Meet The Cornell Johnson MBA Class of 2017

Jason Zelley

Jason Zelley

Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University

Hometown: Lumberton, NJ

Undergraduate School and Major: University of South Carolina — BS Criminology and Criminal Justice

Employers and Job Titles Since Graduation: United States Marine Corps — F/A-18 Weapons and Sensors Officer (WSO)

Recalling your own experience, what advice do you have for applicants who are preparing for either the GMAT or the GRE?

  1. Pick a date two months in the future and sign up for whichever test you want to take. Setting a date makes it real and instantly puts pressure on you to be disciplined about your studies.
  1. If you have a significant other or a family, you need to do what I call “expectation management.” Make sure they understand that this is for everyone’s future, so you need to have the freedom to not be around much for those two months. One blog pointed out that the average person will spend more than 100 hours studying to break 700 — which I can personally attest to. Managing expectations will help alleviate the distractions and guilt you feel when your eight-month-pregnant wife is at home taking care of your one-year-old while you study for five hours a day after work.
  1. Read blogs like Poets&Quants to understand what kinds of scores make you competitive. For example, on the GMAT, a score of 5 on the AWA seems like a good score and is usually acceptable for most schools. However, it is actually a low score compared to the herd (60th percentile). Additionally, we’ve all heard about the 80/80 quant/verbal split, but reaching the 65th percentile in quant is also another magic number I only heard about in an admissions interview. Below that, admissions committees at top schools begin to worry. If you’re like me and just can’t get there, then top schools expect you to back up a low score with effort (i.e. a recent college statistics or accounting class).
  1. Don’t freestyle the GMAT AWA. You have to use a template that works for every AWA question. You will literally memorize a scripted intro paragraph, the first sentence for every body paragraph, and the conclusion. This saves you a boatload of time and gives you an organized plan of attack that ensures you hit all the major points that the graders specifically look for. All that having been said, don’t wear yourself out studying this section of the test. Memorize the template, do a couple of practice essays, and move along.
  1. THE ABSOLUTE MOST IMPORTANT THING I DID TO RAISE MY GMAT SCORE BY 70 POINTS was to study the structure of the quant questions I was consistently getting wrong on practice tests — not just the shortcut to get to the answer. I usually looked at the correct answer and slapped my forehead in a moment of “duh.” The problem was I couldn’t figure out when to use the appropriate shortcut because the questions always looked alien to me. Once I memorized the structure (or sometimes the sample question itself), I could then refer back to it in my mind when I saw a different question structured similarly and apply the shortcut. This light bulb didn’t turn on until the day before the test, but I can say that it was unquestionably the single best tool I developed to get myself above a 700.

Based on your own selection process, what advice do you have for applicants who are trying to draw up a list of target schools to which to apply? Geography played the biggest role in initially building my “long list” of potential schools. It was important to my wife and I that we stay within a five-hour drive to family. Fortunately for me, that was nearly the entire northeast and there was no shortage of top programs.

Then I looked at the culture of the school. A cliché, I know. I reached out to the programs on my “long list” or searched LinkedIn to see if there was anyone I could talk to. I did informational interviews with two or three people at every school, including students, alumni, and faculty. It might be superficial, but it turned my “long list” in to a “short, short list” based on how they treated me as a human being. I was sold on Johnson because they overwhelmingly went out of their way to answer my questions and connect me with person after person. They never told me exactly what to do to ensure my acceptance, but they gave me more relevant tips than anyone else. I thought that if they were willing to go to these great lengths for someone who hasn’t yet applied, imagine what they will do once I’m accepted. Some other schools were welcoming, but no other school did for me what Johnson did.

What advice do you have for applicants in actually applying to a school, writing essays, doing admission interviews, and getting recommenders to write letters on your behalf? You have to take your GMAT before you can really get a sense of how to apply. It may change your perspective on what schools to apply to (for better or worse) or which rounds to shoot for. I’m not saying to not go for your dream school, but you need to know how to pad your application. Have a weak quant score? Log some time or take a college statistics course. No leadership experience on your résumé? It’s time seek out a leadership role in a volunteer organization. A higher GMAT score isn’t always the only or best answer. The schools will see your weaknesses anyway and will respect your efforts to fix them.

If you want to go to a top 10 program, you probably need to get an admissions consultant. I have met a lot of people throughout the B-school application process. And this was the common theme among those who got into top programs: You’re going to pay through your teeth, but if it gets you into your dream school – so what, it’s a drop in the bucket. They will tell you where you’re weak and how to improve, or at least how to leverage your strengths. They are also great for critiquing essays, and some consulting services allow you to do this á la carte. It beats bouncing your essay off of another applicant or an accepted student who (contrary to popular belief) has no real idea what the admissions committee did or did not like about his or her essay. A lot of consultants have prior admissions experience, so they’re in a better position to know.

It’s also important to know application deadlines as far in advance as possible. Your dream school may be the weirdo that has a round 1 application a month before any other school. Set your own deadlines for your résumé, career goals, and essays. Give yourself time to have one or two people tear them apart, and apply their changes. I made sure all feedback was returned to me two weeks prior to any deadline, so I had time to polish everything.

What led you to choose this program for your full-time MBA? I chose Johnson for the things you couldn’t find online. I chose Johnson for the people. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking to Maria, Ann, or Eddie in admissions — you’re probably talking to the nicest person you’ve ever met. I talked to multiple faculty members before applying,and one professor even put me in touch with a personal contact of his at a top investment bank. These conversations and the campus visit sold me on Johnson and made me feel that I would be well taken care of in my career search.

What would you ultimately like to achieve before you graduate? Figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I spent the last ten years in the Marine Corps, so, like most veterans, my knowledge of corporate life is a little thin. I want to explore all the opportunities available to me and find the career that will be the right fit for me. When I look back over the two years I will have spent at Cornell, I want to be able to say I left it all on the field and swung at every pitch — no regrets.

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