Cornell University (Johnson) Essay Analysis, 2014–2015

*Please note: You are viewing an essay analysis from the 2014-2015 admissions cycle. Click here to view our collection of essay analyses for the current admissions season. 

You can be forgiven for feeling a little annoyance with Johnson at Cornell University’s decision to unnecessarily complicate things this season by stipulating a character limit, rather than a word limit, for its application essays. What does 2,000 characters, “including formatting characters,” really mean in this case? A call to the Johnson admissions office clarified for us that the 2,000-character limit includes spaces, which means that your final text would likely equal approximately 330 words. (By comparison, note that last year, Johnson’s word limit was a more straightforward 300 words for Essay 1 and 450 words for its three-part Essay 2. So this year, the school is actually giving you a bit more leeway for the first essay and then dialing it back for the second.) Give your word processor’s “word count” function a workout and constantly check it as you write to see how close you are to the limit. Why is the school going with this approach? Who knows? Maybe this is an initial test of your fortitude, as though the school is saying, “If you are so frustrated by this that you no longer want to apply to Johnson, then we don’t want you!” Our analysis of Cornell Johnson’s essay prompts follows…

Cornell JohnsonEssay 1: You are the author for the book of Your Life Story. In 2,000 characters (including formatting 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.

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 present day. 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! (For some potential inspiration, consider heading to your local bookstore or “leafing” through your Kindle.)

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.

You may want to follow the lead of other schools, such as Harvard Business School, which asks candidates to avoid repeating information from other parts of their application in their essay(s). Rather than relaying pure facts, consider relaying “color.” For example, rather than writing a chapter heading like “Successful Product Launch: Promoted Early at My Firm,” you might hint at what was behind that promotion to make the picture more complete and interesting: “A Vested Mentor, A Crucial Project, An Unexpected Promotion.” These two titles are significantly different! In some ways, these creative chapter titles are an exercise in subtly and innuendo. You want to reveal a lot about yourself and your story but not reiterate information already provided in the other parts of your application.

Essay 2:

Two Year MBAs: What is the job that you would like to have immediately upon graduating with your MBA?  (2,000 character limit, including formatting characters)

One-Year MBAs: How does your pre-MBA experience prepare you for the job that you envision post-MBA? (2,000 character limit, including formatting characters)

For Essay 2, Cornell Johnson distinguishes between its one- and two-year MBA programs, asking slightly different questions about your professional goals. For two-year MBA applicants, the school wants to know that you have thought about your goals and have devised a clear career path for yourself after graduating; the admissions committee can therefore evaluate whether Johnson is the right program to get you where you want to go (as they note in their comments  on their essay questions). The question for applicants pursuing the one-year MBA has a nuanced difference. The admissions office imagines that most applicants to the accelerated program will rely more heavily on their existing experience, given that the program is significantly shorter, and therefore want to know not only what your ambitions are but also which skills you already possess that make those ambitions realistic.

Because personal 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.

Optional Essay: Complete this essay if you would like to add additional details regarding your candidacy. For instance, if you believe one or more aspects of your application (e.g., undergraduate record or test scores) do not accurately reflect your potential for success at the Johnson School. (2,000 character limit, including formatting characters).

However tempted you might be, this is not the place to paste in a strong essay from another school or to offer a few anecdotes that you were unable to use in any of your other essays. Instead, this is your opportunity, if needed, to address any lingering questions that an admissions officer may have about your candidacy, such as a poor grade or overall GPA, a low GMAT score, or a gap in your work experience. In our mbaMission Optional Statement Guide, we offer detailed advice on when and how to take advantage of the optional essay, with multiple examples, to help you mitigate any problem areas in your profile.

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