Admissions Q&A: Cornell

Randall Sawyer doesn't mind that people think Cornell's Johnson School of Management (Cornell Full-Time MBA Profile) is a friendly place. The Ithaca (N.Y.) school values MBAs who work well with others, and their passion for the school often influences prospective students. Says Sawyer: "We have a lot of people here who love the Cornell experience, so when people come up to visit, our people are very friendly to them."

But Sawyer, the school's assistant dean of admissions, financial aid, and inclusion, doesn't want anyone to assume that because this Ivy League B-school is friendly, students aren't hitting the books. "I can assure you that friendly does not equal lack of academic rigor," he says. "I don't want anybody to think it's easy, because it's not."

Sawyer recently spoke with Bloomberg Businessweek's Zachary Tracer about what it takes to get into Cornell and how living in Ithaca affects the job search. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Zachary Tracer: What is unique about the Johnson School, and why should an applicant pick it over other business schools?

Randall Sawyer: I think we're unique for a lot of different reasons. Students who come to the Johnson School have the opportunity the second semester to take our immersion program. [It's] a program that immerses you, for lack of a better phrase, in the program you want to study. For example, if you want to do brand management, then all the classes you take—every lecture, guest speaker, theory, case study, field trip in the second semester—has to do with brand management. Also, we're a very collaborative community.

What sort of student are you looking for at the Johnson School?

We're looking for people who are academically or intellectually curious. We're looking for students who see value in a community, in working together in teams. I often say to students, if you like to go to class and then go home by yourself and study by yourself, Cornell's probably not the right school for you. I think that predominantly, we have a lot of type A students, like every other business school, but our folks are very outgoing and very excited to be at Cornell. There's a reputation that goes along with Cornell, and they're excited to be here and be a part of Cornell's legacy.

Drilling down a bit into admissions, are you looking for a minimum number of years of work experience?

We have students with limited or no work experience all the way through [several years of work experience]. I think this year we have a couple of students with 9-plus years of work experience, so we really run the gamut. When we look at the average candidate and how many years of work experience they have, traditionally in the average class we see 4 to 5 years of work experience. But if you have one or two or zero, [that doesn't] preclude you from getting into the class.

What about the GMAT? Is there a minimum score you want to see?

We really don't have minimums on the GMAT. While our average is traditionally in the high 600s or low 700s, and our median is somewhere in the 700 to 710 [range], I urge everyone to apply. Some people are bad test takers, and we can talk about that.

When you are reading through these applications, what are some of the most common mistakes you see?

First off, I'd like everybody to answer the questions. When you're done writing, take off the questions and give your answers to a friend and say, "What's the question here?" If they can give you the [question] back, then you've done very well. If they can't, then maybe you should go back and tune it up a little. A lot of students copy and paste their essays if the questions are close enough. So when I read, "and that's why I want to be at Wharton," I go, "O.K., well, you're going to the deny pile, because this is Cornell."

Do you have any tips on how students should choose recommenders?

I always urge students to pick two great references to write the letters of recommendation. But they have to sit down with these people and say to them, "Can you write me a positive recommendation?" If [a recommender] says, "I'm not really sure if I can," the student can use it as a wonderful learning opportunity. Put their pride in check for a moment and say, "Could you explain for a moment why you wouldn't? Help me understand how I can be better or do better." And that can lead to some really eye-opening conversations.

Who then do you specifically recommend that people get their references from?

A direct supervisor, someone who does their performance evaluations. If you can't get your current direct supervisor, how about one whom you've had at your job [in] the last couple of years.

Once you've reviewed the applications, what percentage of people get an interview, and how do you recommend they prepare for it?

We probably interview about 50 percent, sometimes 40 percent. If you get an interview with the Johnson School, you probably have a little less than a one-in-two chance of getting an offer from us. Our interviews are more conversational than they are stand-and-deliver. I cue off the conversation you and I have. I'll get the answers to the questions I want, but I won't directly ask you, "Can you tell me about your leadership skills." I always ask students to be prepared to address anything on their résumé.

There has recently been a big increase in the percentage of women in the Cornell MBA program, from 28 percent to 39 percent. Could tell me how you achieved that?

We're affiliated with a number of organizations like Forté [Foundation] and the Consortium of Management Leaders for Tomorrow. One of the things we want to do is increase our diversity numbers and our women numbers. We started strategically using our Forté affiliation to award Forté fellowships. In addition, we have a program whereby if you were to apply to the Johnson program, and we made you an offer, you would hear from one of our first years and one of our second years, as well as from one of our alums [who's] near where you live and one of our alums who is working in the industry you're interested in. So when it came to women, we had a lot of our women alums make those phone calls. And I think that when a woman prospective student talks to [an] alumna who has faced the same challenges that woman is going to have in front of her, that conversation makes a difference.

Are there any curricular changes that have occurred recently or are planned for the next few years that students should know about?

We've added a few concentrations that you can acquire your second year, in finance, and marketing, and so forth. You might come in and study sustainable global enterprise and end up getting a concentration your second year in finance or something like that. That provides us with a little bit of flexibility for the second year students to hone another skill.

Could you tell me about some of the downsides of living in Ithaca?

We lose some great students to the very southern schools because they can golf every month they are at school. You cannot golf every month here. Ithaca is four hours away from New York City. Our investment bankers go down every Thursday or Friday to do their informational interviews and to start building their network, and that's the cost of doing business. It means it's going to be more work on your part to build that network, but there are a lot of students in the city who go for investment banking, they go to Columbia or NYU, and they don't get jobs. People think you need to go to school close to where you want to work—you don't need to.

Do you have any trouble getting recruiters to come to Ithaca?

We do. We have a healthy crop of recruiters who do come. We do our best to work with [recruiters] for résumé drops. Sometimes they may just pick a handful of students and fly them to wherever they are.

Last year, just 75 percent of your students received a job offer within 3 months of graduation. How are you working to help students find jobs, particularly given the state of the economy?

We hadn't seen numbers like that since [after] the tech bubble. We have started an alumni outreach [program] whereby we ask our alumni that they find one job [for a Cornell MBA graduate] in the company they're working for. We also continue to build our reputation and our relationships with longtime employers. We had a day in the [Bay Area] and a day in Boston last year—we flew our students or they drove to different cities where we paired up with other schools to have spaces and students available for recruiters. They could have an opportunity to go to one location where all the students from our schools were going to be, and then we set up breakout rooms and interview rooms for them and did résumé drops for them.

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