Cornell Revamps Its Two-Year MBA Program

Cornell's Johnson School of Management is ranked 15th among the best U.S. business schools by Poets&Quants.

Cornell’s Johnson School of Management


The alums and companies expressed the need for better leadership and communication skills, but also improved quant skills “by doing rather than learning,” says Gaur. “This is a perennial thing but I think we were falling behind and needed to do more effective job. And in terms of critical thinking and analytical skills, companies believed we needed to renew our focus here so students could immediately work better in unstructured environments.”

When the school benchmarked rivals, he adds, “we looked closely at the way their curricula was structured and how much training was being imparted through experiential vs. classroom learning. Students are migrating more toward experiential learning and less toward lectures.”

One rather significant outcome: In the past, roughly 30% of the MBA program came from lectures, with about 30% from case studies, and 20% from team projects. Gaur says the new program will cut lectures to about 20%, and up experiential learning to be equal to case studies at around 30%.

In the end, however, the review identified three priority areas for refinements and advances in MBA learning:

Personal and Leadership Skills: The single biggest changes occurred in leadership and communication. “Leadership,” says Gaur, “could not be imparted by having a single course so we have an innovative way of doing this now. We now have a menu of courses that go on through the fall semester of the second year. We have three courses along with a practicum throughout the first year and fall of the second year. The sequence of having multiple touch points is a big change. It puts the focus on learning things by doing things in practice and makes the business school a microcosm of the real world. In the first year, students are put into core teams and then mentored by second-year MBA students. So second years get the chance to lead and mentor people in a combination of hands-on learning and classroom learning.

Every Johnson student will now move through a targeted curriculum in leadership consisting of the proprietary Johnson 360° Leadership Assessment, coursework, case exercises, teamwork, hands-on leadership experience, coaching, and customized programming. The personalized program begins in the pre-term, with individual assessment and feedback, and continues through the first year, with the Leading Teams Practicum, and second year with Principled Leadership. Leadership instructors teach intensives on leadership topics. These classes are enriched with a menu of Leadership Skills workshops and Leadership Expeditions that span the entire program.

Modeling and Decision Analysis: An enhanced required course, Data Analytics and Modeling, takes students beyond statistics, to data modeling and Big Data techniques and strategies. Modeling is woven into other courses to help students develop the analytical skills needed in all areas of business.

Integrative and Critical Thinking Skills: In their first semester of MBA study, students learn and practice critical thinking skills, with a focus on analyzing, integrating, and synthesizing information for optimal decision making, in the face of challenges, such as incomplete, inaccurate, or ambiguous information.

To respond to student feedback about the core’s demands, Cornell hasn’t necessarily lightened the load but rather altered the emphasis in some core courses. “What has changed is the way we are doing things,” says Gaur. “In the finance core, students were solving problems using intensive tools. Now they are actually learning how to do things in practice, how to build and use the models they will use in practice.


At Cornell, the six courses in the fall semester is completely devoted to the core curriculum. Then, there is a short pre-term course on leading teams. In the spring semester, first-year MBAs take operations management and the newly revamped modeling and decision analysis course class. An immersion course in one of six fields, plus a customized option, ends up taking 60% to 80% of the remaining time. “The goal of immersion is to identify the area students wants to focus on so they can do well on their summer internship,” adds Gaur. “The immersion includes a project component and is equivalent to a capstone course.” There are three immersions in finance, one  in marketing, another in operations, and a final one in sustainability. Entrepreneurship is often a customized option.

Besides the leadership course in the fall of the second year, the second year is wide open, allowing students to take a set of electives in a deeper area or explore new topics. Also students often work with local companies and non-profits as non-working members of their boards in the second year. Among the set of new electives being offered are The Art of Innovation: A Design Thinking Immersion and Making Design Thinking Work, and Core Leadership Skills for a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous)World, with retired U.S. Army General George Casey. The course builds on the skills acquired in earlier components of the leadership program, through discussion and interaction with an experienced practitioner and former leader of the United States Army. 

There’s also Johnson’s FinTech Trek and Hackathon during which students convene at Cornell Tech in New York City to learn about disruptive technologies facing the financial industry and develop relevant solutions. The experience culminates in a hackathon, in which participants have about 24 hours to develop financial products or services that meet a real business need. Similar classes are planned, each focusing on a different industry.

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