Cornell University (Johnson) Essay Analysis, 2012–2013

Johnson at Cornell University has made some changes to its application essay questions this year, most notably making its unique and often befuddling “table of contents” essay prompt one of three options rather than a required, standalone one. Cornell is actually bucking the trend set by other programs this season and has increased its total word count from 1,000 to 1,100. Still, 1,100 words for three essays is not a lot, so you will need to think quite carefully about what you want to say to the admissions committee before you start typing.

Part I: Career Choice Essay (300 word maximum)

How would you characterize your career since college?

Cornell provides the following advice for this essay: “This is not your job description or complete history of your work since graduating (we already ask for that in the online portion and can see this on your resume). You need to choose the most important elements that show your initiative, contribution, leadership and results achieved.” Although additional guidance from the school is always welcome, what does this advice really mean? It means that the school does not want you to provide just a list of accomplishments and would prefer a more narrative description of your career thus far. The admissions committee wants to understand how you have accomplished what you have accomplished in your career and how and why you have made certain choices along the way.

If you are deep into your career at this point, you should not feel that you have to address every single position you have held since college in this essay. And if you are just starting your career, you are not at a disadvantage—just write about how you have managed your career to date. In fact, “career management” is really at the core of this essay. You would be best served by taking a look back and assessing the way in which you have managed yourself, how you have created opportunities, overcome setbacks, made choices and transitions, won small mandates, etc. You need to tell the story of your career and your evolution, showing that you have discovered purpose and leading to your decision to pursue an MBA. That written, you do not need to explicitly write about how you are now prepared to earn your MBA. If this point flows naturally and briefly from your narrative, that is acceptable, but given that you have only 300 words for this entire essay, you should not dedicate a significant chunk of this total to detailing your need for an MBA. At the same time, note that many candidates make the mistake of ending their essay with a single trite sentence like “And all of this has led me to my MBA.” Avoid such an ending at all costs.

Part II: Career Goal Essay (400 word maximum)

Tell us about your short and long term career goals.

Cornell advises candidates, “Good essays will emphasize what an applicant wants to do while at Johnson and how you will use this experience to accomplish your goal.” We highlight this statement because the school’s essay question does not ask for any Cornell-specific information, even though the school obviously expects it, based on its accompanying advice. So, be sure that you address your goals, of course, but also “why Cornell,” even though this is not directly requested! Because Personal Statements are similar from one application to the next, we have produced the mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which helps applicants write this style of essay for any school. We offer this guide to candidates free of charge, via our online store. Please feel free to download your copy today.

Part III: Character Essay (400 word maximum for chosen question), please choose one of the following to write about:

a. You are the author for the book of Your Life Story. Please write the table of contents for the book. Note: Approach this essay with your unique style. We value creativity and authenticity.

Many applicants are likely thankful that this essay prompt is now a choice rather than a requirement. Creative essays can be quite challenging, so you should only choose to respond to this prompt if you are truly ready and able to meet that challenge. Can you find a way to create a table of contents that reveals a great deal about your life in an interesting manner? This essay prompt is open-ended, which means that you can delve into many different aspects of your life, rather than discussing one specific situation, so be certain that you have a lot to say about yourself and your life—and that the admissions committee would benefit from this information!

The admissions committee says that it “value[s] creativity and authenticity.” With that in mind, we would like to stress that candidates do not need to order their chapters chronologically, nor must they just cover their lives to date. Applicants may have interesting family histories or strong visions for the future, and incorporating these kinds of elements into their table of contents could convey an even greater sense of their personality. Other possible options include organizing the table of contents thematically and breaking the hypothetical book down into parts/sections. As the cliché goes, the only limit is your imagination.

If this option intrigues you, we recommend that you head to your local bookstore or “leaf” through your Kindle for some potential inspiration.

b. Describe a situation taken from your personal or professional life where you failed and tell us what you learned.

We suspect that many candidates will avoid this question, feeling reluctant to volunteer a failure, because they believe that doing so might negatively influence the admissions committee’s perception of them. We can assure you, however, that the admissions committee is not trying to set you up. The school is not asking a question designed to trick you into revealing negative information that it can then use to disqualify you.

If you feel that you have a story about a failure—possibly an ambitious failure—from which you learned a great deal, you should not be reticent. Redemption is an inspiring theme. The key to writing an effective failure story is leading the reader to an exciting moment and then letting the story fall off the cliff, so to speak. In short, if you write an essay in response to this prompt, definitely do not try to “reduce” the failure you are describing. You need to create optimism in your reader and then find a way for your reader to really live and experience the disappointment with you. Lastly, you need to show that you are capable of reflection and can critique your past actions in such a way as to help you improve for the future.

c. What does diversity mean to you and how will you contribute to the diversity of our community at Johnson?

If you are going to respond to this question, you should have some experience promoting diversity. If you have never done so before, you will likely have difficulty credibly showing that you can contribute to the school’s diversity the way the admissions committee craves. Diversity need not be understood as solely an issue of ethnicity, gender or nationality, though—after all, the school asks you to provide your own definition of diversity. If you can truly exhibit professional or extracurricular diversity and can discuss some distinct experiences within one of these realms (for example, you once ran a unique small business), this can be fair game as well. The experience you choose to describe is important, but even more important is proving that because of the experience, you can add something special to the next Cornell class. You will need to get to the heart of how meaningful the experience was/has been and clearly express how you can take what you learned or gained and apply and share it during your time at the school.

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