MBA School Choice: Columbia Vs. Wharton

What separates these top tier business schools is their location and culture

An offer to attend either Columbia Business School or the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School would be a significant coup. Both are ranked extremely highly by the leading financial press, and there are many similarities between the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania and Columbia Business School. But there are also plenty of differences.

Columbia Vs. Wharton: Location and MBA culture

“Location and culture are the two areas where these programs differ,” says admissions consultant Stacy Blackman.

Her former client, an MBA student who chose Columbia stressed the importance of being based in New York City: “Being here gives you access to unparalleled speakers, great internship opportunities, and really simplifies the networking process.”

Some prospective students may think that Columbia is more competitive—at least in terms of culture—given its location, but a former MBA admissions officer at the business school disputes this.

“A key aspect of the program is becoming involved on campus and immersing yourself in the Columbia community,” they said. “The students work wonderfully together; it’s not the cutthroat place that some imagine when they think of an NYC school.”

Another MBA student from Columbia adds: “People from the outside often think of Columbia as having less of a tight-knit culture because it’s in NYC, but I did not find this to be the case at all.”

Columbia is seen by some people as a “commuter school” where pockets of students live across NYC—perhaps in boroughs like Brooklyn or Queens—and use transit to get around to other classmates. But the student said that, while you do get some Columbia students who live far away from campus and don’t fully immerse themselves, most people move near Manhattan’s Upper West Side and do fun things around the city.

Wharton in Philadelphia on the other hand has more of a traditional campus atmosphere, where the vast majority of students live in a small radius within Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse district.

One MBA candidate said they chose Wharton because it was in a relatively smaller city compared to New York, so there was more opportunity to bond with classmates.

Wharton’s campus is compact and contained, so you’re more likely to know a larger number of your classmates. Another MBA student at the school says: “Student culture at Wharton is extremely social. The class is one of the largest, so there is no shortage of social events, and everyone is really outgoing.”

Another added benefit is that Wharton’s location in the heart of Philadelphia makes it a train ride away from either New York or Washington. “Most students who attend Wharton have never been to Philadelphia and are usually pleasantly surprised by the city’s livability, walkability and affordability,” says Blackman, the consultant.

Columbia Vs. Wharton: Post-MBA career outcomes

After graduation, many Columbia students stay in and around the NYC metro area and build their professional network there. “While many Wharton grads land jobs in NYC post-MBA, many also spread to other parts of the US and global areas,” says Susie Gruda, a Wharton MBA graduate who works as an admissions consultant at The MBA Exchange.

In general, Columbia graduates lean more towards finance and consulting, with two-thirds of the class end up in one of these industries and typically at a firm within the North-eastern region of the US and especially NYC itself.

While closer to 40 percent of Wharton graduates have chosen to accept offers in consulting and finance, over the past few years, more graduates have been moving to technology, entrepreneurship or careers that involve data analytics.

One important consideration is the alumni network. “Wharton generally has a more expansive and global alumni network with roughly double the alumni base compared to Columbia, partly owing to Wharton having an undergraduate business school,” says Gruda.

Columbia Vs. Wharton: MBA admissions requirements and selectivity

Prospective students should consider their background. “If concerned about their competitiveness, they might want to consider applying to Columbia’s early admissions round, which gives potential candidates an increased chance of getting into the school,” Gruda says.

“And for those that aren’t career switchers and therefore likely don’t need to do an internship to gain work experience in their new field, CBS offers a January enrolment; Wharton only has one starting period in September,” she adds.

Both schools have highly selective admissions criteria and are among the top business schools in the world. Generally speaking, however, Wharton is more selective with a lower admission rate typically in the single digits.

In the last few years especially, Wharton has heightened its focus on accepting women and diversity candidates and last year, for the first time ever, Wharton admitted more women than men compared to Columbia (52 percent versus 41 percent). 

Columbia has a very traditional interview process where alumni interview candidates asking them questions around why the candidate is interested in the school, how they intend to contribute and various behavioral questions.

Wharton is currently placing more emphasis on instantaneous team-based dynamics through its Team Based Discussion where students have less ability to practice for their interview.

Wharton’s interview also requires students to be reflective of their group dynamic and potentially what part they played in coming to a successful answer to the team-based discussion prompt.

“The interview process varies significantly between the two schools and as such, applicants might want to consider how they would likely perform under each scenario,” says Gruda.

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