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Admissions Director Q&A: James Frick of Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business

We’re excited this year to add Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business to our Admissions Director Q&A Series. Last week we caught up with James Frick, recently named MBA director of admissions, whose interview follows.

Frick has been with the Tepper School since 1998. Initially he worked on the program side with students once they became part of the Tepper community. “But the more I did of admissions, the more I loved it,” he says. “So I jumped in with both feet in 2003.” 

Career satisfaction isn’t the only thing Frick has found at Tepper. He also found his wife there. She works in the career center with undergraduate students. So it’s easy to understand why he’s such a fan of the school.

Read on to learn more about what Frick is most excited about in the year ahead, as well as what he considers to be some of Tepper’s hidden assets, including its flexibility and location. Frick, who once taught freshman composition, also shares valuable tips for prospective applicants on how to approach the essay portion of the application.

Clear Admit: What’s the single most exciting development, change or event happening at Tepper in the year ahead?

James Frick:Well, there is a lot of very good energy around the school. It’s hard to pick just one. For starters, Dale Mortensen was just announced as the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Economics, which means that now we count eight Nobel laureates that have been associated with the Tepper School. People have been teasing on our Facebook wall that now we’ll have to update all the publications.

And then this week we are getting ready for two big events on campus. We have a Women and the MBA Workshop, followed by our Connections Weekend, targeted toward under-represented minorities. It sounds like we will have the biggest turnout ever for these two events.

Beyond that, I am very happy to report that the recruiting outlook for this year is looking very, very strong. On campus employment and recruiting is up. And when I left to head out on the road this week, I saw a lot of students in suits getting ready for interviews. So that’s a very good indicator.

CA: What is the one area of your program that you wish applicants knew more about?

JF:I would have to say flexibility, and I mean that in a number of different ways. For one, just within the Tepper School itself I work with a lot of candidates who want to study, say, finance or operations. And then they get here and they realize there are some amazing courses in marketing or in operations research, like data mining. I think students are really surprised to find that it’s a flexible enough program that they can take those courses without sacrificing finance or whatever their chosen focus is.

I also want applicants to see our flexibility in terms of how easy it is to get outside of the business school. There are some formalized courses of study where you integrate courses from other schools, such as engineering. But there are many more informal opportunities as well. I think the best example is entrepreneurship. We have a center based in the Tepper School, but it is very much university-wide in its initiatives. So it brings students together not just with Tepper students but with students from throughout the larger university.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Pittsburgh. It’s kind of a city people don’t really know about or have preconceived notions about. I find that students are really amazed at what a vibrant, affordable city it is. In fact, about this time last year we had the G-20 Summit. We are proud to articulate why Obama selected Pittsburgh to host this important event that draws leaders from countries all over the world. It really is a hidden gem.

CA: Walk us through the life of an application in your office from an operational standpoint. What happens between the time an applicant clicks “submit” and the time the committee offers a final decision (e.g. how many “reads” does it get, how long is each “read,” who reads it, does the committee convene to discuss it as a group, etc.). 

JF: We have a phenomenal support staff, and they are going to take control as soon as an applicant hits “submit.” They will coordinate the application, get it organized and make sure all of the supplemental information is in. They do a great job of being in touch with the candidates.

In general we are going to be very thoughtful and proactive about reaching out and saying, “Here is your status, here’s what we need.” Sometimes it’s just to say that it’s hard to read a copy of a transcript you’ve submitted, can you send another copy?

Once an application is complete, it goes on to our reviewers. All the reviewers are going to be part of the professional admissions team, made up of myself and my colleagues. Each application will be read a minimum of two times and usually three or four.

At any point in the process, a reviewer can invite the applicant to interview if he or she hasn’t already interviewed. Invitations begin five to seven days after the deadline and continue right up until the notification date.

If the candidate is interviewed, the interviewer becomes the second reader. And from there a candidate’s file goes to the committee. On the committee we have an executive director, myself, the director of our computational finance program and then two associate directors and two assistant directors. And then the executive director will give it a final read.  So the application is read very, very carefully. We absolutely read everything.

CA: How does your team approach the essay portion of the application specifically? What are you looking for as you read the essays? Are there common mistakes that applicants should try to avoid? One key thing they should keep in mind as they sit down to write them?

JF: I am going to apologize in advance. My background is in rhetoric and composition so I get very excited about the essays. I really sympathize with applicants. I used to teach freshman composition, so I know what it’s like to have a difficult writing assignment and to really spin your wheels trying to approach it.

I try to get candidates to think of it as an opportunity. We really think of it as bringing the application to life. If we haven’t interviewed, it’s a chance to really understand what’s brought the candidate to this point. What is the candidate really passionate about?

I think of a really good essay as a combination of substance and style – what you have to say and how you say it. A lot of times people get hung up on the substance part, worrying about how the committee will view what they write. I won’t say it’s a mistake, but the candidate can spend too much time focusing on “What is it they want me to say?” rather than “What is it I want to say?” So that can add to the spinning of the wheels.

No one, not even the best of writers, gets it right the first time. This is not something you are going to hammer out in a couple of hours. An essay, if it is done well, is going to be really, really reflective, have a great deal of introspection and show knowledge of the school.

I think many times candidates feel that writing is a solitary endeavor. In fact, the best writing is writing that is shared with lots of people around you. My executive director always has lots of edits for the things I write. I tell her if she ever comes with no edits, it will signal that it’s time for me to retire. But I don’t really foresee that ever happening.

Be really thoughtful in terms of who you are asking to look at your essays. Make sure they are people who are really thoughtful and will give you good feedback. And leave time for that. When you think of writing as a process, you have to build in time to both obtain feedback and incorporate that feedback.

Posted in: Admissions Director Q&A

Schools: CMU / Tepper

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