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

October 07, 2012

Kellogg MBA Essays for the Class of 2015

In the post, I analyze Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Business 2013 Application Essay Questions for the MBA and MMM programs. I have taken the questions from Kellogg's website.

I had four clients admitted to Kellogg's MBA Class of 2014.  On my admissions consulting service website there are also testimonials as well as results from clients admitted to Kellogg in prior years.

Kellogg's 2013 Essay Questions for the Class of 2015 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." In addition to this post, I suggest reviewing my post on Chicago Booth versus Kellogg.

Kellogg Culture Matters
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.

Peer Application Review at Kellogg
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."

1. Discuss moments or influences in your personal life that have defined who you are today. (500 word limit)
Let us assume that you were not born yesterday.  Let us further posit that somewhere between now and your birth, you had life experiences that have had significant impacts on making you the person you are today. If not a specific situation, what people have influenced you? Keep in mind that you are engaged in an after the fact rationalization of linkages between some specific moments in the past or the impact of some person(s) in the past and who you are now.  In other words, you are telling a story about yourself, which may, in fact, be almost completely arbitrary.  Writer's block will develop if you begin worrying too much about all of the life experiences and people that have made you who you are.

If I were counseling a client on this topic,  I would start by asking, "What do you really want Kellogg to know about you?"  After that has been established, the key issue is finding a way to connect that to this question.  Knowing where you end up, that is to say reverse engineering the topic, is likely to yield an effective answer in a fairly efficient manner. Let’s say you identify three themes about yourself that you want to discuss:
Theme 1: Innovative
Theme 2: Funny
Theme 3: Social
Since you will focus on leadership in the next essay, don’t focus on that theme here.

Now that you have identified your themes, figure out how to connect them to moments or people who influenced you. Think of them as stories:
Theme 1: Innovative Story: Building my first robot as a kid.
Theme 2: Funny  Story: Crazy Uncle Sal who told me jokes.
Theme 3: Bilingual Story: Mom made me learn Spanish.
These stories should come from your personal life and not your professional life.

Next, each theme must have significance beyond the story itself, that is to say, it must relate to something really important to know about you.
Theme 1: Innovative Story: Building my first robot as a kid. Significance: Becoming an entrepreneur really started with this experience.
Theme 2: Funny Story: Crazy Uncle Sal who told me jokes. Significance: Doing stand-up comedy is what I am most passionate about outside of work.
Theme 3: Bilingual Story: Mom made me learn Spanish. Significance: I have become a highly international person.  
Defining who you are today means understanding what really motivates and what is really important to know about you as a person. It may very well have professional implications.  For example, building robots was surely in the above hypothetical applicant’s personal life, but it is something that helped define his/her professional passion.

The structure for each moment/person might look as follows:
1.  Discussion of the moment (situation/life experience) or person who influenced you.
2.  An explanation of how this impacted you. What was its significance?  It is here where you could discuss a recent accomplishment or some other important tangible demonstration of the manner in which the event or life experience continues to impact you.  It is also quite possible that this event or life experience relates to your goals or non-work interests.

I think in 500 words, most applicants write on 2-4 such topics.  You should write on at least 2 topics, since the question is specifically asking for moments or people.

2. What have been your most significant leadership experiences? What challenges did you face, and what impact did you have? This is your opportunity to explain how you Think Bravely (personally and/or professionally). (500 word limit)

Think Bravely: The movie!

Now that you have enjoyed that lovely bit of total fluff. Let’s see what Dean Sally Blount has to say:

"Thinking Bravely = Willingness to Think Outside the Box"

I suggest focusing on two to three key experiences where you go beyond a simply defined leadership role and add specific value.  You might question a plan, build something new, intervene in a situation where you didn’t have to, take charge, or otherwise do what others didn’t do. Show you have courage, an innovative spirit, a capacity for leading others beyond the previous limits of the organization, or otherwise going beyond the status quo.

most significant : Since the leadership experience you write about should be he the one that you consider most significant, you should clearly explain that.  Applicants frequently assume the significance of a story without interpreting it sufficiently.  Make sure you have clearly explained why the particular leadership experiences you write about are significant  to you.  

For my general suggestions on writing leadership focused essays, please see my analysis of  Stanford Essay 3.  And yes, it is highly likely that you will using this same topic for Stanford 3, Wharton 3, and HBS 1(It is possible that it could be HBS 2). Depending on what you write about, you may have room to discuss 2-4 leadership experiences here. You may connect them together or you may not.  The important thing is that you provide Kellogg with a set of stories that convey your potential to be a leader both at Kellogg and in your future career.

3. Imagine yourself at your Kellogg graduation. What career will you be preparing to enter, and how have the MBA and Kellogg helped you get there? (Please answer in terms of your program choice: One-Year, Two-Year, MMM, JD-MBA) (500 word limit)
“Recovering from my massive hangover after drinking way too much at our last party of the year, I could barely stop from vomiting when I rose to the podium to speak to the Class of 2015. Fortunately one of my classmates had given me some mints, which was both a perfect example of Kellogg’s collaborative spirit and the solution to my poisonous breath.”
I figured no one would write that, so I did. Anyway, the point of doing so, is to explain this question by way of example, which requires you to imagine being yourself in 2015. And not just any self, but one that has been transformed by your Kellogg experience and is reflecting back on that experience. Reflect on that imagined experience, but don’t do any of the following:
1.  Just take a standard goals essay for Chicago Booth, Wharton, Stanford, or Columbia and just add a couple of sentences about being at your graduation and only alter the verb tense.
2. Focus so much on a lavish description of your graduation ceremony that you don’t focus on the core part of the question.

Here is what you should do:

The admissions committee needs to see "Big Kellogg Love" here, so make them understand your particular form of it. They need to know why Kellogg helped you develop the capabilities you will require for your intended career. 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 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. In addition to the MBA website, see Kellogg Insight. Japanese applicants to Kellogg, should most certainly make full use of http://www.kelloggalumni.jp/kellogg_life/. In order to determine what aspects of Kellogg really relate to your professional objectives. You need not mention the names of numerous courses as long as it would be clear to your reader that your learning needs align well with Kellogg's offerings. For example, it is really a waste of word count to mention the names many marketing courses if the main point you are simply trying to make is that you want to enhance your marketing skills. Every admissions member at Kellogg is well aware of the program’s major offerings.  If you have a particular interest in a more specialized course or studying with a particular professor, it is worth mentioning it as long as it is an explanation of why you want to study the subject and not based on circular reasoning.
An example of circular (tautological) reasoning:  "I took Advanced Corporate Finance to develop advanced corporate finance skills."
This kind of bad circular reasoning is so common in early drafts I see from my clients and in the failed essays of reapplicants that I am asked to review. Usually it takes place within a paragraph consisting of many such sentences. These sentences actually convey nothing about the applicant. The admissions reader wants to learn about you, not about their own program. If you don't explain what you need and why, you are not actually answering the question, you are just writing something dull, surface level, and without positive impact.
An example of an actual explanation:  "While I had been exposed to finance through my work at MegaBank, at Kellogg I obtained the comprehensive understanding of corporate finance that I will need to succeed as a future leader of cross-border M&A."
By focusing on very specific learning needs and explaining those needs in relationship to one's goals and/or past experience, admissions will be learning about you and really be able to understand what you need from Kellogg. Mentioning a course name is not important if the learning need is already something obviously obtainable at Kellogg. A more complete explanation would include additional details about the kind of issues that the applicant is interested in learning about and/or specific ways the applicant intended to apply what he or she would learn at Kellogg.

Provide a specific answer to the career part of this question. You should be able to be very specific about what you are going to be doing after your Kellogg MBA because it would be very strange for someone at their graduation from Kellogg to not know what they were going to do.  Clearly Kellogg is emphasizing the immediate post-MBA position here. Fine to discuss your wider long-term vision, but make sure you are really clear about what you want to do in the short-term.  If you are having difficulty formulating your goals, please see my Stanford Essay 2 analysis.

Discuss what you contributed to and/or gained from Kellogg in ways that are not necessarily directly connected to your career plans. The question does not specifically ask that you do that, but I would highly recommend explaining how the Kellogg experience was personally transformative. Also, it would be reasonable to include something about what you contributed during your time at Kellogg. In regards to contributions, mentioning specific clubs, classes, or activities would be a very natural thing to do.

4. What one interesting or fun fact would you want your future Kellogg classmates to know about you? (25 words or less)
FUN FACT ABOUT ME: "My most popular YouTube video involves me eating wanko soba." ( I would provide the hyperlink if I were actually using this)

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 in some way.  It might 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.

In the case of my video above, it is (1) an unusual and highly international eating experience, (2) I mention that it is most popular YouTube video, so there must be others, and (3) It is a bit unusual and funny. You therefore learn something entertaining about me. Clearly I would be taking a risk with this, but like with my example in Essay 3, I try to avoid providing one that someone would actually use.

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.

Additional Information (Optional)
If needed, use this section to briefly describe any extenuating circumstances (e.g. unexplained gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, inconsistent or questionable academic performance, etc.) (No word limit)
As with other school's optional questions, do not put an obvious essay for another school here. If you read the above, it should be clear enough that this is the place to explain anything negative or potentially negative in your background. If you have no explanation for something negative, don't bother writing about it. For example if your GPA is 2.9 and you have no good explanation for why it is 2.9, don't bother writing something that looks like a lame excuse. This is more likely to hurt than help you. In the same vein, don't waste the committee's time telling them that your GMAT is a much better indicator than your GPA (the opposite is also true). They have heard it before and they will look at both scores and can draw their own conclusions without you stating the obvious. That said, if you have a good explanation for a bad GPA, you should most certainly write about it.
In addition to GMAT/GRE, TOEFL, and GPA problems, other possible topics include issues related to recommendations, serious gaps in your resume, concerns related to a near total lack of extracurricular activities, and  major issues in your personal/professional life that you really think the admissions office needs to know about.You can certainly write on something positive here if you think its omission will be negative for you, but before you do, ask yourself these questions:
1. If they did not ask it, do they really need to know it?
2. Will the topic I want to discuss significantly improve my overall essay set?
3. Is the topic one that would not be covered from looking at other parts of my application?
4. Is the essay likely to be read as being a specific answer for Kellogg and not an obvious essay for another school?
If you can answer "Yes!" to all four questions, it might be a good topic to write about.

MMM Applicants Only How have you redefined yourself, your business environment and your community through the pursuit of design and innovation? (400 word limit). For MMM applicants only: This is an optional essay that will be evaluated for the Rasmussen scholarship.
This question is specific to MMM applicants and is a further opportunity to show why you really fit the MMM program. Clearly, there is a real possibility that the content here might overlap with Essays 1 or 2, but try to keep it really focused on the idea of design and innovation as the drivers for one or more topics that relate to yourself, your business, or your community.

For my post on Kellogg interviews, see here.

-Adam Markus

I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. 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. 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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