Northwestern University (Kellogg) Essay Analysis, 2013–2014

The Kellogg School of Management recently announced that it is adding a video interview component to its application process so that the admissions committee can get a feel for candidates’ “spontaneous” side. Although your essays may not be truly spontaneous, they should allow you to showcase the best of yourself in a compelling manner. Kellogg sticks with a traditional format for its application essays: two questions that require you to discuss your past experiences and one that is a classic personal statement/goal statement prompt. Our analysis follows…

Northwestern KelloggEssay 1: What’s the greatest obstacle you’ve overcome (personally or professionally)? How has overcoming this obstacle prepared you to achieve success now and in the future? (350 word limit)

In any discussion of a situation in which you overcame something, you need to lay a foundation for your central anecdote by showing that you had significant momentum toward an important goal before encountering a very real obstacle. For your essay to be effective, you cannot simply take any story of accomplishment and embellish a trivial moment of the process leading up to it as though that moment had constituted a real challenge or hindrance. For example, saying, “I thought I had alienated my boss, but I actually hadn’t, and then I earned a promotion” just will not work.

You must create a clear narrative in which you are striving toward an ambitious goal and everything seems to indicate that you will achieve it—and then you encounter an obstacle that truly derails your plans. Ideally, the reader following your narrative would be surprised and disappointed by this turn of events, which means that the hurdle you face cannot be a mere triviality. Next you must explain the actions you took to “right the ship.” Although the task may seem daunting at first, with a clearly presented narrative, you can indeed achieve all of this in 250–275 words. Finally, you need to discuss what you learned from the experience—what was your takeaway? Avoid clichéd discussions about “resilience.” In what practical way have you been able to subsequently apply what you learned or expect to be able to do so in the future?

One important note: do not be afraid to reveal a weakness or error on your part. Although this is not a “failure” essay that basically requires you to admit that you erred, if your actions led to the creation of the obstacle or you failed to see the obstacle right before you, then you should not shy away from an honest discussion of your responsibility. If the schools were delusional enough to believe that you are perfect and have never made a mistake, they would not ask questions like this!

Essay 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. (500 word limit)

This essay prompt offers you a great opportunity to discuss the best of your experiences—when you have had a real impact. However, before you start writing about how you took charge and led your team to victory, keep in mind that leadership is not one-dimensional. Some people lead through motivational speeches and strength of personality, while others lead by example or through creative ideas and problem solving. Meanwhile, still others lead by engaging those around them and harnessing the best of a team. Our point is that you should consider all of your leadership accomplishments carefully and not sink into cliché, so that you truly showcase your best side.

Note that this essay prompt uses the word “experiences”—plural. Therefore, be prepared to discuss more than just one significant event in the 500 words allotted. Optimally, you would present two (or more) distinct experiences from two (or more) different areas of your life, but two experiences from within the same environment can also be okay—what is key is showing that you have a variety of skills in the area of leadership. The setting is less important than your role/actions. For example, if you discuss leading a team to a new product launch (directing creative thought and its implementation) and mentoring an individual who moved from being a low performer to a high performer (maximizing talent and boosting morale), you would effectively be presenting two different skills

Once you decide which stories you want to share, do not just tell the reader that you were a great leader. The narratives you offer should naturally reveal that you were an effective leader. Any story worth telling will involve challenges—after all, if the path to victory in the situation you describe was an easy one, did you really have any impact?

The “think bravely” element of this question is important. You certainly do not need to have saved lives to be considered brave, but your anecdotes should reveal that you either took a risk in your leadership position or turned some conventional thinking on its head. Essentially, the school is not asking you to simply show that you have classic leadership experience, having successfully carried your team to victory, but instead wants to know that you paused and gave your rather clever plan of action real consideration—and that this is what inevitably lead to that victory.

Essay 3: Part 1: What career/role are you looking to pursue and why? (250 word limit) Part 2: Why are Kellogg and the MBA essential to achieving these career goals? (250 word limit)(Please answer Part 2 in terms of your program choice: One-Year, Two-Year, MMM, JD-MBA).

Because personal statements are similar from one application to the next, we have produced the mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which helps applicants write this style of essay for any school. We offer this guide to candidates free of charge. Please feel free to download your copy today.

For a thorough exploration of Kellogg’s academic program, merits, defining characteristics, important statistics, social life, academic environment and more, please check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to the Kellogg School of Management.

Reapplicants Only: Since your previous application, what steps have you taken to strengthen your candidacy? (400 word limit) Please note: re-applicants are required to answer this question in addition to #1-3.

Whether you have improved your academic record, received a promotion, begun a new and exciting project, increased your community involvement or taken on some sort of personal challenge, the key to success with this essay is conveying a very deliberate path of achievement. Kellogg wants to know that you have been actively striving to improve yourself and your profile, and that you have seized opportunities during the previous year to do so, because a Kellogg MBA is vital to you. The responses to this essay question will vary greatly from one candidate to the next, because each person’s needs and experiences differ. We are more than happy to provide one-on-one assistance with this highly personal essay to ensure that your efforts over the past year are presented in the best light possible.

Additional Information (Optional): If needed, briefly describe any extenuating circumstances (e.g. unexplained gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, inconsistent or questionable academic performance, etc.) (No word limit)

However tempted you might be, this is not the place to paste in a strong essay from another school or to offer a few anecdotes that you were unable to use in any of your other essays. Instead, this is your opportunity—if needed—to address any lingering questions that an admissions officer might have about your candidacy, such as a poor grade or overall GPA, a low GMAT score, a gap in your work experience, etc. In our mbaMission Optional Statement Guide, available through our online store, we offer detailed advice on when and how to take advantage of the optional essay (including multiple sample essays) to help you mitigate any problem areas in your profile.

Upcoming Events

Upcoming Deadlines

  • INSEAD (Round 4)
  • UNC Kenan-Flagler (Round 3)
  • USC Marshall (Round 3)
  • Carnegie Mellon Tepper (Round 3)
  • London Business School (Round 3)
  • Cambridge Judge (Round 4)
  • NYU Stern (Round 4)

Click here to see the complete deadlines

2020–2021 MBA Essay Analysis

Click here for the 2019–2020 MBA Essay Analysis

MBA Program Updates