Cornell MBA essay tips (Johnson): Book author of your life story

Written by Sameer Kamat

Cornell MBA essays cover the standard topics such as short term and long term goals, failure essay, career choice essay et al. Then there are some unusual topics (under the Character essay choices) such as the community diversity essay, the life story essay (assuming you are a book author). They force you to discard the standard approach you might have taken for other bschool essays.

MG, one of the best MBA Consultants on this side of the Greenwich Meridien, continues his series on essay writing tips, turning his focus to the Cornell MBA (Johnson).


Tips for Cornell MBA essay questions – Table of Contents for Your Life Story

A beginner’s guide to facing the unorthodox B-school essay questions – by MG

As part of the ongoing series, this time we will explore the intriguing question put up by the Cornell Business School. The question goes thus:

“You are the author for the book of Your Life Story. Please write the table of contents for the book.
Note: Approach this essay with your unique style. We value creativity and authenticity”.

This has become a regular essay question at Cornell and literally challenges the candidate to showcase his/her creative flair. You can choose to answer this out of a choice of 3 questions; so if you are not comfortable or confident of exploring your creative side, it is best to give this essay a miss.

For those brave souls who do intend to venture out on the path less travelled, here’s a little nudge to get over writer’s block that one is expected to encounter on such an attempt. Let’s first understand the objective of this essay. This is not necessarily your resume told in a creative way; this is more of your life story told in an interesting fashion. Events that you are likely to omit both in the usual essays as well as in the resume will potentially feature in here.

To get started, jot down the journey of your life in simple bullet points – go as far back as your memory takes you. Whether it’s the first crush on your primary school teacher or a more momentous win at the local debate competition, put everything down on a piece of paper. The resume will usually be a sub-set of this list, if not, then that’s a sign that you are on the wrong track. Once done, you will realize that only ten percent of the work is done.

Now comes the really challenging part – that of adding the creative ‘tadka’ (read ingredient) into the essays to make it spicy and savory. The ideal way to think of it is to come up with a theme that you can use – this theme should have diverse elements but should also be related to some aspect of you and not be totally abstract.

For instance, a past client of MBA Crystal Ball, who was a huge Beatles fan, used their song titles as the names of various chapters in the table of contents. Other ideas can range from say movie titles to famous proverbs by one author to book titles by one author etc etc.

Once you start thinking on these lines, you’ll realize that there’s no dearth of themes – the challenging part is to link that theme with the bullet points that you’ve jotted down from your life story. Though the essay doesn’t say it specifically, the trick to do that is to give a short intro to each chapter – meaning, after every chapter heading, say 2-3 lines that describe how the title links to your life bullet.

The essay has a 400 words limit and you should think of anywhere between 8-12 chapter titles. Another approach to linking the title with your bullet is to divide the table of content into chapter headings and sub-headings. This will be tougher to accomplish as you will have to think of a sub-theme within the larger essay theme and use that as a link with your life. Unless this approach makes the link clear enough, my suggestion is to stick to explaining in plain English rather than going on a tangential abstract plane.

In summary, consider this essay as a 3 step process. First, put down your life history in simple one-liners. Next, think of a theme that you are passionate about (using some of the thought starters mentioned above). Finally, link the theme to the most eventful points from the life history list. This simple sounding (but tough in reality) approach will see you sail through this essay.

Remember, it’s a high risk high return game – if you do attempt this question, it is expected that you have a firm belief in your creativity. The Adcom would like to see ample evidence of this in the essay.

We have, in the past successfully managed to get candidates in front of the adcom by fine tuning their creative energy and channelizing it properly. If you’d like to learn more, feel free to reach out to us at mcb [at] mbacrystalball [dot] com. We will keep demystifying these tricky questions and look forward to your feedback on the usefulness (or otherwise) of this series.


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Sameer Kamat

About Sameer Kamat

Founder of MBA Crystal Ball | Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors Connect with me on Google+ | Twitter @mba_cb | Facebook


1 Comment

  1. Arpit   |  Tuesday, 09 October 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Kind of really flames my spirit. Yeah, I agree. Creativity’s really a good stuff. Signed up. Keep giving valuable tips. Bookmarked.

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