Applying to Wharton? Passionate about climate + sustainability? Tips from a recent Wharton MBA

By Sid Radhakrishna (WG'20), President of the Wharton Energy Network

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn on September 10, 2020

Wharton's Huntsman Hall, overlooking the Philadelphia skyline


A few people have approached me for advice about applying to the Wharton MBA program. These folks are passionate about climate and sustainability issues, and are eager to leverage an MBA to make an impact.

Since Wharton's Round 1 deadline is coming up on Sep 15, I thought I'd consolidate my advice into this post. Much of it is based on my experiences as a student. While it won't guarantee admission, I hope it helps you enrich your application. It would make me so happy to see more climate leaders of the future at MBA programs like Wharton.

(If you are a Wharton MBA alum or current student, please comment or DM with additional suggestions! I intend to continue iterating this post so it aggregates the best advice possible.)

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First piece of advice: It starts with you.

Regardless of what MBA program you're applying to, I want to emphasize the importance of self-reflection and soul-searching.

  • Why are you applying to an MBA program? Of course it will advance your career, but how will it advance your life's mission?
  • What experiences have defined the trajectory of your life?
  • What are the values you hold most dear? How have these values guided your decision-making at key crossroads? 
  • What do you want your legacy to be when your career (and life) is said-and-done? How will those aforementioned values factor into how you'll turn your career aspirations into a reality?

People who care about the planet usually are already thinking deeply about these questions. So if you're in that camp, you're off to a great start.

Next: Why an MBA? Why Wharton?

You need to get super clear about why you want to get your MBA. Anyone can check the box of having a degree. But pedigree is useless without direction.

When I was applying to business school, I had two broad goals in mind. I'll share how these played out so you get a sense of how to operationalize your long-term goals at business school.

First: Grow as a Leader and Communicator

I realized that if I were to catalyze the magnitude of change I wanted to in the world, I had to grow as a leader and communicator and leader. I'm a details-oriented, analytical person by nature and tend to be pretty reserved in group situations. This is useful when building financial models or doing research, but not as much for building high-performing teams and inspiring them to achieve ambitious goals — like solving climate change. I recognized that MBA programs put a lot of emphasis on leadership development and group work, which would be a perfect sandbox to cultivate these skills.

My second year, I had the opportunity to do just that as co-chair the Wharton Deans' MBA Advisory Council (DMAC). DMAC partners with the administration on some of the toughest problems facing the student body, functioning like a think tank and consulting group for the Deans. DMAC gave me the opportunity to lead 25 of my peers to deliver recommendations to the Deans in key areas like Climate Change, MBA Career Management, Managing Across Difference, and MBA Community Values.

I'm obviously biased, but the Climate Change project is the one I'm most proud of — we delivered 17 recommendations to administration for how Wharton could better support MBAs to lead and innovate in a world impacted by climate change. Several of these recommendations are already being implemented by Wharton's new Business, Climate, and Environment Lab.

Second: Find an Area of Focus

I knew I liked working on consequential business problems that required interdisciplinary thinking. My prior work experience was quite generalist in nature. This was helpful for seeing the breadth of what was out there. But as a details person, I thought specializing within a particular sector would put me in a better position to succeed. I was pretty open to exploring what this could be.

Fortunately for me, Wharton is well-rounded and enabled me to test out many different domains. This came initially as a pleasant surprise — I, like most people, thought of Wharton as a finance powerhouse. But Wharton has 19 academic majors, over 20 world-class research centers, and a really well-rounded student body.

Wharton offers a major in Business, Energy, Environment, and Sustainability, or what we affectionately call "BEES." I was able to take classes like Energy Markets with Arthur van Benthem and Environmental Law with Sarah Light. Other electives like Corporate Diplomacy with Witold Henisz and Real Estate Investments with Ben Keys equipped me with tools to accelerate the low-carbon transition. Courses like this helped me discover a newfound passion for business action on climate change, which I quickly realized is the generational issue of our time. And I never looked back.

Then: How will you contribute to the Wharton community?

Okay, so you are now a true believer that an MBA is the best next step in your career, and you're really drinking the Wharton kool-aid.

An MBA goes beyond a two-year transaction of taking classes, passing a few exams, and getting a very expensive piece of paper at the end. It really is about joining a global community of future business leaders. It's something you give back to for a lifetime.

Wharton has an incredibly student-driven campus culture. Yes, that can be intense when each class of full-time MBAs exceeds 850. It also means there is so much latent potential in what you can create with your classmates. This culture extends beyond graduation, where I've found that alumni are more than happy to pay it forward, just like prior generations did for them. (For more on Wharton's student culture, read this great interview with the Directors of MBA Admissions and MBA Student Life.)

Leaving Wharton better than I found it was one of my goals going into school. Selfishly, I wanted the school to be better off because I believed it would pay back greater dividends over the rest of my life (To date, the early returns are positive). And if I found myself dissatisfied with the status quo of how Wharton was doing things, I proactively took steps to lead the charge on change.

My second year, as an officer with Wharton's Sustainable Business Coalition, our club launched the first ever Planet Week @ Wharton. Hosted in partnership with multiple clubs and centers across Wharton, we brought together students, faculty, alumni and industry leaders to: demonstrate how climate change affects the business world across finance, food, agriculture, energy, mobility, retail, technology, and more; understand the business opportunities that climate change and sustainability provide; and foster a community of sustainably-minded business leaders. We had about 300 attendees come to 13 events over the course of the week. Our events ran the gamut so we could meet our classmates where they were at, ranging from "Breaking Into Climate Investing" to a "Sustainable Wine Tasting." Our best attended event was "Sustainability in Fashion and Consumer Products." It makes me so happy to see the Sustainable Business Coalition carrying forward this new tradition, with the 2nd annual Planet Week set for October.

If Climate Change is a complex, interdisciplinary challenge, then how will you take advantage of resources across the University?

When I was at school, we called it the "Wharton Bubble." There are several meanings to this – some positive and some not so much. The most dangerous invoke connotations of privilege and homogenous ways of thinking. On campus, this can mean that students find it difficult to branch outside of the business school. To fall into this trap is a huge mistake! Penn is a world-class research university with so much to offer you.

By the end of my first year, I was restless to meet other students outside Wharton. So with the help of some friends, I founded Climate Leaders @ Penn, a student organization dedicated to supporting an interdisciplinary community of climate leaders across Penn's 12 graduate schools. You can read more about the founding story here. What I will mention here is that Climate Leaders helped me connect with students and faculty across Engineering, Design, Medicine, Law, and Arts & Sciences. I am grateful for the friendships I formed and enduring organization we created together.

Finally: I wish you luck. May the force be with you.

Applying to business school is a grind. But have faith that the process will make you better off in the long-run. You'll be forced to reflect on what's important to you and put on paper how a major investment like a Wharton MBA will advance your aspirations. You'll get to practice resilience and grit, attributes that set apart high-performers. And remember that the planet needs you to pull through, because industry needs the best and brightest (i.e. you!) to apply your talents to this urgent challenge.