Cornell Admissions Q&A

Randall Sawyer, admissions director for Cornell's Johnson School, answers questions about the application process and who makes a good fit for the MBA program

Randall Sawyer has been director of admissions at Cornell University's Johnson School for the past two-and-a-half years. Prior to taking the job, he worked as a public relations officer at the school. He has also worked for the New York State legislature and a lobbying firm.

Cornell's full-time MBA program was ranked No. 13 in BusinessWeek's most recent rankings. For the two-year MBA class of 2009, 2,177 people applied and 267 enrolled. The average GMAT score was 690 and the average GPA was 3.3. Entering students had an average of five years of work experience.

Sawyer recently spoke with BusinessWeek's Daphna Behar about Cornell's application process and what the school is looking for in applicants. An edited transcript follows.

Are there any major changes to the application process this year?

We have been in the same process for the last couple of years. We read each file twice. It is invitation to interview only, so this year we had about 2,800 applicants [and] we ended up interviewing about 1,200 students. From that I think we made just under 600 offers for two of our programs: the one-year and two-year programs. The process has remained the same; we find it is very effective. We have staff that interview, we have alumni that interview around the world, and we have a group of select students that interview for us as well. This is a very positive experience, I think, for many of the students who are interested in attending the Johnson School. We provide wait-list feedback for students who end up on the waiting list, and in certain instances we provide deny feedback.

What kind of feedback do you give students on the wait list?

Once you apply to the Johnson School, you are given an offer, put on the wait list, or denied. So if you are put on the wait list, you can call us and ask for wait-list feedback. We will talk to you about how you can improve your application between the date of your call and when we close the class. Each year we take a few off the wait list; we took a few off this year already, and we are narrowing down our wait list. We still have a number of students on it.

For example, if you applied in Round One, which means you submitted your application in early October, we will notify you in early December on your status. So if you are put on the wait list in Round One, we will talk to you about maybe wanting another letter of recommendation, perhaps one was weaker than we had expected. We would love to hear about new promotions, if you are interested in retaking the GMAT or if you are planning on retaking it depending on your score. With many international students, we may have a concern about their understanding of the English language, speaking, writing, and so forth. We might say to enroll in English-as-a-second-language class, and get back to us. We are very well-known as being a personable school, and that is just another way we help students.

How many application rounds are there? Are there any benefits to being in an earlier round?

We have four rounds, and I believe it is always better to apply in the first couple of rounds. Usually, the students who apply in Round One or Two are motivated to go to business school, they've got their GMAT and their TOEFL in order, they have been working on the application for a couple of months, they know Cornell is one of two or three schools they want to apply to, and they are very driven and well-organized. Round Three is in January; it is our largest round and it is the bulk of people for us to work our way through. Round Four is really a thin crowd: We get maybe 250 to 300 applications, and we only make 10 offers usually. That is because we already made our way through the first three rounds, and we have made a number of offers to very good candidates, so the classes are not completely full by Round Four but we are well on our way. We don't have quotas for rounds; we just go for the best students that apply.

Are you seeing more applications now than in the recent past?

Last year we were up overall 24%, this year we were up 21% in applications. We are just under the 3,000 mark for what will be 270 seats this year, so that is a great number of applications. Our most ever was during the tech boom years, when we saw about 3,100 or 3,200, so we are in striking distance of a record number of applications to the Johnson School.

Why do you think that is?

We have reached into the marketplace further; we are going into a lot of cities where the MBA Tour and the World Tour don't go to, like Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis. We also have a great team here at the Johnson School that wants to talk to students. We try to talk to them one-on-one, as opposed to one-on-10, and I think that makes a big difference for us. A lot of students want to tell us their story, and we listen. For many, the Johnson School would be a great place; for some it is not a great fit. We speak very frankly to students about that. I don't want them to waste $200 on an application fee; I want to be realistic with them. Sometimes we just say, "You should work another year," or "Wait another year and take the GMAT or the TOEFL." The revenue is nice to have but it is disingenuous if we speak to someone on the road and we know they are not going to be a strong candidate. Every student should submit their application when it is at its strongest. I want them to be comfortable with the application when they submit, and know they did the best that they can do.

What are good reasons for wanting to get an MBA at Johnson?

There is a lot going on here that people should be excited about. We have a new dean, we are revising our second-year curriculum. We have an immersion program, which is a unique opportunity for many other business schools. We have a tremendous brand management program. We continue to be the desired school for consulting recruiters. Our recruiters continue to be pleased with our students, and we are at the center of one of the greatest research institutions in the world. Here we encourage our students to get out and take some electives outside of the business school, in the engineering school, for example, to explore other things they are passionate about. And that is a big differentiator.

We have the Sustainable Enterprise Center, in which our students have the ability to go out on their summer internships and make a difference. They are working in the slums of Kenya or working on an ecotourism destination in South Africa. They are taking their talents and MBA experience and making a difference. That is an important performance learning aspect we offer, and I don't know what other schools I can compare to that.

What's the most unusual or difficult essay question on your application? What's your advice to students on how to answer it?

We only have two questions. We are adding one this year, which hasn't been made public yet. The question is: "If your life were a book, identify the chapter headings." It allows us to tap into a student's creative side. We know it won't be too extensive, but it will give us keen insight into how they think and what they think is important to them. It is going to be an interesting dynamic in terms of the most important aspects of their lives. When we get into an interview, that will be a great starting point.

The GMAT is great, the TOEFL is great—those are unifiers. But what we really want to know is, what else can you bring to the table? What are your dreams and aspirations? Who do they want to be, and how will we help them get there? We want to really look at the person, not just the numbers. I think it will be interesting, and I can report back to you in a year from now and tell you how it goes.

We always have an optional essay too, where the student can adjust red flags, such as having a bad semester due to a family tragedy. Some use it to say even more of why they want to be in the Johnson School. We have a word limitation on the essays: 400-word maximum.

We want our students to be very concise and to think about that.

What are some of the main mistakes a student will make?

Some don't answer the question, which I find interesting. And then I will realize maybe they haven't had a great deal of work history. The recommendation we like to make to students is to write your essays and then share them with a friend or family member, without the question attached, and see if they can guess what the question is. Then you will know if you answered the question. It provides good checks and balances. Students sometimes also do exceed the 400-word limit. If it's in the 410-to-420 space, it is O.K. But, one student wrote 1,100 words or so, and that is inappropriate. That person was denied because 1,100 words were too much.

How important is an applicant's quantitative GMAT score?

We found that the quantitative part of the GMAT provides a reflection of your success in our core. For someone who comes in and has a 20% or a 30% on the quantitative section of the GMAT, all of the indicators are they will probably not do well or be successful in our core. We may talk to them about that. If they get wait-listed, or even offered, we will talk to them about maybe taking a finance class, getting their brain thinking about numbers. Some people come from the liberal arts, which is less quantitative than math or science. We don't want to set anyone up for failure. We want them to come in and succeed. So we will speak frankly with them, maybe to retake the GMAT or take another class.

We have a math camp that is three days before the opening orientation. Usually about one-third of the class ends up enrolling in it. It is not mandatory. We also have our international students, for example, coming from India, China, and Korea. Their quant is usually very strong, so we talk to them about their English. So we have students who come in four or five weeks early and enroll in our English-as-a-second-language program. They can immerse themselves in English here.

Is the application process the same for international students?

Our application is the same for domestic and international students, although some students are required to take the TOEFL. In some cases we do provide waivers for that. We can get on the phone and talk to students with individual cases; if English as a second language is very strong we will waive the TOEFL, but that is on a case-by-case basis.

What do you want to see in applicants' recommendation letters?

One suggestion we give to students is to sit down with your recommenders. Call them, talk to them, and share with them an updated résumé and your answers to the essay questions. Sit down with them for coffee, share your application with them without leaving any documents with them. We have nine or 10 questions we ask recommenders. We really want someone to share with us information the student has not already shared with us. We are looking for things to maybe talk about in an interview. We like to see different sides of the coin. We want recommenders to take their time in writing a letter. When we get a letter that has a one-sentence answer to each question, it is a disappointment to us. It reflects poorly on the students and recommenders because it is not a lot of substance. Sometimes we will read letters of recommendation two or three times. Some are absolutely amazing, and it is important. If a student is borderline for an interview, the letter could push them to an interview or to a deny decision. Each piece of a student's profile is vital, and the letters just give us another glimpse into what kind of person the student is.

What financial aid opportunities are available to students? How do you attract women and underrepresented minorities? Do you have any special programs to attract these students?

Scholarships can range from $5,000 to a full-tuition scholarship. We have 25 Park Fellowships that are awarded each year, which are full tuition plus stipend. We get about 900 applicants for that, we bring about 110 of those students to campus for a weekend, and we select 25. It is probably one of the most prestigious fellowships in the country.

Students have to be citizens at the request of the benefactor. At the end, students prepare a service project.

We also have Freed Fellowships, where you receive a stipend and assist faculty members in research, and we award five of those each year. The beauty of the Freed is you cannot recommend yourself—a staff member, class member, or a faculty member recommends you. The person is then selected by a committee. We are also involved in Management Leadership for Tomorrow. We also have financial aid options for national and international students through various vendors. We have some named scholarships, nearly 70, all of which carry with them financial scholarship, awarded on a per applicant basis. About 25% to 30% of our students entering have some form of scholarship. It is merit-based, not need-based. We also have a Johnson Means Business program, where one weekend a year we invite underrepresented minorities and women to come into school for the weekend and go through the application process.

Who would be considered an ideal fit at Johnson?

So many students ask me that. We are looking for 260 to 270 students who want to be here, who understand that they will be sitting at a table with different people, with different backgrounds, from different countries. And if they expect to come in as, say, an investment banker and be broken up into a group with five or six other investment bankers at a table, that is not going to happen. There will be an accountant, a brand manager, a sustainable enterpriser, an investment banker, and a consultant in that group. That is where you all sit down and you look at a problem from different objectives, and you really learn about business and how other people view the same situation. And that is the team-based learning we often talk about.

There are other schools out there where a student can come in, go to class, come in knowing five people, go out knowing 10, and go home. We are not that way. Each individual is a fabric of our community, and we want students who are going to come in, go to class, work with their team, hang out in the building, study with others in the atrium, get to know nearly every other person in their class. Many times I will talk to students and ask what percentage of their class they know personally. I have never gotten below a 90%. Our team-based environment certainly adds to the individual's learning experience.

What are some common mistakes that candidates make in their applications?

We usually get about 10 to 12 applications each year where the individual who is applying says the wrong school name in the application essay. This past year we had five or six, and the year before that we had 11 or 12. That is why it is so important to have someone proof your work, and don't submit at 11:38 p.m. when the deadline is midnight. Take your time, take a look at it. As admissions people, we know you are applying to multiple schools. For some schools, it is a death knell for you to mention another school. For some it won't be. At Cornell, for some it was. There were a couple of individuals who, the next day, sent an attachment saying they forwarded the wrong material and apologizing, saying "I am sorry, will you please substitute this." I look at that as it being a human mistake, it happens. If they are a good candidate, they are a good candidate. That is why I say finish your application a few days before it is due, do not look at it for a while, and then come back to it and read it through before submitting it. We want it to be great. Take your time; we want you to put your best foot forward.

Another common mistake is not submitting an up-to-date résumé. Résumés that have a gap in them give us the option to talk about why there is a gap. We also want everybody to be truthful and honest, and sometimes we get a little bit of embellishment here and there. It is important to be cognizant of that because we do pull background checks on many of our students each year.

Do you see any common mistakes in the interview process?

Students lack preparedness. They are not quite prepared to answer some of our questions.

Throughout the interview process we ask a cornucopia of questions and we assess probably 10 or 11 different skill sets or characteristics that the student possesses. The MBA is an analytical degree, so we look at analytical thinking or decision-making. You want to be dressed appropriately. I had an applicant come in this year in a polo shirt and a blazer. That is not exactly business attire. We have students who travel internationally—last year one student got in without his bags. He had on jeans and T-shirt and he was very upset about it. He went to a local store and bought a pair of slacks and shirt and tie and blazer that didn't quite fit him right. We were all quite impressed with the effort. It is important to think about strengths and weaknesses of your candidacy, and how you are going to grow. For the most part, interviews at the Johnson School are more conversational than at arm's length.

Can you describe someone you admitted recently who is a surprising fit? Someone who doesn't fit the "profile."

We have a student coming in this year who started her own fashion business. We don't see that a lot. She is really impressive, and she will be a great entrepreneur. I think you find more diversity from that sector of students who are coming in. We do have a lot of career changers, who come in and are immersed in this great vehicle for them to change careers. We have people from 26 different countries coming in this year. Each year the Japanese students do a rice-pounding ceremony, we have international week, we have an Indian celebration called Diwali. We don't want everyone to look the same, talk the same. We want a heterogeneous population.

Are there any stereotypes about the Johnson School or Cornell that you'd like to disprove?

People say we're the "friendly school." I think it's true, as a whole we are friendly and outgoing. But some people misinterpret the word friendly for lacking academic rigor. And so I don't want them to make that mistake. We are a great academic school, we are a challenging academic school, and when our students go to their internships as a result of that academic rigor and the immersion program, they are ready on Day One. We can still be friendly, though, and I think it is an interesting dynamic.

People also say that Cornell is in Ithaca, which is supposedly out in the middle of nowhere, so good luck finding a job. However, all of the major recruiters come to the Johnson School. Certainly, our students spend time in New York City—that is predominantly where our investment bankers end up. Even though we are in the small town of Ithaca, N.Y., the recruiters get here. We do not have a problem with students getting job offers. We have been well into the 90 percentiles for students that have been employed. We are proud of that, and we think we are headed in the right direction.

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