Wharton's interview question leak raises ethical issues

November 22, 2010: 12:44 PM ET

Several MBA admissions consultants recently gained access to Wharton's updated interview questions, a stark reminder that the business schools admissions process is not a level playing field.

By John A. Byrne, contributor

Several prominent MBA admissions consultants, with access to inside information on the web, are coaching their clients for forthcoming applicant interviews with the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, Poets&Quants has learned.

What makes the practice especially noteworthy is that this year Wharton has launched a new process that requires all applicants to answer three of six "behavioral" questions. Knowledge of the questions would allow applicants time to prepare thoughtful answers and score well. Applicants unaware of the new format and the questions would be facing this interview process totally unprepared.

The consultants have gained access to an audio slideshow presentation intended to train Wharton alumni who conduct the interviews. The slideshow includes all six questions, suggestions for follow-ups, as well as detailed guidelines for how to grade the applicants' answers.

The upshot: applicants willing to pay for help are gaining inside information that it far more likely they will do well in the crucial interview session that is the last hurdle to an acceptance.

Like most schools, Wharton is in the midst of interviewing first-round applicants. An estimated 900 applicants have been invited to interviews so far, through Wharton will likely interview as many as 2,700 of some 7,000 expected applicants to the Class of 2013. Wharton says that roughly 500 Wharton alums have been enlisted to conduct the sessions. Second-year MBA students and admissions staff also will do some of the interviews.

The leak coincides with a boom in the MBA admissions consulting business. As many as half of all applicants to Harvard, Stanford and Wharton are thought to be using consultants to gain an edge in getting into a prestige school.

In some cases, applicants are paying in excess of $5,000 for coaching on how to fill out their application forms, write their admission essays, and prepare for interviews. Many of the consultants are either alumni of or former admissions officials at many of the world's top business schools.

"While anything is possible, I sincerely doubt that any of our consultants would be engaging in this sort of behavior," says Graham Richmond, co-founder of Clear Admit, who is a Wharton alum. "Unlike most firms in the space, we are not a loose network of independent contractors, but rather a tight-knit group of full-time employees. If the allegation is that we have 'insider' information of some kind, then it's false -- unless you consider field reports from current applicants who have interviewed with the school to be insider information."

Richmond and others note that some questions have leaked out in online discussion forums at BusinessWeek, GMAT Club and Clear Admit, along with blog posts by applicants who have been invited to interview and report the results of their sessions in detail.

Nonetheless, the leak raises ethical questions surrounding the extra access given to applicants who pay for consulting.

80% of Wharton applicants are qualified for admission

The 25-minute presentation, which Poets&Quants has obtained from a simple website link without a password, is given by Ankur Kumar, deputy director of MBA admissions at Wharton. She counsels alumni on how to conduct the newly introduced behavioral interviews and grade the answers on a scale of one to four. In the presentation, she says that 80% of Wharton's applicants are qualified for admission so that the interviews are intended to give the admissions office better information to winnow down the competition.

Some alumni with connections to admission consultants have shared the link. These consultants are using that inside information to help their clients prepare for the interview sessions.

Wharton does not seem too concerned about the leaks. "Our admissions team is quite confident in the interview process, anticipating full well the possibility of questions being leaked through various sources and interviewees using admission consultants to prep," says Malini Doddamani, a Wharton spokesperson, in an email response. "The team believes the benefits far outweigh the risks for us and for all our peers that also have this problem."

Wharton also believes that the answers from applicants will be varied enough to make better judgments. "Whether one uses a consultant or not," adds Doddamani, "the key to success is in the manner of answering and the ability to navigate through the turns of the interaction. Questions just serve as a 'starter.'"

"Wharton seems to be taking its damage control cues from BP (British Petroleum," says Sanford Kreisberg, a Boston-based admissions consultant known as HBSGuru. "First, they were in denial about leaks. When the leaks became undeniable, they started saying they don't matter. In reality, the unprepared applicants are forced to commit to a story, often the first thing that comes to mind, on the spot, while the prepared kids are building Potemkin Village answer sets."

Kreisberg has written an open letter to Wharton, urging the school to publish the questions in fairness because of the leaks.

The interview has become an essential step in the admissions process at all top business schools. Unlike Harvard, whose admissions staff does virtually all applicant interviews, Wharton heavily relies on alumni and second-year MBA students to conduct these sessions with applicants. Members of the admissions staff do a minority of the interviews. In a typical year, Wharton will interview between 30% and 50% of all its applicants -- far more than either Harvard or Stanford.

Most schools that enlist alumni to do interviews, including Stanford University and Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, suggest questions alums should ask, but those interviews are less structured than the new behavioral approach adopted by Wharton this year, which dictates that only three of six standardized questions be used. (The switch to behavioral interviewing was first disclosed in Poets&Quants earlier this month.)

It's not clear why Wharton chose to go the behavioral route. Some observers speculate that its traditional interview process turned up weaker students than it wanted last year, or that admissions simply believed the process would make it easier to winnow out the large number of applicants the school invites to interview sessions.

In the presentation, Kumar points out that "traditional interviews can be subjective and often end up assessing the candidate's interviewing capability, rather than their suitability for the MBA program." Traditional interviews, she adds, also duplicate many of the findings in the application -- summarizing professional experience when a school already has a resume and essays that draw out professional goals. As a result, says Kumar, they failed to add new or substantive information to the application.

Biz school interview questions: 'Not exactly state secrets'

It isn't clear how many consultants are using all of this information to coach their clients, but it's common knowledge that interview coaching is done and is often based on posts by applicants willing to share their experiences.

"The questions typically asked at MBA interviews are not exactly state secrets," says Linda Abraham, of Accepted.com, a major admissions consulting firm. "The actual questions are posted on applicant blogs and forums and shared in our database and in Clear Admit's wiki. We definitely use publicly available information in coaching our clients."

Abraham, however, said she is not aware of the leaked presentation. "We are not using any such information."

This year's six key questions to Wharton applicants

Wharton alums are being told to ask applicants three questions, selected from six, on three "competencies" identified by students, alumni, recruiters, and faculty as key factors in the success of a Wharton student: "team building," "facilitative leadership," and "persuasive communication."

Team building:

"Describe a time when you have been working toward the completion of an important task, when it has been necessary to consider the opinions and feelings of others.

"Describe a time when you have worked as part of a team working towards an important goal, when you have addressed conflict between two or more team members."

Facilitative leadership:

"Describe a time when you have worked with others to complete an important task, when there was no formally appointed group leader."

"Describe a time when you have ensured an important task has been completed, when you felt others were less focused than you on completing the important task."

Persuasive communication:

"Describe a time when you have had to persuade others to your way of thinking, when at first they did not buy into your idea."

"Describe a time when your ideas have been challenged by others, requiring you to defend your opinions."

More from Poets and Quants:

Suddenly Cozy: MBA Admission Consultants and Business Schools

How NOT to Blow Your Harvard MBA Interview

Ranking B-Schools on Intellectual Capital

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About This Author
John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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