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Admission Director Q&A: J.R. McGrath of Carnegie Mellon Tepper

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For this installment of our Admissions Director Q&A series, we welcome back J.R. McGrath, Executive Director of Masters Admissions at the Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business.

J.R. has been at Tepper for the past 3.5 years and accepted the role of Executive Director in October 2022. He has previously served in leadership roles at SMU Cox, TCU, and Syracuse. In addition to his professional responsibilities, J.R. and his wife have a young daughter that keeps them busy. J.R. also enjoys running, golf, and anything to do with Pittsburgh sports teams.

Keep reading for his insights on how to handle admissions interviews, best practices for writing your essays, and what to expect throughout the MBA admissions process at Tepper this year.

J.R. McGrath, Executive Director of Masters Admissions at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business

Clear Admit: What is the one aspect of your program that you wish applicants knew more about?

J.R. McGrath: Carnegie Mellon and Tepper are known for being rigorous and quantitative. While we are proud of this aspect of our school and program, we are more than innovative problem solvers. We have a robust leadership development component to our program. Our research has shown that career success is also strongly tied to the people skills in business, such as emotional intelligence, communication, and leading diverse groups of people. I invite you to explore our Accelerate Leadership Center and how it can help you develop into the leader you aspire to be. It’s the combination of using a data-informed approach to problem-solving and a human-driven approach to leadership that will transform you into the innovative and aspirational leader you strive to be. Our program can help all candidates develop these skills, not just those that come from a quantitative background.

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?

JM:  We know the time and effort put into submitting an application and we want to provide that same effort back. Our team really enjoys reading about the values, accomplishments, and passions of our candidates.  We genuinely want to get to know our candidates well. We block our calendars after an application deadline so we can review each application to determine who we invite for an interview. Before each interview, our admissions team member will fully read the application to get to know the candidate and be ready to have a great conversation about them as a person as well as their background, work experience, and professional goals. The team member will add notes about their conversation and the file moves to the admissions committee for discussion. The admissions committee will discuss each candidate that has an interview for a final decision. We are really trying to find the candidates that are the best fit for Tepper and know we can be a great partner to help them reach their full potential.

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

JM: Let’s start with what they should keep in mind. The best way to approach writing your essay is personal reflection. What is most important to you and your professional development and goals? Once you know that, you can read the essay question, and you will have more clarity on what you want to write. My favorite part of the application are the essay questions. It offers more insight into who the candidate is than any other part of the application. Tepper’s essay questions are broad because it gives the candidate an opportunity to really control their narrative on a topic which we think is important to our program and community.

We are looking to understand the candidate better. Each candidate is unique and we are looking for their thoughts on the question, not what they think we want to hear. The best essays typically give a straightforward answer to the question and then provide context to that response. For example, if you respond to the career goals essay with a specific goal, such as strategy consulting at MBB firms, we hope you are able to articulate why that is the right fit for you. The context or why to each response is the most important aspect. As we all know, things change in life and if we can understand “the why” behind your response, then we can make a more confident decision if the Tepper MBA is the right fit for you.

The common mistakes to avoid are not trying to recycle your responses to other programs. We know most candidates are applying to multiple programs, and it is a lot of work to complete applications. My advice is you can recycle the points you want to highlight about yourself. For example, write out some bullet points about yourself and your goals. Use those to answer each question, rather than taking a previous response and just trying to edit it to fit a new question. Also, please allow time to proofread your essay as well as a trusted friend or colleague. They will likely catch the things you miss since you are so close to all of the essays you are trying to write.

CA: Could you tell us about the Carnegie Mellon Tepper MBA admissions interview process? Approximately how many applicants do you interview? Who conducts the interview (students, admissions officers, alumni) and what is the nature of the interview (resume-based, application-based, behavioral)? Will your admissions interviews be in-person or virtual for the 2023-2024 admissions season?

JM:  At Tepper, we believe the interview is the most important component of the admissions process.  Our admissions team members conduct the interview because we want the person who conducts the interview to have the opportunity to present the candidate to the Admissions Committee. Before each interview, we read the full application to provide us with the best opportunity to make the most of interaction with the candidate. Our interviews are 45 minutes, and this lets us explore what is most important to you as a professional as well as a person.

Our interviews are behavioral in nature. We will first explore your background, goals, and how you will make decisions on what is best for you. Then we will explore some topics we feel are important for our program and community which include teamwork, leadership, and D,E, I, &B. Lastly, we want you to ask us questions. Finding the right fit is a two-way street. Please think about what is most important to you and ask us about it!

CA: What is your testing policy? Do you offer exam waivers? Why or why not?

JM: The Tepper School accepts the GMAT, GRE, and Executive Assessment (EA). One of these tests is required. We believe standardized exams are one way that business programs gauge academic readiness; however, while many Tepper MBA applicants will submit a GMAT/GRE/EA score, we also recognize there are multiple ways to demonstrate academic readiness. This is the reason we offer a test waiver option.

The Tepper MBA program is focused on the success of our students in the classroom and in employment outcomes. The application process allows us to assess readiness of candidates and provide guidance in improving future academic and career outcomes.

We invite candidates to explore our application requirements and waiver policy on our website.

CA: In the application data form, many schools ask for information about work experience, activities, hobbies, and much more. What advice would you give to applicants as they approach this component of the application process?

JM: The first thing to note is we only ask for information we need, so please do take time to complete all of the application fields with intention.  We only add fields to the application that we need.  We try incredibly hard to not add barriers to applications.  

I’ll give you an example for the work experience as we know candidates feel this is repetitive to the information on a resume.  There are a few things in this section that help to understand the candidate better.  For those that work for companies that are not household names, it provides an opportunity to outline your company – industry, size, location, etc. – with relevant information.  In addition, there are positions and/or companies that do not have the same timeline or opportunity for promotions.  If you are in a role that does not offer title promotions but your impact, responsibilities, and salary has grown, this section provides that opportunity to note that to the admissions committee.  

Lastly, think of your application as a book on you.  Most books have chapters so think about each of the application components as chapters of your book.  You likely cannot tell your whole story in any one chapter.  You likely need all the components of the application to do this.  So think through what you want to share about yourself and then think about which application components are best to tell that part of your story.

CA: Tell us briefly about two popular courses at your institution.

JM: Technology and the Future of Work
The goal of the course is to understand how changes in technology will affect workers in the near future. The course will draw from research spanning both economics and engineering. The emphasis will be both theoretical and quantitative. On the theoretical side, the course will overview recent economic theories of technological change that analyze the changing nature of work and the changing demands for workers’ abilities. To gain an in-depth understanding of technology and to decompose the impacts on workers, the course will also look at engineering models of production. The class will focus on a wide range of technologies both historical and modern, ranging from early forms of automation to advanced robotics, additive manufacturing and AI. On the quantitative side, the course will provide students with hands-on opportunities for analyzing data. For example, students will use both data on technological adoption and worker-level data to learn broad lessons on the impact of technology both in the US as well as in other advanced economies. The class will conclude by looking at the set of policies available to governments aimed at easing the transition of technologically-displaced workers. Examples will include universal basic income and retraining programs.

Commercialization and Innovation: Strategy
The course focuses on innovation (transformational or disruptive innovations and sustained innovations) and on the development of open innovation business models and market strategies required to introduce these innovations into the market, grow thru market share capture, and to establish dominant market positions. Students will gain a perspective of various current theories and models of innovation, and how innovations are brought to the market and positioned for successful launch and subsequent growth. Students study and discuss both successful and unsuccessful attempts to bring innovations to the market via a series of lectures, readings, and case discussions. The course focuses on the upfront strategic market thinking that must be the basis of a proactive and potent business plan to introduce innovations to the marketplace. It is the result of intense understanding of the SET factors (social, economic, and technology) and industry dynamics into which the opportunity will be introduced. It is strategic because of rapid changes in the marketplace and the competitive-set which the opportunity must confront for execution in the emerging marketplace (emergent strategy or agile approach). Student teams are expected to take on a project determined by the team (with faculty approval) or framed by an outside organization (within or external to CMU). The goal of the project is to understand the industry dynamics and competitive set, to identify a market based on use of an “agile needs-driven innovation” methodology (job + job executor + context defines the market), and to segment the market based on identification of “jobs to be done” by the job executors. These are the drivers for identification of a successful Minimum Viable Product (MVP), a market entry point, and development of a differentiating strategy and self-sustained growth strategy.

CA: Is there anything else you’d like to highlight about your Carnegie Mellon Tepper MBA program or admissions process?

JM: Tepper is a place where you are able to reach your full potential. We do this in a few ways.

  • We are a close-knit community that supports and values each other. We have created a strategic vision called Tepper Together. We are committed to creating and growing a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture and community.
  • Pittsburgh is a great city for your MBA program. It has had to transform from an industrial city to one that needed to reinvent itself to survive. It has done this so well that we were a host city for a G20 conference so other world leaders could explore how we were able to thrive so quickly. This transformation has also created a great place to live. Check out some great information on Pittsburgh.
  • Carnegie Mellon believes in interdisciplinary learning. The world’s largest problems will not be solved in a silo, they will be solved in collaboration with a wide variety of experts. As an MBA student, you are able to take electives outside of Tepper to unleash your learning. You have access to the world’s top programs and minds across Carnegie Mellon.

Lastly, we want to get to know our candidates well. There is this myth about top MBA programs that you have to be perfect to get it. That is simply not true. Many great candidates have imposter syndrome and think they may not be good enough to be admitted. If you believe you are the right fit for an MBA program, then you likely are. You know yourself better than anyone else. I urge you to reach out and explore MBA programs. Hopefully Tepper is on your list. We would love to meet you and explore if the Tepper MBA is the right program for you.

Christina Griffith
Christina Griffith is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. She specializes in covering education, science, and history, and has experience in research and interviews, magazine content, and web content writing.