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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

July 22, 2011

Kellogg 2012 MBA Application Essay Questions

In the post, I analyze Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Business 2012 Application Essay Questions for the MBA and MMM programs. I have taken the questions from Kellogg's website.

I had three clients admitted to Kellogg's MBA Class of 2013, You can find testimonials from two of them here.  On my admissions consulting service website there are also testimonials from clients admitted to Kellogg in 2010 and 2009.

Some thoughts on Kellogg's location: A highly biased commentary on why location matters.

Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Business has the good fortune to be located in one of the prettiest parts of Chicago. Unlike its neighbor to the south, the University of Chicago, Northwestern is located in the pleasant and safe suburban town of Evanston. If ever there was proof that location impacts an institution, the placement of both of these schools certainly is that. I first became aware of this contrast when my parents moved from LA to Chicago in 1986. Since that time, I lived in downtown Chicago for over a year, in Hyde Park for about six months, and have otherwise frequently visited Chicago.

The University of Chicago is an academic powerhouse located in a not so nice neighborhood with little to do in the way of fun except for buying books (Hyde Park has great bookstores!). Students at the University of Chicago either live around the campus protected by a large private police force or decide to move North. Many of the Booth students live in downtown Chicago. I lived in Hyde Park and I can say that while I did go out at night, there was not much to do, especially once the bookstores closed. Chicago has many fine restaurants, but Hyde Park does not have them. Also, unlike the rest of a city well know for sports, the University of Chicago is not. As to bars, it has one good bar (there were two, but the other one, Cyril's House of Tiki, closed). The University of Chicago is an intellectually serious place and ideal for those who are looking for such an atmosphere. Personally, I like the atmosphere there and always enjoy visiting. One can find some social life at Booth. On my visits to Booth, I found it to be a friendly environment. Like the rest of the University of Chicago, Booth is a great place to study.

Northwestern University is located in an affluent community with a large number of bars, a wide variety of restaurants, nice shopping (but not for books!), and, just for the record, a great dog beach. Evanston is quite a pleasant place, but I never felt like it had the kind of serious academic atmosphere that one could find in Hyde Park, Berkeley, or Cambridge MA. It is too suburban for that. Northwestern, unlike its neighbor to the South, has a huge sports program (For more about that, see NUASports.cstv.com). With more to do, one can imagine it is harder to stay in the library at Northwestern than it is at the University of Chicago.

If you go to Kellogg, chances are extremely high that you will live in Evanston. Social life in Evanston is not limited to campus. The place simply is filled with people who are great communicators, friendly, outgoing, and able to thrive in a socially intense environment. If you are not that kind of person, don't apply there. If you are, it will be heaven. At Kellogg, they call it the "Kellogg Culture":
"Student culture at Kellogg is rich and multi-faceted, but a single principle ties it all together: teamwork.
Our students collaborate in the classroom (and outside it) to meet professors’ exacting standards. They organize conferences, chair student groups and invite distinguished leaders to speak on campus. They travel to nations around the world to complete coursework of their own design.
At Kellogg, you’ll form lasting social, intellectual and professional bonds with your classmates."
It should come as no surprise that Kellogg's essay questions reflect its focus on community.

Kellogg's 2011-2012 Essay Questions for the Class of 2014 are specifically designed to help admissions determine whether you demonstrate the appropriate "scholastic ability, personal character, motivation, leadership ability, interpersonal skills, career performance and management potential."

As you will see three out of the four essays in this set make the applicant provide explicit (Essay 3) or implicit (Essays 1 & 2) connections between themselves and the school. It is thus critical to be well informed about Kellogg before trying to write these essays. This school really focuses on fit, so you had better show it in your essays and in your interview. I pity the fool who applies to this school without taking the time to really learn about it. The admissions committee needs to see "big love" here, so make them feel it. Reflect enough on what they have to offer you so that your essay content related to Kellogg does not sound like a bad version of their website or brochure (who bothers with paper anymore?) content. The better informed you are about the school and the more you think about how it will help you grow professionally and personally, the more likely you are to make Kellogg love you back.

Essay #1 –
a) MBA Program applicants - Briefly assess your career progress to date. Elaborate on your future career plans and your motivation for pursuing an MBA. (600 word limit)
b) MMM Program applicants – Briefly assess your career progress to date. How do the unique characteristics of the MMM Program meet your educational needs and career goals? (600 word limit).
While I think the difference in the wording between a) and b) is worth noting, I think it is possible to essentially write an essay with the same structure for the MBA or MMM program. The difference in wording does not alter the fact that you must clearly connect your career goals and educational needs to either the MBA or MMM program.
Those applying to the MMM should certainly take time to make sure they see a strong fit for themselves. If you think your career goals involve integrating "management, operations and design, from concept to execution," I strongly recommend looking at the MMM site.
Gap, & SWOT, and ROI analysis are great ways for understanding what your goals are, why you want a degree, and how you will use it.

(To best view the following table, click on it.)

How to use this table:

Step 1. Begin by analyzing your "Present Situation." What job(s) have you held? What was/is your functional role(s)? What was/are your responsibilities?

Next, analyze your present strengths and weaknesses for succeeding in your present career. REMEMBER: WHEN YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT YOUR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESS DON'T ONLY THINK ABOUT WORK, THINK ABOUT OTHER ASPECTS OF YOUR LIFE. In particular, some of your greatest strengths may have been demonstrated outside of work, so make sure you are accounting for them.
Strengths: What are you good at? Where do you add value? What are you praised for? What are you proud of?
Weakness: What are you bad at? What are you criticized for? What do you try to avoid due to your own limitations? What do you fear?

Next, analyze the environment you work in right now. What opportunities exist for your growth and success? What threats could limit your career growth?

Step 2. Now, do the same thing in Step 1 for your "Post-Degree" future after you have earned your graduate degree. IF YOU CANNOT COMPLETE STEP 2, YOU HAVE NOT SUFFICIENTLY PLANNED FOR YOUR FUTURE and therefore you need to do more research and need to think more about it.

Step 3. If you could complete step 2, than you should see the "Gap" between your present and your future. What skills, knowledge, and other resources do you need to close the gap between your present and future responsibilities, strengths, and opportunities?

Step 4. After completing Step 3, you now need to determine how an MBA will add value to you. It is possible that an increased salary as a result of job change will be sufficient "ROI" for the degree to justify itself, but you should show how a degree will allow you to reach your career goals. How will the degree enhance your skills and opportunities and help you overcome your weaknesses and external threats? If you can complete Step 4 than you should be ready to explain what your goals are, why you want a degree, and the relationship between your past and future career, as well as your strengths and weaknesses.

The above table will also help you answer such common interview questions as: Where do you want to work after you finish your degree? Why do you want an MBA (or other degree)? What are you strengths? What are your weaknesses? What are your goals? Thinking about these issues now will help you to develop a fully worked-out strategy for how you will best present yourself both in the application and in an interview.

The wording of the MBA Essay Question does not mention Kellogg by name.  Still I would argue that you should certainly answer this question in terms of Kellogg in particular and not an MBA in general. One very strong point of Kellogg is that it can be used for a great variety of purposes and offers a very flexible curriculum. The downside to this is that many applicants just see the options, but don't focus enough on what they need from Kellogg to achieve their goals. Going through a formal process like the one I have outlined above will help you determine what you really need from Kellogg. The more specific you are about that, the better. Japanese applicants to Kellogg, should most certainly make full use of http://www.kelloggalumni.jp/kellogg_life/.

You need to make admissions excited about your future. To do so, you should think about whether your goals are compelling. Admissions committees ask applicants to write about their goals after graduate school, but can applicants actually know what will be on the cutting-edge in two or three years? While many applicants will be able to successfully apply with relatively standard goals ("I want to be a consultant because..."), try to go beyond the typical answer to make your goals compelling. For more about writing goals that are both ambitious and visionary, see here.

Be informed. Admissions needs to believe you know what you are talking about. If you are changing careers, no one expects you to be an expert, but you should come across as having a clear plan based on real research into your future. If you are planning on staying in your present industry, you should be well informed not only about the companies you have worked for, but about the industry as a whole. If you are not already doing so, read industry related publications and network.

Those who are changing fields should most certainly read industry related publications in their intended field. Think about conducting informational interviews with at least one peer-level and one senior level person in that field. Conduct a peer-level interview to get a good idea of what it would be like to actually work in that industry. Conduct a senior-level interview to get the perspective of someone who can see the big picture and all the little details as well.

Don't know anyone in your intended field? Network! One great way to start is through LinkedIn. Another is by making use of your undergraduate alumni network and/or career center.

LEARN WHAT IS HOT. No matter whether you are changing fields or not, learn what is hot now and try to figure out what will be hot by the time you graduate. Now, of course, this is just a plan and chances are that what is hot in your industry or field now may very well be cold in the future. The point is to come across to Wharton as someone who is not only well informed, but who has CUTTING-EDGE knowledge related to their goals. Some great general sources for learning what is hot:

From the Business Schools: Feed your brain with cutting-edge ideas from the best business schools in the world. Start with Kellogg Insight. Other great sources of information include Stanford Social Innovation ReviewHarvard Working KnowledgeHarvard Business ReviewHarvard Business School PublishingUniversity of Chicago GSB's Working PapersThe University of Chicago's Capital IdeasKnowledge @ Wharton, and MIT Sloan Management Review.

You may also want to do a search on iTunes for podcasts: In addition to Kellogg Insight,  my favorites are Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders (from the Stanford School of Engineering, but totally relevant to MBAs), Chicago GSB PodcastNet Impact, and Harvard Business IdeaCast. INSEAD, IMD, LBS, and Wharton also have podcasts. 

LinkedIn Answers: I would suggest that everyone join LinkedIn and make use of LinkedIn Answers. LinkedIn Answers is a great way to tap into cutting edge expertise (including my admissions advice!) Follow LinkedIn's rules and you will often be able to obtain excellent information.

Hoovers: For information about specific companies, Hoovers is just a great way to learn about key facts including competitors (a very useful way of knowing who else you might want to work for and to learn about an industry). While primarily focused on the US, Hoovers does have listings for companies worldwide.

Vault: For scope of coverage, this site is a must. Vault includes both career and admissions information. It includes both company specific and industry-wide information.

Other sources: Read magazines, websites, and books that relate to your intended field.

I think describing one's career progress is something many applicants actually have a great deal of difficulty with. The primary reason is that they don't actually think strategically enough about what they say about themselves. Interpret your career to connect it to your goals and why you want to go to Kellogg. Your resume will provide Kellogg with a description of your career, but in this essay help them understand what it means by interpreting your career for them.
You will note that this questions specifically asks that you "Briefly assess your career progress to date." I think that means not spending 50% of your essay analyzing your career progress. I would advise my own clients to limit it to about 100-200 words. There is plenty of space in the other essays to write about the past, so don't do too much of it here. Just provide a very focused answer that connects to your career goals and reason for wanting to attend Kellogg. 

When you initially write Essay 1, you might find that it does not seem to be coming together as a single essay. If that is the case, you might simply not be telling your story in the right way. The way you tell your story will depend on your situation. Applicants with extensive experience whose goals connect directly to their past experience will be telling a story based on continuity, while applicants looking to change careers will be telling a story based on discontinuity. A story based on continuity is often easiest to tell in a fairly linear way because the future is based directly on what happened in the past. By contrast, a story based on a discontinuity should be told to emphasize the need for the change In either case, it is critical to explain why you want an MBA or MMM from Kellogg.

Essay #2 – Describe your key leadership experiences and evaluate what leadership areas you hope to develop through your MBA experiences (600 word limit)
Given the importance that Kellogg places on leadership in teams, I think you should think about your leadership capacity and/or potential not only in relation to your future professional objectives, but to your ability to be a leader at Kellogg.
You will need to focus on more than one story as the question specifically asks for you to do so. I suggest focusing on two to three key experiences.

I have developed the following grid to help you outline leadership stories. The categories this grid employs may go beyond any particular schools essay requirements. Filling it out completely will help you write about your leadership in a way that will help convince admissions of your leadership potential.CLICK TO ENLARGE. 

How to use the grid:

1. Decide on a specific story.
2. Identify the most significant things you did in the situation, these are you action steps.
3. For each action step identify:
  • What skills or qualities you demonstrated to complete this step.
  • The strengths you demonstrated to complete this step.
  • The kind of leadership you demonstrated.
  • What you still need to learn about leadership.
4. Think about the results and identify how they relate to your action steps. So, at minimum, you should be able to state the impact on others and/or yourself.

5. After completing the chart you will see that some aspects of your action steps may be repeated. If there is a total duplication and nothing new is shown, either you need to redefine the action step or you may decide not to focus on it very much.

6. Once you think you have two to four fully worked-out action steps for two to three stories, start writing your essay.

7. Next start re-writing. Eliminate duplicate points made between action steps. Make choices about what parts of each action to step to highlight. Given that there are usually word limits, you will have to make some decisions about what to include. Simply providing a description of your actions, is not enough. Consider what it signifies about you. Consider what your actions reveals about your leadership potential.

8. Make sure that each story focuses on a different aspect of leadership. By all means, make sure that at least one of your leadership experiences relates to teamwork.

THE HARDEST PART OF THIS QUESTION: "evaluate what leadership areas you hope to develop through your MBA experiences"
Based on working with many clients on this question, I can say that evaluating what leadership areas need to be developed is actually the hardest part of the question for most people. You maybe able to connect your leadership needs very directly to the leadership stories you tell in this essay, but there is a real possibility that you will have to think way beyond those stories.  In particular, I suggest identifying your leadership development needs that Kellogg can help you to address in terms of your future career goals. To minimize duplication between Essay 1 and Essay 2, focus more on your specific leadership needs in Essay 2.

Finally, thinking and writing about leadership is an important part of preparing for interviews because you can be certain that you will have to talk about leadership. So, you might find that the parts of the outline you jettison now will become valuable when you will want to have alternative stories for your Kellogg interview.

Essay #3 – Assume you are evaluating your application from the perspective of a student member of the Kellogg Admissions Committee. Why would you and your peers select you for admission, and what impact would you make as a member of the Kellogg community?  (600 word limit)
This question combines the function of the standard contribution question that Kellogg had previously asked for many years with a variation of an old Kellogg question on evaluating your application as though you were a member of the admissions committee (the old question did not specify if it was a student member).
Within the context of the Kellogg application, Essay # 3 is really one of the most important places to show why you will fit into this intensely social environment where both personal initiative and the ability to work with others are highly valued.
Kellogg is looking for students who will make a contribution. And this really makes sense because of the collaborative nature of MBA education. While professors play an important role in the classroom, students learn from each other on a continuous basis both inside and outside of class.

One of the chief functions of an MBA admissions committee is to select people who will be good classmates. The director and the rest of the committee have done their job properly if they have selected students who can work well together, learn from each other, and if these students become alum who value the relationships they initially formed at business school. Students members of the committee bring a peer's perspective to the process. They are also are likely to be the first to read your file:
 "Files are typically reviewed first by a student member of the admissions committee, then forwarded for additional review by staff members, including the Director of Admissions." 

There are a number of ways of trying to determine whether someone really "fits" at a particular school, but certainly the most direct thing to do is just ask the applicants. One way they ask is by asking applicants why they want to attend as in Essay 1 or in terms of what leadership skills need to be improved as in Essay 2. Another way is to ask applicants what they can contribute.
In the case of Essay 3, you are being asked to critically evaluate yourself as though you were a student member of the admissions committee. Three things to keep in mind:
1. If you cover a topic that is discussed in other essays, it is critical that you provide a new interpretation. There would be little value added if all you do is simply repeat what is covered elsewhere.  By the way, it would be quite reasonable to refer to other parts of the application in Essay 3.
2. For each contribution you can make, be as specific about how this will be a contribution at Kellogg. This essay is really a great test of your knowledge of and commitment to the program. If you can visit Kellogg, do so. If you can't, network as intensively as possible to gain deep inside knowledge about the program.
3. Try to provide unique and interpretations of why you are good fit for the Kellogg community. Market yourself effectively! That is too say, you are your own brand, so sell admissions on why you are unique admissions opportunity for them.
One way I like to think about contribution questions is to use a matrix such as the following:


I use the above matrix for all types of contribution questions, modifying the categories to fit the question. When it comes to contribution questions, I think it is important to tell specific stories that highlight specific ways you will add value to your future classmates. Luckily, Essay 3 specifies that you should be looking only for those aspects of your application that really best demonstrate why you should be a part of the Kellogg community.
The number of contributions that can be covered in 600 words will obviously vary greatly.  Consider that some contributions might be fully analyzed and justified in a matter of 20-50 words, while others will require 150-200. I suggest finding something between three and about six (!) contributions to discuss. Just make sure each contribution is meaningful and described effectively enough. Keep in mind that you want admissions to be excited by you, so if you make this a mere summary of why you are good fit, you will be boring them.

Essay #4Complete one of the following three questions or statements. (400 word limit)
Re-applicants have the option to answer a question from this grouping, but this is not required.

a) Describe a time you had to inspire a reluctant individual or group.
b) People may be surprised to learn that I…..
c) The riskiest personal or professional decision I ever made was…..

Kellogg provides you with three options. Use whichever one you think will add value to your application. Given the open-ended nature of your options, take the time to make this one particularly memorable. Specifically ask yourself, "What  story about me can I tell Kellogg that helps them understand why they should admit me?" Which of these three options will best enable me to tell that story?

a)  Describe a time you had to inspire a reluctant individual or group.
Last year the question was somewhat similar: "Describe an instance where you encountered resistance in a professional team setting. How did you address the situation?"
Kellogg is the kind of place where one can easily find the sort of extroverted people who clearly know how to be popular. While this is certainly not true about all of those who attend or are admitted to Kellogg, it is certainly place for those with a strong interest in teams and leadership in teams. 

Writing on this question gives you the opportunity to show that you can influence others and overcome their reluctance.

Leaders have to be capable of overcoming the deadweight of organizational inertia, the conservatism based on past successful practice, and/or the fear of change. Inspiring minds and organizations is no easy thing.  

Identify the most significant things you did to overcome the reluctance you faced and how you were able to inspire. Try to break your actions down into action steps. For each step
-Explain what skills or qualities you demonstrated to complete this step.
-Clearly state the result of your actions. If appropriate, provide an analysis of what this solution meant to you.

It is also important that each action step reveal something distinct about you: The way you think, the way you interact with others to solve problems, your communication skills, or other abilities or qualities. This essay will become very boring if you simply focus on the details and not your underlying capabilities.  Think about what this essay reveals about your ability to work with other students at Kellogg.

By all means avoid making this merely an essay focused on action. You really should provide admissions with a deep understanding of the way you persuade and inspire other people.

  People may be surprised to learn that I….. 

I only suggest answering this one if you actually have something surprising to discuss, but since I really believe that most people have an interesting answer, it is one of my favorite questions. I am glad that they did not change it this year.   I actually like this question quite a bit because it is a great way for applicants to highlight something really unique about themselves. The point is that it should be something that would not be obvious about you. The focus may be on something very specific that you did or something about your character. Whatever it is, it should not simply be surprising, but also relevant. It should be something that will add value to you as student at Kellogg and/or to your future career. If it is highly personal, it should reveal a quality or aspect to you that is not merely interesting, but also something really worth knowing. A good answer here might involve an unusual hobby or experience, but the possibilities are endless.

c) The riskiest personal or professional decision I ever made was…..
This question is totally new for 2012. Your answer should do the following:
1. Describe the risk you took and explain why took it.
2. State what the outcome was.
3. Explain the significance of the risk and what it means to you.
Your essay will fail if your reader cannot accept that you were taking a risk. Through the process of reviewing my clients' early drafts and working with reapplicants,  I have read many bad versions of this essay. Such essays are usually bad because the decision being made is not a real decision and/or the level of risk involved is too small.

The outcome might be very simple or complex. It might involve a change within you or a change to an organization/group or both. Whatever it is, make sure that you are identifying the outcome as clearly as possible.

Required essay for re-applicants only - Since your previous application, what steps have you taken to strengthen your candidacy? (400 word limit)
Reapplicants should read my previous post on reapplication. Use this space to specifically explain what has improved about you since you last applied. You can certainly mention improved test scores, but I would not use very much of your word count for that. Typical topics include: development of a new skill, promotions that demonstrate your potential for future success, involvement in an extracurricular activity, learning significantly more about Kellogg, and why your goals discussed in Essay 1 now are better than the ones you presented last time.
-Adam Markus
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I am a graduate admissions consultant based in Tokyo, Japan with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form, which is publicly available on google docs here, and then send your completed form to adammarkus@gmail.com.  You can also send me your resume if it is convenient for you.  Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. See here for why. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.

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