Whether Cornell Johnson is on your target list of business schools or not, its “back of the resume” essay prompt is instructive for anyone looking to get the MBA admissions committee’s attention.
Why? Like all top business schools, Cornell Johnson wants to know what you’ll bring to the table, to the community and what you’re passionate about beyond the ways you make your living. The difference is its explicit invitation to veer from the narrative conveyed by the ‘front of your resume’ to get to “the rest of your story” and “present yourself as an individual.” That you can submit your song, video, digital portfolio, or visually enhanced prose means that Cornell want to see what happens when you have permission to really get creative about it. The program puts this into context in its application requirements by explaining:
“The front page of your resume has given us a sense of your professional experience and accomplishments as well as your academic summary and extracurricular involvement. If the back page reflects “the rest of your story,” please help us get to know you better by sharing the experiences that will give us insight into your character, values, and interests.”
If your quant-leaning heart is starting to race, I’m smiling because this is totally in character for Cornell. It’s sending a strong message that Cornell doesn’t just care about how well you perform in the classroom and who you are in your career. As Cornell Johnson’s former Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions, I’m admittedly a little biased for my love of the school. But this also gives me the insight on how you can make your business school essays for Johnson sing (perhaps, literally).
When we first unveiled the “table of contents” essay question while I was assistant dean, there was a lot of excitement as well as trepidation because prospective MBAs had never been invited to write like that (“If your life were a book, what would the table of contents be…”). I perceive this as the next iteration in the ‘if your life were a book’ prompt.
What, then, is Cornell Johnson looking for? The “back of the essay” prompt leads with: “We encourage you to think about your proudest accomplishments, interests and passions, and personal highlights that will help us to get to know you as a person and potential community member.”
In sum, the school is saying: We want to know about the you that isn’t on paper. And, how do you fit into this incredible culture we’re creating at Cornell?
Please, don’t be tempted to write that your greatest moment was raising millions in a day at Goldman or when you were awarded employee of the year. When asked to share your proudest moment, it frankly shouldn’t be something on the front page of your resume. That’s the point.
The challenge – and opportunity – is to unveil what you’re truly passionate about, something interesting about you and/or what you’re interested in. Get introspective about who you are as a person, consider what makes you tick, reflect on your life. Given the leeway you have with the multimedia format of sharing, keep in mind that how you choose to present your response is as critical as what you choose to convey.
Let me off an example: One of the most memorable “table of contents” essays I reviewed was from a military veteran. I was deeply moved by the energy, time, and feeling he conveyed through his response. It left me – and my colleagues – feeling wowed, with a collective desire to meet him and shake his hand. He succeeded in creating a level of resonance with his audience that the front page of any resume – even his – could not possibly achieve.
The good news is, this question invites candidates to tip the application in their favor. As my Fortuna Admissions colleague, Jody Keating wrote in her recent article on crafting a standout resume, “The odds are good that there’s someone applying to your target school with the exact same job title as you.” How might you subvert the preconceptions we all have about consultants, bankers or nonprofit types by offering the admissions committee a real glimpse into who you are?
Your ability to grab the admissions committee’s attention through your storytelling – regardless of your chosen medium – stands to be far more impressive than any specific accomplishment. So, if you’re an analyst who is also a classically trained musician, you could surprise and delight the admissions committee with your mastery of Chopin, or the subtle ways your love of piano shapes the individual that you are. Maybe you’re a rock climber who cleverly captures your approach to free climbing as a metaphor for your approach to the MBA and beyond.
If you’re a huge lacrosse fan like me, it may not seem wildly unique. But the way you convey your love of the game in a short video of you supporting teammates with excerpts of you teaching or training, stands to show me a lot about your leadership skills, or character traits like determination, grit, perseverance, not accepting imperfection or working through to finish. Remember, it’s less the what than the how. The who behind the what.
To be sure, a question like this invites a certain level of vulnerability. Think of it this way: You’re putting yourself out there and your confidence is the safety net. When someone talks about – or exemplifies – something they’re truly passionate about from a place of sincerity, it’s unmistakable. And that’s what the school is trying to elicit. How do you show up in your world? And how will you show yourself if you’re invited to join the community at Cornell Johnson?
Randall Sawyer is a Fortuna Admissions former Assistant Dean of Admissions, Financial Aid and Inclusion at the Johnson School at Cornell University. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.