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Our guest on February 7, 2002, was Natalie Grinblatt, director of the office of admissions and financial aid at Cornell University's Johnson School of Management (No. 8 on BusinessWeek's Top 30 list). Prior to joining the Johnson School, Grinblatt held positions in admissions and student services at the University of Michigan Business School, where she received her MBA in 1987. She has also worked in retail management and buying for Federated Department Stores. She was interviewed by BusinessWeek Online reporter Mica Schneider. Following are edited excerpts from their discussion:
Q: Who's the best candidate for Cornell's B-school?
A: Someone who's a leader. We look for a candidate who isn't only going to succeed in our program academically, but who is going to lead. There's a distinct leadership quality we look for: being able to assess a situation and seize opportunities or create new ones that have positive results for an organization. This requires independent thinking and collaboration. Both qualities are valued at the Johnson School. There are many people who can reach a goal, but we look for that extra something -- the ability to make a difference.
It's also important for people to know themselves extremely well, to know about the school, and how it will help them achieve their goals.
Q: How does Cornell determine such leadership skills from an MBA application?
A: We look at the applicant's academic record: their courses, grades, institution, course loads, and the trends in their record, which are hopefully upward. We also want to see what the candidate did outside of school, since sometimes this impacts their grades. The interview and the essays are other
ways to tell the admissions officers your story. We ask for specific examples of what applicants have done.
Q: On the flip side, who isn't right for Johnson?
A: There are a couple of things that go wrong with an application. One of the fatal flaws that people make is that they don't answer the question asked in our essays -- that happens often. Or they don't have examples. They'll write or speak about something, but never make it personal. You should describe an achievement to the admissions officer then say, "For example, here's how I did this or that." Applicants need to come across well and communicate well. I realize the word limits for our essays are challenging. However, if you can't get your message across, the competition will.
Q: Cornell offers a 12-month MBA program, too. Who's a prime
candidate for that program?
A: The minimum qualification to be considered for the 12-month program is a Master's degree or higher in the physical or natural sciences, or in engineering. You can't apply if you only have a Bachelor's degree in chemistry. People who do very well in this program aren't making a dramatic career change, but want to move onto the business side of the business they're already in -- for instance, someone who is working at a biotech company as a scientist and wants to return to biotech on the business side.
We bring 50 students into the program every spring, and we get 150 to 250 applications. I'm looking for the same qualities as for the full-time program. The students transition into the full-time MBA program in the fall, after they complete their core courses in the spring. Those are the same ones that students in the full-time program take, but in a shorter period of time.
Q: How does Cornell use the GMAT to evaluate candidates?
A: How we utilize the GMAT depends on someone's background. We recognize that international students, who don't all have English as a native tongue, may have difficulty with verbal reasoning. We also look at TOEFL scores for non-native English speakers, and use the interview to evaluate such candidates'
The GMAT helps me determine how well a person will perform in the program academically. After that, I look for other things. We turn down people who score in the 99th percentile on the quantitative [section of the GMAT], but who lack leadership qualities, focus, and the passion and drive that we're looking
Q: What's the cut off for a GMAT score that will stop an applicant from being considered seriously by the admissions committee?
A: We don't have a cut off. And I've surprised myself sometimes in terms of some of the people we've accepted. There are other indicators that tell me that someone will be fine in a program, such as a strong academic record, a history of not doing well on tests and showing that [to the admissions
committee], or the foresight to prepare for an MBA program by taking coursework and doing well. I'd suggest taking courses such as accounting, if you've never had it before. If you don't do well in this course, it's a whole other story. Microeconomics and statistics are also key, if people haven't had exposure to them. Typically, it's liberal arts majors who end up behind the eight ball.
Q: What suggestions can you offer to people who are about to write their Cornell essays?
A: One thing I hear from students is that it's challenging to write about themselves in 400 words or less. We want people to communicate their story succinctly. Forget what you learned in expository English and get to the point. Flowery language doesn't fit well with business writing. Also, this is an essay, so don't bold phrases or bullet point key issues.
Answer the questions that are asked. Stick to our word limit. Stick to the point. Be honest, and don't guess at what we want to hear. Talk about your passions. Please, please, please have at least two people review your essays for typos and grammatical errors. I can't tell you how often I see..."My roll as a manger." That won't be picked up in spell check. It's not just the international applicants who make that mistake.
The other big problem is what I call the cut and paste fiasco. No school wants to see that their competitor is the "only school for you." I see this
mistake in more than three dozen applications each year. Right there, the credibility is shot. One of the things that sometimes trips candidates up is that we do ask to which other schools have they applied. We are looking for a consistent theme here or at least valid decisions for applying to the schools. Do not, by any means, cut down on other schools in order to highlight your desire to attend our program. It's not necessary.
Q: What have you noticed about this year's applicant pool?
A: The objective measures -- undergraduate GPA and GMAT -- seem to be stronger this year. Applications are up, and it's a combination of more applicants, as well as [applicants submitting] more applications [to different schools]. I tend to think that there are more applications than there are applicants.
You have to be bright in order to do well in this program. [Being bright] is specific to a given applicant pool's skills. You have to be able to achieve academic success in the year you're entering a program. In a year such as this one, where the quality of the pool is up and numbers are up, the bar is higher.
Q: Describe the things you don't want to find out about a person on his or her recommendations.
A: Oh, I could tell you stories. I'd tell a candidate to give their recommenders a copy of their essays, the evaluation form that all schools use, plus a resume and a cover letter, telling the recommender what to highlight and affirm from the person's application. We want recommendations from supervisors.
We ask for two letters of recommendation, and one from each kind of supervisor, such as one from volunteer work and one from full-time work, is fine.
I understand that not every one can go to their supervisor [to ask for a recommendation], so those applicants should explain that. Don't leave the admissions committee guessing. Write a cover letter or use an optional essay to explain why you aren't using a supervisor as a recommender.
Q: Applicants often believe that submitting a recommendation from an alumnus gives them an edge. They say the same can be true if an alumnus calls the school to put in a good word on their behalf. What's your reaction to such calls?
A: We ask our alumni to e-mail us, so we have a paper trail. We put the note in the applicant's file. Having an alumnus, whose opinion we respect, recommend an applicant may give a marginal candidate -- someone who's on the bubble -- some help in at least getting an interview. It helps to bring that person to our attention. But there are a lot of people who get in without the help of alumni.
Q: What should applicants anticipate in their Cornell interview?
A: We interview about one-third of the applicants, and admit about half of those we interview. Invitational interviews definitely put more pressure on the candidate.
There are definite things we look for in the interview. We're first going to look at a candidate's information from their application, and if there are things that we need to ask, we'll ask. We're going to ask them about their careers, their goals, and how our program fits into those goals. Why have they made some of the decisions they've made? We'll explore how the applicant analyzes problems, but I can't tell you how. That would ruin it. We'll explore leadership, because it's a key aspect of the program, as are team skills.
We may ask questions regarding current business events -- my favorite this week has been Enron -- so candidates should scan their most recent issue of BusinessWeek and read BusinessWeek Online for the day. We are also going to assess their interpersonal skills. Remember -- strong handshake, eye
contact, and good energy.
It also pays to know the school well. Is the candidate applying to the program because of our emphasis on experiential learning through the Parker Center, which gives students an opportunity to do equity research? Are they interested in the Park Leadership Fellows Program, which is a fellowship for 30 domestic students each year; the Big Red Venture Fund; or one of Cornell's immersions in investment banking, brand management, entrepreneurship and private equity, manufacturing, e-business, or managerial finance? Many of our students take advantage of the overall strength of Cornell by taking coursework in our engineering school, industrial and labor relations, international programs, the hotel school (the wines course is very popular with MBA students), etc. Are candidates with scientific or engineering backgrounds interested in our 12-month option? These are all questions that should be answered before the application can be completed.
While we invite everyone to interview at Sage Hall because we feel it's important to understand the Johnson experience, we realize that may not be a viable option for everyone. Therefore, alumni are available to conduct interviews throughout the world. All interviews are weighted equally.
Q: Just 51% of Cornell's admitted MBAs enrolled in the program in 2001. Where are they going instead? What's the school doing to improve that figure?
A: Everything we do we hope will help attract more students to Cornell, such as [offering a] tremendous amount of personal contact. Once [prospective students] get to know what we're about, and through these personal contacts, they're in a much better position to make a decision. All of it is very personal -- happy hours with alumni, weekends in Ithaca, phone calls, and other things. But people also have to make choices. Some go to other top-10 programs. Others want to work for another year or skip school for other reasons. We don't allow admitted applicants to defer, so those people would have to reapply.
Q: How does Cornell rely on its wait list?
A: It depends on the year. Two years ago, I took 30 people off of the wait list. Last year, I only took four. The nice thing about the wait list is that it gives me an opportunity to get to know people better. We usually have a decent size wait list. If what we've seen so far [in application volume] is the result of an increase in applications, not an increase in individual applicants, then most of our competitors will be duking it out for students over the summer.
In our wait-list letter, we indicate a couple of things applicants can do. First, if there were deficiencies in their application, they may want to address those. Also, they should update us on what's happening to them. For instance, if they've had a promotion, or found a new job.
Q: Getting into Cornell's B-school isn't all an applicant must do. Tuition for the 2002-03 academic year will be an estimated $30,975. How helpful can admitted applicants expect Cornell's financial aid office to be?
A: We're always here. The director and financial-aid counselor do a great job. Essentially, we try to give students advice on what they need to do in order to prepare financially for school, including utilizing savings. People don't want to go completely in debt. The nice thing is that the payback period is relatively short because our graduates are getting well-paying jobs.
The best advice we can give is to get rid of your consumer debt. Get rid of your Visa, or your L.L. Bean debt. It's going to be very difficult to get loans when you have consumer debt. If you want more detailed information, I'd suggest e-mailing email@example.com.