mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with Christine E. Sneva, Former Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at Cornell’s Johnson School

Update: Christine E. Sneva left Cornell University in 2017.

Recently, mbaMission had a truly fun and fascinating conversation with Christine Sneva, director of admissions and financial aid at Cornell Johnson. We covered a range of topics, from how Johnson reads applications to what changes have occurred in its admissions office recently, to what type of students Johnson attracts and exactly how much the interview counts. Here we offer some highlights from the interview, followed by a full transcript:

  • Johnson recently hired its first full-time international recruiter
  • The school focuses its recruiting on 55 “impact cities” around the world
  • Johnson sees the students it accepts as “professionals with recognition and achievement, but they also have a lot of humility” and reports that recruiters see them the same way

mbaMission: You’ve been admissions director at Cornell Johnson for a little more than a year now. What do you think has changed in that time?

Christine Sneva: I’ve actually been in the admissions office for five years, but I’ve been admissions director for almost exactly one year. I think it might be exactly one year today that I was offered to be director of admissions, and I couldn’t be happier. I put a three-year strategic plan in place, and now in year two of this strategic plan, I’m thrilled with how far we have come. When I became the director last year, I knew we needed to focus on our foundation, especially in the office, in two ways. And those were understaffing and operations. For staffing, I hired an international recruiter based in London. It’s a first for Johnson and for Cornell. Anyone else who’s outside of Ithaca and working for Cornell is an independent contractor, basically on a short-term contract, and this is a full-time employee, as if she was here in Ithaca, so we are so thrilled to have Charli Taylor as part of the admissions team.

mbaMission: And she is just recruiting for Johnson?

CS: She is just recruiting for Johnson. It’s going to really allow us to have a bigger impact, particularly in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India. She will literally be on the road for over four months, and then she comes to Ithaca three times during the year. It’s great to have so much new energy here, and we have another new hire, Eddie Asbie. He has the kind of energy and presence that we want for people who are representing Johnson and our brand, and he is doing a phenomenal job. So, having the right people out there is certainly a big piece of what I wanted to accomplish in year one.

Also, I’ve taken the recruiting staff, and there are only four of us, and split everyone into important regions where we believe we could have a significant impact in attracting high-caliber students to Johnson. Certainly, I think everybody wants to cover the entire world, but we’re looking at particular cities that we are dedicated to traveling to several times in the year to showcase the strength of our alumni network in the areas of our key initiatives. We really want to make an impact when it comes to our recruiting, and that’s through current students, alumni, corporate development and support with our academic programs, including our faculty. There are a lot of Cornell connections, and we are strategizing around this.

mbaMission: Can you share what those focus cities are?

CS: I could, but there are about 55 of them.

mbaMission: The impact cities? There are 55 of them? Wow!

CS: There are 55. That’s why we’re splitting them up. Our senior associate director, Ann Richards, is covering Latin America and East and Southeast Asia. We’ve already recruited in East and Southeast Asia, and she’s going back in September, and then we have a student trip focused on new applicants in December in that area alone. Charli will be in the Middle East twice—actually, three times—one time she’s going with the MBA tour, and she’s also doing two cities with our new dean, and then we’re also traveling with a few of our peer schools in the Middle East. So, these are different examples that I can certainly share of where we’re going to be and how we’re looking at recruiting. We’re looking at faculty that are going to be giving specific talks in North America, in Europe and in Seoul. It is our job to showcase who we are at Johnson as well as answer admissions questions

The second thing I was talking about with the strategic plan is operations, and that’s a real foundation, not only for how we function with applications here behind the scenes, but it also has a large impact on the applicant-facing side as well. And so last year, I was about a month in from being named the director, and I hired a consultant to walk through a reengineering process that changed many of our assumptions from “this is how we always did it” to making what we considered a wish list into a reality.

mbaMission: Are you talking about the process of recruiting or the process of reviewing applications? When you say “operations,” what exactly do you mean?

CS: Operations covers everything from recruiting to matriculation. So it’s lead cultivation, it’s CRM [customer relationship management] when somebody’s applying, when they’re thinking about applying, to “Now I’ve hit ‘submit.’ What happens next?” As you know, knowing a lot about the admissions world, there are so many pieces to it. And with that, we completely moved to a paperless application management system

mbaMission: Is this the first year you’ve done that?

CS: This is the first year we’ve done that, so I’m about a month away from implementation and testing, and then all of our submitted applications so far will start to go under our new application review system. You know, we’re labeling people differently in terms of regions and how we’re doing follow-up, how they’ve been involved—from a CRM, through recruiting activities, through visits. So there will be various ways that we can look at how an applicant has interacted with us.

mbaMission: Can you walk us through how you read an application? It sounds like you’ve been rethinking the mechanics of that process.

CS: Yes, we really have, so we evaluate first academic indicators, so your GMAT or GRE, and then your GPA and what you did in undergrad. We also look at the things that were competing for your time, not only in undergrad and what you were involved with and how those passions have sort of come out on paper for you but also, what’s competing for your time now. Are you in a job that is working you 80–85 hours a week? Maybe it is that one Saturday a month or one Saturday every couple of months, maybe that’s all you’re able to dedicate your time to because your job may be more demanding of your time. Or maybe you have a job that is 40 hours a week or maybe even less, and you’re more involved with the community side of things.

So, there are those different stories, again, on what is competing for people’s time, and not only from an academic standpoint but also from the professional experience that applicants are bringing, and we, more so this year than any other year, have really focused on depth of resume. That really was a huge, huge piece of conversation around our table, so even though we’re virtual, we still have the good ole wooden table in my office. We’re not going to change that, because those conversations are so influential to the process and who is being admitted—and more importantly, why they are being admitted. And then, leadership skills and potential are big areas for us, because we have put a lot of time and money into our leadership development program, from the staff and the faculty to how that is implemented throughout the two years that a student is here. And so that is something that we’re looking for. And then obviously goal orientation. I think those four areas are the biggest determining factors about whom we should interview. And really the rest is then up to the applicant, because 90% of the decision will be based on how well that person interviews.

mbaMission: Ninety percent is based on how well you interview, once you have made it to the interview stage.

CS: Once you have made it to the interview stage, yes.

mbaMission: So, your personality, how well you fit with the school…

CS: Your interpersonal skills, how you interact with us. Typically, we really don’t come in with any known questions, you know, so we don’t go to the traditional “tell us about this or that.” We look at your resume, and we’ll have you introduce yourself and talk a little bit about your career, and then all of our questions are going to be based off of that initial conversation. And it’s a very two-way conversation, so if somebody is not used to that kind of way to interview, or if they haven’t done an interview in a while and they think that they would be particularly nervous, or if they don’t feel like they would be at their best in that kind of situation or not sure how they would be, they should really, really practice their interviewing skills, because that will be absolutely key.

mbaMission: And it sounds more like it’s focusing on your conversational skills.

CS: I need to know that when you leave my office after an interview, that I could call up any company, recruiter or alum and say, “Hey, I just got done talking to Jennifer, and she was outstanding and this is why, and she’d be a great person to put you in contact with.” You know, I can feel good about that decision based on that interview.

mbaMission: The way I often phrase it is that the schools want to know not only that you will contribute in the classroom but that you will also contribute to the community, and even more so, that when someone meets you on campus, they’re going to want to call home and say, “I just met this really amazing person, and I’m impressed with how Johnson recruits people, because they bring in really great people.”

CS: Exactly. We’re on the same page.

mbaMission: I think that every school wants their students to be excited about their classmates.

CS: Absolutely. We just got done with our orientation and, I mean, from faculty to staff to students, we’ve all just been thrilled to have the life back in Sage. We just got done with a family picnic down by Cayuga Lake yesterday, and this is where, in admissions, you say, “We did it,” because everyone enjoys being here. We just had our second-year Leadership Fellows return, and they are now working with each one of these smaller first-year teams in the first half of the core. One person said, “Now I get it. I know why you work here: because you get to be here all the time.” I said, “Are you going to consider a PhD now?”

mbaMission: That’s great! I have to bring up this important question, because I know that it’s one a lot of candidates want us to get to. Many applicants believe that the admissions process is really just about checking boxes and fulfilling a preset list of requirements. For the record, can you say whether Johnson takes this kind of scientific approach, or are you looking specifically at each applicant as an individual?

CS: If it was a science, I would not have chosen this career. Admissions is about trade-offs. No one has a common denominator anymore, and as an admissions committee, we review applicants individually, collectively and holistically.

mbaMission: And I think I heard you say something that I believe our readers will be very interested in, which is that you recognize that some jobs don’t lend themselves to significant involvement in activities outside of work, so what you’re looking for is how candidates maximize the time they do have.

CS: Exactly. And for people who end up working part-time, people who got laid off or people that decided to quit their jobs and are now focused on the admissions process, it is important to address how many hours a day do you work on it, or how many hours a week do you work on it? What do you do with your time? And these questions aren’t just because we’re nosy, it’s because we’re thinking in the back of our minds, any employer or anyone looking at this resume, these are the first three or four questions that really pop out. And if you have not already anticipated that, I would be concerned. That’s a major red flag.

mbaMission: Schools want to know that you can multitask.

CS: Yes. You’re going to have to do it here! It is an essential skill to have in the business school environment.

mbaMission: Right. So, every school has a stereotype, but what do you think the Johnson School should be known for?

CS: I really like this question, because we have a good sense of humor around our own stereotypes. I’m sure you saw this—being in the industry—but over a year ago, [an admissions consulting firm] … put out a comparison on their blog of business schools to cars, and I think there have been different versions of this over the years. And we had a really good laugh over a lot of them, but we couldn’t argue with what they said about us. They said that Johnson is like a Subaru, and, oddly enough, a majority of the people here drive a Subaru. It’s kind of known in New York state that when you see a Subaru, they’re probably from Ithaca. They said, “Johnson is like Subaru—a high quality and practical car, for those who know about it. The marque is typically not on the top of people’s minds at first, although if you were to ask them to track how many Subarus they see in a day, chances are there are more out there than they ever realized. […] Johnson is sort of out there in rugged upstate New York—there’s more of them working amongst you, but you wouldn’t realize it unless you actually asked people where they went to school.”

And that is like Johnson, because to me it says, Cornell Johnson has a great product. Our students are ready for their chosen field. They’re professionals with recognition and achievement, but they also have a lot of humility, and I actually hear that a lot from our corporate recruiters that look to hire our students. I think that in terms of what we should be known for, we’ve perfected what “hands-on” truly should mean: live work, cases and projects that provide relevant business solutions for big issues that are facing companies today, but also what companies are looking for toward the future. And that’s really evident in our centers and institutes, particularly the Emerging Markets Institute (EMI).

mbaMission: Can you tell me a little more about that institute?

CS: Yes. The EMI is still new. It was officially rolled out as of last year, and it brings thought leadership on the role of emerging markets to multinational companies specifically. For example, our students worked on a global consulting project with another MBA team in Paris—this year they’re going to be working with an MBA team in India—and what they did is they looked at a French medical device company and made suggestions and a business plan on how that company would enter the Brazilian marketplace. That’s one of many examples of these projects that are going through the institute. We have corporate partners; obviously we’re bringing in more speakers. We’ve got faculty in there. One new faculty member, Lourdes Casanova—who is originally from Spain but has a lot of experience in Brazil in particular, as well as other areas in Latin America—is now part of the emerging markets faculty. So each year we’re bringing some really impressive people in there to produce thought leadership and research as well as the kind of people that we can influence to come here that will essentially influence and network with our students.

mbaMission: So my next question was going to be, is there an academic program at Johnson that people don’t really know about?

CS: Ah yes, well, the EMI is new, but whenever anyone asks this question, it’s funny that they always mention the Cayuga Fund. The Cayuga Fund has been out there for a number of years now, so most people should already know that we’ve got this equity hedge fund that meets all of our indexes—but it’s always worthwhile to put out there. We have a lot of employers that look in particular for women who want to focus on investing, and one event that we are looking to market to women in asset management is our Women in Investing Conference on November 15 and 16. Interested women can learn about the benefits of pursuing a career in investment management, hear from distinguished keynote speakers from sponsoring firms and network with more than 70 female peers from top MBA programs and more than 65 representatives from ten top-tier investment management firms.

We just put a dialogue together for our women here that highlighted successful alumnae that can speak to the opportunities and challenges women still have in not only male-dominated industries but other careers that seem challenging for a work-life balance. We have had some really thought-provoking conversations around that, and it is something that we are going to work very hard to build off of.

mbaMission: You mentioned Lourdes Casanova, who sounds like a wonderful addition to the faculty. Are there any other professors you would like to highlight?

CS: Yes, actually. The two I want to share with you are recent award-winning faculty voted on by our students. The first one is Nate Peck. He has 24 years of experience in consulting at KPMG and is a former partner at McKinsey. He consulted at global banks and financial institutions, and worked in strategy, M&A [mergers and acquisitions] and risk management. He serves as a managing director at Bankers Trust and is a member of the board of directors at, I think, two other public companies. He was selected this year as the recipient of the Apple Award for Teaching Excellence. The Apple Award enables graduating classes to honor a faculty member who exemplifies outstanding leadership and educational influence. He teaches management cases, problem solving and management of financial institutions in the two-year program and the one-year program as well as the Global Business Project and advanced financial strategy case in the executive MBA program. I just saw Nate Peck out in the hallway, and there he was, just surrounded by a bunch of second years who just came back, and they were all telling him about their experiences and what they learned and just how things were applicable. And certainly as a faculty member, that’s what drives you in many ways, and there were a lot of smiles and handshakes and hugs. So it was a good thing to see.

The other professor that’s been recently recognized is a core faculty member. She’s Vrinda Kadiyali. She specializes in marketing and economics and has published in marketing and economics journals. Previously, she’s taught courses on Internet marketing and channels of distribution, marketing models and several things like that, and she was awarded the top core faculty teaching award this year.

I’m glad that you particularly emphasized teaching, because I think at a graduate level, you expect that—being an Ivy League institution, certainly we’ve attracted top faculty in their field. And within each area and discipline at Johnson, we have at least one or two clinical professors that just focus on teaching. And we’ve been adding to faculty with an emphasis on teaching.

mbaMission: Great. Can you tell me a little bit about the Immersion Programs? Students have the option to design their own programs, I understand. Do a lot of students choose this, and what kinds of unique programs have they created?

CS: Yeah, about 80% of our students do an immersion, which is part of our dedication to hands-on or “performance” learning. It takes live business case problems that our students work on throughout the second semester of the two-year program and the last semester of our one-year program. So I do want to emphasize that those students who do our accelerated, one-year MBA do have an opportunity to do an immersion in their last semester, which is new for our AMBA [Accelerated MBA] students. And it’s an opportunity to present solutions to a company, many of which take one or several of the suggestions made by those students, and the students go and visit with the company several times during the semester and then do an end-of-project presentation It’s hugely successful in preparing the students in the two-year program to perform better than their peers in their internships.

That means, the remaining 20%, what are they doing? Typically, they customize—and we will always have to have that option out there, because we have several dual-degree programs and really encourage our students to take classes outside of Johnson. Twenty-five percent of students’ coursework can be taken elsewhere, whether that’s in one of our 30 international partner universities on a semester exchange or at another school within the university. The most popular are the Hotel School, the Engineering School, the Law School, the Industrial Labor Relations School and the real estate program. Students have customized in agriculture and food science in their MBA program. One has started a group of farmers markets and is now organizing an organic food market. So it’s a lot of those kinds of things that are happening that are customized, that are very unique, and we don’t hold our students to be in a particular major or in a particular immersion. They have a lot of flexibility and a lot of autonomy, so I think sometimes when applicants are still on the fence about what school they want, that could be something that sways them. Because if they’re not 100% certain about what they want to do, they’re going to need some options.

mbaMission: So, speaking of goals, when you look at candidates’ essays, how carefully do you scrutinize the goals? How important is the goal statement in their application?

CS: It’s really an important question and one that we scrutinize and brainstorm about with our career management center each year. We discuss students who were successful in the job search and those that may have struggled, who maybe didn’t have their top choice, etc. Was it background or something that we could have managed within the admissions process? Was it because of a lack of focus? There’s a lot of good conversation around that, and goal clarity is very important, not just for your application, but your plans while you’re here. I think business school really forces you to make big decisions that can influence your ability to immerse yourself in an industry if you are not sure what you want to do.

Our student council president did a remarkable job addressing the new class this year. He spoke candidly about being sort of a man of mystery, about his transitions through banking to nonprofit to “I like coffee. Why don’t I work at Starbucks?” to “I decided on consulting.” So he landed there and then went through his reasons why, and it’s a great story. But from an admissions perspective, what I see is him knowing what he was passionate about. He saw that connection in several different industries, and he was able to maneuver and navigate that very professionally with some focus and, when the time was right, to make a commitment.

mbaMission: So in the application essay talking about goals, what’s important is that you sense a real passion about the goal the candidate is considering because it’s rooted in who that person is? So even if the specific goal ends up changing, that connection to who they are is still there?

CS: Yes, that’s it.

mbaMission: Got it. I see. The Cornell Johnson application includes an unusual question: the table of contents essay. Can you tell us more about this essay and why you choose to ask that question? And what are you looking for?

CS: We get this question a lot. This is the first time we’ve made the question optional in terms of categorizing our essays this year, so I was hoping that as an applicant, that would guide you to what we are looking to learn about you. The chapter headings essay of your life story is under the “character” essays because we want to learn about who you are, your personal story, your journey. You don’t have to start at birth, although some people choose to, because that’s how they operate. They’re chronological thinkers that are thinking, “Okay, so, this is how I started in life.” And as you’re writing it, maybe there is something that you can share with us that is humorous, unique, or possibly that describes your own struggles and life experience. In the end, when it’s one in the morning and you are working on a case, what are you going to draw from? It is your previous life experience that has brought you here. Have you always been somebody that feels like they’ve had it easy? Do you think this experience is going to be easy for you? There are so many ways you can go about it. If I could put one word on what I’ve seen in the application process, and what I’m seeing out there—it would be “resiliency.”

mbaMission: So what I’m hearing you say is that it’s not necessary to do this chronologically. It’s okay to take a more creative approach.

CS: Absolutely.

mbaMission: Great. Can you summarize in just a few words what kind of individual is a good fit for Cornell Johnson?

CS: If you are a professional who is looking to be very challenged academically—personally and professionally—if you’re a natural at networking, if you believe you have a unique story to tell and you want to push yourself, then this is the place you need to be. When you visit here, and I’ve heard it almost every time, you’ll fall in love with this place when you walk through the doors. And it’s a unique visit, it’s a unique MBA experience, and if you’re not convinced you need to be here after visiting, then this is not the place for you.

mbaMission: Last question—can you talk a little bit about financial aid?

CS: We have a merit scholarship pool that is available to all of our applicants, including internationals. There are only two fellowships that are for U.S. citizens only, and those are the Consortium Fellowship and the Park Fellowship. The Park Fellowship attracts the top applicants, which we invite to come to campus for a weekend to help us determine the best fit for all of our top scholarships and fellowships. It also helps us measure the interest of these students in Johnson. We enjoy meeting the top admitted students in the first three application rounds and provide a unique experience to meet other senior staff, faculty and potential classmates.

mbaMission: Okay. Thanks. Is there anything else that we didn’t cover that you want to make sure gets out there to potential applicants?

CS: Yes—I would just say that this is really an exciting time to be part of Cornell Johnson. With a new dean leading us, a stronger presence in New York City and new initiatives growing within the school each year, students will find a very exciting, dynamic and life-changing experience here. And that’s at least one thing that I can guarantee for them.

mbaMission: Wonderful! Actually, can you say something about admissions consultants—maybe how you would recommend that applicants work with admissions consultants?

CS: Sure. Admissions consultants serve as a support and can give you an unbiased view of what you’re looking to bring out in an application. And that’s different for everybody. Good consultants have experience asking very difficult and challenging questions that maybe somebody who knows you wouldn’t necessarily be able to bring out with their more neutral perspective. I think that depth in an individual’s development and experience can be really influential for people, and for many, it could be something very similar to what they should prepare themselves for in business school.

mbaMission: Great! Thank you so much for your time—we really appreciate it.

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