Are you ready to dig into your essays? Application essays are specifically and cleverly designed to get into your head. We like to turn the tables on the admissions committees and get inside their heads. Why are they asking these questions? What are they looking for? Read on as our experts break down application essay questions to help YOU plan the attack.
Cornell Johnson MBA Essay Question 1
Creative Submission: You are the author for the book of Your Life Story. In 800 characters or less, please write the table of contents for the book in the space provided or upload it as an attachment. Note: approach this essay with your unique style. We value creativity and authenticity.
Cornell Johnson’s table of contents essay question: this is the one they are famous for, and have been asking for years. This year (finally), they have tightened the word count to 800 characters. Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s not just that they have just about halved the space here, they are sending a message…
Attempting to cram your life story into the chapter TITLES of your book is to miss the point entirely. That’s what “the book itself” is for, is it not? What are chapter titles? What is their purpose? Before we attack this, let’s take a step back and consider what question the Johnson MBA adcom is truly asking. Do they really want to know your life story? Do they really even just want a snapshot OF your life story because they’re curious to know about you? Nope. How many times in ANY business school (or any degree program for that matter) has the admissions committee followed up with their choices to track their progress? Never. So if they’re not after your life story (or even a glimpse of it through a table of contents conceit), then what do they want to know by asking you about a glimpse of your life story through a table of contents?
It’s all about the gears, folks.
Think about those crazy questions you hear about for McKinsey interviews or Google interviews. The ones where they ask you how you’d find your way out of a blender if you were a miniaturized human, with one minute to go before the blades started whirring. Clearly, they’re not interested in figuring this out because it relates to a practical version of this problem. They wanna know how you think. They wanna see the GEARS move and how you interpret the question. How you process the words. How your brain’s algorithm leads you down certain pathways. How you weigh those pathways against one another. Where it takes you. How much you sweat during that process. Where you end up. But… they don’t care about the answer. They care about the moments leading UP to the answer. The part of the process where the gears are in motion.
Why? Because the gears give us a sense for what kind of person you are. Maybe in your approach we see a sense of whimsy. Or a sense of militaristic precision. Or a glimpse of a compassionate leader. It’s all in the approach. WHAT you say here is far less important than HOW you say it. We know this because they have forced your hands with 800 characters. There is room here ONLY for an APPROACH that tells the story, and not enough for the story itself to do the talking. A straight approach is almost guaranteed to fall flat; unless your snapshots are SO remarkable, they don’t require creativity. If for example your life story goes something like “Started Apple in garage. Took company public. Reinvented the music industry. Reinvented cellular phones. Reinvented retail shopping for electronics…” In this case, you don’t need a ton of creativity. But this applies to outliers, not the typical candidate.
So then what’s the best way to approach a creative essay like this, where what you say matters more than how you say it?
Step 1 - Well, ironically, the first thing you need to iron out is what you’re actually trying to communicate ABOUT your life story. What impression do you want the reader to walk away with? Imagine you’re a Hollywood starlet, preparing for your moment of fame on the red carpet, and you know that the impression you make will be fleeting. If you want the world to see you as “sexy” it will influence how you wear your hair, what color the dress is, how much it reveals. If you want the world to see you as “elegant” it will similarly influence all those elements and generally lead to a slightly different outcome.
What impression are YOU hoping to make with these chapter titles? Natural born Leader? Success in spite of circumstances? Visionary in the making? Tennis enthusiast? Wonderdad? There isn’t necessarily a correct answer here that applies to anyone and everyone. But, whatever yours is… should be a KEY aspect of what defines you. If you’re a tennis enthusiast, but also a world famous amateur chef and cooking is your ultimate extracurricular passion, it would be strange for these chapter titles to focus on tennis and not cooking. Imagine someone catches a GLIMPSE at these titles. Long enough to read the words, but not long enough necessarily to remember each one. What do you want that guy to remember about them. “That guy seems like someone who…”
Step 2 – Once you’ve formed a clear sense of what you’re all about, the impression you’re looking to make, now you can build an approach that effectively brings that across. Before we get to STYLE, we need our ingredients first. Remembering back to the earliest days of your life story (potentially even before you could start forming memories), and tracking forward in time BEYOND PRESENT DAY, what are all the important constituent milestones and moments of this goal impression?
Step 3 – Your list may not be 100% complete at this point. Or, it may contain many more pieces than you will end up using. Either is perfectly okay. The goal of Step 2 is to get the juices flowing. The next step is to start organizing them, in such a way that it takes the reader on a high-level journey, node-by-node. Not every single node has to relate directly to your “theme,” by the way, so don’t force that theme everywhere you possibly can. Simply having a “goal impression” in mind will help you to FOCUS the ideation process. It will help to FOCUS those ingredients of your life around a theme.
Let’s say for example that amateur baking IS your side passion, and DOES tell a great deal about you, and your obsession with precision, and with creating things, and with managing ecosystems, then perhaps one of the first “important constituent milestones” might be something like “Target Practice – Ammunition: Mashed Potatoes.” And perhaps later, to recall it, you may say “Wooing the ladies – Ammunition: Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes.”
Step 3 here is all about the “how.” How should you convey the pieces of this puzzle? There can be millions of creative, outside-the-box ways to do it. To suggest even a few may do more harm than good here because the possibilities SHOULD be endless. One way to challenge yourself is to take your milestones, and then take a very specific approach, get it to a “good enough place.” And then stop. Go back, and do it again, but this time, using a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT approach. The goal here is to tell your life story with a different tactic, using a different conceit, possibly even a different tone, push yourself as hard as you can to make it different. If you have time, and can pull off a third? Great. But now, take a hard look at the three stabs. Show it to a trusted set of eyes, friend, mentor, whatever. Which one is the coolest? Which one makes them smile? Which one feels the most “you”? If you’re not a naturally creative person, this can be another way forward which may allow you to end up at the same place.
Step 4 – Rework, Rewrite, Refine, Rinse & Repeat. (Maybe a few times—not too many times, you will end up gutting it and oversanitizing it. The magic number tends to be around three or four revisions, we have found.)
Cornell Johnson MBA Essay Question 2
Targeted Job Type: What is the job that you would like to have immediately upon graduating with your MBA? (800 characters)
800 characters — even to George R. R. Martin — is not a lot of characters. Clearly it is deliberate. Cornell doesn’t want wine and sparkling conversation, they want the deed. So, give it to em. Don’t stumble over “throat-clearing” clunky beginnings of sentences that just take up space, introducing your ideas — get to the ideas. Word efficiency here will stem for a very SHARP understanding of what job you want to have upon graduating with your MBA. So, get sharp on that before you put pen to paper.
- What’s the job?
- What will your role be?
- What does getting an MBA have to do with your getting that job? (In other words, if getting an MBA doesn’t make any sense and we are left wondering “why don’t you just get that job today then?” … your response will be lacking.)
- Prove to us that you’re gonna GET this job, given your background and MBA.
- How does this snap with the NEXT puzzle piece? Why this job? To what is it a stepping stone?
Try to hit all those pieces in your first draft. Don’t worry about busting over the character limit. Focus it to THOSE pieces, and you can always whittle down and refine. Once your core message is perfect, it’s possible to boil it down to a few words, or an image. The more convoluted the case, the harder it is to make succinct.
Cornell Johnson MBA Essay Question 3
Post-Collegiate Activities: List community activities (clubs, church, civic, etc.) and professional associations you contributed to since graduation from college. Please include the organization name, your role, hours dedicated, elected offices held, and dates of participation (800 character limit).
Zero points for creativity. If you want to take a creative approach, um, it had better be justified? And work amazingly well? But 99 out of 100 times, we would wonder “what does it say about the candidate that he wanted to take a creative approach to this question?” May even show poor judgment. So, create a nice crisp list, hammer home the details that reveal how ENGAGED you were, and how much you cared and/or excelled in each activity. Better to have engaged in a few than been loosely a part of many.
Cornell Johnson MBA Essay Question 4
Collegiate Activities and Employment: List your extracurricular activities while in college in order of importance to you. You may include details about your positions and the time commitment, honors or awards received, and dates of participation. The list may also include part-time and summer employment held while in college. Please list your employer, job title, responsibilities, hours per week, and the dates for each position (800 character limit).
Highly unusual and a hint that Johnson may be hoping to poach younger and younger talent (where collegiate activities are that much more relevant). But also it’s a hint that Johnson is more and more curious about “the man behind the man” than other b-schools seem to be, at least in the essay portion. College activities tend to reveal a truer insight into people’s passions than things that happened post-college, where the career focus is more dominant, and extracurricular choices may be more conveniently designed to “look good on a resume.” In college, the stakes are fairly low, so if you’re engaged in an activity, chances are, you’re INTO it. So, to find out what those things were is essentially a way of asking, “So what are you into… for real.”
Same deal, approach-wise. Don’t overthink it. But focus on VERBS that reveal what you DID, and that reveal high levels of engagement and interest, and desire to leave an impact, make a difference, etc.
Cornell Johnson MBA Essay Question 5
Targeted Job Type: What is the job that you would like to have immediately upon graduating with your MBA? (800 characters)
Trends, anyone? Another “man behind the man” question. Another “stop giving us your resume and telling us the goals you think we wanna hear. Show us what’s on your iTunes playlist and maybe we’ll have a less manufactured sense for what you’re all about.”
Not much to say here, but highlight hobbies that may be unusual or interesting to read about. Then, for hobbies that are more common, find uncommon aspects about the way you engage with those activities. Anything that causes the reader to say “Hunh, that’s interesting,” is a GREAT achievement. The worst thing you can do is tee up an impressive—but FORGETTABLE—list.
Now, let’s hone in for a second on that curious phrase “activities that hold special significance for you”—this is a hint. If your list is populated by things that seem suspiciously like things that couldn’t possibly hold special significance, it will suggest that you are TRYING (very hard) to impress the adcom, for all the wrong reasons. In fact, the thing that will impress the adcoms is the straightest, more earnest response to this prompt. If it’s one activity, so be it. Only list stuff that is significant to you. As an exercise, as you are generating possibilities for what should go on this list, set up a column for “why does this hold SPECIAL significance for me”? If you can’t find a reason INSTANTLY to fill it in, chances are it shouldn’t live in your final response. This exercise can be especially helpful in revealing why common activities may be worth writing about for uncommon reasons. “Mowing the lawn—this is the activity I always do with my son who assists by tidying up the edges (with his imaginary weed wacker).” This is not meant to be an actual sample, but to illustrate the idea of a thing that is uninteresting to some, but of particular interest to someone else.