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Jordan Palmer, a Wharton junior who transferred from Elon University, believes that Wharton taught him to be "comfortable with being uncomfortable."

Credit: Julio Sosa

Transferring to any new school comes with an expected culture shock. But the competitive grading system of Wharton can make the change even starker.

“What makes [Wharton] tough is the mentality ... not necessarily the course material,” College and Wharton sophomore Stephen Cho said. It’s not Cho’s 7.5 credits this semester that make school challenging, but rather the social pressure. Transfer students identify the grade curve, which is present in most classes, to be the source of much of the competitive culture. While emphasizing team building and orative skills, Wharton simultaneously pits students against each other by placing grades on a bell curve.

After finishing his freshman year as a biological basis of behavior major on a pre-med track in the College, Cho added a health care management and policy concentration in Wharton. He has chosen to undertake both degrees in the pursuit of integrating the management and medicinal facets of healthcare.

“For me I see it as if I can pull it off and just suck it up for the next few semesters ... I feel like it will be worth it,” Cho said.

Cho often finds that this heavy workload comes at the expense of his extracurricular pursuits. He does not attribute his demanding workload to the rigor but the quantity of classes that he is enrolled in.

Being a student in both the College and Wharton has made the the cultural distinctions between the two schools apparent to Cho. He has noticed a difference in the way students in the College and Wharton engage with their course material and each other.

“The mentality [in Wharton] is definitely less collective,” Cho said. “If I am in my BBB class, even though it is curved, it is a lot more collaborative.”

When sitting in his BBB classes, Cho is mainly concerned with understanding the material. But in Wharton, Cho feels that he must be aware of the social and political climate of his class and align his comments accordingly.

Despite the social and academic pressures that accompany a dual degree, Cho said it has made him aware of the variety of subcultures at Penn. He has applied this knowledge to managing the organization he created, MEDlife.

“Being more hyper-aware of the cultural backgrounds that people come from in terms of the school they’re in within Penn [has] helped me take a more personal interest in the people that I am trying to manage,” Cho said.

But what draws Cho to Wharton can have the opposite effect on other students.

After a year away for medical reasons, College sophomore Dalton Noakes returned to Penn with a different perspective. The former Wharton student realized that he wanted to work in the non-profit sector and that the values and curriculum of Wharton no longer aligned with his academic interests or future career goals.

“After a year on medical leave, I just didn’t care about it at all anymore. I hated all of my classes and the thought of taking four years of finance, accounting and the like was not appealing in any way,” Noakes said.

Even though Wharton’s culture may seem novel and overwhelming, those who stay generally deem the competitive atmosphere to be conducive to real world preparation and personal growth.

The shock of Wharton competition can be even more severe for external transfers.

Wharton junior Ma Lang left the Stern School of Business at New York University after her freshman year upon being accepted to Wharton. Coming from an entrepreneurial background, Lang could not pass up the social and professional opportunities that are thought to accompany acceptance into one of the top business schools in the country.

“Being able to navigate your way through Wharton is almost like a means of personal triumph,” said Wharton junior Jordan Palmer, a transfer student from Elon University.

At their previous institutions, transfer students may have grown accustomed to being academic and extracurricular leaders. Upon enrollment into Wharton, students realize that their classmates are equally motivated and accomplished.

“I have to strive way harder,” Lang said. “At Wharton, I learn that every person around me is my teacher.”

“Personally, Wharton taught me to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Palmer said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name of Stephen Cho's organization as MetLife, rather than MEDlife. The DP regrets the error.

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