on more nuanced paths, such as post-MBA Private Equity, you might have an admissions officer thinking "I know those jobs are tough to get and it is a shrinking pie, but I'm sure it will work out," whereas a career services officer might think "bad idea." It's a huge difference and when the latter impacts the former, it impacts the way we need to think about such things.
Well, if Columbia is conservative and paternalistic merely because they let Career Services weigh in on things, what is the likely outcome if the Director of Career Services is put in charge of the admissions office. That appears to be the situation at Wharton. Maryellen Reilly Lamb is listed on the school's website as being in charge of not just career services, but also admissions and financial aid. Her name and electronic signature were also affixed to decision letters that went out. It is unclear if this is a temporary or permanent solution for Wharton, but it is certainly mind-blowing. And it changes everything about the way you approach your goals with Wharton. You are no longer writing goals to admissions folks; you are writing them for career services people. And that's a huge difference.
Career Goals must be written for career services officers.
On one hand, this is nothing new. All of our strategy memos talk about admissions officers serving as proxy for career services and for recruiters, which is why we spend an almost tedious amount of time working to get them right. However, on the other hand, this is very new indeed. When you are writing a career goals essay for most schools (i.e., not Columbia and, now, not Wharton), you are showcasing an ability to complete an exercise. They usually don't take it as Gospel, nor do they hold you to the exact sequence you are laying out. They just want to see if you can perform the proper due diligence, lay out a plan of attack, and understand the power and limitations of an MBA. In fact, UCLA Anderson says all this in its essay instructions - a piece of writing that is probably our favorite thing currently existing in the MBA landscape (bravo, UCLA Anderson!). However, when the audience is no longer a proxy for the recruiting pipeline - when that audience actually IS part of the recruiting pipeline - it no longer becomes an exercise and it becomes something concrete, to be evaluated as such.
And when a Career Goals essay has to be written for a career services officer - rather than an admissions officer - that means it has to be conservative in detailing a job you can surely get, and you should probably include an alternate short-term goal to reach your ultimate path. In other words, do not think in terms of ambition or striving to reach your potential (as you would with HBS, Stanford, MIT, and others - Wharton was always definitely in this group), think in terms of "am I a slam-dunk to get one of those jobs so that I keep this school's employment report pristine?" There is honestly no other prudent way to go about the task. You simply must adopt the hyper-conservative mindset of a career service officer, if, indeed, that person is in charge of the office that will decide your fate. We do not know Maryellen Reilly Lamb and so we are not describing her personally. We are using common sense, basic human psychology, and Round 1 results to peg the New Wharton.
The Why of your goals is more important than ever.
Our clients know that we hammer home that there has to be a "why" behind the long-term goal; something that shows passion and inspiration. This seemed to be more true than ever as Wharton shrunk the application by an essay and forwarded two real "nuts and bolts" type questions, without much room for "here is what makes me tick" content. Based on early returns, we are seeing that the way candidates utilize the Why of their long-term goal seems to be the make-or-break aspect of the entire essay set. Don't offer trivial or slight or even practical reasons for your ultimate goal - offer passion and even melodrama if necessary. Let the "you" of it all really shine through, even if you feel cheesy while doing it. This has nothing to do with career services or any of the previous points, but it just something we are picking up from Round 1 results. By creating an essay set devoid of much interpersonal reflection, Wharton has forced candidates to invent a way to include that content. The Why of your goals is by far the easiest place to do so.
Hopefully this information helps Round 2 applicants avoid any new pitfalls at Wharton and put their best foot forward. If you would like help in doing so, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.