How I Actually Ended Up at the Tepper School of Business

I wanted to start off with a big thank you for the warm reception on my last post. It’s both motivating and intimidating to have that much unexpected traction. Now that the pressure is on, I’d like to transition to my next blog:

How I Actually Ended Up at the Tepper School of Business

I would like to begin with my first disclaimer, don’t do what I did.

Applying to graduate school should be a decision that is made thoughtfully, and critically. Do your research and apply to multiple schools.

In my first post, I talked about the Interview Answer I give when I’m asked “Why business school? Why Tepper?”

Because I’ve had a fair number of prospective MBAs reach out to me on LinkedIn for advice on how to apply to business school, I would also like to follow up with my second disclaimer, my story is not the majority.

I know of only one or two other students that applied to graduate school the way I did. I don’t feel qualified to give you advice on the right way to apply, but I would at least like to be honest.

I applied to graduate school on a whim.
And Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business was the first and only school I applied to.

Now let’s get into it.


Part 1: The Email

Six years out of undergrad, my career was beginning to stagnate—my options for promotion and progress were flatlining because I didn’t have a higher form of education. I was experienced enough to create and run departments, but without another form of higher education, I wouldn’t be given the title or the pay.

I had fought against the idea of graduate school because, in science, you’re expected to obtain a Ph.D., which is a research-heavy, six-year time commitment. I was at the point in my career where everyone was asking When I would be going for my Ph.D. not If.

Life before Tepper: Setting up an automated liquid handling robot for sample prep.

Troubleshooting the Ion Chromatography system. Ginkgo Bioworks, 2018.

And then on September 16, 2021, I opened an email headlined Refer a Friend!

I read through the message and realized an Alum had forwarded me a recruitment letter from the Tepper School of Business, encouraging prospective students to apply. As I skimmed the message, these words in bold stuck out to me, “We will waive their application fee.

I re-read the recruitment email several times and I thought, “Well, at least I won’t have to pay to get rejected.” And I began my application.


Part 2: Timeline & Strategy

The Round 1 application deadline for Tepper was October 1, 2021, and I knew my best chance at getting into CMU was to apply as soon as possible. But this also meant I only had two weeks to pull everything together, and I was incredibly insecure about my academics.

I graduated from Northeastern University with a 2.9 GPA and I had not taken the GRE or GMATs.

When applying to higher education, a student with poor grades can usually balance out their application with high standardized test grades.

I am not that student. I am terrible with standardized tests. And with not enough time to study or prep for the GREs or GMATs, I knew my score would only count against me.

But I also knew we were living in an “unprecedented” time.

Photographer: Kevin Scanlon. Los Angeles, CA.
Coronavirus Mask Portrait Project, 2020.
American Photography (AP37) Award, 2021.

You see, the COVID-19 pandemic had forced a lot of universities to go test-optional for the last two years. Simply, it was a health and logistical nightmare to try to organize tens of thousands of students to take a standardized test during this time. And because of this, many universities temporarily stopped requiring standardized tests as part of the college application process.

As vaccines were rolling out, I knew the test-optional application window was closing for most schools. But as I looked at Tepper’s test score requirements, it read (and still reads) “Official GMAT, GRE, or EA score, or approved test waiver”.

Now, I’m not sure what qualifies as an “approved test waiver”, but as I dug more into the Tepper application website, I understood that the GRE/GMATs were used to help Admissions Counselors understand if a student had a solid comprehension of Calculus 1, Writing, and Reading.

I knew that my career in science and my academic transcript showed I had a clear understanding of Calculus 1, and I knew I could demonstrate a high level of reading and writing comprehension through my essay. I played to my strengths—I like writing and storytelling, and I’m good at it.

In the end, I submitted three essays to Tepper:

  1. My personal statement
  2. My explanation for not having standardized test scores
  3. The explanation for my low GPA

And Tepper accepted my application.


Part 3: Why I think I got in

To be clear, I never expected to get into Tepper nor did I ever expect to be going to business school. When I answered the phone call that I had been accepted, I took the day off from work, crawled back into bed, and cried A LOT.

As I had mentioned before, people in my sphere usually do not pursue their MBA and when I finally shared with my peers that I had gotten into Carnegie Mellon, this was a very common reaction:

One of the many backhanded compliments I received on LinkedIn.

But I think being different is what got me into Tepper.

While filling out my application, I had a lot of trouble being able to select my industry/background/experience from the drop-down options. I ended up selecting “other” for most of my application, which was at first frustrating, and then somewhat reassuring.

If I couldn’t find my industry (biotechnology & startups) in the drop-down options, it probably meant someone like me didn’t often apply to Tepper.

My academics weren’t great, but at least my career has been fairly interesting.

And like I said before, I played to my strengths—writing and storytelling.

This is probably what has helped me the most and the one piece of advice I feel qualified to give, learn how to tell your story.

It doesn’t matter how academic, intelligent, creative, etc. you are—if you can’t share information in a way people can understand or relate to, it’s incredibly difficult to be successful. I’ve found that time and time again, storytelling has been my greatest asset in interviews, applications, and making real, genuine connections.

And for those of you who’ve made it this far and may be thinking of a Tepper MBA, here’s a link to obtain a fee waiver.

Consider applying. See you in the next post.

Serena Dao | MBA 2024
0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *