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Cornell / Johnson Essay Topic Analysis 2013-2014

As prospective students might have noticed when the Johnson School’s 2013-2014 application essay topics were announced earlier this week, Cornell is shaking things up once again through a combination of new and existing essay prompts.  The admissions committee has trimmed the essay set down from three to two essays in total, although there are three separate parts to Essay 2; each part focuses on a different aspect of a candidate’s future.  Finally, the school’s ever-tricky “life story/table of contents” question returns for a sixth year running, and although the word limit has been shortened to 300 words, the essay is required once more for all applicants to answer.

Let’s take a closer look at each and consider some strategies for tackling this year’s application essays:

Essay 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. (300 words maximum)

This unusual prompt calls for a high-level and non-narrative overview of an applicant’s life to date.  Internalizing the “Note” for this essay, applicants should understand that while the structure for this essay is set, there’s still a good deal of room for strategy and creativity: candidates are free to decide which eras or events to highlight, how to title each chapter, and so on.  Though relying on a list format might be a viable approach, candidates will likely get more mileage out of this essay by structuring information in paragraphs or a series of sub-sections under broad chapter headings, offering a description of that “chapter” in your life and drawing out the important themes of the story.  Regardless of the format you choose, make sure that it allows you to provide an authentic representation of yourself.  Moreover, with the word limit reduced from 400 to 300 for this essay, applicants should ensure their writing is succinct so that they can convey all of their points in this more limited space.

As for the content itself, the admissions committee is likely looking for a sense of each candidate’s background, as well as his or her trajectory and growth over time.  Touch on those events and accomplishments that are most meaningful and important to you, highlighting the ones that have shaped your personal development.  Remember, though, that this is a b-school application, so you will also want to share information that is relevant to your current work and your future objectives without too much repetition of points raised in your other essays.  The fact that the adcom has eliminated last year’s essay on career trajectory means that this is the only essay in which candidates can describe the narrative of their career to date.  That said, dedicating the entirety of the table of contents to professional pursuits may not be advantageous or allow candidates to provide well-rounded pictures of who they are.  Overall, you want to make sure to highlight the unique aspects of your personality and candidacy, as doing so will allow you to stand out from others in the applicant pool.

Essay 2 “Who you turn out to be”: Please answer the following three questions in abbreviated format. (Keep each answer in 150 words or less)

a. 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?) (150 words maximum)

b. Johnson values people that make things happen for themselves.  Give an example of how you have initiated this for yourself. (150 words maximum)

c. Please describe your immediate post MBA career goals. (150 words maximum)

Johnson’s latest version of its career goals essay is now divided into three distinctive questions that cover the factors that have influenced an applicant’s decision to pursue an MBA, their fit with the profile of a typical Johnson student and their post-MBA plans.  With 150 words allotted for each section, brevity and directness will be key for applicants who are trying to fit such expansive plans into just 450 words total.

Regarding the first part of the prompt, applicants have some choice between describing their interest in an MBA as the result of a long-term period of contemplation or one singular event.  Candidates writing about the latter should ensure that any “epiphany” is a good fit with content for Essay 1—avoiding both direct repetition of any descriptions of the event as well as something that seems unrelated to the key themes of their personal and professional lives.  The same thinking holds true for applicants for whom the decision to pursue an MBA has been an evolutionary process, as this process should track some or all of their life story yet convey new information to the adcom as well.

The second part of this prompt asks candidates to describe a situation in which they have acted in line with Johnson’s values in terms of developing leaders that take action to achieve their ambitions.  The breadth of the prompt means that applicants can choose to describe an anecdote from either their professional or personal lives, and candidates who are stuck on determining which of their stories is the best fit for Johnson would do well to learn more about the school’s unique culture.  Taking the time to learn about the school’s campus resources, special programs and extracurricular activities – whether through a visit to campus, conversation with alumni or reading the Clear Admit School Guide to the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management  – will pay dividends here.  Furthermore, with only 150 words to tell your story, feel free to reach out to us in order to get feedback on which elements of your profile might be best to highlight here.

Finally, Johnson asks applicants to describe their short-term career goals upon graduation. Although there is no follow-on asking “how Johnson will help you achieve this goal,” applicants would do well to keep this inquiry as implicit as they approach this response, perhaps including a sentence on this subject as space allows.  With the new prompt dedicated specifically to a candidate’s “immediate” goals, it remains that one’s short-term goals are the primary focus of this prompt.  Applicants should view this essay as their single chance at this stage in the application process to convey to the adcom that they have a clear vision of where they hope to end up immediately post-MBA and several years down the road.

There won’t be any room for a discussion of the general merits of a business education here or describing your entire career trajectory step by step – it will be crucial to spend the majority of your words on being highly clear on your short-term ambitions before providing any other supplemental insights, such as a brief note of how this target short-term goal into your long-term plans.

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