Writing Cornell Johnson’s “Back Of The Resume” Essay

Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management

There is so much to love about Cornell Johnson’s new “back of the resume” essay question. I’m admittedly a little biased for my love of the Johnson school as its former Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions. But this also gives me the insight on how you can make your business school essays for Johnson sing (perhaps, literally).

This year, Cornell Johnson’s new essay is a playful and poignant invitation to “present yourself as an individual… with your unique style.” That means you can submit your song, video, digital portfolio, etc. – or enhance your prose with visuals. Johnson puts this into context by explaining: 

“The front page of your resume has given us a sense of your professional experience and accomplishments as well as your academic summary and extracurricular involvement. If the back page reflects “the rest of your story,” please help us get to know you better by sharing the experiences that will give us insight into your character, values, and interests.”

And if that sets your quant-leaning heart aquiver, I’m smiling because this is totally in character for Cornell. It sends a strong message that Cornell isn’t just about who you are in your career and how well you perform in the classroom. They want to know what you’ll bring to the table, to the community and what you’re passionate about beyond they ways you make your living. And they want to see what happens when you have permission to get creative about it.

When we first unveiled the “table of contents” essay prompt while I was assistant dean (“If your life were a book, what would the table of contents be”), there was a lot trepidation as well as excitement because prospective MBAs had never been invited to write like that. I believe this is the next iteration in the ‘if your life were a book’ statement.

So what is Cornell Johnson looking for? The “back of the essay” prompt leads with:

We encourage you to think about your proudest accomplishments, interests and passions, and personal highlights that will help us to get to know you as a person and potential community member.”

In short, the school is saying: We want to know about the you that’s not on paper. And, how do you fit into this extraordinary culture we’re creating here?

Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to say that your greatest moment was when you raised millions in a day at Goldman or you were employee of the year. Frankly, when asked to share your proudest moment, it shouldn’t be something on the front page of your resume.

Your challenge – and opportunity – is to reveal what you’re really passionate about, what you’re interested in and/or something interesting about you. Think about who you are as a person, reflect on your life, on what makes you tick. Keep in mind that, given the leeway you have with the format of sharing, how you choose to present is as important as what you choose to convey.

For example, one of the most memorable “table of contents” essays I encountered was submitted by a military veteran. I was deeply moved by the time, energy, and feeling he put into his response. It left my colleagues and I feeling wowed, with a collective desire to shake his hand and meet the person that he is. He had a level of resonance with me that the front page of any resume – even his – could not possibly inspire.

The good news is, this essay invites prospective students to tip the application in their favor. As my Fortuna Admissions colleague, Jody Keating quipped in her recent article on crafting a standout resume, “The odds are good that there’s someone applying to your target school with the exact same job title as you.” We all have preconceptions about bankers, consultants or nonprofit folks – how might you subvert these by offering the admissions committee a real glimpse into who you are?”

So, if you’re an analyst who also happens to be a classically trained pianist, you could startle and wow the admissions committee with your love of Beethoven, or the subtle ways your love of music shapes the person that you are. Maybe you’re a rock climber who cleverly captures your approach to free climbing as a metaphor for your approach to business school and beyond. Your ability to grab the admissions committee’s attention through your storytelling – whatever the medium – stands to be far more impressive than any specific accomplishment.

Maybe you’re a huge lacrosse fan like I am. It may not seem wildly unique, but the way you capture your love of the game in a short video of you supporting teammates with excerpts of you training or teaching, stands to show me a lot about your ability to lead a team, or character traits like perseverance, grit, determination, working through to finish, not accepting imperfection. Again, it’s less the what than the how. The who behind the what.

Without a doubt, an essay question like this invites a level of vulnerability. Think of it this way: You’re putting yourself out there and the safety net is your confidence. When someone talks about – or exhibits – something they’re truly passionate about from a place of sincerity, it shows. And that’s what the school is trying to get at. How do you show up? And how will you truly show yourself if you’re invited to join the Cornell Johnson community?

Randall Sawyer is an Expert Coach for MBA consulting firm Fortuna Admissions and former Assistant Dean of Admissions, Financial Aid and Inclusion at the Johnson School at Cornell University.

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.