Once again, applicants to the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University must contend with its rather unique “life story” essay prompt, which, despite the upside of allowing candidates to offer a well-rounded picture of themselves to the school’s admissions committee, can be a pretty challenging and daunting submission for some individuals. Last year’s essay question about applicants’ short- and long-term goals has been replaced with one about impact, so the focus seems to have shifted from where candidates want to go and what they want to do after they leave Cornell Johnson and toward how they envision their experience as a student in its MBA program. This makes sense, given that the school’s table-of-contents essay should offer ample opportunity for applicants to share not only what they feel are the most important facets of their lives to date but also, we imagine, at least some insight into where they anticipate going after business school. The impact essay essentially fills in that time period between those before-and-after phases of a candidate’s life and career, thereby creating a more complete impression of the applicant for the admissions committee. As for how to approach these essays, read on for our tips and suggestions.
Essay 1: At Cornell, we value students who create impact. Please indicate the opportunities for impact that you have identified through engagement with our community and describe how these interactions have influenced your decision to apply to Johnson.
Please limit your response to 500 words or fewer.
Note that in this essay prompt, the school asks specifically about your expected impact within the Cornell Johnson community. This specification conveys a very clear assumption on the school’s part that you have already been actively reaching out to and communicating with others in its community to learn more about it, so if have not yet been doing so, now (immediately) is the time to start. The wording of the prompt also lets us know that the school is not asking to hear about an impact you made at some point in the past but instead wants you to demonstrate your thorough understanding of the Cornell Johnson community by discussing the ways and areas in which you feel you can contribute to it in a meaningful way. Ideally, of course, your suggestions and ideas will match Cornell Johnson’s particular vibe and character. To ensure that they do, you truly must first engage with students, alumni, and/or other representatives of the school and fully educate yourself on what Cornell Johnson offers that directly pertains to you. A simple reading of the school’s Web site or recruiting materials will not suffice.
Once you have clearly laid out your expectations, consider supporting each of your stated intentions by briefly describing an incident from your past in which you made a similar impact in a different setting. This will show the admissions committee both that you genuinely understand what is involved in accomplishing what you claim you will do and that you possess the capacity to actually do so. Because the prompt clearly requests examples of “opportunities”—plural—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 more than just one way.
Essay 2: You are the author of your Life Story. Please create the Table of Contents for the book in the space provided or upload it as an attachment. 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 Table of Contents, please limit your submission to 500 words or fewer. Please limit multimedia submissions to under 5 minutes.
In the past, Cornell Johnson stipulated a character count limit for its essays, rather than a word count, leading thousands of confounded applicants to wonder whether or not that count included spaces. Mercifully, the school switched to a more straightforward limit of 500 words (or fewer) last year and has decided to maintain this approach for this application season. As for the content, this essay is a bit peculiar, because it begs for creativity while also restricting applicants to a specific structure—a table of contents—essentially giving them “limited creative expression.”
That said, a table of contents can be approached, organized, and presented in a wide variety of ways. You can be especially imaginative and start your story back in the days of the dinosaurs or perhaps leap into the future and tell a story about yourself that has yet to be written. 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. Your table of contents can even be thematic rather than linear! Heed the school’s words: “We value creativity.”
Take care, however, to not get too gimmicky. You must allow the admissions committee to get to know you through your table of contents. Section, chapter, subchapter (depending on your structure)—each one must contribute to your narrative and provide a fuller picture of you. This is an opportunity to tell your whole story, albeit in a brief way, so make sure you tell it! We suggest that before you start writing, you grab some paper and make an old-fashioned list of your key stories. Then, make sure that your table of contents includes as many of the items on that list as possible. If you accomplish that, you should be most of the way to an excellent essay. The rest will involve fine-tuning the language, which is not necessarily easy but becomes much more so when you are working with excellent content.
Optional/Reapplicant 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 Johnson.
If you are reapplying for admission, please use this essay to indicate how you have strengthened your application since the last time you applied. Please limit your response to 500 words or fewer.
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 score, or a gap in your work experience. In our mbaMission Optional Essays Guide, available through our online store, we offer detailed advice on when and how to take advantage of the optional essay (along with multiple sample essays) to help you mitigate any problem areas in your profile.
We do not recommend that you use this essay to discuss your long- and short-term career goals. The school removed this exact essay question for a reason (whatever that may be), which to us is a clear indicator that the admissions committee is not seeking that information from you in this format. Do not worry that the school is trying to test or trick you. 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.
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. Please feel free to download your copy today.
And for a thorough exploration of Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University’s academic program/merits, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, academic environment, and more, check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to the Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management.
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…
Essay 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.
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.