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Cornell University (Johnson) Essay Analysis, 2013–2014

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?

Cornell JohnsonEssay 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.




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