“We are trying to enroll people that we think will grow the most from this program, not the people that were perfect coming in.”

The Wharton MBA Class of 2021 is full of students from all walks of life — each with a wealth of experience and talent. Together, they form an unprecedented group; this year, the Wharton MBA first-year class is closer to gender parity than ever before with 46% of students identifying as women.

But the Class of 2021 Profile only gives a high-level perspective. To truly understand the MBA community we sat down with the two people who know it best. Director of Admissions Blair Mannix and Director of Student Life Eddie Banks-Crosson see students at every step of the MBA journey — from application to graduation day and everything in between. Blair and Eddie discuss what they look for in an applicant, how Wharton’s culture is student-led, and why happiness is at the heart of what they do.

Blair, when you look at the Class Profile for the Class of 2021, what stands out to you first?

Blair: The first thing that pops out at me in that document is the fact that we’re sitting at 46% women in the class of 2021, and that’s actually the first time the Wharton MBA Program has ever hit almost gender parity in the program. The closest that any school has gotten over the last decade or so has been about 45. Meeting the class at preterm and welcoming everybody here, that idea that the class almost looks very close to 50/50 male/female, really is reflected in these rooms.

Eddie, what do you think when you look at the Class of 2021 Class Profile?

Eddie: If we’re going to be the number one business school, then we need to be “the number one” in everything. I think it’s where we are in the world. We tout this word “diversity”, and as someone that has gone through the training that does the training, I always say, ‘black people aren’t new to the world, and so, women aren’t new to the society’, right? If we’re talking about diversity and inclusion, women matter, and I think that women are saying globally, that, “We matter,” and so, we should be leading that charge, and I think that’s what that feels like within this class. To work specifically with really dynamic students, many of whom are women, they are here and are positioned to be the role models out in the world. Where you do speak up in business meetings. You can be the manager. You can start your own company.

This year, the percentage of LGBT students (5%) was added to the class profile. Can you talk about why that statistic was added?

Blair: For Admissions, it’s a question we asked in the application for years. We have a really robust Out4Biz club and we started tracking years ago as a way to allow our students to self identify and connect with the club.

When we were looking at our data over the last couple of years, we just said, “This is a very important population to us, to the school, and they should be on the class profile.” We made the decision this year to put it out, to show what we value and who we are, and the types of folks that we’re trying to bring here to Wharton.

Eddie: It’s a valued identity — bottom line, period, end of story. You don’t have to negotiate your identity. You can be who you are and come to Wharton.

What qualities are you looking for in an applicant?

Blair: When we’re thinking about the composition of the class, it’s so easy to look at the top-line percentages and say, “We have X percentage of women and we’re really excited that we have this many folks coming in from these industries.”

But we are actually looking way deeper than that into the intellectual curiosity of students. The general kind of life experiences of students, what they’ll bring to each other, and what they’ll bring here to campus. I think the fact that the culture continues — and we’re part of that — to develop students that are curious about the world, that want to be part of the global ecosystem, is the bedrock of what’s going on here.

Eddie: Totally. And I also think we live in a society where it’s not okay to disagree with each other. It happens here in a respectful way and I think the students can role model that behavior out into the world. You may not always agree with somebody, but my training has always been: sit at the table with the folks you don’t agree with, because then that helps you sharpen your perspective.

Can you just briefly walk us through the process of how MBA Admissions reviews over 6,000 applications?

Blair: I feel like selective admissions, in general, has a little bit of a black box ideology around it, and so, one of my goals in taking this chair about a year ago was to open that box a little bit. I always start with the culture. I always start top-line about why we do what we do, and then that informs how we do what we do. I would say the first kind of top-line cultural piece that helps us matriculate the class we do every year is a concept we call read-to-admit, which means for every application we’re reading in the Office of MBA Admissions at Wharton, we’re looking for reasons to admit the student, and not looking for reasons to deny the student.

We work in an admissions office, not a denial office. Every time we read an application, we’re really looking for reasons to say yes, not reasons to say no, and I think once you think of that top-line cultural piece, the entire ecosystem and dynamic of what we’re trying to do changes. The interesting thing about business school admissions is, and I don’t think a lot of people know this or understand this, but there is room for mistakes in the Wharton MBA Admissions process. In many admissions processes, graduate and undergraduate, there isn’t room for mistakes. But in a business context, especially with the applicant pool we have, there is room to make some mistakes academically and in your career. What we are fundamentally is a school, and we are trying to enroll people that we think will grow the most from this program, not the people that were perfect coming in.

Blair, you talk about a “pivot moment” that you’re looking for when you’re reading essays. How do you define that?

Blair: Often, if not always, the students in the candidate pool coming into the Wharton MBA have had either one pivot moment or a series of pivot moments when they have realized that they need additional education to further their career. There’s always some moment or series of moments within an MBA candidate journey, where they realize they need more education, and that education may come in the form of in-classroom education, through the curriculum, recruiting, getting a new job, pivoting your career, managing a network, or for starting your own company. All of that exists under our umbrella, and we admit students, Eddie, based on what we think they can bring to the program and the self-awareness they bring to the process to say, “I need something that I don’t have, and I think Wharton can help me get there.”

Eddie: I am an advocate of trying something before deciding you don’t like it. We try to facilitate and encourage, “Don’t be biased in selecting what you think you will or won’t like. Try it. Make an informed decision that you don’t like it, and then move forward.”

Blair: I would say from our POV, we’re trying to deliver students in the ways and the levers that we have in the admissions process, and that’s letters of recommendation, personal writing samples, and robust interviews. Students that we think want to do exactly what they’re talking about. Students that we think want to take risks. We really feel like Wharton is a place to take risks. You’re in a safe space. We have a really awesome executive coaching and leadership network. You are going to do executive coaching to figure your leadership and management potential in a safe place, and sometimes that’s very uncomfortable.

856 first-year students arrived on campus in August. How do you build a culture for students to feel safe to explore new opportunities and possibly fail?

Eddie: I think our role is shepherding. I don’t think our role is building. I think they created the culture, we just shepherd it. We always say we’re the institutional history, but these [students] are the folks that are experts, because I go home at the end of the day. These are the people that are walking in your shoes, living your experience, and these are the people you need to learn from in order to be successful.

Blair: The students that we are admitting are not perfect. They actually have failed, and so, folks often think, especially for selective admissions at the number one business school in the world, we’re admitting perfect applicants. Every student we admit has failed, in college, in graduate school, in a job, in a project, or with a client. That’s the pivot moment: they failed, they need to know something. We’re delivering them to a culture that’s telling them it’s okay to fail. If we were delivering students that had never failed before in their lives and we were asking them to fail, that would be a cultural disaster.

What do you say to prospective students who are considering Wharton?

Eddie: It’s a personal choice. I am more than willing to discuss the culture: you call me and we talk through weigh your options, and maybe that option is another business school. Wharton isn’t for everybody and that’s okay. I don’t want anyone to ever feel like they have to change who they are in order to fit here. I think they need to be who they are and decide what place makes sense for them.

Blair: We support students here, we support your journey, we support that pivot moment, and we really want you to be at the best place for you, because if you’re here and you’re not supposed to be here, it’s not good for anybody.

Eddie: Happiness is important, especially if you think about what the next two years of a business student’s life is going to look like.

Blair: You wouldn’t think that the two of us would say that, but happiness is at the bedrock of what we’re trying to do here.

Posted: October 8, 2019

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