Cornell University Johnson Essay Analysis, 2018–2019

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We can almost hear the collective sigh of relief from many of this year’s applicants to the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University as they realize that the program’s well-known (and often dreaded) Table of Contents essay prompt is gone. The “impact” essay question first added two years ago, which asks candidates to envision how they will contribute to the MBA experience, is still in place, as is the school’s straightforward approach to the standard goals statement, though a mini essay has been tacked on to that one. In place of the Table of Contents essay is one Cornell Johnson is calling its “Back of Resume” essay, for which applicants may submit a traditional written composition or a multimedia file/link. Despite the changes, the school’s suite of prompts still covers where candidates want to go and what they want to do after they graduate, their anticipated student experience, and what they feel are the most important facets of their lives, thereby allowing applicants to create a nicely rounded impression of themselves for the admissions committee to evaluate. Our more detailed analysis follows…

Goals Statement: A statement of your goals will begin a conversation that will last throughout [the] admissions process and guide your steps during the MBA program and experience. To the best of your understanding today, please share your short and long term goals by completing the following sentences and answering the enclosed short answer question (250 words maximum):

Immediately post-MBA, my goal is to work as a(n) ____[Role]____ at ___[Company]___within___[Industry]___.

Targeted Job Role:

Target Job Company:



In 5–10 years post-MBA, my goal is to work as a(n) ____[Role]____ at ___[Company]___within___[Industry]___.

Targeted Job Role:

Target Job Company:


How has your experience prepared and encouraged you to pursue these goals?

With this incredibly direct approach to gathering information about candidates’ professional goals, Cornell Johnson is clearly conveying a desire for information only. The school states in the Application Requirements section of its Web site, “If invited to interview, you will have the opportunity to elaborate further,” signaling to us that the admissions committee really wants just the facts here. So, respect both the format and the school and be as direct and clear as possible, saving any embellishment or further explanation for another time.

The addition of the mini essay prompt implies to us that the admissions committee wants to have some context for your stated goals. An effective response will provide evidence that you (1) have done your research as to what is required to attain them, (2) understand where you are on that trajectory (what skills and experience you already possess that are key to success in your desired roles and field), and, to some degree, (3) why/how attaining an MBA will move you further in the right direction.

Although this prompt is not a request for a full-length personal essay, we offer a number of tips and examples in our free mbaMission Personal Statement Guide that could be helpful in crafting your responses. Download your complimentary copy today.

Essay 1 – Impact Essay: Impact Essay: This essay is designed to explore the intersection of engagement and community culture. Whether during the program or following graduation, our students and alumni share a desire to positively impact the organizations and communities they serve. To help you explore your potential for impact, we encourage you to engage with our students, alumni, faculty, and professional staff. You may choose to connect with them via email or phone or in person during one of our on campus or off campus events. As you seek their input and insight, please be respectful of their time and prepare a few discussion points or questions in advance.

At Cornell, we value students who create impact. Please indicate the opportunities for impact that you’ve identified through engagement with our community and describe how what you have learned has influenced your decision to apply to Johnson. (500 words maximum)

Note that with this essay prompt, the school is not asking about an impact you made at some point in the past but rather about your expected impact within the Cornell Johnson community. The phrase “you’ve identified through engagement with our community” conveys a very clear assumption on the school’s part that you have already been actively reaching out to and communicating with individuals at or associated with Cornell Johnson to learn more about it—so if you have not been doing so, now (immediately) is the time to start. Moreover, the school’s reference to “what you have learned” implies that the admissions committee expects that your efforts have yielded some useful insight, so saying that you have merely made contact with a few people will not suffice. You will have to show that the insider information you subsequently received has further solidified your choice to pursue an MBA at Cornell Johnson by discussing the ways and areas in which you now feel you can contribute to it in a meaningful way.

The best way to accomplish this is to first research the school to educate yourself on what it offers that directly pertains to you, your academic and professional needs, and your personal interests. Then, engage with students, alumni, and/or other representatives of the school who you feel could offer additional insight into these relevant resources and use your conversations to inform your ideas as to how you might enrich these aspects of the Cornell Johnson experience. Note that the prompt clearly requests examples of “opportunities”—plural—so be sure to identify more than just one area or endeavor. You want to convey that you are a multidimensional individual who can add value to the school’s community in multiple ways.

Essay 2 – Back of Resume Essay: This essay is an opportunity to present yourself as an individual. We encourage you to think about your proudest accomplishments, interests and passions, and personal highlights that will help us to get to know you as a person and potential community member. We value creativity and authenticity and encourage you to approach this essay with your unique style. Alternative submission formats may include a slide presentation, links to pre-existing media (personal website, digital portfolio, YouTube, etc.), as well as visually enhanced written submissions. Maximum file size is 5 MB. If you choose to submit a written essay, please limit your submission to 500 words or fewer. Multimedia submissions should be under 5 minutes.

The front page of your resume has given us a sense of your professional experience and accomplishments as well as your academic summary and extracurricular involvement. If the back page reflects “the rest of your story,” please help us get to know you better by sharing the experiences that will give us insight into your character, values, and interests.

At first glance, you may think that Cornell Johnson has taken a totally new approach with this essay prompt, but in essence, this one is very much like the Table of Contents one it replaced in that it asks for a creative and thorough presentation of your non-professional and non-academic life. The school has merely given you a broader expanse within which to express yourself by removing the rigid table of contents structure. This is a good thing! The key is identifying the approach that will best help you tell your personal story, so do not automatically restrict yourself and think too narrowly. Although Cornell Johnson did not explicitly state “We value creativity and authenticity” in its prompt as it has done in years past, we have no doubt that the sentiment still holds true, so keep this in mind as you mine your background and current life for content and decide how you might present it.

Take care to not get gimmicky. Your goal is not to seem “cute” or even more creative than the next applicant but really just to tell your personal story, albeit in a brief way, and provide a fuller picture of yourself. We suggest you start by grabbing some paper and making an old-fashioned list of your key stories—ones that demonstrate “your character, values, and interests.” Then, make sure that your final essay/submission includes as many of the items on that list as possible. With an allowance of only 500 words or five minutes, you will need to be somewhat succinct, so be sure not to spend too much time or space on unnecessary buildup or repetition. You want your stories to have life and sufficient context, so the admissions committee can fully understand and appreciate them, but you also want to give yourself enough room to share as many as possible while adhering to the school’s stipulated limitations.

Cornell Johnson states that you may use an alternate (multimedia) format for this submission. We offer no recommendation with respect to whether a written essay, a PowerPoint presentation, a video, or any other approach is “best” in this case. Opportunities are certainly available in both traditional and creative approaches, depending on where your strengths lie, so do not feel that you must use some form of multimedia. Again, start by brainstorming to determine what you want to say as an applicant—what you feel the admissions committee really needs to learn about you—and then decide which format most appropriately matches your personality and message. Your ultimate goal here is to effectively convey information that showcases your personality and important highlights from your life, not to win an Oscar.

Optional/Reapplicant Essay: You may use this essay to call attention to items needing clarification and to add additional details to any aspects of your application that do not accurately reflect your potential for success at Johnson (500 words maximum).

If you are reapplying for admission, please use this essay to indicate how you have strengthened your application since the last time you applied for admission. Please also review our Admission Policy for additional information about re-applying. (500 words maximum)

If you are a Cornell Johnson reapplicant, this essay should be pretty straightforward. Whether you have improved your academic record, received a promotion, begun a new and exciting project, increased your community involvement, or taken on some sort of personal challenge, the key to success with this essay is conveying a very deliberate path of achievement. The school wants to know that you have been actively striving to improve yourself and your profile, and that you have seized opportunities during the previous year to do so, because a Cornell Johnson MBA is vital to you. The responses to this essay question will vary greatly from one candidate to the next, because each person’s needs and experiences differ. We are more than happy to provide one-on-one assistance with this highly personal essay to ensure that your efforts over the past year are presented in the best light possible.

If you are not a reapplicant, this is your opportunity—if needed—to address any lingering questions that an admissions officer might have about your candidacy, such as a poor grade or overall GPA, a low GMAT or GRE score, or a gap in your work experience. We encourage you to download a free copy of our mbaMission Optional Essays Guide, in which we offer detailed advice on deciding whether to take advantage of the optional essay and how best to do so, along with multiple illustrative examples. Be mindful and respectful of the admissions committee’s time and remember that each additional file you submit requires more resources on behalf of the admissions office, so whatever you write must be truly worthwhile and clearly reveal that you made good use of this opportunity to provide further insight into your candidacy.

For a thorough exploration of Cornell Johnson’s academic offerings, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, community/environment, and other key facets of the program, please download your free copy of the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to Cornell Johnson.

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