Johnson at Cornell University is a long-time leader in creating a whimsical and interesting application process—punctuated in particular by its “life story” table of contents essay. Last year, this unique and creatively demanding essay was optional and limited to 400 words, but this year, it has been made mandatory and shortened to just 300 words. It is complemented by a staccato of three 150-word essays. Johnson demands that candidates tell a pretty profound story in just 750 words. Because of the school’s “life story” prompt in particular, though, you should not lack any opportunity to give the admissions committee a full picture of yourself. What else could you ask for in the essay writing process?
Essay 1: “Who you are”
You are the author for the book of Your Life Story. In 300 words or less please write the table of contents for the book. Note: approach this essay with your unique style. We value creativity and authenticity.
Johnson’s admissions committee makes a point of stressing in this prompt that it “value[s] creativity and authenticity.” With that in mind, we would like to emphasize that you do not need to use a conventional table of contents like you would typically find in a biography or historical text—one that would take the reader through a chronology of your life from birth through today. Instead, you can create a table of contents that is organized thematically, or if you do choose to adhere to a chronological approach, you can extend the time line deep into the past or far into the future. Do not be constrained by what is typical—your options are limitless!
The most important thing is that you choose an approach that allows you to reveal a great deal about your life in an interesting manner. To this end, brainstorm thoroughly before you start writing and develop an inventory of the ideas you want to convey. This essay prompt is open-ended, which means that you can delve into all of the different aspects of your life, rather than focusing on one specific, narrow category. Just be certain that each thing you share continues to add to the admissions committee’s knowledge of who you are.
For some potential inspiration, consider heading to your local bookstore or “leafing” through your Kindle.
Essay 2: “Who you turn out to be”
Instructions: Please answer the following three questions in abbreviated format. (Keep each answer in 150 words or less)
When did you decide that business school was the next step for you? (Was this an epiphany or an evolutionary process? What was the catalyst that caused you to consider this next step?)
How do you answer this twist on a classic “Why MBA” question? Very simply, think about your actual motivations. What did in fact inspire you to pursue this path? As the saying goes, “truth is stranger than fiction.” There is no “right” answer to this question—just your answer—so honestly consider what the catalyst was for you and then write with true sincerity the story of how you chose to attend business school. Johnson’s admissions committee wants to understand your decision-making process and purpose, and this is a great opportunity to reveal that to them.
Johnson values people that make things happen for themselves. Give an example of how you have initiated this for yourself.
As much as we love Johnson’s essay prompts, we have to admit that this one is very poorly worded. “Make things happen” could be understood as simply “led something,” but in the second half of the prompt, the school uses the verb “initiated” in relation to “make things happen.” So, which is it—led or initiated? We suggest that to be on the safe side, you discuss a time when you initiated, because initiation encompasses leadership.
In sharing your example, be sure to show how you initiated (and then led), taking the reader through your process and ultimately revealing achievement. Simply stating, “I started and was successful in launching our new product” would not be enough. The process of how you conduct yourself is what the school needs to understand to get a better feel for who you are.
Be aware that you do not need to stick to a professional theme for this essay. You could describe a time when you took initiative in your community or even in your personal life. For example, maybe you rallied your oldest friends and arranged a group adventure trip, or you asked a relative to write her biography and then engaged others in the process, thereby enriching your family’s recorded history. We do not expect that you will have these exact experiences, of course, but our point is that you can also effectively convey something meaningful about yourself in non-work spheres.
Please describe your immediate post MBA career goals.
This prompt essentially narrows the focus of a standard personal statement down to just a goal statement. Because personal statements (and therefore goal statements) are similar from one application to the next, we have produced the mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which helps applicants write about their goals for any school. We offer this guide to candidates free of charge. Please feel free to download your copy today.
Judi Byers, executive director of admissions at the Cornell University Johnson School
If you’re thinking about an MBA, you need to start getting your finances in order – before you even start applying to business schools. So says Judi Byers, executive director of admissions at the Cornell University Johnson School of Management. Byers recommends putting your dollar signs in a row because taking care of that allows more focused attention on the application process, and because a lack of clarity about your financial state can bring in a destructive element: stress. In other words, the green-backed monster you know is less scary than the one you don’t.
Byers took over a revamped admissions office earlier this year after a disappointing 2013-2014 admissions cycle which saw MBA applications to Johnson plunge by 21.1% to 1,858 from 2,356 a year earlier. It was the steepest year-over-year decline in applications suffered by any U.S. business school in the Top 50. The fall in applicants drove up the school’s acceptance rate to a high of 30%, eight full percentage points from the 22% selectivity rate in the previous year. Johnson has not yet reported application numbers for the 2014-2015 cycle. The last time the school posted an update to its admissions office blog was November of 2014. So Byers and her new team–including newcomers Admissions Director Gail Wolfmeyer from New York University’s Stern School of Business and Admissions Manager Chris Lind from American University–clearly have their work cut out for them.
Byers, who succeeded Christine Sneva, who became senior director of enrollment and student services at Cornell Tech in New York City, has worked in admissions for more than 10 years. She graduated from American University in 2004 with a BA/BS in marketing and international business, then went to work as a coordinator in the Kogod School of Business admissions office. Byers climbed her way up over the next five years to become the school’s director of admissions.
In the Q&A that follows, Byers reveals that at Johnson, admissions officers aren’t just looking for people who are qualified to get into the MBA program – they’re looking for qualified people who will thrive in the classroom and make hay with the degree.
The Johnson School offers a two-year, full-time MBA, and also an accelerated one-year MBA. Applicants to either program must write a “Your Life Story” essay, in 2,000 characters or fewer, and those applying for the two-year MBA program must add another essay, with the same length limit, on their dream first post-MBA job; one-year program applicants must instead supply an exposition on how their pre-MBA experience prepared them for the job they envision after graduation.
WEAK WRITING CAN BE FIXED – LACK OF TALENT AND DRIVE, NOT SO MUCH
While the essays remain a key component of the application package, Johnson’s admissions officers won’t write someone off just because they don’t communicate their assets well in essays. Writing skills, Byers says, can be improved, while talent and drive are much harder to cultivate.
In the Q&A, Byers describes three things applicants should do before an admission interview, and she discloses what non-verbal cues admissions officers watch for when speaking with prospective students. B-school applicants would do well to also consider advice from Johnson’s Senior Associate Admissions Director Ann Richards, on “how to ace the in-person interview,” from the Johnson admissions blog:
• Be on time, no matter what.
• Dress professionally: pantsuit, skirt-and-jacket, or structured, modest dress for women; suit and tie for men.
• Be prepared: review possible questions, and your resume. Practice interviewing with another MBA applicant or a colleague with an MBA.
• Know your goals: reread your goals essay to improve your articulation on major points. Make sure you can explain why you want an MBA, and why you believe the school you’re applying for would help you reach your goals.
• Select three examples of your leadership or achievements to focus on during the interview. Use specific examples and anecdotes.
As Byers says, “remember to be memorable.” And, she suggests, if you’re going to tell her what you’re passionate about, words alone will not suffice.
Q&A with Judi Byers:
What are the three best things an applicant can do before applying?
- Assess yourself – understand your rationale for pursuing an MBA and take the time to reflect on who you are – professionally, personally, and academically.The admissions process will require you to communicate your interest and unique value proposition as a candidate, so develop clarity early on to help articulate your story in a meaningful way, which differentiates you from others.
- Get to know students and alumni – they are an excellent source of information and can provide you with first-hand insights to help you become more familiar with programs.
- Start putting your finances in order – determining how you plan to fund your MBA and the adjustments necessary will help reduce some of the stress of the admissions process. It’s also helpful to identify and understand the different funding opportunities available prior to applying so that you can focus your efforts on your candidacy.