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Tale of Two Schools

July 8, 2011

In the end, I applied to only two schools: Sloan and Wharton. I was accepted to Sloan and rejected by Wharton. Always the scientist, I wondered why I was accepted to one and not the other?

Wharton offers a feedback session aimed at rejected applicants who are considering re-applying. I decided to sign up for the session to learn what had gone wrong and how I might improve my chances to gain admission to one of the other schools on my target list, i.e. MIT and Kellogg.

Unfortunately, Wharton has a fairly rigid process and time table for feedback. One must call in mid-June in order to schedule an appointment for a 30 minute feedback session in July or August. Of course, this meant that I could only obtain Wharton’s feedback after the application date for MIT, which eliminated any possibility of applying lessons learned to that application. Interestingly, that turned out to be beneficial, as it later allows us to more cleanly compare MIT’s reaction to essentially the same application that I submitted to Wharton.

The cause for rejection had been the subject of rampant speculation among the group that had supported my application to Wharton. I have to say, in all candor, that no one could actually believe that Wharton had rejected me. That sounds terribly arrogant, I know, but I’m a serial, social entrepreneur with a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon, 3 additional Master’s degrees, and a very strong vision for commercializing robotics technologies to the benefit of ordinary people. It’s a strong case, with a singular value proposition, one that made my support group ask the question, “What the heck else did Wharton want to see?”

The answer was my GMAT score. I decided to apply to Wharton fairly last minute, so there was little, if any time to prepare myself for the exam. Moreover, I have to admit to a bit of hubris. As a research scientist, I dismissed the GMAT as a challenge. After all, I had completed some six years of graduate level mathematics, science and engineering courses at Carnegie Mellon.

I didn’t study at all. I just signed up and took the test cold. I scored a 680, which was not bad, but I did horribly in the mathematics section. There were no differential equations, no 3D calculus problems, no multivariable optimization problems… nothing that one actually studies or uses from a graduate engineering education. Just a bunch of high school math problems. Oddly, I knew “how” to do every problem on the test, but I could not complete them at the required pace of about 2 minutes per problem. I score a 68 percentile. Wharton looks for a 75 percentile minimum. Oops.

I read the Wharton application site and noticed that they claim that a low GMAT score is not necessarily a problem, it just causes them to look for other evidence that the candidate can handle the quantitative challenges of an MBA program.

They lie.

At the time, however, I thought, OK no problem, I’ll just send additional evidence demonstrating my ability to master graduate level mathematics. They already had my transcript, so I made the AdCom a nice package of supporting evidence. I included a copy of my doctoral thesis, which focuses on the robotic control of conventional vehicles. It’s chock full of dynamic models of engines and power trains in both time and frequency space. I also sent them a copy of one of my patents and a recent peer-reviewed journal article accepted to INFORMS. Case closed… or so I thought.

Imagine my surprise when the AdCom committee member’s summary of my rejection is, “Well, looks like it was the GMAT score. We like to see a 75 percentile or above.”

I asked her, “Did you receive the package with my doctoral thesis and other technical papers? Or did you notice on my transcript that I’ve completed a PhD and two engineering Master’s degrees?”

Yes, they noticed, she said, but at Wharton they’ve determined that students who do not score above the 75th percentile aren’t generally able to handle the quantitative challenges of the MBA.

I then asked her, “So are you telling me that if I handed in the exact same application, but with a higher GMAT score, it would have been accepted?” Yes.

I pointed out the logical inconsistency of favoring a prediction over evidence of accomplishment, “The admissions committee had in the GMAT a prediction of whether I was likely to be able to master the mathematics presented in an MBA program. They also had in their possession numerous documents that demonstrate that I actually did master six years of graduate level mathematics in the world’s top robotics program. And the AdCom chose to believe the prediction over the evidence?” Yes.

Now here’s the kicker, and do sit down for this one. “But you know, business math is different.” She actually said that. It was at that moment that it suddenly dawned on me that she probably had absolutely no idea what any of that coursework on my transcript meant. It was all just confusing words like “Mulitvariable Control” or “Numerical Methods”. The disappointment that came with realizing that the AdCom literally dismissed six years of intense scientific work at the Robotics Institute in favor of a GMAT score as the better measure of my quantitative prowess was intensely palpable.

They blew it, but were incapable of realizing their own mistake.

The AdCom member began coaching me toward reapplying to Wharton, which advice focused entirely on bringing up my GMAT quantitative score to the magical 75th percentile, specifically so that I could prove to Cathy Molony (Wharton’s Director of Admissions for their EMBA Program) that I could handle the mathematical rigors of an MBA program.

The tone of the conversation changed dramatically when I finally told her that I wouldn’t be reapplying to Wharton because I had been accepted to MIT. It was like all the air had suddenly been sucked out of the room. “Wow. Sloan? That’s a really great program!” Awkward silence ensues.

I couldn’t help myself. Like any other autistic, I had to point out the elephant standing in the middle of the room, “I submitted exactly the same application to MIT that I submitted to Wharton, but without the GMAT scores because MIT does not require them. I was told by my interviewers at Sloan that I was a particularly strong quantitative candidate and that they had no concerns whatsoever that I could handle any of the mathematics in their program.”

Of course, the unstated but obvious point is that Sloan prides itself in being the most analytically powerful school in the M7. Johnathan Lehrich, the Director of the MIT Executive MBA program has this great quote where he says, “The nice thing about a program at MIT is that people who aren’t quant comfortable don’t tend to apply.”

The question still hung in the air: how does Wharton justify rejecting an applicant as insufficiently prepared mathematically when MIT accepts that same candidate? The answer was both surprising and refreshing, and I really have to admire her for just being honest. “You know, the longer I do this the more I realize that it’s just a numbers game. We just look at the GMAT score”.

I was truly disappointed in the outcome with Wharton, if only because the rejection was based on a fallacy. I would have been very comfortable with the idea that I just wasn’t a good fit at Wharton. I’m really not, but it took the comparison with MIT to see that I’m not. The two schools had vastly different personalities that were readily apparent during my visits, but I didn’t get it until I had visited MIT. I really belonged at the top technology program, not the top finance program, a truth that’s all too apparent in hindsight.

That said, I think that my experiences with Wharton probably drive home some key points to future applicants in so far as those experiences can be generalized. I’ve come to believe that the AdComs at these schools operate under very different philosophies. At Wharton, the scores matter more than the candidate’s actual record. My mistake was that I didn’t make the time to study for the GMAT. I completely underestimated the importance that Wharton ties to that one score, whether right or wrong. It’s now clear that getting the nod from Cathy Molony requires that the GMAT quant score exceed the 75th percentile. If you want a Wharton admit, then get that score. It’s not really that hard.

More importantly, visit the schools. I must have read that advice in a dozen different MBA student blogs, but I just didn’t get it until I experienced the differences in the personalities of these schools. Wharton feels completely different from MIT and I’m guessing that each of the other top schools would have had a distinct personality of their own.

-R.

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