2012-2013 Cornell Johnson Essay Analysis

by on November 11th, 2012

Part I: Career Choice Essay (300 word maximum)
How would you characterize your career since college?
This is not your job description or complete history of your work since graduating (we already ask for that in the online portion and can see this on your resume). You need to choose the most important elements that show your initiative, contribution, leadership and results achieved.

It’s something of an art form to take a bunch of disparate elements and generate a single elegant thought that somehow cuts to the heart of all of it—when taken together. But it’s more than summarizing. It’s … “essence-ing.” We wanna look at your career since college and extract an ESSENCE. The purpose of this essence is twofold:

  1. It should capture what you’ve done and show us QUICKLY—broadly-speaking—who you are (banker, real estate guy, non-profit man, etc.)
  2. It should tell give us a sneak peek at where you’re HEADED (banker headed toward microfinance, real-estate guy headed for entrepreneurship, non-profit man to the GRAVE!)

See it? Cooool, but so, how to DO it?!

Let’s start by identifying a few categories… ingredients, if you will.

  • DECISIONS – You’ve made some decisions in your post-college career, yes? Sure you have, here’s an easy one: what to do for your first job. This is a big decision. What industry, where to apply, which job offer to accept, etc. This is potential fodder for this section.
  • DEFINING MOMENTS – In the X number of years since your graduation, what are some of the watershed moments that truly PUNCTUATE your trajectory? Big promotion? Lateral shift? Brave decision to step OFF the ladder to pursue something… else? Also fodder.

Identifying these things and thinking through them can be excellent starting points for figuring out how to build a response here. Now, we’ve gone through ways to help you put together the ingredients, but now what? What do you do WITH those ingredients? Well, let’s work backwards. We’re hoping our responses say something COOOOL about us, right? What makes for a cool response?

Simple. A career that appears to have direction. Some kind of arc. Some kind of exciting END GAME. Now, it’s possible that end game will change over the course of time, but it’s exciting to know that someone seems poised to succeed. And it is possible to GET that sense from seeing a pattern in the career choices and career turns you’ve made since college. As you’re explaining the choices and defining moments, it is therefore critical also to convey a sense of momentum TOWARD something. If all you’re doing is swimming in circles, hopping from one industry to the next, we have no real reason to believe that you’ll snap out of that loop. But, if your career shows signs of a clear trajectory, and you have succeeded thus far within that trajectory (promotions, excellent leadership examples, clear evidence of IMPACTING organizations), then you’re gonna make their mouths water.

So, let’s sum it up. Get your ingredients in order in thinking about your post-college career and identify KEY decisions you’ve made in STEERING your career and pushing it forward, and identify DEFINING MOMENTS within those years. Also remember to communicate a sense of movement TOWARD something, a career arc.

Part II: Career Goal Essay (400 word maximum)
Tell us about your short and long term career goals. Please show you have a clear direction for your goal post-MBA. Good essays will emphasize what an applicant wants to do while at Johnson and how you will use this experience to accomplish your goal.

This is a typical career goals essay. And it’s nice to see them articulate a point that we made moments earlier when suggesting ways to answer Question Number One about how you’d CHARACTERIZE your career post-college. For this goals essay, we need to be precise, because you’re gonna burn through 400 words a lot faster than you may realize.

Let’s go through a typical organizational approach that works very well. (As an aside, be aware that within a framework like this, you have all the opportunity in the world to stand out and be unique—don’t mistake structure for conformity.)

  1. BIG GOAL FIRST. It’s nice to understand—very quickly—the ULTIMATE destination first so we can picture it, get onboard immediately, and THEN sink into the details. Imagine boarding a plane in LOS ANGELES and the captain explains that you’re gonna first fly over Las Vegas, and then the Grand Canyon, then pass over Kansas, eventually jig north a bit to end up at Pennsylvania. After we re-fuel, we’ll then… I’m already lost. I’d rather hear him say “Folks, thank you for joining us on trip to PARIS. The trip will last a total of 14 hours. First we’re gonna fly over Las Vegas, and then the Grand Canyon” etc, etc. In this second version, we have a FRAMEWORK. The details that fill it in will make sense within that context. Without that context, the details may not be as effective. So start with a TASTE of the ultimate problem you wanna solve. The opportunity you’re eager to tap. Give us a sense of where we’re headed.
  2. SHORT-TERM GOAL—BUT MORE THAN THAT… THE PLAN. Walk us through the key steps required to get there, being careful to explain exactly how these dots are all connected. If you need to get to Step D, explain WHY you need A, B, and C first. It must all make perfect logical sense. This section should end with a sense of your need to do all this, but your inability to begin that journey “today.” Something’s missing. In other words, there’s a NEED for you to take a detour in the way of an MBA. Or another way of looking at it is not so much a detour, but the MBA is Step 1 in your short-term goal.
  3. HOW JOHNSON—SPECIFICALLY—HELPS YOU. They wanna hear TWO things here. They wanna know first that you have engaged with the materials and resources that exist in the ether to help you understand their program, and have imagined ways in which you will participate IN their program to take full advantage. This shows interest. It shows planning. And all of that points to “likelihood of success.”

But it’s the second piece in their prompt that we wanna dig into a bit: “how you will use this experience to accomplish your goal.” We need to make a few key assumptions here, guys, because this is the section that almost EVERYONE misses on their first drafts.

Let’s think about this idea of goals and how we can use things to achieve those goals, and what it means to “use something” to achieve a goal. Suppose your pregnant wife were going into labor and you needed to get to the nearest hospital that was ten miles away. You help her into your car, and you scramble to the driver’s side only to find that you don’t have your keys. Uh-oh. For the purposes of this scenario, imagine you lived in a very remote location with no neighbors and no easy alternatives. Your wife remembers that she has a spare set of keys in her purse. She reaches inside her purse and holds them up. You smile, relieved… and our scene ends here. We all know EXACTLY what happens next. Husband inserts the keys into ignition, starts the car, and safely delivers his wife to the hospital where she delivers their baby. It’s as simple as that. The husband had a clear goal: to transport his wife to the hospital. And he used a set of car keys to accomplish this goal. The thing of it is, there’s absolutely no AMBIGUITY in how he was gonna use those keys. In fact, there’s pretty much only one possible use for those keys, right? We can fill in the blanks ourselves. Now let’s think about a slightly different scenario though.

You help your wife into the car, and you scramble to the driver’s side only to find that you don’t have your keys. Oh no. You ask your wife for her spare set but she tells you she doesn’t have them. You panic for a moment… what are you gonna do? And then, your wife lights up and says “OH MY GOD, OF COURSE!” and she reaches into her purse and pulls out her CELL PHONE. You smile, relieved… and the scene ends here. I’ll tell you that this version ends in exactly the same way as Scenario 1. Husband safely delivers wife to hospital where she delivered the baby as planned. But here’s the interesting question that no one can answer with the given information. What did the husband do with that cell phone? Did he call 9-1-1? Did he call a family member? Did he call a neighbor? Was his key chain some kind of cool new age gadget that you could call from a cell phone and it would make a noise? Was his car the kind of car you could start through a cool APP?

You guys all have goals. And you’ve all lost the keys to the car. Someone is gonna hand you a CELL PHONE in the form of an MBA education. How do you USE that phone to get what you need to achieve your goal? The cell phone is an ambiguous tool, folks, with many possibilities. MBA programs are even MORE ambiguous in terms of how you will specifically utilize it in order to achieve your goals. We need to know how you’re gonna use that phone. Otherwise, we have no way of imagining how your story truly ends.

Part III: Character Essay (400 word maximum for chosen question), please choose one of the following to write about:

a. You are the author for the book of Your Life Story. Please write the table of contents for the book. Note: Approach this essay with your unique style. We value creativity and authenticity.

Classic Johnson essay, and one of the essays most folks look forward to (us too, by the way). It can be a great way of getting to know other dimensions of a client, no surprise why Johnson loves this question. There are a few ways of interpreting this prompt. On the one hand, if taken literally, you might define your life as the moments from birth until “today.” On the other hand, you might imagine how the rest of your life will unfold and therefore define it as one usually does, to be the sum total of the majority of your years on Earth. Either way can work.

Let’s start with some basics. This CANNOT be a second resume. How boring would that be? VEEEEEEEERY boring. They have your resume. They have your greatest hits in the workplace and in your educational history already—they don’t need a backup version. Who wants to read THAT book, anyway? In fact, let’s approach it from exactly that standpoint. What kind of life story would YOU want to read? Would you be interested in reading a book about Barack Obama? Or Mitt Romney? Or Lady Gaga? Or Michael Phelps? Well, before we go any further… there’s a catch here. We’ve all HEARD of these people. And for the most part, we already KNOW a big chunk of why these guys are prominent. So, our desire to read such a life story starts with some baggage. You, on the other hand, LACK this advantage. No one knows who you are! But maybe we can give them a REASON to. This COULD be a creative opportunity for the TITLE OF YOUR BOOK. If the title of my life story were, “Raj Patil: Mayor of Mars,” it may just pique your interest. Or perhaps the title could be, “The Man Who Saved The Internet” – that’s a provocative title. I’m at least curious to see what that book is about. The point is, let’s embrace the conceit of this question. Let’s get creative and OVERCOME this disadvantage that no one knows who you are. Give your book a cool title. Make us lean forward.

Now, a life story needs to have some kind of interesting ARC. What’s an arc? Well, at the simplest level, we can define a biographical ARC as a storyline that ends in a way that’s different from how it began. You may say, “Well, doesn’t every story automatically do that?” Not necessarily. If you began your life studying the violin and then continued to play the violin through your teen years, and then based on your virtuoso skills studied at Juliard and then earned first chair at the London Symphony Orchestra, and then continues to produce solo albums and collaborations with the world’s greatest musicians, and on and on until your final years… it’s certainly impressive. But, it’s also kinda boring. There’s no CHANGE. There are no surprises. There are no twists and turns. It’s a straight line. Let’s find your arc. Let’s see where you were headed as a youngster. Let’s find out about a moment somewhere where something inspired you and changed your direction. Or perhaps a tragedy that forced a change of direction. Let’s learn about all such MAJOR nodes in your life that AFFECTED your course somehow. In the span of a lifetime, maybe you have somewhere between seven and ten such nodes. Fewer than that and it might feel a bit threadbare. Too many more and it may feel cluttered.

The key here is to paint a clear picture into your DEVELOPMENT. Your evolution. What are the life events that made a DENT in your development? Getting an award might be impressive, but did it create a ripple effect? Having a child at a moment in time when you were LEAST expecting it… might. Were there experiences in your youth that affected your development somehow? Something personal? Family-related? Often times these are the most insightful moments in a person’s life story. Think about a ball coasting on a frictionless surface. We want to hear about the things that AFFECTED that ball’s journey somehow. Did something speed the ball up? A hella-huge promotion might do that. Did something slow the ball down? Maybe a setback in your career caused your momentum to decrease. Maybe something in your personal life did the same. What about a shift in the ball’s direction? Maybe you moved to a new country? Maybe you traveled somewhere and it changed you somehow? As you’re constructing your list of possible THINGS that could make for chapters of your life story, a good test for the effectiveness of these titles is to get the sense at the END of this list that your life could have gone in many different directions. But that it took ONE particular direction because of these major, formative events and moments.

b. Describe a situation taken from your personal or professional life where you failed and tell us what you learned.

Here’s what we typically see here: a long elaborate setup of the situation. A sometimes brief, sometimes detailed account of the failure. And then a positive spin, redeeming the failure. Folks, this may feel like a natural way to answer this thing, but we can take our cues for the “correct” approach simply by reading the question a little more carefully, and then… answering it.

No one cares about your failure. The admissions committee will forget the details of your failure seconds after they read it. The part that’s gonna stick is the way you RESPONDED to it. The way in which you reflected, digested, internalized, and PROFITED from it. So let’s realize that THIS is the star of the show. Now let’s figure out how then to set it up.

For this particular essay, an overly dramatic setup may be overkill. If you do it in a snappy way, great. But don’t dwell. If it takes a big chunky paragraph to establish all the details for us to understand the situation first, SCRAP that draft and approach it more simply. Cut to the chase. Explain what went wrong, why it went wrong, the stuff that you were responsible that LED to the failure, etc. Make it clear enough that we’re not left wondering anything, but think through to what you learned, and go back to the time BEFORE you had that knowledge. After all, if you had that knowledge to begin with, you wouldn’t have failed, right? If you knew you’d burn your hand on the stove, you wouldn’t have touch it. Let’s go back to the time when you thought the fiery orange element was something else. We need to get into your mindset BEFORE the lesson was learned. Let’s say this takes us to 150 words or so.

Now, we wanna see a glimpse into the way you reacted. What did you feel? What did you do? What were the actions? What motivated those actions? We want to hear that dialogue inside your mind. We wanna become acquainted with the gears that make you tick. Explain it AS IT WAS HAPPENING. This is key. Say another 100 words or so.

Then, bring us to the LESSON part. One helpful way to think about it is to consider this as a KEY moment in your development—a moment you’re grateful for. Explain why you’re grateful for it. This is a neat trick to help you identify the value.

c. What does diversity mean to you and how will you contribute to the diversity of our community at Johnson?

This is an interesting question, and admittedly a pretty hard one. Before we talk about diversity, let’s talk for a moment about argumentation. Let’s tweak the wording of the question to highlight this aspect—imagine the question instead read: “What does diversity mean to you and CONVINCE A ROOM OF SKEPTICS that you will contribute to the diversity of our community, and explain how.”

What happens when you splash a few drops of water into a pot with HOT oil? Nothing good. It spits and spatters, and if that oil finds your skin, you may experience an ugly burn. Now, I can’t explain the chemistry here, but I can at least describe the before and after in such a way to convince you that a REACTION occurs. This is the key. We need to imagine this as a chemistry equation. What happens when we introduce a foreign element—YOU—into a stable environment—Cornell? We need to know what happens. We need to know that there’s gonna be a reaction. If you add oil to oil, it stays the same. In keeping with the spirit of the question, diversity is predicated on new-ness. Opposing points of view. Variety in look, age, gender, race, religion, socioeconomic status, worldview, etc, etc. If you were to just blend in, is that a good thing? Or a bad thing? Well you might say it’s a good thing because you want to fit into their culture, embody the values they embody. Of course, all that will always be true. You don’t win any point for diversity by going to Johnson and being anti-hard work. That would be missing the point.

To be interesting though, there does need to be some compelling evidence that there is something interesting about you that may not be represented yet. Something about you that they haven’t seen before. Something about you that evolves THEIR sense of diversity. Imagine that. That’s the answer, folks. The key to this question is to bring forth a perspective that may not fit any existing definition of diversity. The less recognizable, the better. But again, it’s gotta be compelling. You gotta ARGUE it, and convince a room of skeptics. So, to break it down…

First, give us your definition of diversity. Be creative here. Don’t just say, “Diversity to me means bla bla bla.” Perhaps the best way to introduce this is through an illustrative example in real life. Perhaps it’s through a recounting of a moment in time when you FELT like an outsider. Perhaps it’s an account of when you dealt with someone ELSE who felt like an outsider. Perhaps it’s something entirely different that serves as a compelling point of entry. For this first section, the goal is to build a sense of what diversity means to you. Don’t give us the textbook definition. Make it YOURS.

Then, take us through an argument that proves that your addition to Johnson will be somehow…. stirring. Where’s the evidence of this? You can’t say that it’s gonna happen. Prove it. Explain how. Convert those skeptics into believers. Thinking about this as an ARGUMENT will help you refine your sense of what your definition is, by the way. It’s no accident we’re hitting that idea so hard.

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