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The MBA Gatekeeper At Cornell Johnson

Judith Byers, executive director of admissions at the Cornell University Johnson School

Judi Byers, executive director of admissions at the Cornell University Johnson School

If you’re thinking about an MBA, you need to start getting your finances in order – before you even start applying to business schools. So says Judi Byers, executive director of admissions at the Cornell University Johnson School of Management. Byers recommends putting your dollar signs in a row because taking care of that allows more focused attention on the application process, and because a lack of clarity about your financial state can bring in a destructive element: stress. In other words, the green-backed monster you know is less scary than the one you don’t.

Byers took over a revamped admissions office earlier this year after a disappointing 2013-2014 admissions cycle which saw MBA applications to Johnson plunge by 21.1% to 1,858 from 2,356 a year earlier. It was the steepest year-over-year decline in applications suffered by any U.S. business school in the Top 50. The fall in applicants drove up the school’s acceptance rate to a high of 30%, eight full percentage points from the 22% selectivity rate in the previous year. Johnson has not yet reported application numbers for the 2014-2015 cycle. The last time the school posted an update to its admissions office blog was November of 2014. So Byers and her new team–including newcomers Admissions Director Gail Wolfmeyer from New York University’s Stern School of Business and Admissions Manager Chris Lind from American University–clearly have their work cut out for them.

Byers, who succeeded Christine Sneva, who became senior director of enrollment and student services at Cornell Tech in New York City, has worked in admissions for more than 10 years. She graduated from American University in 2004 with a BA/BS in marketing and international business, then went to work as a coordinator in the Kogod School of Business admissions office. Byers climbed her way up over the next five years to become the school’s director of admissions.

In the Q&A that follows, Byers reveals that at Johnson, admissions officers aren’t just looking for people who are qualified to get into the MBA program – they’re looking for qualified people who will thrive in the classroom and make hay with the degree.

The Johnson School offers a two-year, full-time MBA, and also an accelerated one-year MBA. Applicants to either program must write a “Your Life Story” essay, in 2,000 characters or fewer, and those applying for the two-year MBA program must add another essay, with the same length limit, on their dream first post-MBA job; one-year program applicants must instead supply an exposition on how their pre-MBA experience prepared them for the job they envision after graduation.


While the essays remain a key component of the application package, Johnson’s admissions officers won’t write someone off just because they don’t communicate their assets well in essays. Writing skills, Byers says, can be improved, while talent and drive are much harder to cultivate.

In the Q&A, Byers describes three things applicants should do before an admission interview, and she discloses what non-verbal cues admissions officers watch for when speaking with prospective students. B-school applicants would do well to also consider advice from Johnson’s Senior Associate Admissions Director Ann Richards, on “how to ace the in-person interview,” from the Johnson admissions blog:

Be on time, no matter what.

Dress professionally: pantsuit, skirt-and-jacket, or structured, modest dress for women; suit and tie for men.

Be prepared: review possible questions, and your resume. Practice interviewing with another MBA applicant or a colleague with an MBA.

Know your goals: reread your goals essay to improve your articulation on major points. Make sure you can explain why you want an MBA, and why you believe the school you’re applying for would help you reach your goals.

Select three examples of your leadership or achievements to focus on during the interview. Use specific examples and anecdotes.

As Byers says, “remember to be memorable.” And, she suggests, if you’re going to tell her what you’re passionate about, words alone will not suffice.

Q&A with Judi Byers:

What are the three best things an applicant can do before applying?

  1. Assess yourself – understand your rationale for pursuing an MBA and take the time to reflect on who you are – professionally, personally, and academically. The admissions process will require you to communicate your interest and unique value proposition as a candidate, so develop clarity early on to help articulate your story in a meaningful way, which differentiates you from others. 
  1. Get to know students and alumni – they are an excellent source of information and can provide you with first-hand insights to help you become more familiar with programs.
  1. Start putting your finances in order – determining how you plan to fund your MBA and the adjustments necessary will help reduce some of the stress of the admissions process. It’s also helpful to identify and understand the different funding opportunities available prior to applying so that you can focus your efforts on your candidacy.