Fuel for the Wharton 2014-15 Essays

It's time to cover Wharton, as it looks like I've locked myself into a pattern of covering every school's set of essays.

The common response to Wharton's new essay set (one of which is required, one is optional) is "another case of schools shrinking this essays!"

This is technically true, as the total words went from either 1,000 to 900 (if you use the Optional) or from 1,000 to 500 (if you don't).  However, the next leap is almost always "as schools continue to try to make things easier for applicants."  I'm sorry, I simply don't buy that line of reasoning.  Almost everyone who truly knows admissions knows that fewer words makes things harder, not easier.  This is because it requires confidence and clarity to approach such a task, it requires concise and structured writing to execute it, and it makes it far less likely that you will "accidentally" come up with something great, just by virtue of spewing out words.  Now, it might be a byproduct of the essay shrinking that it's easier on the readers or that a few people might (mistakenly) think it's easier to apply, but I highly doubt that is the intent. 

So, if Wharton is not trying to "make it easier," are they trying to make it harder?  Perhaps.

One thing that is interesting about the HBS essay change last year (from structured prompts to an open-ended assignment) is that it created a clear division between champs and chumps.  On the one hand, you had people step up to that task with great clarity, confidence, and grace, and execute clear thoughts.  On the other hand, you had people reduced to puddles, just pouring out randomness.  For HBS, it had to be a boon, to so clearly cleave the herd in that way.  And, if history is any guide, we know that if something works at HBS, other schools will follow.  One admissions cycle would be awfully quick for come copycat behavior, but it's not unreasonable to think that Wharton took a shine to the idea of introducing some ambiguity into the process.  It is, after all, a great way to measure confidence and other traits and we know Wharton has pumped ambiguity into things in the past, through the Group Interview (my blog post when they first announced that change was, wait for it: Ambiguity Equals Opportunity). 

With all of that said, rather than break down the Wharton essays in traditional fashion (to do so would give away the store for free), we are going to run down a list of things to be thinking about as you navigate this new essay set.  Call it "fuel" for your Wharton apps: 

1. Consider the changing of the guard.  

Last year, basically right after the Round 1 deadline, Wharton had a changing of the guard at the top of the admissions office.  I can't stress how bizarre that is.  The person who helped set the agenda for that year - framing the questions, strategizing on the public message, etc. - was suddenly gone.  Rather than sitting at the top of an admissions committee structure to see through the process, the leader was absent and a new person came in - with her own preferences - and took over.  The result was chaos.  I don't mind saying publicly that Round 1 at Wharton was kind of a joke last year.  Overnight - and after the deadline - they went from being a very confident program regarding aggressive short-term career goals to being incredibly cautious and even paternalistic.  I had stars who were admitted to HBS and Stanford (and all manner of other schools) and who were dinged at Wharton without even an interview - and told later that it was because their stated jobs were "too hard."  Now, understand, these jobs were not bizarre or niche and these candidates were studs.  If *those* candidates couldn't get *those" jobs - who could?  Was Wharton saying that the institution could no longer support such a path?  It seemed so.  And it blew my mind.  For Round 2, we had all of our clients go super safe with short-term goals and avoid anything that could be remotely difficult - and they cleaned up.  I attribute part of that to the fact that Wharton got settled back in under new leadership and part of it to the fact that new leadership came from career services (usually an understandably more cautious group because they have to cash the checks that applicants/admissions officers write).  Either way, understand who is running things over there and adjust accordingly.  (Note: I wrote a lot more about this last year between Round 1 and 2.)

2. Embrace Melodrama.  

There is a thin line between drama and melodrama in creative writing and the latter is almost always avoided in favor of the former.  Well, here with admissions essays, it's the opposite.  Melodrama is defined as: "a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions."

For purposes of your essays, you want to appeal to the emotions - that's the big takeaway.  We saw this as literally a make-or-break piece with our Round 1 clients last year (and then basically only a "make" piece for our Round 2 folks as they all used the lesson learned); those who had used a more melodramatic "why" story behind their long-term goals were far more successful than those who used a more mundane or pragmatic "why" explanation. In other words and to be really flippant about it: a dramatic story about your grandfather teaching you about the meaning of life on a fishing trip when you were nine is good; saying you like to solve puzzles is bad.  

(Note: if you don't know what I'm talking about when I say the "why" of your long-term career goals, just stop reading this post and schedule an initial consultation ASAP.)

3. Be Confident.

I'm not going to tell you exactly how to do this.  It's going to differ for each person, but don't let the "one required, one optional" essay combo throw you and turn you into that puddle I mentioned earlier.  If you use the Optional, be assertive and strategic about what you want to say and why you are saying it.  

4. Throw out the Optional Essay Rules.

I'm personally one to hammer the "don't use the Optional" advice quite often.  I strongly disfavor using an optional essay as a "cheat" to jam more content in and try to "message" something to the reader.  If you need to inform them of something, by all means, use it.  If not, don't.  Except here, you can probably throw the rules out.  Not only is the question worded differently, but any smart analysis of what "needs" to be in a Wharton app is going to indicate that pieces are missing if you only use Question 1.  I'm going to be throwing out my own rules on this one - and that's because above all else, you have to have intellectual dexterity when approaching these.  Entrenching with "same old, same old" mentalities is why there are so many hacks out there.  

5. Remember What Makes Wharton "Wharton."

I can't stress this last one enough.  

Just because Wharton has a new admissions director (who is the old career services director) and a new dean (who has been dean at what seems to be about 10,000 different schools) and a new battle to reclaim its brand and all the rest ... that doesn't mean that the people who will be reading your file don't still have allegiance to the "old" Wharton.  And by old, I mean the Wharton of, you know, last year.  

I saw this same thing happen with Kellogg - a new dean came in with a new fancy mission statement, and the whole world scrambled to appeal to that new mentality.  The problem?  All the people working in the admissions office hadn't changed their view of Kellogg.  They still understood - and loved - their school, just as it had been previously (in that case, a place that prioritized teamwork, friendship, and human decency).  You could write about "Thinking Bravely" until you were blue in the face, but the people reading the files (and deciding your fate) were still looking for team players, servant leaders, and relational students.  

The same thing is likely going to be true of Wharton this year.  There is no new, gleaming mission statement to serve as a false North Star for applicants, but at the same time, people may be quick to dismiss huge foundational tenants of Dean Robertson's time at Wharton - things like Knowledge for Action, Innovation through Community, and a cutting-edge idea of what globalism looks like.  Just because he is not there anymore, it doesn't mean that all the people who work there don't still admire him and practice his concepts.  

Hopefully this fuel helps you produce great Wharton essays.  If you need our help - on this or any other school - email us at mba@amerasiaconsulting.com.