The MBA Gatekeeper to Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management

by on January 6th, 2013

A typical day in the life of a business school admissions director?

It starts with an early morning flight from New York across the country to San Francisco. After landing at 3:25 p.m., Christine Sneva raced to Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley in a pair of jeans, black boots and a stylish red flannel riding jacket with gold buttons. She made the trip to lead a 6 p.m. panel discussion before some 50 alumni, applicants and potential MBA candidates. Then, Sneva dashed back on the 11 p.m. red eye to Washington’s Dulles Airport where she would board another flight to Ithaca, arriving just in time to greet her two young children at home.

“It’s only daunting when you are traveling with children,” says Sneva, who last August was officially named the director of admissions and financial aid at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. She got the job after serving as interim director for four and one-half months. Sneva joined Johnson’s admissions office in June of 2007 as an assistant director and had been promoted to associate director in January of 2011.

After a 17% jump in MBA applications last year when most schools reported declines, the Johnson School also had a great first round of applicants. “We almost hit record-breaking numbers in our first round,” says Sneva. “We are only a few apps shy of that.” Whether the upward trend holds is anyone’s guess, but Sneva concedes that she feels some pressure to keep the momentum going and she got a boost today from Bloomberg BusinessWeek which ranked Johnson seventh best in the U.S., up six places, from 13th in 2010.

Since taking over the top job, Sneva has done away with student reviews of MBA applications, and with telephone interviews of applicants, preferring in-person sessions. She’s changed the grading system for applicant interviews and required a written commentary from interviewers to impose more of a judgment call on applicants. And she has also recruited and hired a recruiter for the school based in London. One other thing: Sneva led the move to a paperless admissions system.

A first generation college graduate, Sneva is open and friendly, easy to laugh and overflowing with kinetic energy. She grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., earning her undergraduate and master’s degrees in education at Buffalo, the State University of New York. “I saw this club table at the University of Buffalo and the girl standing behind the table had a hockey jersey on,” she says. “I took one look at her and said that is definitely for me.”

She joined the hockey team as a freshman, serving as captain and president of the university team for three years and managing not to lose any teeth through many hard fought games on the ice. “My mother always reminded me how much my braces cost. So I always kept my mouth guard on. I love hockey and have been playing it for 15 years.”

It was at Buffalo where she got her first taste of university admissions. In between classes and hockey, she was in a work study program where she helped to process admissions. Again gaining her bachelor’s degree, she took an admissions position at Buffalo for the school’s MBA, MS and Phd programs. When the Cornell job opened up in 2007, Sneva immediately applied and got the job.

Sneva’s recruiters include Associate Director Ann Richards, who covers Latin America and Asia, International Recruiting Manager Charli Taylor, who is based in London and handles Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India, and Assistant Director Eddie Asbie, who covers North America.

In a wide-ranging interview, she discusses what Johnson looks for in the ideal MBA candidate, changes she has made to the MBA admissions process, her personal pet peeves and what she thinks of MBA admissions consultants. We sat down with Sneva in a conference room at Google headquarters just before her recent panel discussion.

So you’ve been the full-time director since August 28th, what’s it like?

I obviously love it. I feel this is where I am supposed to be. The culture of the school is a great fit for me.

In the admissions process when you are trying to assess their leadership ability and potential, I think we do it very well. Some of it is very intuitive. I talk a lot about making decisions from your gut because by the time you’ve gotten to whether an applicant is an admit or a deny, intuition is something you bring to bear and need to do very, very well.

You’ve got to be smart to get through the core because it is very intense. No matter how often we tell them how hard it is, I always get a few first years come to me and say, ‘well, you guys didn’t lie to us.’ Academically being qualified is really important. Employability, especially with the job market the way it is, is something we obviously look at.

As director for the first year, something I really focus on is work experience. That is one of the reasons I changed the essays this year. We really want to know the nature of what someone is doing and the progression of steps they’ve taken to get to their level of responsibility. I love it when people emphasize team decision making and the judgment calls that they’ve had to make. A lot of people try to inflate that somewhat because they think we are trying to find these perfectly molded people who they believe are the ideal candidates.

But your achievements are your own. That’s why I always tell people, ‘Keep an achievements journal. Write it all down for a year because when you go back to what you’ve written, you may not realize things you wouldn’t remember when you were in the trenches.

What’s the right attitude for a successful MBA candidate to have?

This isn’t a piece of paper that you need to get through. If you have that mindset, you are going to be a wallflower here. Everyone is going to point to you and say, ‘this guy is not even involved. He is going home after classes. We hardly know him. Why was he admitted?’ Then, all of a sudden I am drawn into that conversation.

Do you ever really hear that? After all, the general feeling is that when an MBA graduate has trouble getting placed in a job, the career development folks point the finger at admissions for letting in someone who isn’t employable—and admissions points back at career development for not getting either the right recruiters to come on campus or enough companies to come.

I was in a GMAC workshop that was moderated by my friend and colleague at Yale. I shared with my colleague the time that I have seen that. We have tried at Johnson very hard to eliminate that. So you put the supply chain people in a room on a monthly basis to talk through what it is that we are trying to do here. We are trying to help our students find the right careers, to help them get placed into jobs. And we also need to make sure we are admitting the right people. What kinds of strategies out there have we not discovered yet?

An advisory board member asked me two weeks ago, what is your job? Are you the gatekeeper or the face of the school? I had to really think about it, although in my gut I knew the answer. My job is certainly the gatekeeper. But I am not doing my job well if I am not focused on finding and recruiting people who may not have Johnson on their first list.

So is there an admissions committee at Johnson?

Yes. There are six people on the committee. I wanted the people who also recruit applicants at assistant director and up on the committee. They are the ones who are meeting candidates in the field, responding to their questions, engaging with them, providing insight to help them through the admissions process. We have two readers as well who also are on the admissions committee. They see about 70% of the pool in terms of reading and interviewing. And for Consortium files, our director of our office of diversity sits in on those candidates.

You have to be there for six hours. When you are making final decisions, the meetings can last that long.

You reengineered a lot of the processes and policies in admissions. Do you think applicants see that difference?

Yes. They know everybody here is on the same page. I started a blog. I put out there where we are in the process and what’s happening. I hide very little. There is no smoke and mirrors to the process. There are obviously boundaries because there is a process to this whole selection. The way I look at it from a blogging perspective is I try to answer the most common questions applicants have.

I also try to stay as general as possible in a way that is helpful to people. If I give an example of a certain kind of student, the people who fit that profile just jump all over it. Well, what do you really think about a 30 year old applying to the program? They get nervous about that.

In an admissions office, you never want to say never. We have seen the success stories and we have seen the failures. It doesn’t necessarily come down to how long they have been in the workforce or where they went to school. It comes down to the kind of person they are.

Do you ever feel you can take greater risks with at least a few candidates in the pool every year? Because every applicant can’t be a sure bet as an admit.

I have sat on admissions committees where I wasn’t the director and where I saw people take risks on candidates. We are now calibrated, with our metrics and such, that I don’t feel we are taking risks. The candidates that we are seeing are very impressive. We changed the interview ratings this year. It had always been a one-to-five scale, with five being the best. But a lot of people felt that most of the candidates were just average.

I take the interview very seriously. I do trust the people we have interviewing our applicants. So we changed the scale to one to six because we want to force them to make a judgment on a candidate. Are they really average or below average or above average? Any one we admitted last year was above average. There were some who were rated average who ended up on the waitlist. But we don’t want to admit average people. We want to admit above average people.

Do you assign a weight to the different pieces of the application?

No. We talk about all of them. You can’t be too GMAT heavy or too GPA heavy. Some undergraduates had a lot of competition for their time. They were able to accomplish a lot and have a successful career. I think that what you’ve done most recently says a lot about you as a growing person and a human being. If you are showing a level of self-awareness and professional maturity, that’s the kind of person I actually want to admit to Johnson.

Christine, here’s the question that every applicant wants you to answer. What are you really looking for in an ideal MBA candidate?

I can tell you what I don’t want. I don’t want the person who just wants to get the piece of paper, who just wants the MBA and thinks the sky is the limit when he gets it. The sky is the limit, but remember what we are. We are an academic institution. We are giving you knowledge and ways to take risks and explore different opportunities, to interact with people and to practice those leadership skills you learn.

If you haven’t really managed anyone, and a lot of 26- and 27-year-olds rarely get to manage a team of more than five or six people, it takes a certain ability to get a lot of productivity out of your team. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of skill. This is your opportunity to go in and do that.

What am I really looking for? I want somebody who will be able to work on a team and to know how to lead a team. That person has to want to lead a team. If you are not willing to look at people around the table as your colleagues and your network than you’re not going to be really involved in our community. Those people stand out. That’s one thing I like to see: a team-based approach to what they are doing. Individual accomplishments are important but how you get through problems and communicate happens when you are working with others. We are not looking for people who sit in cubicles by themselves. We are looking for people who are part of a community and know how to effect change within that community.

Do you have any pet peeves about the admissions process?

I have a lot of pet peeves. My pet peeve this year is overstated goals. I really want to see people who have goal clarity. You need to have a function and you need to have a skill. If your goal is to go to a specific country to help an impoverished community, you need to connect that goal with your past and with Johnson. Where are we in this picture?

Don’t tell me that is your goal and two months into it you want to be a consultant. Know what you want to do. If you don’t, we think that you are too laidback and unfocused or you are not sure what you want to do or you are not telling us what you want to do because it’s going to be a complete switch and you’re fearful you won’t get in because of it. Be honest about what you want to do.

That’s because some applicants basically tell you what they think you want to hear, right?

That is the single biggest issue that keeps admission directors up at night. It’s this whole question of essays. We are obviously not looking for literary works of art. It can be very simple sentences. For some people, it’s a real point of stress. If you don’t practice writing every day, I can see where that will create a lot of stress for you. That’s where the interview comes in. We no longer offer phone interviews. If I had the budget, I would make sure they sat down with an admissions committee member for every interview. We are doing some interviews by Skype.

Last year, we offered phone Skype or in person. The people who did the phone interviews had such a clear disadvantage. It’s such a difference to be able to sit across from a candidate and interview that person. We now have a London-based recruiter now who will also interview in Europe, the Middle East and India, in particular. She is Charli Taylor and hired in May, born and raised in Oregon but has been in the U.K. for over 12 years now and has worked for British universities.

So what happens to an application once you get it?

Our first step is to say thank you and then it goes to queues based on regions covered by our staff. Anne Richards gets Latin America and most of Asia. I with Eddie take on North America which is the biggest chunk of our applicant pool. Charli is taking Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India. And we have three or four readers who swing in to back up the big markets. India and China need backups, and so does the U.S.

We don’t have student readers. We have student interviewers. We used to have student readers. Part of the reengineering process was that when we looked at the process, it was actually giving us a huge bottleneck in rounds one and two because we were doing so much student training. It was tough. If you don’t have experience in reading an application, it can quickly create a bottleneck. We were trying to get all this reading done and then all of a sudden we were trying to get all the interview invites out. We had to do this simultaneously. We decided to train the students first on interviewing. Let’s get our interview rock stars out there. Let’s get the people who really want to do this in these jobs. Let’s get them trained and help us in the process. The admissions committee was reading round one anyway so it didn’t make a difference.

So the application comes in and it is automatically assigned to an admissions reader who covers a specific region. Does the initial review result in a grade?

No. If you feel it’s a yes, that person gets an invitation to interview. So it’s yes, no or maybe. If it is a no or maybe, it goes to the admissions committee for a second review.

And there is no grading of each application?

There is no grade whatsoever. It’s just yes, no or maybe.

But can’t there be an enthusiastic yes versus a plain yes?

But it’s still a yes so it doesn’t matter. Actually, it doesn’t matter at all.

And how much time does an admissions staffer typically invest in an application?

On average, I would say about 20 minutes.

Okay. So for the candidates who get the yes, they are invited to interview with an admissions staffer, a student or an alum of the school.

We do have a few alumni interviewers. There were some common themes that came up in the admissions committee about career advancement or other academic qualifications. Or there would be specific questions about leadership. You can’t just say assess this person on leadership. So we put that in there. We have an overall rating on the interview, a one to six.

My interviews are very conversational. I want people to feel comfortable. When I see someone who is nervous, I try very hard to get a person to relax. They do get nervous.

The evaluation that you get is online?

Yes. The difference isn’t only in the scoring. It is in the summary at the end. So you go through the questions and ask for things they might not have been able to fit into the application. It is a blind interview. They see the resume and they see the read from the person who did the first read. They get a general sense. The interviews are basically off someone’s resume.

So then what?

After the interview, you hopefully feel very good about it. The evaluation comes through and the application manager takes the interview and now there is this virtual print that goes in and the committee goes in and we can put up the read and the interview evaluation. All of the committee members will have access through their computers. This is where it goes to these really long meetings.

So let me get this straight. This is where all of you gather around a table, every committee member with a laptop, reviewing every applicant and making a final decision as a group.

Yes. And we have a big flat screen on the wall and I put up the interview evaluation for every candidate and the review of their overall application. We discuss each candidate on those two things. Others in the room might bring up the resume or their undergraduate transcript. At any given moment, we’re all accessing this person’s file at the same time. In the past, with a paper file, you were very limited.

Is it the job of the first reader to be the advocate for the candidate?

They are actually pretty neutral. You are reading many that sometimes, you can remember every single detail. There will be some things that jump out. What’s really beneficial is the person who interviewed them. What is your general sense on this person? What does your gut tell you about this person?

But that person isn’t likely to be in the room and on the committee.

Not always. A majority of the interviewed candidates will have their interviewee in the room unless they were interviewed by one of our alumni or one of our students.

So then the committee votes and it’s the end of the process.

It’s yes, no, or put them on the waitlist because we just don’t feel like we have enough information to make a decision.

So in effect, the second read occurs by the committee.

Essentially, you almost do another read but this time you have more in-depth information. With the reading tool we have, you can highlight certain passages of the essays in a much better way. So when we decide, we decide as a group.

You actually vote? Is it possible that there could be four people in favor of an applicant and two against?

We don’t officially vote. We’ll talk through it. Essentially, it is up to me, though I don’t throw that out there. Everyone around that table has an equal say and I feel strongly about that. If I feel very strongly for or against, I’ll put that out there and I encourage them to do that as well. The admissions committee is a sacred environment. It is where you have to be honest about people and about what you think. You can’t be afraid to throw out anything that you are thinking. That’s why when I was hiring these two recruiters in my office I talked a lot about this admissions committee. What is said in committee is confidential. These are our applicants and we don’t talk about our applicants outside that office.

And when do these meetings begin?

Hopefully, by the beginning of December.

What percentage of the pool do you interview?

We get about 2,200 applicants. We did about 700 to 800 interviews last year.

So an applicant essentially has a one in three chance of being interviewed. And what percentage out of that would get a yes from admissions?

Our acceptance rate last year was the same even though our applications went up. That was 27%. I threw out offers to people I wanted in the class. We fought very hard to get them because we put them into alumni prediction dinners.

That’s a term I’ve never heard. What is an alumni prediction dinner?

In about 25 cities across the world, our alumni get together for dinner and it’s called a prediction dinner because they predict five to ten years out what will happen to the economy.  We feature high-profile alums. We invite anyone who was admitted to go to these dinners. And if you make your deposit, I will pay for your dinner. That’s a $75 to a $100 meal.

And do you have a lot of scholarship money available to help land the best and the brightest in the applicant pool?

I would say you never ever have enough. It has become more competitive. You use scholarship as merit based to bring in the best class. Everybody does it differently depending on their pool, how competitive it is, if their yield is down and what not. I feel fortunate that we bring in over 100 candidates over three different weekends to assess them for our most prestigious scholarships. It’s the Park Scholarships. We also look at The Consortium fellows and Forte fellows. We have military scholarships and we also have scholarships for specific areas like banking and marketing.

In a sense, I’m telling people, ‘Congratulations! You are the top of the round for us. This is a big achievement and we are bringing you in to get to know you better and to give you a sense of what goes on here.’ For all intent and purpose, it could be an admit weekend but with a little more competition to it because obviously we are all assessing over who is going to get a Park scholarship or a Consortium fellow scholarship.

And I bet there are more adcom meetings for those decisions.

Yes. Once you click into admissions mode, you get pretty impressed with the people you remember and who make an impression. That’s your intuition and your gut speaking to you.

Christine, what do you dislike about your job?

I’ve started to make a list of all the things I just can’t get to. There are a lot of ideas and initiatives I want to start. But there is only so much time in the day. You have to get through those applications. Right now, we’re switching off recruiting and get back in reading applications and deciding.

The Johnson School has a new dean. Does that factor into admission policies? Does the dean shape the admit pool in a discernable way?

That’s a really good question. Dean Dutta has said, thank you, we’re so happy to have you. He trusts me. He’s getting a lot of prospective students to talk to. He’s looping me in on those conversations.

What do you think of admission consultants?

It’s like rankings. You don’t want any outsider telling people who you are. We want to be the ones to fly that flag and we think we’re the best people to do it. I answer any and all questions from candidates that I would from consultants.

But you don’t have a problem with an applicant hiring a consultant to guide them through the admissions process.

I’m indifferent about it. My opinion is whether you say they are a consultant or not, most people are going to have somebody review their application. It could be their father or their sister or a colleague at work. Somebody is helping you in a way that we think an admissions consultant would do that ethically. Obviously, we don’t like it when they say they know us and they are inserting themselves in the process. I don’t know any admissions director who would say they have any communication with a consultant about a specific applicant. They can be familiar with us. They can ask us about what we are looking for in an essay. But they are not asking us whether we are going to admit someone.

So your best advice to an applicant this year would be what?

There is so much you can say but I will go with my pet peeve this year: be really clear about what you want to do. Have some true goal clarity. That takes a lot of introspection and conversation. Challenge why you want to do what you want to do. I ask people all the time, ‘Who do you go for advice?’ It’s not to trip them up. It’s because I really want to know if they have a strong family base, or is it a personal board of directors that you’ve built up over the years? It’s those kinds of things I want people to think about.

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