The Gatekeeper to Cornell’s Johnson School of Management

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.