Laurie Stewart is executive director of masters admissions at the (No. 16 in BusinessWeek's most recent ranking of full-time MBA programs). Stewart, a Tepper alum, has close ties to the Pittsburgh university. She received her MBA in 1987 and returned to the Tepper School in 1990 as the assistant dean for student affairs. She was later appointed interim director of MBA admissions and took on the position permanently in 1994.
Stewart says that the close-knit community and the commitment that students and faculty have to the school are what sets Tepper apart from other business schools. She recently spoke with BusinessWeek.com reporter Kelly Bronk about the admissions process and what else makes Tepper unique. Here's an edited transcript of their conversation:
How do admissions numbers look for this year?
Our application volume for full-time MBAs is up about 15%, and the quality of candidates has been excellent. We've seen great candidates this year in the admissions process.
What's the target class size at Tepper?
We're looking for about 175 students this year for the full-time MBA. We also have a flex-time program, which is for candidates who are working in the region and take classes a couple times a week. That program is typically 60 to 70 students per year, and also we have a distance-learning version of the MBA called the FlexMode MBA, which is about the same size.
Do students apply in rounds? Are there advantages to applying in an earlier round?
We have four application rounds, and we evaluate each round and respond to all of the candidates at the same time. We make admissions offers in all four rounds, so I usually tell candidates that the best time to apply is when they feel their application is ready. There's definitely still space available in rounds three and four. The one benefit to applying earlier is that you get your answer sooner so you can start making plans.
In terms of the application, are there any essays that candidates seem to find difficult?
I really don't think so. I think the questions are fairly straightforward. Our first essay is about goals, both in the short and long term and how the Tepper MBA program will help candidates achieve their goals. One of the things we're looking for is a really clear, direct, and thoughtful answer to that question. We're looking for students who have thought through their rationale for getting an MBA and who know why Tepper is a good fit. If someone has taken the time to reflect on those things, it can really shine through in the essays.
Are there other qualities or characteristics you're looking for students to demonstrate in the essays?
We definitely use the essays to help evaluate communications skills. Other aspects beyond content are just writing well, making sure you answer the question, and paying attention to details like spelling and grammar. At times you have to make decisions about what's the most important information to include in the essay, because you have a limited amount of space. I think that it can be challenging for students to decide what the most relevant information is.
Are there certain courses you look for in an applicant's undergraduate transcript?
We're really receptive to all kinds of academic backgrounds. There aren't any particular courses that are must-haves in the transcript, but there is a prerequisite for some mathematics. We are looking for an aptitude for mathematics. When we evaluate the whole application, sometimes we see in a transcript that they've taken a math course. In other cases, we don't see these courses, but we see that this person has an aptitude for analytics and mathematics through other areas of the application. Quite often we make admission offers to candidates who may not have the math prerequisites on their transcripts, but it is a pre-enrollment requirement that they must complete before they arrive in the fall.
If a student doesn't have the prerequisite courses, how much more important does the quantitative GMAT score become?
It definitely puts more pressure on the GMAT, because that may be one of the things that gives us an indication that they have the mathematical aptitude. There may be other things, like the type of work they're doing, that may provide an indication as well. The GMAT is one of many things we consider when we evaluate an application.
What's the typical amount of work experience you look for in an applicant?
Over the past few years most candidates have had in the range of two to eight years of experience. However, there are certainly people outside that. In fact, we have some candidates with a year or less—I think in our last class it was about 10%, and we're very receptive to that. We think there are great candidates out there who might be early in their career but who, through their applications, can make a strong case for admission.
What are you looking for in letters of recommendation?
For most candidates, the ideal person, if it's an option, is a current or previous direct supervisor, because they're in a really great position to provide examples of the impact the person has been having in their work and what kinds of contributions they are making. They can provide examples and specific insights.
Does it help when an alum writes a letter of recommendation?
Alums have a unique perspective about whether a candidate may be a good fit, because they know the school very well. They can help connect the dots about why a candidate is a good fit for the program. But candidates can really help any recommender by making them understand why they want an MBA and why Tepper is a good choice for them.
How do interviews work at the Tepper School?
We have a two-part process in every recruiting year. In the early part of the application season candidates can request interviews when they come to campus for a visit, and we try to accommodate as many people as we can. After that time we get really involved in reviewing candidates who have already applied, so we need to limit our interviews to people we extend an invitation to. All of our interviews are conducted by members of the admission team. While we have many alums available to talk to prospective students around the world and we make those resources available, they are not involved in the interviewing for the admission process. When our admissions committee is meeting, we've found that it's very helpful to have at least one person in the room who has met the candidate, either by phone or in person.
When a student walks into the interview, what kinds of questions should they expect to answer?
They can definitely expect that we're really going to want to use the interview as a chance to get to know them better as a candidate. If they've already applied, we will have done an initial review of their application, so we will walk them through their background. We have questions that explore their experiences in teams and the opportunities they've had to play a leadership role. We really want to get a sense of why they are interested in the Tepper School and also use it as a chance for candidates to ask questions. We hope that it's a two-way conversation.
What are the biggest mistakes candidates make in their applications?
One area that some candidates could spend more time on is their up-front self-reflection, research, and thinking about goals: why they are interested in the MBA, and what programs are going to be a good fit for them. Time and investment in that up-front research and self-reflection pay off because they show in the essays, and they can really shine through in the interviews. Also, one really pragmatic thing is giving a recommender enough time to write a recommendation—that is really key. Sometimes we'll have everything we need for a complete application except one or two letters of recommendation. Giving your recommenders the time they need to write an effective letter is important, and they definitely need more than a week or two. Ask very early on when you're just starting to think about the MBA, and take the time to make sure your recommender understands why you are pursuing this type of education and this school.
What kind of students do you think the school is a good fit for?
We're looking for the kind of people who are really bright and motivated, who have a strong work ethic, and who have really been making an impact in their academic and professional life so far. They get things done, they thrive in teams, and they step up and take a leadership role. Essentially, it could be any range of paths, but we're looking for the kinds of individuals whom everybody loves to work with, people you really want to have on your team when you're tackling a tough problem.
How important is teamwork at Tepper?
Our students work in teams from day one, and we're a very small school in terms of class size and there's a very strong sense of community here. We look to have all members of our community be active contributors.
Once a student is admitted, what kinds of financial aid opportunities are available?
We have a process where all of the students who are offered admission are reviewed by a scholarship committee for merit scholarships. There are scholarships awarded on the basis of merit, and many candidates are notified in their admission letter if they have received a scholarship. They range from small ones to full-tuition merit scholarships. For the last few years, we've had 10 to 15 students in each class who have been selected as Dean's Scholars. The other thing that has been valuable is having a dedicated financial aid office in the business school that works exclusively with our graduate students to put together individual plans for financing each student's education.
What does Tepper do to attract women and underrepresented minorities to the school?
One key part of our goal to recruit female and minority students to Tepper is the active role we play as members of the Consortium for Graduate Studies in Management and the Forte Foundation. Through those organizations and partnerships with other leading business schools and corporations, we collaborate to recruit students to graduate business education and into our specific schools. Through those organizations, the Tepper School is also able to provide some scholarships to students. Additionally, every fall, we have a visit weekend called "Connections Weekend" and one called "Women and the MBA." Those two weekends are a great way for underrepresented minority students to explore Tepper and learn more about our program and the environment here.
Speaking of the environment at Tepper, how would you describe the culture?
We're a very small school, and it's a place where everyone knows your name, so it's a very close-knit community. It's also very engaged. Our school is busy seven days a week and at all times of the day and the night. Andrew Carnegie is famous for the quote, "My heart is in the work," and I think that's one way to think about the culture at Tepper. People really love being here, love what they're doing, and love learning.
How would you describe the relationship between Tepper and the rest of the university?
When our dean, Kenneth Dunn, joined the school, he wanted to find more ways to make the wider university community available to Tepper students. Our MBA students can take electives in other graduate departments on campus, and we have a lot of dual and joint degree programs and tracks where students can go in-depth in an area that includes coursework in other schools. A great example is our Management of Innovation & Product Development track, which is taught by the school of design, our engineering school, and the business school. Outside the classroom, a group of our students collaborated with students at the Heinz School of Public Policy and put together a trip to South Africa this spring. So, it spans the academic and the social and the entrepreneurial and the professional, but students at Tepper really have the opportunity to take advantage of the wider Carnegie Mellon community.
Out of all of the business schools, what makes Tepper unique?
One is the size of the school and the strong sense of community that comes out of that and the commitment that all of the members of our community have to the school and the education process. Second, we really want to provide a great education for our students that has a foundation in analytical thinking and solving problems, so that no matter what professional paths our students follow, they get some fundamental knowledge that helps them solve problems as part of the team and see opportunities. The third thing is the breadth of options that you have. There are more than 120 electives in the business school. Half of the courses that our MBA students take are electives, and they have the opportunity to take tracks or collaborative degrees across campus and get access to the whole Carnegie Mellon community.