Wharton's Group Interview: Ambiguity Equals Opportunity

Yesterday was October 23rd.  A relatively uneventful day for many humans, but a big one for a select group of Wharton applicants who received an interview invite.  It’s obviously a magical moment to get that letter, err, email that says that mighty Wharton wants to talk to you.  However, this year that feeling of excitement is lasting for about two seconds for most applicants as it is quickly replaced by a feeling of uncertainty.  That’s because Wharton has partnered with the Wharton Innovation Group to come up with a whole new style of interviewing … the group interview.

The Wharton admissions committee warms up for the group interview 

The Wharton admissions committee warms up for the group interview 

Enter the ominous organ music!

Our job today is to explain why this is not so new, not so crazy, and – most of all – not so scary.  In fact, for applicants who are A) cool people, B) nice, C) able to walk and chew gum at the same time, and D) intelligent, this is going to be a walk in the park.  More to the point, it’s going to allow them to outshine the jerks and the people who used smoke and mirrors to get to this stage.  Part of this is because ambiguity equals opportunity for the deserving.  It’s a philosophy we have been fond of here for a long time and it’s why we only work with qualified applicants (judged less by numbers and pedigree and more through an hour-long consult, which measures not just work experience, talent, potential, and vision, but also personality and individual values).  For someone truly deserving and truly awesome, the more ambiguous the situation and the less of a road map that exists out there, the more they will crush their less-deserving foes.  If you are someone who isn’t very nice, isn’t very smart, or otherwise got an interview to Wharton that you know (“deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties,” to quote Jack Nicholson from A Few Good Men) you didn’t deserve, then you might very well fail in this particular exercise.  It’s pretty cut-and-dried and there aren’t any shortcuts.

(Indeed, one could surmise that Wharton is, in fact, trying to cut out people like us [admissions consultants] or even powerful alumni, supervisors, friends, or current students – you could reasonably argue that they want to limit preparation so that they get a more unvarnished look at the true candidates.  This isn’t a bad theory, but it’s one we don’t buy.  Rather, we have it narrowed down to either Wharton wanting to honor a core tenant of the school by being “innovative,” or they want to appear to be doing that to make a splash.  We’ll go with the former since it’s more positive, but both are definitely in play.)

Okay, so we covered the “it’s not that scary,” part (well, if you are a deserving candidate), but let’s also talk about why it’s not that new or unique.  For starters, there are MBA programs in the EU, such as IMD, that have been using these for quite some time.  More notably though, the group interview dynamic has been part of many medical schools’ “Interview Day” since the dawn of time (loose estimate).  Med school applicants for years have gone through a hellacious grind of showing up for a breakfast, taking tours, visiting classes, being interviewed – all as a group – and then spinning off to do a series of individual interviews.  If these guys and girls – most of them in their early 20s and many college seniors – can hold up to that, then surely a bunch of highly accomplished professionals in their mid 20s to early 30s can handle a 45-minute group interview.  Right?  RIGHT?  You can do it!

Now, it’s all well and good for us to huff and puff about how this isn’t that scary and it’s not that new and also try to guilt you into marshaling your courage by pointing to some premed students.  However, it would also be helpful, we suppose, to share a few other pieces of advice.  Just know that these are more or less common sense, because common sense should be your guide here.

1. Show up early.  Don’t chance it, don’t risk it, don’t assume there will be parking.  It’s bad enough to be late for an interview, but to show up and interrupt other people (presuming Wharton would even allow you in), is basically the worst sin you could commit because you would be showing a lack of respect for your peers, which is surely one of the very things this is designed to evaluate.  Which reminds us…

2. Don’t talk over people.  It’s rare, but every so often we will have someone who takes us up for a free consult, gets on the call … and then talks over us the whole time.  Remember that we are experts they have asked to speak to and are considering paying, yet they won’t listen and just keep interrupting.  Many are capable and impressive on paper, which means maybe they are reading this right now, Wharton interview invite in hand.  Please, for the love of all that is good and holy, let other people have the floor and finish their thoughts.  Along those lines…

3. Listen.  Now for this one, we are as guilty as anyone else for often thinking of something great to say while others are talking, rather than listening to what they are saying.  We don’t know how these group interviews will play out beyond the idea of bringing in a one-minute prepared “speech” on two separate topics (we’re not going to post the topics, because it’s not our content to post – rest assured you can find them all over the Internet, at all your favorite blogs looking to drive traffic).  That said, we know that it’s a group and that once everyone has had their say, there is going to be a conversation, with many people talking.  Our advice is that you relax, enjoy it, and LISTEN to what people are saying, rather than formulating your next genius soundbite.

4. Remember the individual interview.  For our clients, we are telling them, basically to “just do what got you here” for the group interview … and then turning our attention back to solid, rigorous, philosophically sound prep for the individual interview.  Ultimately, the group interview is an experiment and it’s a chance for them to filter out punks, brats, and (to put it bluntly) people who can’t hack it.  However, for them to determine who really has passion, vision, and a connection to Wharton, they are going to have to put a lot of stock in the solo interview that follows.  Whether it’s 15 minutes like it is here, 30 minutes like it is at HBS, or an hour like it is with many alumni members from various schools, that is where you have to shine as a person and a candidate.  Our guess is that a great number of candidates this year will get all hyped up about the group interview and forget to really put in the time and thought to perform to their best abilities in the individual aspect.

Overall, for all the hand-wringing and supposed complexity surrounding this new interview experience, it’s actually really simple: smart, earnest, conversational, and polite people are going to stand out.  If you are one of those folks, you are in great shape and all you need to do is take a deep breath, relax, spend the hour Wharton recommends prepping your talking points, practice your one-on-one interview, and then go have fun with the experience.  If you are not one of those people, we’re sorry to say that this isn’t something that prep, practice, or smoke-and-mirrors is going to help you with.

Be on the lookout for our How to Apply to Wharton Guide, which is the fourth in our ongoing series of elite, insider guides to top schools.  You can currently download our HBS, Columbia, and INSEAD guides.  If you are interested in a free consultation for Round 2 services, please email us at mba@amerasiaconsulting.com.  We are currently running a unique promotion that offers a free mock interview for a Round 1 program when you sign up for at least two schools for Round 2.  If you are someone who applied to a few programs Round 1 and got the interview, we can help you with that even as we help you turn your focus to your remaining apps. 

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