Northwestern University (Kellogg) Essay Analysis, 2014–2015

*Please note: You are viewing an essay analysis from the 2014-2015 admissions cycle. Click here to view our collection of essay analyses for the current admissions season. 

The Kellogg School of Management is going positively retro with its rather robust application components this admissions season, requiring two written essays and two video essays. The school seems to actually want to get to know the people who will represent its brand for the next 60 years. Kudos to Kellogg! In addition to its essay prompts, Kellogg includes a few short-answer questions in its application—and we mean short, as in just 150–250 characters. We feel we should start our discussion of these questions with a quick focus on character count, because this is a key issue. How much space is 250 characters? How much is 150? Speaking approximately, of course, 250 characters is equal to about four short sentences and 150 to about three. In fact, Kellogg’s four short-answer questions themselves total 216 characters, with the first three accounting for 154, so that should give you a general sense of the space constraints. Still, you do not need to resort to using caveman language to reduce character count: “Me want to be management consultant. Me good problem solver.” Carefully consider your answers, respect the space limitations, and be sure to express yourself clearly, thoughtfully, and thoroughly. Our analysis follows…

Northwestern KelloggFor 2014–2015, the following two essays are required of all applicants:

Essay 1: Resilience. Perseverance. Grit. Call it what you will…. Challenges can build character. Describe a challenging experience you’ve had. How were you tested? What did you learn? (450 words)

Although this is a rather straightforward prompt, executing a response to it could, well, challenge you. Why? Well, most people do not like to admit when they have been knocked down or (heaven forbid!) made mistakes. But Kellogg wants to know that you are a real person—that you have some hard-won victories under your belt and have had to struggle to some degree to get to where you are today. If you have simply been coasting along or have had no cause to develop any coping mechanisms, we can probably pretty safely say that you are not Kellogg material.

An excellent essay will start by showing some very positive momentum toward your goal and then really derail the reader—having the bottom drop out at some point in your narrative (likely in the second or third paragraph) is best. With this approach, your admissions reader will essentially experience for himself (or herself) your reversal of fortune or the seemingly insurmountable obstacle you unexpectedly encountered, only to find (in your next paragraph) that you were ultimately successful in surmounting that obstacle or, in failing to do so, learned some profound lessons.

Kellogg’s admissions committee asks very directly, “What did you learn?” Given the limited word count and your need to convey a full narrative to create an effective essay, you will have only a few sentences in which to respond to this question. Do not skip this portion in favor of including more detail in your story—this is an important piece of information the school is seeking. Similarly, do not just reiterate what is expressed in the question: “I learned the importance of perseverance.” Skip the platitudes, avoid repetition, and push yourself to express what you actually took away from the experience.

Essay 2: Leadership requires an ability to collaborate with and motivate others. Describe a professional experience that required you to influence people. What did this experience teach you about working with others, and how will it make you a better leader? (450 words)

Even though the Kellogg admissions committee does not ask about a challenge in this second essay prompt, you will still need to reveal one. After all, if everyone in the story you choose to share quickly and blindly followed your lead, were you really collaborating with or motivating anyone? No, in this case, you need to demonstrate that the impact you had as a leader was earned via your choices and behavior, revealing a clear cause-and-effect connection between the actions you took to motivate and the subsequent reactions from those who were motivated.

An important note: you do not need to reveal yourself as a particularly vocal leader, prone to fiery invectives or inspirational charges. Influence can be both exerted and revealed in subtle ways. You may have used a kind word or your sense of humor to engage others; you may have created a team dynamic through mutual goal-setting and shared rewards. There is no “right” path for you to have taken. What is important is that you show how you influenced others and achieved your objectives, while learning about your own profound (there is that word again!) leadership skills.

Certain applicants will respond to additional questions:

  • Re-applicants: Since your previous application, what steps have you taken to strengthen your candidacy? (250-word limit)

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.

All applicants have the opportunity to provide explanations or clarification in Additional Information:

  • 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 count)

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 may 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, we offer detailed advice on when and how to take advantage of the optional essay, with multiple examples, to help you mitigate any problem areas in your profile.

The Video Essays provide applicants with an additional opportunity to demonstrate what they will bring to our vibrant Kellogg community—in an interactive way. Each applicant will complete two short video essay questions. The questions are designed to bring to life the person we have learned about on paper.

  • After submitting a completed application, each applicant will be asked to complete two Video Essay Questions. One will be about the candidate’s interest in Kellogg and the other will be a “getting to know you” type of question.
  • There are 10 practice questions which candidates can complete as many times as they like to get comfortable with the format and technology. The practice questions and experience will simulate the actual video essay experience, so this is meant to be a useful tool and help applicants feel prepared.
  • There is not an opportunity to re-do the answer to the official video essay questions. We encourage applicants to practice so they are comfortable with the format once it is time to complete the official questions.
  • Candidates will have 20 seconds to think about their question and up to 1 minute to give their response.
  • We estimate the Video Essays will take 30 minutes to complete—which includes time for set-up and answering all the practice questions.

So, for its video essays, Kellogg has two questions for you: one about Kellogg and one about you. How do you prepare? With respect to your interest in Kellogg, you need to truly understand why you are choosing this specific program for your MBA. By that, we do not mean that you should create and memorize a laundry list of reasons. Instead, you must have a comprehensive understanding of the resources the school offers and be able to clearly and concisely express which ones are of particular importance and significance to you—and why. Then, when you are recording your video response, you will need to convey this information in a way that is sincere and compelling. That will not happen if you are listing a few facts you have simply committed to memory!

Kellogg’s “get to know you” question will be about a topic you know very well—you! So, as we often advise candidates, do not try to anticipate what the school will ask or guess what it wants to hear and skew your response to match. Be sure to answer the question honestly and authentically, and use this “live” opportunity to show the admissions committee your personality and character.

One minute is not very long, so you should definitely run through several mock interviews, even if they are just in front of a mirror, to get a sense of how quickly those 60 seconds will pass when you are later in front of the camera. Marshall McLuhan famously stated, “The medium is the message.” We can skip the philosophical debate about the validity of “McLuhanism” in our essay analysis, but in our opinion, being calm, confident, and sincere is a very important part of this battle. Whether you are answering the school-specific question or the “get to know you” query, simply relax and strive to share your thoughts in a way that does not seem rehearsed—absolutely do not try to use notes that you have hidden somewhere. Be yourself, and if you need help finding that comfort zone, we can provide assistance with mock interviews.

Short-Answer Questions:

What has been your most significant career accomplishment? 250 characters

Even in just four sentences, you can show that your accomplishment was hard won. Rather than simply stating a fact, such as “I won an award for an innovative marketing program, which has attracted a new demographic to our firm,” try revealing a bit of the story’s arc: “During an advertising spending freeze, I created a commercial in house at no cost. It went viral, attracting a new demographic and earning me an award.” The challenge is what makes the accomplishment meaningful!

What is your desired position after Kellogg? 150 characters

Again, avoid going caveman! You should be able to answer this question fully yet concisely, showing that you understand both the position itself and why it interests you. You cannot be vague and just write, “I want to be a banker after I graduate.” You must provide some detail that illustrates that you are informed about your options and have critically evaluated them. A statement such as “My background in mining will give me unique context to join a natural resources group at a boutique firm like Evercore” will be much more convincing and effective.

What is your long-term career goal after Kellogg? 150 characters

The goal you present for this question must relate clearly and reasonably to the one in your previous answer. You do not need to show that you are on a fixed and narrow track, however, only that your choices are related in a sensible and achievable way. For example, using the example we offered for the previous question, the aspiring banker does not need to say that he will ultimately become a managing director at a bank. He could say that he wants to return to mining as a CEO or start his own advisory services firm or… the options are practically limitless. Again, your long-term aspiration just needs to make sense in the context of your stated short-term goal. So, while the transition from banking to advisory services is a logical one, a transition from banking to being a brand manager at Kellogg’s or General Mills would not, so claiming such a trajectory would likely reveal you to be uninformed or unreasonable in your expectations.

What drives your interest in these short- and long-term goals? 250 characters

Here, Kellogg wants to know the context for your career goals, to be sure that you have the professional skills and interest to succeed in your desired positions. You can transition in your career—many do!—but to convince the school that you are capable of doing so, you must explain your plans and demonstrate that you have the necessary foundation to achieve and flourish in your desired positions.

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