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Admissions Director Q&A: Kelly Wilson of Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business

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We continue our Admissions Director Q&A series with the newly STEM-designated Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.  Hear all about their MBA admissions, the exciting campus scene, life in Pittsburgh and lots more from Kelly R. Wilson, Executive Director of Masters Admissions, below.

Clear Admit: Can you tell us a little about your background? How did you come to your current role?
I spent some time in the Washington DC area, working for 9.5 years in the insurance industry. I loved it. I also completed my MBA at George Mason University where I worked in the admissions department, before moving into consulting.

Kelly R. Wilson, Executive Director of Masters Admissions at Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business

I realized, fairly quickly, that consulting wasn’t what I wanted to do; so in 1999 I moved from consulting to the University of Pittsburgh, as Director of Admissions at the Katz School. I really enjoyed the work I was doing, and in 2008 an opportunity at Georgetown University opened up, so I returned to DC.  I loved my time at Georgetown, it was a great experience.  However, my family (and my house!) were all back here in the Pittsburgh area and I knew I would eventually return for the right opportunity.  In July 2012, the moon and the stars aligned and I joined the Tepper School.

I am a first-generation college student. I never imagined that I would go on to do one graduate degree let alone two! I am now in a position where I can help other first-generation students identify the possibilities that exist in graduate management education. Because my parents worked for the coal industry and in healthcare, I really had to rely on other people who were willing to guide me and give me advice as I navigated my education options.  I now really enjoy helping prospective students navigate the admissions process, and guiding them through their possibilities.  Because of this I have tried to ensure our admissions process is as transparent as possible.

We make a point to get to know candidates and guide them through the admissions process that is most often unknown to them and help them discover the unique aspects of Tepper that can help them reach their goals. We spend time getting to know our prospective students through one-on-one conversations and traveling to many places around the world to meet them.  That said, there is nothing like experiencing the life of a Tepper student and we encourage candidates to come to campus to visit when they interview (or even before then).  For those who can’t, our Student Ambassadors and Admissions Office Fellows are committed to sharing their experience through individual conversations.

CA: What excites you most about your job?
There are a lot of things, really. I love it when I have the opportunity to meet prospective students early in the process, working with them through the Admissions cycle, helping them discover what is possible. We take things for granted because we do this work day in and day out, but some things aren’t obvious to others in the way we think they are.

CA: What is the hardest part of your job?
Knowing that we can’t admit everyone. As we are reading applications, certainly for an applicant whose story I might connect with, to know that this might not be the right program for them is sometimes a little more challenging.  Related to this, time is our enemy – there is a lot that we could do to help prospective candidates prepare if we had the time; I would love to be able to spend more time helping candidates prepare for the application process.

CA: What are you most excited about at CMU Tepper in the year ahead?
Last year we moved into the Tepper Quad and it is amazing. The vision for the Quad is for it to be a place where our students will really find themselves at the center of what is happening on campus. I didn’t expect as many people across campus to be attracted to what is happening here. The energy, during the day and even on the weekend, is tremendous, in part thanks to the physical structure and the building design. What is super exciting will be seeing how things unfold in the years ahead and seeing the ways that folks from across campus will interact with each other.

We have the entrepreneurship center here in our building, and naturally business students are involved in working with grad students from robotics and engineering and other parts of campus. The Tepper Quad really enhances all these types of interactions. We now live in the physical space that enables those interactions to be common place.

CA: What is the one area of the Tepper MBA program that you wish applicants knew more about? A hidden strength perhaps overlooked? Alternatively, are there any misconceptions about Tepper you’d like to correct?
I think Tepper appears to be a really quantitatively rigorous program, and it is. But what you do not see when you are looking at information on the website or the view book, is the clear understanding that we are here to support our students to be successful. We do not necessarily expect that students have already developed quantitative strengths; they just need the aptitude. We are also helping them to develop their leadership skills through a personalized approach with our Accelerate Leadership Center.  The strength of the combination of leadership development and a deep analytical skill set is sought by corporate recruiters.

The most exciting news that I am excited for prospective students to learn is that our MBA program has been STEM designated. This is in recognition of the management science approach developed by our faculty and types of skills in demand by US employers. This is important for all students no matter where they are from or what they want to do.

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.). Where does the interview fit into this process?
We have designed our process to use several data points from submitted applications to invite a first wave of applicants to interview immediately. While the first group of applicants is invited to interview, we will start reading applications that were not in that group.  On a weekly basis, we will invite people to interview throughout the round as we read additional applications.  The applications for the first group of candidates invited to interview will be the last ones that are read and reviewed for a final decision.

Once we send the first wave of interview invitations, the remaining applications are assigned to readers. The application will be read by a first reader who will review it in its entirety and will make a recommendation for admit, waitlist or deny. If they recommend an admit decision, the file gets forwarded to the admissions committee for a “live” review. If the recommendation is waitlist or deny, the application goes to a second reader. If the second reader makes the same recommendation, the decision will stand until we conduct a final review of all decisions at the end of the round and after all interviews have been conducted.

When the admission committee meets, we discuss each of the files that have been recommended for admission. The file is presented and we learn about the demonstrated academic aptitude and potential for career success presented in the application. The committee may discuss additional questions about the application and will arrive at a final decision of admit, waitlist or deny.

CA: Can you paint a quick picture of your team? How many people work in admissions and what are their roles? How has this number changed in the recent past/how might it change in the near future?
We have a team of 13 full-time employees. Eleven, including myself, are admissions officers. That number has been fairly stable for some time. We also have additional staff members who provide application processing and front office management.

In addition, we have 13 MBA students working in our office. Our second-year students run our campus visit program and interact with candidates. The other 7 office fellows focus solely on outreach, holding 30-minute appointments called “Tepper Student Convos,” calling candidates to answer their questions and share their own Tepper MBA experience.

CA: Can you talk a little about Tepper interviews?
Our interviews are behavioral interviews conducted by a member of the admissions committee. The person interviewing a candidate will do so based on the resume.  (They will not have pre-read the application.) The interview is a separate channel to collect information about a candidate. We then add the interview report to the application for the benefit of the admissions committee.

We have an interview workshop webinar called “Demystifying the Tepper Interview,” which is designed to help candidates feel prepared for our interview.  We ask questions about situations when a candidate has faced challenges, have succeeded, failed, worked in a team or informally led or influenced others.

We are looking for candidates to come in with a professional demeanor and treat this interview just like they would a job interview as it is an important piece of the application. The interview allows us to evaluate a candidate based on their past behavior as well as observe how they would present themselves to a potential employer.

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?
Our essay this year is designed to understand how an applicant will contribute to our community and what impact they will make at Tepper.  Candidates should reflect on their experience, what makes them unique and how that will add value to the community.

A common mistake is that a candidate uses an example that doesn’t have a lot of depth and therefore ends up being less meaningful. Candidates should be able to share not only an example but also the impact the experience has had on them, or what it meant to them.

Another area I would suggest candidates focus on is to make sure we can get to know you. We are looking for individuals who will add to the collective value of our community. There isn’t one type of Tepper student; every school is looking for diversity in the group they are admitting. Diversity can come from the perspective of where someone grew up, from volunteer experiences, education, from work they have done –  all these experiences add to the richness of the program and the way that an individual thinks about a problem they are trying to solve or an issue they are discussing. The differences in perspective are what will help our MBA students grow. The interactions challenge the way a person thinks about something, and allows them to broaden how they think about an issue because they have had the benefit of discussion with those with different perspectives.

CA: What makes an essay memorable?
I am a champion for the underdog. The essays that I remember, the ones that are vivid for me, are when someone shares a piece of who they are and something they have overcome or something that motivated them to go beyond what they thought they could do.

CA: Are there any changes in the works to the admissions process at Tepper?
One of the things that we are doing from the admissions process standpoint, which is not necessarily evident to applicants, is streamlining parts of the application that are behind the scenes to enable us to do our jobs better.

We are also working with our marketing team to push more content onto the web to let prospective students see what it is like here at Tepper, even if they can’t visit campus. Coming to campus is an invaluable thing to do if you can, but we need to showcase Tepper for those who can’t visit.

It is important for an international audience who may not have resources to come to campus, for example.  Our marketing team recently captured content showing our faculty talking about their courses. It’s a really nice way for prospective students to hear from faculty about their subject matter and how they approach it.

We also have a “Discover the Difference at Tepper” Webinar series. This is a series of webinars with panels of current students talking about their experience at Tepper. We recently had Out&Allied, Tepper Women in Business, our Veterans Club, and Latin American Business Club and Black Business Association each provide an opportunity for applicants that might identify with them.  It gave candidates a sneak peek into what life is like here at the Tepper Quad. We will be hosting more of these webinars for our international audience.

CA: Is there anything else you’d like to add that I haven’t asked about?
The one thing I would like to share is just how involved our current students are with our Dean’s office and the administration of the program to make the whole MBA experience a positive one – one that they can derive value from and add value to.  Having worked at three business schools, it is really nice to see the Dean’s office and Program office as open as they are, here.

For Pittsburgh itself, I have had international students refer to Pittsburgh as a soft landing, if you are moving to the United States. It is a great city; it is a very livable city that is also affordable. For an international student, they are not facing the big city prices at larger cities, but will have a lot of the same types of resources available.

Pittsburgh has changed so much, even in the last five years. There are so many positive things happening here, including the influence that the tech community is having on the city. There is also a benefit that comes from being part of CMU. The overall landscape is changing. Parts of the city that used to be tired and tied to old view of what Pittsburgh may have been, have been transformed.

CA: What’s the best way for applicants to learn more about you and the Tepper admissions process? Can they find you at events? Read your blog? Are you on Twitter?
I do travel to several recruitment events each year. I also have a blog that I post to regularly. On my blog, I share updates on where we are in the cycle, highlight fun and interesting things happening on campus and provide “Tuesday Tips” for various parts of the admissions process. I personally don’t use Twitter for work, but I show up from time to time on Tepper’s Twitter timeline!

Lauren Wakal
Lauren Wakal has been covering the MBA admissions space for more than a decade, from in-depth business school profiles to weekly breaking news and more.