Meet Carnegie Mellon's Admissions Director

A conversation with Laurie Stewart, director of admissions at Carnegie Mellon's Graduate School of Industrial Administration

Our guest on Dec. 5, was Laurie Stewart, director of MBA Admissions at Carnegie Mellon University's Graduate School of Industrial Administration, which is No. 14 on BusinessWeek's Top 30 list. Stewart attended the GSIA and subsequently was its assistant dean for student affairs. Since 1994 she has led the school's MBA admissions operation, and also has headed its financial aid office. Ms. Stewart was interviewed by BusinessWeek Online reporter Mica Schneider. Here's an edited transcript of that discussion:

Q: Applications to Carnegie Mellon increased 86.5% before the B-school's first round deadline on Nov. 30. How many students will the B-school ultimately accept?


We've typically accepted 350 to 400 applicants to get a class of 220 to 230 students.

Q: If not Carnegie Mellon, where are students going?


It depends on the student. We tend to overlap in applications with really great programs, such as MIT (Sloan), Wharton, and Cornell.

Q: The volume of applications is up, but how is the quality of the early applications crossing your desk?


I've seen some really great, qualified candidates. We're starting to review applications, we've started to interview people, and it seems like a good pool of candidates.

Q: It's unclear how international MBAs will be affected by heightened border security when they apply for student visas this year. What is the business school's response?


It's probably going to take longer to get visas, so in our springtime round we have an earlier deadline for international applicants. For the first time ever, we've added an additional deadline, Apr. 30, which we limited to U.S. candidates only. That way, we can make sure that we have enough time to deal with international applicants, whose final application deadline is Mar. 31.

Q: Any changes in the type of student you're recruiting to Carnegie Mellon?


For several years, we've been trying to increase the international diversity of our student population, and now have more countries represented in our program. We've been very interested in recruiting more women, and are steadily increasing that proportion: we are 29% female in the second-year MBA class, and 25% in the first year. This year is slightly down, but we're optimistic for next year.

There is some scholarship support for women students and under represented minority students thanks to a major gift from the founders of the B-school. It can range from full tuition scholarships to a percentage of tuition. But in the admissions process, everyone competes to get in.

Q: This year, Carnegie Mellon joined the Consortium for Graduate Study of Management, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the number of minorities in management education.


We're really glad to be one of the 14 schools that are part of that group. We're looking forward to recruiting more minority students. Currently, 4% to 5% of our class is underrepresented minorities.

Q: You began leading MBA admissions at Carnegie Mellon in 1994. How have things changed?


We changed the degree name last year from MSIA (Masters of Science in Industrial Administration) to the MBA. We're also seeing more candidates from a wider range of backgrounds. For example, in the first-year class, half of the students come from nontechnical backgrounds. That's the first time that has been the case. The change of degree name has opened us up to interest from more prospective students.

Q: Who's the ideal GSIA applicant?


We want candidates to be successful academically, and to have been successful in their professional lives so far. They should have experience being a member of a team, and great leadership skills. We want students who have the kinds of goals our program will help them achieve.

Q: What isn't in line with GSIA goals?


We have a great general management program. Our finance, operations, technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship subject areas are strong. We're a smaller school, so we don't offer all of the areas other schools do. So if someone is keenly interested in real estate, or health care management, we'd want to know why they're interested in Carnegie Mellon.

Q: How does your office evaluate applicants' GMAT scores?


We look at the applicant's academic record, and at all parts of the person's GMAT score. We tend to look at the quantitative score first, but the whole score matters. If someone does really well (scoring a 5.5 or a 6) on the Analytical Writing Assesment (AWA )section of the exam, and that's a really strong performance on the AWA, we take that into consideration, too.

When we look at academic records, we start with the applicant's GPA, but we really look at where they went to school, what program they did, what courses they did well in, and those that they didn't do well in. Students have to have at least studied calculus I. We have some strong candidates who haven't studied calculus yet, so we do make some acceptances provisional, and have those people take a course here on campus or elsewhere before the program begins.

Q: What are some undergraduate degrees that Carnegie Mellon considers rigorous?


If someone has an engineering degree, which is a quantitative degree, we look at the courses they've had as an engineering student. If someone has a less quantitative degree, we look to see if in their academic record they've had a chance to take some of those courses along the way, and we'll look at the quantitative part of the GMAT. We also consider majors in economics, the sciences, and business undergraduate programs to be rigorous. That said, we have a wide diversity of undergraduate majors in the program. We want to see students who have done well no matter what path they've taken. It's a plus if they've taken challenging courses, ones that are advanced in their field.

Q: How does the school review applicants for whom English is a second language?


The Test of English as a Foreign Language is the first thing that we look at, and we read the essays carefully, as well as the ones written for the GMAT (in the AWA section). We interview international candidates to make sure that they're comfortable talking in English. We look for at least a 600 TOEFL score on the paper exam (250 on the computer).

Q: Care to shed any light on Carnegie Mellon's interview processes?


Sure. We changed our interview policy in 2001. It's now by invitation only. We had trouble getting everyone interviewed before this year. And we would be really challenged this year if we hadn't made this change. All interviews are conducted by members of the admissions committee, and there's a pre-review process.

We invite and welcome people to visit campus, and if they are going to visit, we try to help them schedule an interview. Applicants can interview off campus in the fall when we're traveling for recruiting. We make interviews available for candidates who request them, but before we grant the interview we ask them to submit the first two pages of their application and their their resume. We always have more requests than we have interview appointments available.

The interview is straightforward. We want to learn more about the candidate, why he or she is seeking an MBA, why they're interested in Carnegie Mellon, and explore the path they've taken so far. If they've had transitions in their careers, what led to those transitions. Teamwork and leadership experiences, and long-term goals are very important to talk about, too. When we talk with candidates who are international, we get an idea of their comfort conversing in English. The interviews typically last 30 to 45 minutes.

Q: Carnegie Mellon requires applicants to write three essays, and applicants have the option of completing two other essays. When is a good time to write an optional essay?


If candidates have something they want to make sure that we know about them, but we didn't ask, it's their chance to say so.

Q: What guidance can you offer on the other three essays?


We want straightforward answers. Make sure that what you write really addresses the question. Sometimes applicants use essays written for another application, but really the best strategy is to think about best answer to each essay question. We're looking not for a long essay, but for a clear picture of why this person is interested in the MBA, and why the Carnegie Mellon program appeals to them.

[Editor's Note: The GSIA's three required essays are:

A. What are your reasons for undertaking MBA study at Carnegie Mellon? Please describe how your experience, education, and graduate training at Carnegie Mellon and your future career plans relate to each other. Describe your short-term and long-term objectives and how you plan to achieve them.

B. Because MBA students work closely together, we would like to understand what there is about your background and your experiences that would make a contribution to the diversity of the entering class and enhance the educational experience of other students.

C. Please describe an ethical issue that you have faced in your professional life, how you dealt with the situation and what the outcome was.]

Q: Recommendations are another area of the application that tell your team about an applicant. How seriously does the committee consider these recs?


Recommendations are really important. We prefer to see two professional recommendations. We'd like to see at least one from the candidate's supervisor, or someone who has been their supervisor in the past. The best letters of recommendation are from those who know the people well, know what they've contributed to work so far, and have a good understanding of why the person is interested in getting an MBA.

They give us a picture of how the person fits into their organization, while giving us an idea of what the person has accomplished during the time they've been (there). We ask on the recommendation form for insights into the person's leadership skills, and teamwork abilities. Recommenders who can provide examples are most helpful.

Q: The resume. What should it contain, and how does the GSIA use it?


It's just a standard resume. Many students don't include an objective in their resume, and that's fine. It's a chance for us to see the overall picture of a candidate's professional and educational background. Many include references or interests at the bottom. It isn't necessary, but they're fine to add in.

Q: Of all the components of an application, which carry the most weight?


There isn't one aspect of application that's more important than another. We're looking at the whole person. We're looking for candidates who will be great students, and successful in life as business leaders.

Q: How does the school view reapplicants?


We have reapplicants every year. When someone reapplies, it's good to see that they're still interested in Carnegie Mellon. We don't ask them to resubmit an application, or submit an application fee. We do ask them to submit another letter of reference, to update us on their profession, and to submit anything else that strengthens their application. We have about 50 to 100 reapplicants every year, and we admit some every year.

Q: How does Carnegie Mellon use its wait list?


It varies from year to year. We do wait list some candidates who apply early and who could potentially be admitted, but we don't know if we'll have space for until later in the process. Usually, we know by early June. We have varied from not being able to take anyone from the wait list, to taking 20 to 25 students.

We invite and encourage wait-listed applicants to submit anything that they think would help strengthen their application. We don't provide specific suggestions, but many will write essays, and may submit an additional letter of reference, or another GMAT score.

Q: The GSIA is among the few B-schools to offer feedback to applicants who are denied admission. Do these feedback sessions have common themes, or point out common areas where candidates fall short?


We do offer feedback in the summer. Everybody's application is different, so their specific feedback is different. A common theme is talking to them about the reapplication process. When they reapply, they're going to be competing against a new applicant pool, so they want to make their application stronger, and I give suggestions. And I've never been in a situation where the person didn't have a chance. I can always point to things they could do better.

Q: This admissions season, the notification of first round decisions occurs in mid-January. How will the school notify applicants of good news?


We will send a preliminary notice by e-mail, followed by a hard copy in the mail. With our process this year, and with higher volume, we don't expect to be making many decisions before the holidays. But if we do, as soon as a decision is ready the applicant gets a copy of the decision letter by e-mail. Admitted students are also contacted by our current students by phone.

Q: Many applicants are concerned about their job prospects as MBA graduates -- two years from now. What expectations do you leave them with?


One thing that's a plus for career placement at Carnegie Mellon is that there's a wide diversity of companies actively recruiting our students. We aren't dependent on any one industry. It's difficult for me to predict what two years down the road will be like. But this education is a great asset for our students and our graduates. It gives them additional skills, contacts, and abilities to help them in the future.

Q: The B-school welcomes a new dean, Kenneth B. Dunn, in 2002.


He's going to begin spending some time here in January. Everyone's looking forward to having him on board, and continuing our positive momentum. He has great credentials on the faculty side, and great experience in the business world.

Q: Carnegie Mellon also offers a distance learning MBA, as well as a part-time MBA program.


All of these programs are great. They're identical academically, offering the same courses taught by the same faculty. For students who can't do our full-time MBA program, if they're in Pittsburgh they have a great option with our part-time MBA program, which we call our Flex-Time MBA and lasts three years. We take 50 to 60 students a year, and the program has been around since 1985.

Our distance MBA program, called the Flex-Mode MBA, is available employees at two of our partner companies, United Technologies and General Electric. We enroll about 50 students a year. We offer instruction via video conferencing, so the company has to have the technology to support it, and offer a place where studs can take the courses. The flex mode program began in 1996.

Candidates who are interested in the Flex-Time program are people who are involved in something at work, but who went to get an MBA. It's possible for someone to transfer between our Flex-Time and full time MBA programs. Entrance requirements are the same for each.

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