Nick Carraway goes for an MBA

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Cornell Interview and Impressions

I got the chance to spend a little time at the Johnson School recently. Here are some impressions for those considering Cornell:

I flew in the night before my interview and stayed at the infamous Best Western University. Actually, my room was quite nice, and the breakfast spread the next morning was excellent. Ithaca was cold that night, but not as cold as it can be.

The next morning, I had a whole array of activities planned at JGSM. I had a class visit, then an info session, then an interview. I found my way over to campus, parked, and walked to Sage Hall. Not 30 feet into the building, the school's character was shown: I stood before a map of the building, looking for the admissions office. A student who was walking by immediately approached me and asked if she could help me find my way. She kindly pointed me in the right direction. The school is super-easy to get around, as it's a square building with a square atrium in the middle.

The admissions office was well-prepared, but surprisingly small. They had a folder for me with an itinerary and lots of materials on Johnson. Every morning, the dean provides coffee, tea, hot chocolate, etc. for the students, and I sat in the atrium and took advantage of this before my class visit.

I only saw one classroom, but my first impression was simple: "Blackboards?!? In this day and age?" The classroom was only mediocre compared to the other B-school classrooms I've seen, and this was surprising considering that everything else in Sage Hall was new and modern.

But we all know that it's the content, not the package, that counts. The class I visited was fine, and the professor knew his stuff. However, I found that student participation was alarmingly limited. Everyone was paying attention, but when the prof asked questions, the same three (out of about 40) people answered almost all of them. Sometimes after he asked a question, there was a long pause before one of the these three relented and answered yet another one. Maybe this is because it was a second year class, I don't know. But I would have liked to have seen the students more engaged.

Then I had an info session with two first years. They spent an hour candidly answering whatever questions we had on the program and were very helpful. A lot of what they said centered on how much the students help each other. They even gave us tips on the interview, and insight into the recruiting process at Johnson. The admissions office pays for your lunch, so I ate a sandwich through all of this.

Finally, I had the interview. This was really a great experience, and the admissions rep I interviewed with was experienced and professional. The interview was very much like a conversation in that she let one answer lead to another question. She was directing the flow of the conversation so that she got the information she needed, but without peppering me with questions. She also talked with me about a few of my answers. In other words, she wasn't just there asking questions. I felt very comfortable, and I felt that I was taken seriously. The usual questions were in there (Why an MBA? Why now? Why here?), but the rest of the questions were further queries about my responses. There were no oddball questions, or cheesy attempts to throw me off guard, just a serious consideration of my work experience.

After the interview, I hung out in the atrium for a while, chatting with students. Whenever I asked a question, I was referred to a student who could best answer it, then that person would hand me off to someone else who had something to say. They were all very enthusiastic about Johnson and the Ithaca region.

My impression of Cornell Johnson was that it's a pretty laid back place, with enormously charismatic students. Everyone seems to be part of a tight community that is looking out for the school as a whole. This character is reflected in where they send their alumni -- they skew toward general management rather than IB and MC (though there's still a lot of that). They're not quants, and their GMAT scores are lower than a lot of similar programs, but they are genuinely personable people. Leadership seems to be a theme at Cornell, and as much as it can be 'taught,' they are trying their best to instill it at Johnson.

I also felt that the interview was a more important part of the application process at Cornell than most schools. They made it seem like it was a key part of the application, and that makes sense, considering the sort of students they appear to attract.

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