Friday, September 21, 2012

Brainstorming Contents for the Additional Section of the Resume

(this posting is intended primarily for MBA applicants looking to add interesting contents to the additional section of the resume they'll use in their admissions package, although it should be of general interest to a range of applicants to other programs, as well as those interested in building their resume in general)

I live in Japan, where in some cases people place a stronger emphasis on their career and the company they work for, at the expense of developing strong extra-curricular activities. The work-life balance suffers as a result, and when it comes to the MBA application process, often this means a lot of people with great professional activities, but not a lot to show for outside of work.  This can be a disadvantage.

Why is it important to show extra-curricular activities in your MBA application?

There are many reasons.  One is that this is an effective way to tell a little bit about what you value or find important. After all, if you didn't like the activity or feel you could benefit from it in some way, you wouldn't do it. So your choices here say something about you.

Another reason is that your job, colleagues, clients, responsibilities and accomplishments gained at work won't come with you to b-school.  You'll instead go yourself. And who is this person? Well, once you strip away the career, and everything related to it, what is left over? That is you - at least the non-professional you - and this should be defined at least in some way in your MBA applications.

The final thing to keep in mind is that an imbalanced application - full of work stuff but offering no insight beyond work - can leave you at a serious disadvantage.  No matter how successful you have been, someone else also applying may have achieved the same pinnacle of success, but with interesting extra-curricular activities. This doesn't mean you shouldn't apply - it might not even be true - but it should motivate you to at least consider what activities you can mention. 

What should I do?

From my experience, the longer a laundry list of extra-curricular examples you dangle in front of someone, the better the chances they will realize that something they do outside of work is worthy of inclusion in the additional section of their resume, or in an application essay.  So, let's start by making that list, and then we can come up with some parameters for evaluating each possible item in order to choose only the strongest and most interesting contents.

The List

1. Volunteer Work

This is ideal if you have such experience.  Two varieties to consider when brainstorming:

a) standard, roll-up-the-sleeves volunteer work
b) volunteer work done through your company

I am mentioning point b) here because many people just consider it work.  But if you have done volunteer work that was organized by your company, it is still volunteer work! So it can be listed.

Note: it is best to avoid listing experiences where all you are doing is contributing money.  

2. Sports

a) team sports can show teamwork

Teamwork is a valuable skill that you will utilize repeatedly in your MBA program.  This is the value in emphasizing your participation in a weekly pick-up basketball game each weekend. Soccer, futsal, baseball - participation in any of these things shows - or at least hints - at the presence of someone who works well in a team. Take the activity to another level if you can - maybe you started-up these pick-up games, and now a lot of people attend regularly, or maybe you are the captain.

b) individual sports or athletic exercise are ok too (like running)

Devotion to a higher goal can also make for an appealing story, even if you are the only one involved. If you run regularly to train for marathons or triathlons, this can be emphasized too.  If applicable, list off the marathons you finished - whether you were in first or last doesn't matter. 

3. Music

If you take clarinet lessons at a school, put it in your resume.  It may not show an accomplishment (although if you have ever performed in front of an audience then you've got one) but it does show an interest that could become an interesting talking point (Why did you decide to start to do this? What is it that you like about playing this instrument?)

4. Cultural Activities

There are numerous examples of things that can count as "cultural activities". The obvious ones include holding black belts in judo or karate, or studying tea ceremony or flower arrangement. Many people here in Japan have such experiences, but don't immediately think of them when putting together their resume.  hence the value of carefully taking stock of your experiences as you draft your resume. These experience can add color to your resume, and so can be included.  

Beyond the few example listed above, there are many other things that can count as cultural activities, such as helping out in your local community summer matsuri (festival). What seems like normal life to you may be interesting or unique to others.

5. International Experience

This can be broken into two sections: living abroad, and traveling abroad.

a) Living abroad. If you have lived abroad, this is worth mentioning in the additional section of the resume. Unless of course it is because of your own working experience or university / post-university educational experience, and then in that case you do not need to mention it in the additional section because it will be in the professional experience or education section.

Note however that those with such overseas experience may have also afforded themselves the time to get involved in extra-curricular or extra-employment activities, and those from working experience can go in the additional section if there is little else to put there. I usually recommend people to include extra-curricular activities earned at school to include them in the same section of the education section that describes those experiences.  

b) Traveling abroad. This can work if it involved some degree of time, like studying English in Australia for two months at an English school. In this case you would not put it ion the education section (because you did not earn a degree from the studies) but you can certainly list it in the additional section. This can also work if you have been to a lot of places.  I've met people that have traveled through 30-40 countries, which is more than most. This kind of experience certainly shows dedication to international travel directly, and may also show some degree of cultural awareness, at least indirectly.

6. Memberships in Associations or Organizations

Especially good if you actually contribute something towards their organizations.  Nonetheless, make a list and when necessary or not entirely understandable, describe the nature of the organization or association to which you belong.

7. Certifications

This is for those who hold some kind of engineering or securities license, or the ability to sell real estate, or something else which allows you to do something.  

8. Academic Publications, Patents, and Presentations

The first word here demonstrates pretty clearly what you're demonstrating: academic experience and ability. This is less important for an MBA application than you may think (separate tests are administered to test these things, and besides you've also got a neat and tidy GPA to summarize all 4 years) but if the content is impressive and (importunely) something you are passionate about talking about, then it may be worthy for inclusion - especially if you have little else to draw upon.

9. Awards

If you have won anything, put it in. Be clear about what you won, when you won it, and the selection criteria.  

10. Fluency in a Third or Fourth Language

This is especially true if the application doesn't ask (though honestly most typically do).  It's not necessary to note in an MBA resume that you speak English, or your native Japanese.  But if you've got a third language ability there that is more than just conversational, and the application doesn't call for this detail, consider it as additional section content.

11. Hobbies

I have intentionally placed this low on the list. For many, their "hobbies" will have already appeared above, as in sports or music.  But beyond this, don't underestimate the value of exploring deeply your hobbies.  Maybe you took a ceramics class with your wife recently - and made stuff you use in your home.  Maybe you then took another lesson, and made more stuff.  This isn't ideal content - but for those with no content, it is content. So keep going to ceramics class, and put it on your resume.

12. Academic Interests

Be careful here, because writing about "reading books" is far from ideal. But, if in your spare time, you have become something of an expert in 14th century Japanese history, then this could be worthy of inclusion, especially if you can discuss the topic coherently and having something worthwhile to say. If, on the other hand, this interest has made you active in some type of group where people gather to study such things, I'd think it better for you to mention membership in this group instead, as that demonstrates more practice building people skills than reading can.

13. Sponsorship

If you have nothing to put in your additional section, and are company-sponsored for your MBA, then this can go in the additional section. I usually recommend it be placed elsewhere, but it is certainly flexible enough in nature to go here too.

Qualifiers to Determine Which Items are Best

Now that you have been able to come up with a long list of possible items, you'll probably recognize pretty quickly that some items have more potential than others. How to ultimately choose? Put each idea you generated to the test using the following 5 criteria. 

a) Is it interesting? This is pretty straight forward I think. Can it be used to add color to an interview? If so great. 

b) Is it active or passive? Doing something is always going to be better than getting something, all other things being equal.  Volunteering time to accomplish something looks better than receiving recognition for donating money, for instance.

c) How committed are you to the activity? It should be something you have devoted time to.  One game of basketball isn't enough to merit inclusion in your resume.  However, if you have played twice per month for 1 year, then it is enough to put in the resume. Along the same lines, a dedicated interest in some activity that started yesterday might not seem very convincing either.

d) How recent is it? Taking saxophone lessons in 2009 will always be better than a local soccer participation award earned in 1994. The former is simply more telling about who you are today - while the latter is describing someone who has changed a lot since that time. Generally speaking, activities from high school and earlier should not be included in the resume for business school if at all possible.  (note: unless you are really young, but even so it had better be a major activity)

e) (for Japanese applicants to b-school in particular!)  International experience. If choosing between two extra-curricular activities, one that has something to do with interacting with foreign cultures might be best. So if you are stuck between describing your love of local onsens, which you've been to 6 times, and your love of climbing mountains in Nepal, which you've also done 6 times, I might recommend the Nepal experience.  Not only is it more international, but it is also more significant, and might also show you in an "active", rather than "passive" way as well. 

When in doubt, or when brainstorming, you should include everything. Later on you can cut out the things that aren't as good when trimming your resume down to one page.

John Couke

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Interview with Yasuhiro Karakawa, Cornell Johnson MBA Alumnus and Admissions Committee Member

This is the first of what I plan to be a semi-regular feature: interviews with people in the world of higher education, with an emphasis on admissions. This first interview features Yasuhiro Karakawa of the Cornell Johnson MBA program and I would very much like to thank Karakawa-san for his generously detailed answers to my questions about Cornell Johnson.

Yasuhiro Karakawa (Cornell ’12) currently has two titles. He is the Representative Program Manager of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, and in addition to this he is an Admissions Officer focused on the Asia region for Johnson’s Full-Time MBA program.  Karakawa-san was kind enough to answer my questions about Cornell Johnson admissions, as well as his own experiences as a student there.  As Karakawa-san notes at the end of this interview, he will be participating in an official Cornell admissions event in Tokyo on September 24, 2012. This will be a great opportunity to learn more about Cornell Johnson and I strongly encourage readers to attend and ask their questions. Details and registration is available here. More info about life at the Cornell MBA is available here

The Cornell MBA

Why in the end did you choose to do your MBA at Cornell?

For me, the Three Ps of the Johnson school made me decide to join.

The first P is the Program. I had a strong interest in learning about Sustainability. Sustainability means dealing with social and environmental issues while creating new business opportunities for global enterprises. Johnson had a very strong Sustainability program in that it had opinion leaders such as Professor Stu Hart who contributed to the development of the concept of BOP (Bottom of the Pyramid) and Professor Mark Milstein who directs the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise. Also, at the
Johnson school, we have the Immersion program in the second semester of the first year during which students choose their interest from amongst areas such as Sustainability, Investment Banking, Marketing, Entrepreneurship, or Strategic Operations and get involved with their projects for 4 months. This is a great opportunity for students to apply what they learn at school to real-world issues and this would be extremely helpful for students who want to get meaningful internship opportunities during the summer after their first year with the aim towards changing their careers after graduation.

The second P is the People.  Throughout the process of applying, I found students at Johnson were tight-knit and collaborative. Since we have a relatively small student body of 280 students and also spend our time together in the small community of Ithaca, when I was a student we got to know each other well and build great relationships that will last even after graduation. I could feel this great culture among students when I visited the campus and participated in the class. And this was not limited to the relationships among students. At Johnson, the professors are very approachable. For example, when I visited the campus to learn more about Johnson, I happened to attend Sage Social, a casual get-together held every Thursday. While enjoying casual food and drink provided by the school,  the students, professors, and school staffs mingled and spent time together with lots of smiles. I met Professors Stu Hart and Mark Milstein there and had a short but great conversation with both of them. That was definitely a key moment where I experienced the great culture of Johnson and enhanced my aspiration to join.

The third P is the Place. I have a daughter who was 3 years old when I enrolled. Choosing a great living environment was one of the highest priorities for me when it came to selecting a program. Of course, the definition of ‘great’ depends on the sense of values of each different person.  But for me, Ithaca was an ideal community in that it was safe, friendly, and offered lots of both natural and cultural richness. My two-year stay in Ithaca proved that this was the best community for us. Though away from New York city, Ithaca was not a prototypical rural community. People were open-minded, intelligent and liberal. My family enjoyed gorges and lakes in summer and skiing in the winter. And since I was self-sponsored, the high quality of life regardless of the affordable living cost was amazing.

Your Experience as a Student at Johnson

Can you tell us about one class which had an impact on you, and that you would recommend to future Johnson students?

One of the challenging things at Johnson is that it’s so difficult to prioritize your interests and choose classes among lots of great interesting programs, especially since we are allowed to take classes from other schools at Cornell. But let me dare to pick up one program. My most memorable class was the Immersion Program that took place in the second semester of the first year.

I chose Sustainable Global Enterprise immersion. From January to May, students form up a team of 3 to 4 members and work on real projects to deal with social and environmental issues by collaborating with companies. In my case, since I was interested in learning about how to develop practical solutions for BOP business, I chose a project in which we were asked to develop a solution for a Danish renewable energy company so that they could successfully launch their clean cooking energy in the Mozambique market. They aimed to replace the widespread usage of charcoal there used among 80% of all households.

We worked as a real consulting team. In the initial phase, we clarified the goals and real issues of the project with the client and developed a hypothesis while applying the theory and knowledge we had gained in the classroom. Then, during Spring break, we visited Mozambique to analyze the market (a trip sponsored by the client). This gave us an invaluable opportunity to observe the local consumers lifestyles and the market environment in an ethnographical way, and also allowed us chances to talk with key players including distributors and communication agencies. With those on-hands local insights, we refined the short-term and middle-term marketing strategy to launch and scale out the clients business and made a final presentation to the client executive at the end of the project in May.
The fact that I could go through all the practical process to develop the solution itself was definitely a great experience. But what was more meaningful to me was that this was not a class in which we were ‘taught’ the technical ABC. Instead, this class was definitely challenging and stressful in some phases because what we tried to do was develop a new solution that hadn’t existed in the market until then. In other words, we could not follow successful cases.  Instead, we needed to discuss, create, try, and refine the solution. This experience nurtured in me the mindset that I would not be afraid of creating the new solution with an out-of-the-box approach, and this will be a meaningful basis for my professional career.

What was your life like outside of classes? How much did you get involved in student clubs?

At Johnson, I could see many students enjoy being members of the approximately 100 professional and cultural clubs at the school. This allowed them to get the necessary knowledge and network for the careers they aspired to and helped me enrich their lives through hobbies and sports.

As far as I’m concerned, since I was prioritizing time with my family, I have to confess that I was not so active in student clubs. I belonged to the Sustainable Global Enterprise (SGE) club in which I played a role as a group leader for ‘Sustainable Marketing’. For example, I organized on-campus seminars with professional consultants or marketers who had done great projects in Sustainability. Also, I was the President of the Johnson Japan Club, organizing a donation event for the Tohoku earthquake and also I organized the Japan-Korea trip during the springtime.

Transitioning to Your New Career

Why did you decide to become a member of the admissions team at Cornell?

There has been only 1 -2 Japanese students every year for the last 5 or 6 years while the number of students from Korea, China, and India has been rapidly increasing. And I felt one of the main reasons why we could not secure a certain number of Japanese students was that we could not successfully convey in Japan the differentiated values of Johnson. It’s true that Cornell itself is a very well-known name, but when it comes to the content of the MBA program, it’s not well enough known at all. Since I used to work as a marketing and branding strategist before going to MBA program, I felt that I could contribute to this great community of which I truly enjoyed being a member as a MBA student.
In addition, as I learned from the SGE immersion class, I was interested in creating new value. In this case, what I mean is that I wanted to create a unique professional career that others could not develop. This motivation drove me to make a proposal to the school to establish a new executive education and consulting program named the SGE Asia Program. This program aims to help Asian companies (Japanese and Korean companies in the short term) develop new markets by utilizing the expertise and network of the Johnson school as well as other Cornell schools. That’s why I get to work both as a representative program manager at the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise and an admission officer for the Japan market.

How would you describe Cornell's strengths as a business school?

After spending two years here in Ithaca, I have learned that the 3Ps are truly Johnson’s strengths and are relevant to other students who choose Johnson.  So, let me repeat that Program, People, and Place combined make Johnson unique.

Another strength is the wide network of Cornell alumni all over the world. Since Johnson is the business school of Cornell, this means you can reach out to the greater network of faculties and professionals of Cornell as a whole. The solid Cornell network can help students in building a network for their job search, new business planning, and so on. And this will be available as a great resource in both professional and personal contexts even after the graduation.

In addition, if you want to maximize your learning curve during the limited time of MBA program, I recommend you to put yourself in an environment where you are the minority and therefore have to learn how to manage. I found this particularly important to me as a Japanese applicant to the program. Different from the schools where you have a large number of Japanese peers and tend to behave in a group, you can’t depend on other Japanese at Johnson because of the limited number of Japanese there. In classes, for example, you have to expect to get cold calls when the topic is related to Japanese companies and their recent struggles regardless of their great success in the past. This should be challenging. But looking back, I’m sure that this environment gave me the great opportunity to get the survival skills such as being bold in communicating with other students and building strong relationships actively with professors. In this sense, the fact that we don’t have a large Japanese student body is another strength of Johnson, I believe.

What advice would you give to applicants to the program?

Whether it’s a 1-year or 2-year program, you have to sacrifice lots of time and money if you decide to come to a business school. These days we can easily access information. If you want to get just the technical skill and knowledge of MBA, there are lots of books and Japanese-based schools and online classes that are available to you. So, you first need to ask yourself why you’ll dare to go to business schools overseas. What is the ultimate reason why you need to go to business school?  What kind of professional and personal career you want to pursue and how can each program fit to your goals?
Also, I want you to think about how you want to contribute to the global community as a leader in your professional and personal community. I know it’s important to get a well-paying job practically, but at the same time, as a person who will create new values to future generations, I want you to think about what is your raison d'être and how you want to utilize knowledge, experience, and network through your MBA in order to realize it.

Last but not least, I want you to be bold and creative for your own life. It’s true that many MBA students think going to world famous strategic consulting firms or investment banks is a golden path as a professional career of MBA students. That is fine if it’s aligned with your raison d'être. But don’t take the majority voice as yours since the true value of the MBA is to get the mindset, knowledge, and network to realize your own ideas.  This applies to your MBA selection process. Take your time to know about the differentiated values of each MBA program and find the one that truly fits you. I’m sure that you may feel attracted to applying for some programs without knowing so much about them just because you know they’re famous MBA programs many students strive to join. But what’s really important is whether you can envision a clear image that you play a role as an irreplaceable member of that community and create your own meaningful and unique story during and after that MBA program.  How you spend your time during and after that MBA program matters much more than how you get into the program.

With those things in mind, I hope that all of you can enjoy the challenging but rewarding journey to apply for and gain admission to the MBA program that is best for you and also that Johnson can be meaningful to some of you. Feel free to contact me here with your questions. Thank you.

Yasuhiro Karakawa
MBA 12’, Johnson School of Management, Cornell University
Representative Program Manager of Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise / Admissions Officer

Please note:  We will be holding the information session on Sept 24 (2012) in Tokyo and providing the opportunity for you to mingle with alumni in a casual manner. If you want to know more about our program, personality and culture, please register from the URL below. Hope to see you there!

John Couke

Thursday, September 6, 2012

How to Approach a Statement of Purpose for Graduate School

Here are five key things you should keep in mind when preparing your Statement of Purpose for Graduate Programs.

1.  Don't Hedge with your Academic Objectives

It is not a good idea to state your academic objectives broadly and without focus just to ensure they are accepted by many schools. It is better instead to be as specific as possible when it comes to what you want to study.  Show that you are focused, and show as well that you have a plan to accomplish your academic goals using resources provided at the school you are applying to.

2. Know your Target Schools

If your study objective is completely inappropriate for a given program, you should know this before you apply. To this end, take the time to research programs. Do a deep dive into the courses they offer, as well as extra0-curricular or other activities. Also, do your best to talk with current and former students why may be able to help you find out if a given program can offer what you are looking for, at least based on their own experience of the program.  

3. Background Information: What is Relevant?

There is a lot of ways you could introduce yourself, your experiences, and the skill set and knowledge you have gained from those experiences.  But instead of giving everything in your statement of purpose, you should instead focus on only those parts of your background or current experience that is truly relevant to your academic and future goals. 

4. Always Be Specific

A clear, easy-to-read, and even easier to understand essay will be specific and full of detail.  Avoid words like "various" when describing experiences or takeaways.  When in doubt, offer more information rather than less. You can always cut redundant volume later on.

5. Edit, and Proofread

Your drafts will likely be well above the word count of the final essay you will submit. At some point you'll need to make tough decisions about what sentences or examples are entirely necessary. When it comes to English level, you do not need essays written to a native English speaker's level, most especially if you yourself are not a native speaker of English! But your essays should demonstrate the best possible English you can manage.  So proofread, or better get, ask someone else to review and critique the clarity of your writing.

John Couke