An Interview With Cornell Johnson’s MBA Gatekeeper

Judi Byers photo

Cornell’s Ranking was No. 15 in U.S. News, up from No. 16, and No. 17 in The Financial Timesup from No. 27. Practically speaking, what is the impact of your ranking in U.S. News and in FT? How do those rankings affect the admissions process? 

Our rankings show clear progress and are reflective of our commitment to providing the best possible learning experience for our students as well as continuing to grow our prestige among peer schools while we innovate and grow. I think that’s an important distinction as Cornell and Johnson have chosen to continue to innovate through curriculum developments and large-scale investments such as the formation of the SC Johnson College of Business as well as the opening of our Cornell Tech Campus on Roosevelt Island. These provide students with access to a greater set of academic and professional opportunities, learning environments, and resources that now span two campuses. If candidates look more closely at the details of our ranking results, they’ll find continued improvement in our earnings, placement, and recruiter satisfaction among core variables measured. These indicators combined with our innovations and investments suggest that Cornell and Johnson have a vision for how we will remain a premier and longstanding leader within graduate management education. 

When you accept someone who also gets accepted to one of your peer schools, who wins that fight more often? Not necessarily looking for data, just a sense of where those lucky students usually choose to go. 

Looking at our average annual yield, more than half of the students we admit favor red to other school colors! 

Ultimately, the luckiest students are the ones who choose to enroll in the program and community that best fits their values, interests, and to some extent, personality. I believe every talented candidate who is honest with them self when assessing these variables throughout the admissions process, and especially when evaluating offers of admission, has the best possible likelihood to achieve their dream fit and MBA experience. 

Relatedly, what is the pitch Cornell uses to get the students you want?

At Cornell, we look for students who want to have an impact and who value and thrive in highly collaborative communities. Aligned with this focus on impact and community is a sense of compassion and willingness to be of service to others, give back, and “pay it forward.” At Johnson, our students learn how to turn their ambition into impact, and are taught to leverage their prior experience and skillsets to further develop their competence to lead and motivate others as well the courage to think and act confidently as business leaders. 

Well before I started at Cornell, I always thought that Cornell MBA students and alumni were bright, accomplished, humble and generous with their time and some of the most thoughtful individuals you will ever meet. This has only gotten truer for me over time, and I believe strongly in continuing to build this legacy with each incoming class of students. 

Cornell photo

What are some unique ways that applicants have gotten your attention? 

One of the most unique candidate introductions during my time at Johnson is from a now first year student who thought very creatively about how to present himself in the admissions process and crafted his essay submission to include a presentation of his life’s story on Instagram as well as an interactive experience on campus to let my entire team know he had made his submission! As a marketing professional and student, his approach not only gave us a sense of who he is but also helped us to see how his creativity and talent would add value to our community and be further developed at Johnson. 

While I value the creativity and ingenuity of candidates, I will also say that some of the most standout candidates I’ve met are ones that simply introduce themselves but do so in a way that suggests that they have done their research and understand how they might fit in at Cornell. For example, I recently met a candidate while in Santiago who had just returned from her campus visit to Ithaca and had clearly identified a strong potential fit as conveyed through her enthusiasm sharing her experience with me – it was a great starting point to our more detailed conversation about her background, experience, and career goals and how those align as well.

What is coolest answer you ever got to your essay prompt?

I’ve read and watched many cool responses to our essay prompts. One of the coolest from this last season — a Cornell undergrad Hotelie who shared the table of contents for her life’s story using a compilation of songs — what I loved most is how the submission and use of musical parody further showcased her personality and conveyed that she’s not afraid to take a risk!  

You’ve been head of admissions at Cornell Johnson since January 2015. What do you, personally, do differently from your predecessor? Describe how your tenure has gone so far. 

Much as I love watching ice hockey, I can’t tear it up on the ice quite like Christine (Sneva) can! With the support of my team, 60% of whom I hired following my start at Johnson, my tenure has been filled with change and positive developments that have advanced our admissions process while also improving the experience for prospective students. A few highlights have been adopting online decision release and aligning scholarship notification with decision notification to help candidates make more informed enrollment decisions; implementing an online interview scheduling and an events management tool to help candidates plan and optimize their interactions with us on and off campus, as well coordinating recruitment activities with the Cornell Tech Admissions Team and our dual-degree partners across campus; and re-energizing our premier fall hosting events (Johnson Women in Business, Johnson Means Business, and Johnson Military Preview) as well as our spring admitted student events (Accelerate Johnson and Destination Johnson) in collaboration with our Student Services, Career Management, and Leadership Programs teams as well as our Office of Diversity & Inclusion.

We are also proud of redesigning our merit scholarship consideration process to include the introduction of our Johnson Leadership Exploration and Assessment Day (L.E.A.D.) events hosted in collaboration with our Leadership Programs team, and offering a suite of virtual sessions to include online chats with our admissions team (Ask Admissions) and students as well as webinars to provide feedback to waitlisted candidates. Meanwhile, we have strengthened the opportunities to connect with current students though our Campus Events Ambassadors, Communications Ambassadors, and Johnson Admissions Group (student interviewers) with enhanced program management and staff leadership, and built on our commitment to diversity and inclusion through our new Diversity Admissions events aimed at helping prospective candidates better understand the experience and resources uniquely available to them at Johnson.

This season, I am excited to have launched another new essay prompt — Back of Your Resume — replacing our long-standing and beloved Table of Contents essay, which really allowed us to get to know our candidates as individuals and potential community members. Like the Table of Contents, we expect the Back of Your Resume prompt to provide us with the personal insights we are excited to learn about our candidates but give them greater flexibility to approach this submission and share the “rest of their story” beyond what is reflected on the front side of their resume. 

How has what Cornell seeks or who you admit changed over the past 5 years? 

As an Ivy League institution, tradition and legacy play a role in the sense that my team and I continue to seek exceptional candidates who share the long-standing values of Cornell University coupled with the desire to be part of the highly collaborative and innovative MBA program and community that exists at Johnson. Given our strengths in finance, investment banking, consulting, and brand management and success of our students and alumni, we continue to see a consistently strong pipeline of candidates with these interests. We’ve also seen a growing pipeline of candidates applying to Johnson with interests in tech and entrepreneurship. Much of this aligns with our growing focus on preparing MBA students to lead and excel in a digitally connected world through our Digital Technology Immersion, NYC curriculum, Johnson Cornell Tech MBA, and innovative Roosevelt Island Campus.

One thing that remains unchanged – our commitment to strengthening the diversity of each entering class to better prepare our students to be agents of change and leaders who know how to think, act, and encourage the type of diversity awareness and understanding needed to produce more inclusive work environments and cultures. 

DON’T MISS A CANDID INTERVIEW WITH TUCK’S HEAD OF MBA ADMISSIONS and MEET UC-BERKELEY HAAS GATEKEEPER MORGAN BERNSTEIN