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Admissions Director Q&A: Christine Sneva of Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management

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Christine Sneva has been director of admissions at Cornell University’s S.C. Johnson School of Management since May 2011 and spent several years before that directing the school’s International Academic Exchange Program.

There are a lot of interesting things happening right now at Johnson, she tells us. Not the least of which is the arrival of a new dean, Soumitra Dutta, who began on July 1st. Read on to learn more about the things Sneva is most excited about – like a New York City tech campus – as well as her advice for approaching this year’s essay questions and more.

Clear Admit: What’s the single most exciting development, change or event happening at Johnson this coming year?

Christine Sneva: We have some pretty exciting things ahead. For starters, there’s our new dean, Soumitra Dutta. Previously at INSEAD, where he was a professor and founder and director of the ELab, Dutta has worked all over the world – in the United States, Europe, Asia. We are excited to have him as part of the transformation taking place now at Johnson.

Another great development is our New York City tech campus. In the coming months, Dean Dutta will be working with Cornell University as well as the Johnson School specifically to decide exactly what it is and how involved we will be in the short term. But we are looking forward to having this campus for our accelerated MBA programs, our tech degrees and our PhD students. These students would take summer coursework with our current accelerated MBA program in Ithaca and then finish out in New York City. The curriculum is now being planned, and just what form the program coming out of that campus will take will be decided and announced in the next few months.

There is one last thing I’d like to mention, and it’s really internal to the admissions office. I am excited to share that we have hired our first recruiting manager outside of Ithaca. Charlotte Taylor – she goes by Charlie – will be our international recruiting manager for Europe, India, Africa and the Middle East. Based in London, she will be focused on making sure that prospective applicants in each of those areas know about all that Johnson has to offer. We are looking for a deeper presence in those areas and think we can grow there.

CA: What is the one area of your program that you wish applicants knew more about?

CS: As a general management program, I would really like applicants to know more about our centers of research. We have the Parker Center for Investment Research, which has an $11 million long-short, market-neutral equity hedge fund. We also have an Emerging Markets Institute that provides education and thought leadership around the role of emerging markets, including multinationals, in the global economy. We have had a lot of interest in this area from not only students but also companies.

And then there’s the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, which seeks to frame global sustainability challenges as business opportunities through programs focused on market and enterprise creation in low-income communities, clean technology and finance and sustainability. Finally, we are also continuing to enhance our Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute.

These centers are all live, vibrant aspects of Johnson that continue to grow, and they all represent our pillars of continuous learning. Most people know about our strength in general management – especially in consulting, marketing, banking. Those are the top fields our students are looking to go into. And certainly, top companies are recruiting here. Bain, McKinsey, Amazon – recruiters love our students and we continue to send more and more students out to top companies each year. But I don’t want the important role of our centers to be overlooked.

CA: Walk us through the life of an application in your office from an operational standpoint. What happens between the time an applicant clicks ‘submit’ and the time the committee offers a final decision (e.g. how many “reads” does it get, how long is each “read,” who reads it, does the committee convene to discuss it as a group, etc.).

CS: I will try to give as much detail as I can. I will say for applicants applying to Johnson that our process has changed significantly. We no longer go through the paper process, which involved letting things wait on our shelves to be read. We are officially paperless as of right now. We have overhauled our workflow so we can get to applications as quickly as possible and make sure that they are being read and that the right readers are looking at them.

As part of this overhaul of the process, we have really challenged our assumptions and routines. In terms of who reads which applications, we are organized by regions and territories. We have our veteran recruiter Ann Richards, who covers Latin America and Europe and Asia. I focus on female candidates and North America. And we have hired someone else to focus on North America with me because that is our biggest area.

So when someone hits submit it will go to an application manager who will put the files into our respective queues online. I can’t tell you exactly how much time it will take us to work through our queues because I don’t know that yet – but we are looking forward to an applicant getting a faster response. I can’t guarantee it yet, but we want to get to a place where we are deciding within two weeks whether to send a candidate into the interview pipeline. If not, your process ends there.

If you are sent into the interview pipeline, we then will give you many options. Number one is to visit us on campus. If people can’t visit us here on campus we will still offer alumni interviewers in certain areas. The third option will be a Goto meeting or a Skype call.

Note that we will no longer offer phone interviews, so that in the event that a Skype connection is bad, you will have to reschedule – the phone interview will not be Plan B. We want to see the person we are looking forward to meeting in that interview. The interview is designed to be a way for you to show us your personal side – your interpersonal skills along with your professional skills. And for this we feel like we need to see you as well as hear you. We will also require photo ID for all of our interviews – we want to make sure we cross all of our t’s and dot all of our i’s.

Once an interview is done the interviewer will complete a review. Then the admissions committee will meet several weeks before the application deadline and we will start to go in and review some of the applications. We can’t guarantee that everyone will get a decision three or four weeks before the deadline, but this does mean that we don’t have a quota for admitting a certain number of applications from given regions or groups. We will admit the best candidates that we believe belong here. We had exceptional candidates in Rounds 1 and 2 of this most recent admissions season – a 14 percent increase in volume – and we extended lots of offers. We believed those were people who wanted to be here.

We are also placing a real emphasis on connecting admitted students with our current students, faculty and alumni. We want people to understand and really experience how the Johnson network is going to work for them. Just by virtue of being admitted a candidate can expect to be contacted by alumni and current students and to have the opportunity to interact with faculty. It is important for us that prospective students see the benefits and the resources that are coming out of a school like Johnson.

CA: How does your team approach the essay portion of the application specifically? What are you looking for as you read the essays? Are there common mistakes that applicants should try to avoid? One key thing they should keep in mind as they sit down to write them?

CS: We really overhauled our essays, too. Johnson is all about change right now. We are challenging a lot of our processes and changing those that need it. We did that with our essays.

Our essays are divided into three parts: Career choice, career goal and character essays. For the first, we want to know how you would characterize your career since college. Now here we are not looking for a full history of all your jobs since graduating. We want you to choose the most important elements that show the results you achieved in your work experience. Very often in your future professional career you’ll have to give a 30-second elevator pitch, or you’ll have two minutes to describe your background. This essay is a way to get started on that.

For the second, we want you to tell us what your short- and long-term career goals are. There is no other place in the application that we can get this information. Be sure to show clear direction for your post- MBA goals and how you will use the experience of an MBA to accomplish those goals.

Finally, there is the character essay. This year we are giving candidates a choice of essays. For the first option, you are the author for the book of your life story, and we want you to write the table of contents. In the past we have required this essay question from every applicant, but this year you can choose one of three. The other two options are to describe a situation taken from your life where you failed and what you learned or to explain what diversity means to you and how you will contribute to diversity at Johnson. Here, we are looking for candidates to share how they think they might be able to take part of their background and use it to benefit the Johnson community. For example, maybe you want to establish a student-led trek that you see we haven’t made before. Our students have a lot of autonomy within the school, so these are exactly the kinds of opportunities prospective applicants could have if they come here.

In terms of tips for approaching the essays or mistakes to avoid, the most common mistake is not answering the question we ask. Or regurgitating the same essay for multiple schools. That’s why a lot of us change our essays – we want to reward the people who put real time and effort into applying to a particular school.

There is also something else we are thinking about considering as a future essay question and that will certainly be an interview questions. What professional or personal skill has a candidate developed to help him or her successfully transition to his or her intended career? There is no one coming to business school who doesn’t need to learn anything else. We want people to tell us how they can successfully make that change in their career and in their life and what they may need to learn in order to do so.

CA: Anything else to add?

CS: I said it before, but we do have a lot of changes taking place right now at Johnson. The best way to keep up with us is through my blog on the website or by following me on Twitter @christine_sneva. We want to see people who are interested in Johnson connect with us in whatever way they are most comfortable. All of the Johnson admissions directors have Twitter accounts, and we want to be transparent to all of our applicants. As we go through all of the changes with regard to the application process, we will be putting it all out there.

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