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Welcome to the Financial Times Ask the Expert Q&A series on MBA applications. Are you thinking of applying to study for an MBA? Are you cramming for your GMAT test? Perhaps you are preparing for an interview at one of your dream business schools?

Ankur Kumar

Ankur Kumar, director of MBA admissions and financial aid at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, answered reader’s questions on Tuesday, 30th July 2013.


I am a 42 year old lawyer who returned to education (BA Economics 2:1) at 26 after having played pro-rugby. I am married with two young children. I am aware of the significant time demands and this poses no problems. However, I am 7.5 years qualified as a corporate / commercial solicitor and hate it. I want to have another career but am obviously constrained by a mortgage tied to my current earnings. I also do not know what to do when I leave.

So I have two questions: Should I be doing an MBA? Do the rankings matter - and to what extent? For example, acknowledging the fact that to make such a ‘transformational’ move I need to use a provider with a transformational reputation, is to 30 in the global rankings going to work for me, or do I need to go higher?


Ankur: Patrick, in order to determine if an MBA programme is the right next step for you, I would start by asking yourself two questions: What do you dislike about your current role/profession? What do aspire to do professionally next? Or what profession(s) do you want to explore?

Without having some clarity on what you are interested in pursuing or exploring, it is hard to determine the best path forward. The MBA experience provides academic, professional and personal development - but it is also an intensive experience with many options around each of those areas. Without focus on the types of resources and experience you are seeking, it will be more challenging to leverage the experience in a way that helps you with your objectives and allows you to engage with your classmates and programme fully.

As you noted, there are many options for your MBA – full time programmes, part-time programmes, executive MBA programs. As you gain clarity regarding your professional interests, it is also important to think about the personal tradeoffs that make sense for you. A full-time MBA is certainly not out of considerations; for example, at Wharton we have many students who come to our program with families. However, it is a very individual decision in terms of what makes the most sense for you. A part-time or exec MBA allow you to keep working while in the program. A part-time program also can generally be spread over a longer period of time.

Rankings can help give you a sense of the landscape of programs available. It’s important to do your due diligence on the programs that are interest to best understand how their academic, career and students/alumni resources may meet your needs.

I am looking to start an MBA course either in 2014 or 2015 and will probably aim for a part-time course at a top school funded by my company. I would like to find a course that allows me to split my learning between the first year based in the USA, and the second year based in Asia. Can you please advise if you are aware of any courses that are structured in this way? I have been researching this but so far have only found courses with short-term live-in electives rather than a year one - year two split between regions.

I would also like to know whether you think the MBA or an executive MBA may be more suitable given my current level of experience and age. I have just turned 28 and have a finance background (ACMA qualified, 2009). I have seven years post degree work experience in business and have held numerous management positions in finance, both commercially and operationally focused whilst working for a large global manufacturing firm in the technology industry and I am on a fast track general management scheme.

I want to maximise my chances of attending a top school and while my academic results and career experience are very good, I do not have many achievements/affiliations outside of work. I work long hours and travel extensively so time is limited and I try to balance my downtime with social activities, however I am 12 months into learning Mandarin and have mentored CIMA students in the past. Do you think this will hold me back with the top schools? Do you have any pointers on what I can do to improve in this area?


Ankur: To your first question; I am not personally aware of programmes structured in the way you’ve outlined. Some EMBA programmes may me a better fit for you as they are tailored to accommodate students who are balancing work (globally) while in the programme.

Regarding the decision on which type of MBA to pursue (full-time or exec), that depends on the type of experience you are seeking to have, along with your career/professional goals.

Given that you enjoy and have been quite successful in your role – and are the fast track within your organisation – an EMBA may be good fit to help you accelerate (even more!) your trajectory. An EMBA would allow you to continue working at your current organisation, while adding to your academic learning and professional network. Often times EMBA programmes require financial sponsorship by your organisation - and of course, approval for you to spend the time required for the programme. It’s important to do your due diligence on each programme to ensure you understand their requirements.

At Wharton, we have both a full-time an EMBA programme; you can see a side-by-side comparison of the programme structure and experience details on our website.

To your last question. Most schools are incredibly holistic in their application processes. We seek to understand you across your academic and professional trajectories, and also as an individual, from your personal qualities to your motivations and aspirations. We are looking at and evaluating your application within your personal context – in addition to across the landscape of other applications. Given your intensive work hours and travel schedule – we would not necessarily expect you to have time to engage in outside activities.

Though one might have had many a successes in his/her professional & academic life leading up to an MBA he/she might also have had a few failures, like a poor graduation score or maybe a delay in landing a job post graduation. How does Wharton or any business school look at such situations, is it a complete no-no to applications in such cases or does the performance despite these failures get counted as a positive? I ask this as I see many of my outstanding peers shying away from applications for the fear of rejection?

Ambuj Tripathi

Ankur: I am a firm believer that the path to success is filled with failure – and think any successful person would agree!

In our admissions process, we seek to understand our applicants across the experiences that they have had professionally and personally. What we are most interested in hearing from our applicants – whether regarding a success or failure – is what they have learned from the experience and how they have put those lessons to use going forward.

However, it is also important in sharing about challenges or setbacks to ensure that you provide us with an explanation – not an excuse. The latter is less helpful to and viewed less positively by an admissions committee.

I’ve been working with Wharton’s Veterans Club RE the admissions process. Wharton seems to prefer operators aka Special Forces military veterans, what application advice would you lend to a veteran who was not an operator, instead a hacker for the Air Force and US State Dept?

Benny Castaldo

Ankur: Benny, I’m glad you have been in touch with our veterans on campus – they are a fantastic group and resource! We value all military experience – there is no ‘preference’ from our perspective. Whatever your role or branch, we are most keen to understand your military experience and the translatable skills you bring to the programme.

We find that our military candidates have unparalleled leadership and management experience which is incredibly valuable to their classmates experience both inside and outside the classroom.

In addition, as with all candidates, we are most interested in understanding where you want to go next professionally, what motivates and excites you intellectually, and how you will contribute to our learning environment.

How significant is undergraduate GPA in the application process? What is the most important personality factor that you look for when interviewing a potential MBA student? Could you rate different aspects of the application process (1 being the most important - 5 being the least important). How important is the essay component of the GMAT? What differentiates Wharton from other top tier schools (such as Harvard or Columbia) What is the criteria that you must meet in order to get financial aid?

Ankur: Our application – and evaluation – process is incredibly holistic. We want to understand our applicants across their academic, professional and personal dimensions.

Academically, we triangulate across objective measures including a candidate’s undergrad (and any masters) performance as well as a standardised test (GMAT or GRE). Our goal in this review is to ensure that a candidate will be successful in our rigorous environment. We do not have GPA or GMAT/GRE cutoffs.

Professionally, there isn’t a “right” set of experiences or years of work we are seeking. Whatever you have chosen to pursue, we are interested in learning about what you have learned, how you have challenged yourself, and where you want to go next.

In terms of your personal qualities, we are interested in learning about your self-awareness, judgement, maturity, interpersonal skills and leadership and management styles.

The written and in person components of our application provide us a window into each of these areas. We consider all equally important, and as an applicant your goal is to stand out in as many of these areas as possible.

Two distinguishing aspects of the Wharton MBA programme are our approach to teaching business as well as our student body and culture. We teach a general management curriculum which is highly flexible and customisable to meet your specific academic and professional interests. Our student body is both large and diverse – however we are also incredibly student run and collaborative.

To find out more, I’d encourage you to visit our website, check out our student2student forum and MBA admissions blog, come visit us on campus, and/or attend one of our information sessions taking place across the globe.

In terms of financing, you can find out more about the primary ways to fund your education here.

I’ve worked part-time at a retailer and am president of a profiting company ever since I first walked into university, should I apply to business school right after graduation or would it be a better idea to get the work experience on a full-time basis first?

Chris Martinovic

Ankur: At Wharton, we generally value full-time experience for all students coming to our programme. We find that it provides you with important reference points and context to maximise your learning – as well as your contribution to your classmates and the community.

That being said there is not a preferred number of years of experience we are looking for. It’s most important to apply when you feel ready. You can see the full (wide!) range of years in the latest class profile here.

How can I make myself stand out on my business school application? What points should I focus on?

Ankur: The best way to standout in the application process is to be yourself. To do this successfully, you need to have a good understanding of who you are and where you want to go. If you haven’t gone through this process of self-reflection and self-understanding, it is incredibly difficult to convey the unique aspects of yourself to anyone.

Think about the choices you have made, what motivated them, what you learned from them before you put pen to paper (or open up your laptop) to start answering our questions. You will also need to get comfortable with the idea that we can’t learn everything about you! You will need to continue to use your good judgment to prioritise the aspects of yourself and examples to share with us.

I’m thinking of studying for an MBA as part of my plans to launch a social enterprise. Is this the right way forward?

Ankur: The MBA can be an incredible asset in pursuit of a social impact focused career in the near or long term. At Wharton, we offer a holistic set of resources to support you through our Social Impact Initiative, as well as the academic and experiential opportunities in the MBA programme.

How can I show I understand and value a business school brand and culture?

Ankur: The first step is doing your due diligence on the programmes you are interested in. Schools offer many ways on and offline to learn about their programmes. At Wharton we have a multitude of ways to learn about us: you can check out our website, student2student forum, or MBA admissions blog; visit us on campus and/or attend an information sessions taking place across the globe.

To read more about other experts featuring in this series, visit our MBA applications homepage.

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