Getting ready for interview with Johnson (Cornell University), an IVY League B-School


My name is Arjun Sachdeva, I am 30 years old and I am an entrepreneur. I have spent the Arjun Sachdevlast four years building an internet platform that connects travelers with local tour guides in over 150+ countries. As of today, my start-up is not only the fourth largest provider of travel experiences in the world but also in mid-stage exit conversations. Having tasted success, I yearned for a new challenge. While most entrepreneurs would think of their next venture I decided to choose a slightly different path. I wanted to build upon my global experience while continuing to work with or be around start-ups in a consulting capacity. In my mind the best way to achieve this was to take the GMAT and eventually apply to four of the top ten MBA schools in the US.

Long story cut short, I scored a disappointing 680 in the GMAT (a twenty-hour work schedule doesn’t leave much time to study; this isn’t an excuse but its 100% true) but I never lost focus. I sent in what I think were ‘killer’ applications, and I was pleasantly surprised when Johnson (Cornell) School invited me to interview.

I had about two weeks to prepare from the time that I received a notification from Cornell. I understand that there may be a few of us out there preparing themselves for IVY league interviews in the future so I am going to try to break everything down in steps to make it easier.

Step 1 – Always be prepared

Following up on the motto of the Boy Scouts, one always need to be prepared. The reality of the situation is that I had already started my preparations well before the actual invite. I did this by speaking with Cornell’s admissions representatives (they are extremely helpful, very reachable and are always in a position to assist you in spite of their busy schedules – it is however your responsibility to ask sensible questions) and with current students as well as alumni (I will admit that it is easier to get in touch with the former). Both sets of people helped me understand how the interview process works and what Cornell is really looking for. Most importantly, I had researched the school well and knew exactly what I wanted from there as well those areas where I could contribute as a student.

Step 2 – Know Thy Self

This is relatively simple but we tend at times to make it harder for ourselves. I was aware (still am!) of every word I had written in my application and on my resume. This helped me to self-introspect, understand my core strengths and weaknesses and anticipate potential questions that I may be asked during the actual interview. I know this goes without saying but DO NOT FUDGE information on your application form and during your interview. One may think they can get away with a small lie or two but not only is it near-impossible to faff when speaking with experienced members of an admissions committee but also difficult as it plays within your conscience when doing so. Be honest, it will take you a long way.

Step 3 – Test Yourself

So you know who’s going to be interviewing you and on paper you are well prepared. Then take the plunge and ask people with relevant backgrounds to conduct mock interviews for you. Most importantly, space your mock interviews (ideally keep two or three days between each mock interview) so that you have time to reflect on what you did well and what you need to improve upon. I had three mock interviews, one of which was with an alumni from Wharton, another with a Director at a Big 4 Consulting firm (as this is the industry I want to be in post MBA) and a third interview with a person who specializes in helping candidates with IVY League aspirations (I can’t thank Sreeni enough for arranging this). Mock interviews help you to understand how well prepared you are and they give you confidence if you take them seriously.

The Big Day arrives

I was anxious and excited at the same time on the actual day of the interview (my interview was scheduled at 2 AM; this is not a typo). To ease my nerves, I decided to treat this day as I would any other day. I went to work at my regular time, took a class at Career Launcher (I teach General Awareness and Personality Development here) and even watched a TV show in the evening as I usually do. To avoid any last minute panic situations, I tested voice accuracy on Skype and web-cam imagery on my laptop, put on my best business suit and ensured that everything was ready and in place thirty minutes before the scheduled time of the interview.

At precisely 2 AM, my Skype interview began. If there were any nerves they left the moment the interview began because i) I was confident and well prepared ii) Unlike some B-Schools in India, US B-School representatives make it a point to make you feel comfortable during the interview. The questions asked were fairly standard and those for which I had prepared well. What is perhaps most important is that interviews at B-Schools in the US work on a strict timeline (30 to 35 minutes per candidate) so it is important to time your answers well. Assuming you have ninety seconds per question, use the time to bring out the strongest aspects of your personal and professional life as applicable. Second, assume the interviewer is sitting in front of you – so don’t shake your legs (good body language is essential), keep any ‘cheat’ notes as far away as possible and always maintain eye contact. Finally, if your communication skills are strong then let the person across the table know that by speaking coherently and with the right pitch.

My interview ended at 2:35 AM and within 10 minutes of signing off, I sent a ‘thank you e-mail’ to my interviewer (keep this email short, one does not need to sound desperate). In a follow-up email the next day, I also sent my interviewer an update on achievements (with verifiable proof such as certificates) between the date when I sent in my application and the date of the interview (these were things that I had spoken of during the interview).

After note – It’s been two weeks since the interview. My fingers are crossed and I hope to hear back from Cornell in the next 1-2 weeks.

Arjun Sachdeva

P.S. Look forward to another post by Arjun, wherein he talks about the interview – the questions asked and how it went