One Semester Down at Wharton
- by Lawrence L. Cole
Nearly a year ago today, I received a phone call while eating breakfast from the director of MBA admissions for the Wharton School. To say that the past 12 months have been a whirlwind would be an understatement. Yet through all of the experiences that I’ve had thus far—from the exhilarating peaks of Walnut Walk and boozy brunches to the valleys of managerial economics (MGEC … pronounced “magic” at Wharton) problem sets and Z-distribution grading scales—one thing is certain:
I could not have made a better life decision than that of choosing to attend Wharton.
The funny thing is that when I started this whole process I did not actually have Wharton on my radar. I was living in Los Angeles working as a marketing operations manager for a fun Internet company. I enjoyed my job, played pingpong and worked out at Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach every day, and I had no intention of leaving Southern California. I wanted to go back to business school to round out a few skills, expand my network and found another company without having to work a full-time job. Two previous entrepreneurial ventures had capsized mostly because I just did not have the time to devote to them while working. I also was doing everything myself and wanted to meet a co-founder or two that could balance out my skills in sales, marketing and operations.
My research suggested that business school might be a great environment to do that in, so I began looking into a couple of the local schools that were well-respected—top-25 programs with strong alumni networks in California. The first time that I even considered looking outside of that narrow realm was when Thomas Campbell, a childhood friend who got his MBA from Columbia back in ’08 and now runs a real estate development company in New York, kicked me in the butt for aiming so low. After a ton of more research, hours of essay writing, MBA admissions events, interviews and soul searching, I knew that Wharton was where I would go.
Pre-Term was quite overwhelming. I was meeting tons of interesting people daily but also was dog-tired from a schedule that seemed to run around the clock between lectures, classes and social events. It was nothing short of a fire baptism. Looking back on it, however, I see the method to the madness. As disconcerting as it was, it acclimated me to what life at Wharton would really be like. Sure, I now have more control over my schedule. I can pick and choose which classes I take, which activities to get involved with and when I need to simply remove myself from “The Wharton Bubble” altogether; but I am no less busy than I was back then.
My classmates and I began to get a sniff that this was just our new reality right around the time the first set of quant problem sets for MGEC, stats, accounting and finance were due. What had at the time been a nonstop rave party was brought to a screeching halt as we were hit with the reality of how academically demanding Wharton is.
That realization was intensified by the effects of the z-distribution curve that everything is graded on. In undergrad, it was always good news to be “graded on a curve.” It meant that you didn’t have to be perfect, just better than everyone else. That is much easier said than done at a place like Wharton. The biggest shift in paradigm versus my past experiences with grading curves is that there really are not too many slackers to depend on to form the bottom half of that curve.
At the same time, there is this strange phenomenon here where people are surprisingly collaborative and helpful to one another despite the fact that we are all competing for placement and grades in the core. The fact that we are each other’s competition is like a pink elephant in the room that no one discusses.
Perhaps it is because of grade nondisclosure, which we voted in this year with a greater than 95 percent vote. Or perhaps it is because we are all adults who are old enough and wise enough to know that there is more to learning and certainly more to life than a GPA.
There is also a broader diversity of students from different backgrounds and industries than 10 or 15 years ago. Students are multidimensional. Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind makes the case for why quantitative skills are no longer lauded as special in the new economy. They are a basic requirement. Then one must have superior emotional intelligence and creativity on top of that. Pink’s description of leadership in the near future really describes my classmates here at Wharton, as I have learned over the past semester.
For my spring semester, I’ve cleared my mornings of any classes so that I can focus on working on a startup idea with a co-founder/classmate. I’ll be taking Web Lean Launchpad (EAS 590), a new Wharton/engineering collaboration that provides a hands-on, immersive experience in building Web-based business models. I’ll also knock out a few flexible core classes with the half-semester version of corporate finance (FNCE 614) and the weekend option for advanced marketing (MKTG 613)–yes, it’s a WEEKEND. I love that the administration saw fit to make the second layer of the core so customizable. I’ll also be taking a communications class (WHCP 615) for entrepreneurs who want to rehearse pitching to VCs, as well as two customer data and analytics classes, MKTG 776 and MKTG 669.
On the impact front, I really intend to grow the Data & Analytics Club that I founded with the support of the Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative. We went from zero to just over 50 members during the second half of the fall semester. I’d like to reach 75 to 100 by spring break or so. I am also a marketing committee member for Wharton’s first annual People Analytics Conference, which will happen this March. It is being organized and led by my classmate Lisa Donchak, an ex-Googler and photography enthusiast whom I am beyond impressed with. I’ve also been voted in as the new webmaster and head of marketing for The Wharton Wharthogs rugby team. That organization has been my most fulfilling experience here to date. It is the tightest brotherhood on campus and just a great group of guys, near-concussions and groin injuries notwithstanding.
Finally, I recently applied to attend Wharton’s West Coast campus in San Francisco for fall 2014: the Semester in San Francisco Program. I’ll be interviewing for Silicon Valley internships for the summer and would like to stay in that ecosystem. I believe that every tech entrepreneur should experience that region at least once in their career.
Yes, the past 12 months have been a blast indeed; and I see even better things to come for the year 2014.
Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the Wharton MBA Program’s Student Diarists blog on Dec. 14, 2013.