Admissions Q&A: Carnegie Mellon

James Frick was recently named director of MBA admissions at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business (Tepper Full-Time MBA Profile) after working there since 1998. Frick says applicants to the school should consider one factor above all else: fit. It's "a little word that means an awful lot to us here," Frick says. He explains that Tepper is looking for applicants who will thrive at the school and contribute to the community.

To learn more about who Frick considers a good fit for Carnegie Mellon and how Pittsburgh is a "well-kept secret," read this edited transcript of Frick's conversation with Bloomberg Businessweek's Zachary Tracer.

What makes someone a good fit for a Carnegie Mellon MBA?

There is no one template, there is no one career path or previous degree. The students do tend to be really bright and motivated. They absolutely have a very strong work ethic. They generally are achievers, they've made very positive impacts in their academic endeavors or in their work environments. There's a certain sense of humility as well. They are eager to share what they know, but they are very eager to learn from those around them and they tend to be doers. They're very willing to step up and assume leadership roles. They certainly welcome and embrace challenges they face.

CMU as an undergraduate institution has a reputation as being a more technical school, for turning out great engineers. Is Tepper a business school for engineers and scientists?

I think it's for all types. If you look at our typical class profile, you almost always see a 50-50 split between students from a technical background and those from a nontechnical background. And absolutely it can be a great fit for someone with an engineering or a science background. It can [also] be a fabulous choice for someone that doesn't have that background, that looks at this as a skill set that's really going to round out their education and their experiences.

What's the interaction like in the MBA program between the engineers and scientists and the humanities students in the classroom?

I think one of the really unique features of the program is the size of the program. That fosters a very close-knit community. I hate to invoke the Cheers theme song, but it's kind of a place where everybody does know your name, so you really become comfortable working with people from very different backgrounds. There are times in a course where someone with a particular skill set is going to be an asset, but I think what you find is that this balances itself out as you go through the program. If I'm someone who doesn't have a strong analytical background, I could lean on some other classmates who do, but there will be great opportunities in some of the other courses that might be very new to [those classmates].

What are you looking for in the application? What are you evaluating individuals on as candidates for the program?

Our process is really holistic. And being a small program, we pride ourselves on getting to know the applicants. Certainly we're looking for academic aptitude—you want someone who is going to be successful in the program itself. Absolutely a level of professional maturity, if you will. The career preparedness, the career goals, what have they done thus far to bring them to this point, [those are] good indicators for success. There is certainly a community side; we're going to look for interpersonal qualities and leadership.

It's not easy to get into Tepper and you admitted just about a quarter of applicants last year. Any advice for candidates who don't get in?

We offer summer feedback appointments with myself and our executive director, Laurie Stewart. Those are phone appointments [during which we] go over all the areas of the application and then maybe provide some specific suggestions that candidates can consider to become even stronger as they think about reapplying.

One important part of the application is the recommendation. Who makes a good recommender?

I think in a perfect world, the best letter of recommendation would come from someone who either is currently or has recently supervised the candidate. That's not always possible and I certainly appreciate that sometimes the candidates may not be comfortable revealing to their employers their intentions to leave and pursue an MBA. Absent that, senior colleagues can be good choices. If it's a small business or a family business, clients can be good choices as well.

You handle the interview a little bit differently than some other schools. Students can schedule interviews and you will invite students to interview after they've applied. How does that work?

If a candidate is coming in the fall, he or she can request an interview without submitting the application. We just ask for a copy of their résumé and their availability and do our best to accommodate those requests. After a period of time though, we just don't have the ability to continue to grant interviews that are by request. So at that point, which is usually [around] November, it becomes invitation only, and it's based on a review of your submitted application.

So should students who really want to go to Tepper make sure to come to the campus early on and get one of those "by request" interviews?

No, whether you've been invited or you've initiated the interview, it's not going to [be] a point of distinction in terms of how you are evaluated. I would think of it as "how prepared am I right now to interview?"

Do you have any tips for students preparing for the interview? How should someone make sure they're fully prepared?

Well, full disclosure: If I were to gravitate toward one part of the application, I'm the essay guy. I love essays. My background many years ago was in writing and I really see a lot of value in thinking about the essays. I think the best thing someone can do to start preparing for an interview—if they haven't yet written the essays—is to start fleshing out [the essays], just kind of getting a rough outline. The other thing I'll say, too, is that candidates can sometimes view the interview as a monologue and we really view it as a dialogue. So I think it's a great opportunity to think about questions that are important to you and to ask those questions. Hopefully, those questions wouldn't be ones that you would be able to glean from a website or a brochure.

Are any changes to Tepper's curriculum planned in the near future?

We are working through a very extensive curriculum review. I know at this point they are working with a lot of different focus groups and I understand that they are even traveling around the country to meet with alums and recruiters. I know students are going to have a very active involvement in the process. It's an extensive process, so it is going to take some time. I don't know that you would see big changes this year, but looking ahead, it's quite probable that might be on the horizon.

What sort of changes might students see?

I wish I had a good answer for you, but I haven't, to this point, been intimately involved in the process.

How has Carnegie Mellon acted during the downturn to help MBAs find jobs?

It's really helped us, to be a small program. Our staff has come to know students by name, [and] works with them on a one-to-one basis. It's a nice point of distinction when you have a company that's engaging the career center and might be saying: "Well, I'm looking for a student with this interest or this particular background." They're not cycling through databases; they absolutely know the students. Last year, when it was a very challenging economy, a lot of schools were making cuts, and our administration invested in the career center and actually invested in new positions to continue to develop those opportunities with students.

Has the school been able to leverage its relationships with alumni in order to help students find jobs?

Absolutely. I think it's one of the assets of being an intimate community. And you might say, well the negative is maybe you don't have hundreds of thousands of alums, but when you are a student here, you are very much an engaged, active member of the community, and that carries over to your involvement as an alum. I think when you look at companies and recruiters who are on campus, the last number I heard is around 80 percent of these recruiters have some kind of alumni affiliation with the Tepper School or the larger university.

Can you tell me a little bit about how Carnegie Mellon and the city of Pittsburgh interact?

I'm glad you brought up Pittsburgh, because I think it's a really well-kept secret. [Students are] really pleasantly surprised to see how much they enjoy living in Pittsburgh, but also to see what kinds of opportunities there are. Just to give you an example: Yesterday we met with an entrepreneurship professor. She described some of the [business] incubators that are going on within the university, but also their connections to similar incubators, as well as startups in the Pittsburgh area. I think, too, you'll see students who do internships in Pittsburgh or decide that it's a great place to stay and raise a family.

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