Northwestern University (Kellogg) Essay Analysis, 2020–2021 

Northwestern University (Kellogg)

For this application season, Northwestern Kellogg has elected to keep its same essay questions. The first deals with a leadership experience that resulted in some form of ongoing merit, while the second focuses on applicants’ guiding principles. Interestingly, both of Kellogg’s essays center on “value(s)” but in very different ways, according to two separate definitions of the term. As such, Kellogg’s questions seem to address two key aspects of business today, and candidates will need to demonstrate their awareness of both and potential to fulfill them. For more guidance on how to interpret and approach the school’s essay and video prompts for 2020–2021, read on.

Required Essay 1: Kellogg’s purpose is to educate, equip, and inspire brave leaders who create lasting value. Provide a recent example where you have demonstrated leadership and created value. What challenges did you face, and what did you learn? (450 words) 

This is a fairly straightforward essay prompt, and we recommend responding in an equally straightforward manner. Launch directly into the story of your leadership experience, and detail the specific actions you took in directing others to achieve some kind of enduring result. The key here is to show that you shared a valuable experience with colleagues, extracted the most from your team members, and attained a desired outcome. Although we often note that not all great leadership stories necessarily have to end in success, Kellogg’s request for evidence of “lasting value” certainly implies that the school wants to hear about a situation that had a positive resolution. You will need to convey not only your role in spearheading a group to achieve what you did but also how that achievement has persisted.

Note that Kellogg does not specify that the experience you share must be related to your workplace or career. Leadership does not need to have an official title attached to it, and it can be expressed in a community service or even family life setting just as much as in a workplace, so explore all the different areas of your life for possible stories. We recommend using a narrative approach to present your story, but be sure to also share the thought process and motivation(s) behind your actions. This way, the admissions committee will take away a clear picture not only of what you accomplished but also of the aspects of your character that inspired you and helped enable your success.

That said, the school acknowledges within the prompt that even endeavors that have a positive result are rarely smooth sailing from beginning to end—hence the question about challenges faced. A mistake applicants often make in writing this kind of essay is presenting a strong narrative in which they are incredible leaders, and then near the end, making a brief (and typically disjointed) reference to a hardship or conflict encountered along the way, meant to fulfill the “challenges” element of the essay query. To be effective and believable, your ups and downs must be woven intrinsically into your narrative, rather than simply acknowledged at the end. Clearly explaining how you approached and prevailed over the challenge at hand is crucial, so go beyond simply describing the roadblock itself and ensure that you detail your response and the inner workings of your decision making at that point.

Lastly, do not forget or neglect to explain what you learned from the experience—Kellogg specifically asks you to do so! And keep in mind that for your takeaways to be “meaningful,” they have to be profoundly connected to your narrative. The admissions reader should be able to easily understand the connection between the situation you describe and your subsequent learnings.

Required Essay 2: Values are what guide you in your life and work. What values are important to you and how have they influenced you? (450 words)

Kellogg offers another very straightforward essay question here, so not a lot of interpretation is needed. On its FAQ page, the admissions committee states that it is “interested in learning about your values,” so a frank query on the topic only makes sense. Kellogg wants to know how your values influence your decisions and actions, and in particular, which ones tend to guide you most often or intensely. Simply stating that you embrace certain values is easy, so the admissions committee is understandably asking for illustrations of this phenomenon to better gauge this for itself. Having an idea of how you tend to incorporate your core beliefs into your life will help the school better envision how you might fit into its classrooms and the business world after you graduate.

Perhaps at the most basic level, Kellogg wants to know that you understand how values come into play in “life and work.” This final phrase seems to open the door to stories from your personal life or from your career, with no particular emphasis on either, so consider all your options to identify the most fitting and revealing one. Although in theory, describing a situation from your personal or community activities would provide a nice balance if you chose a professional story for the school’s first essay (and vice versa), what is more critical is sharing the experiences that best convey the concepts you wish to highlight. Given the 450-word maximum for this essay, you should skip or at least minimize any preamble and dive into your response, clearly identifying your selected core values and describing specific situations that illustrate them in action. Your ultimate goal is to clearly illustrate for the admissions committee how you have been (and are) guided by your fundamental beliefs. 

Believe us when we say that Kellogg does not have a set list of values that it expects applicants to demonstrate and that by not choosing the “right” ones, you will not be accepted to the school. As always, focus on simply being authentic and sincere and letting your true character show through. That said, we would encourage you to learn what you can about the values Kellogg students tend to display or that would likely be compatible with the Kellogg community. Contact students and alumni to get a sense of what these might be, and if you identify one or two that match some of your own, those might prove strong fodder for your essay. To clarify, we are not saying that you should claim values that are not naturally yours in a misguided attempt to impress the admissions committee, but simply consider highlighting ones that appear to be mutual.

Certain applicants will respond to additional questions:

  • 1Y applicants: Please discuss your post-MBA career goal, the current experience you will leverage to support the transition, and the Kellogg 1Y opportunities that will help you reach this goal. (250 words)
  • JD-MBA applicants: Please discuss your post-JD-MBA career goals and why the JD-MBA Program is the right program to help you reach those goals. (250 words)
  • MMM applicants: The five core values of the MMM Program are curiosity, creativity, empathy, open-mindedness and a learning mindset. Describe a situation in which you demonstrated one of these values. Why is this value an important part of the MMM experience for you? (250 words)

Kellogg adds depth and specificity to these essay prompts by providing a separate one for each special program. If you are applying to one of these options, you should be ready to demonstrate a great deal of intentionality. After all, you are committing to a specialized path that may require additional time and cost. With a limit of just 250 words, you have no choice but to cut to the chase. Applicants to the 1Y and JD/MBA programs must outline how the degree is necessary to achieve their particular desired outcomes and then tie those goals specifically to the Kellogg program they are targeting and its associated resources. This essay is essentially another opportunity to explain your distinct need to attend Kellogg, only here, you can focus on showcasing the non-MBA portion of your intended degree. In many ways, these prompts are asking for a typical (if brief) MBA personal statement, so we encourage you to download your free copy of the mbaMission Personal Statement Guide. This complimentary guide offers detailed advice on approaching and framing these topics, along with multiple illustrative examples. Be sure to download your copy today.

MMM applicants are, curiously, asked to discuss values yet again, only this time, the school presents the specific ones it wants candidates to choose from. Obviously, if you are applying to this program, you will need to plan out your response to this essay in conjunction with Essay 2 to ensure you do not repeat any choices or illustrative stories. 

Reapplicants: Since your previous application, what steps have you taken to strengthen your candidacy? (250 words) 

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: 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.). 

However tempted you might be, this is not the place to paste in a strong essay you wrote for another school or to offer a few anecdotes that you were unable to incorporate into any of your other essays. Instead, this is your opportunity, if needed, to address any questions an admissions officer might have about your candidacy. We encourage you to download our free mbaMission Optional Essays Guide, in which we offer detailed advice on when and how to take advantage of the optional essay, along with multiple sample essays, to help you mitigate any problem areas in your profile.

Video Essays: The video essays provide you with an additional opportunity to demonstrate what you will bring to our vibrant Kellogg community—in an interactive way. You will respond to several short video essay questions. The questions are designed to bring to life the person we have learned about on paper.

  • After submitting your application and payment, you will be able to access the video essay through your application status page. You will be asked to answer three questions:
    • Video essay 1: Please introduce yourself to the admissions committee.

Consider this your opportunity to share what you would want your future Kellogg classmates and our admissions committee to know about you. What makes you, you?

    • Video essay 2: What path are you interested in pursuing, how will you get there, and why is this program right for you?

This is an intentionally broad question so you can answer honestly and meaningfully. We want to know why you’re pursuing an MBA and why you’re choosing a particular Kellogg Full-Time Program.

    • Video essay 3: 2020 has been a year of seismic disruption — fighting the global COVID-19 pandemic, tragic deaths that have brought systemic racism and social justice issues to the forefront of long overdue conversations, and economic and political divides that are growing deeper and deeper. How has this unprecedented year challenged you and how have you faced that challenge?
  • There are practice questions that you may complete as many times as you 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 to help you feel prepared.
  • We encourage you to practice so you are comfortable with the format once it is time to complete the official questions. You will not have an opportunity to re-do the answer to the official video essay questions.
  • You will have 20 seconds to think about the question and up to one minute to give your response.
  • We estimate the video essays will take 20–25 minutes to complete — which includes time for set-up and answering all the practice questions. You will need an internet connected computer with a webcam, microphone and an updated version of Adobe Flash in order to complete the video essay.

In a Q&A with several admissions representatives at our 2019 mbaMission annual conference, Kellogg’s Assistant Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Kate Smith explained that the school’s video component sprang from the admissions committee’s desire to actually see and hear the applicants they were evaluating. Given that Kellogg’s interviews are conducted by alumni, the video is the committee’s only “live” interaction with candidates. Keep this in mind as you tackle this segment of the application, and make being authentic and natural your primary goal. Kellogg is not looking for the next viral TED Talk presenter or late-night TV host. They just want to get to know you as a unique individual who may one day join its community. 

So, start by taking a deep breath. We understand that these video essays can make you feel like you are being put on the spot, but Kellogg is really not trying to scare you. The admissions committee simply wants a more dynamic representation of your personality than a written essay can provide. You cannot answer any of the school’s video questions incorrectly, so do not concern yourself with trying to give the “right” answer. Just respond to each query honestly, as smoothly as you can (despite any nervousness you may be feeling), and be yourself. Thankfully, Kellogg provides the questions you will encounter in the application’s video segment, so you do not have to go in totally blind.  

The “introduction” question is about a topic you know very well—you! You can prepare by thinking about what you would like to know about a new person you are meeting and would find interesting, helpful, or intriguing. For example, would you consider someone’s age or undergraduate institution particularly important or compelling? Probably not, so you should skip mentioning such facts in your own introduction. (Remember, too, that your actual audience will be a member of the admissions committee, who will already know such basic information about you from the rest of your application.) You would likely be more curious about what someone does in their spare time, what interesting or exceptional skills they have, whether they are approachable/funny/hyperorganized/a risk taker/etc., whether they have extensive experience in a certain area or a more wide-ranging background, and so on.

So consider the aspects of your personality and profile that you believe truly define you as an individual—not just what you do and have done, but who you are—and fully explore your background, hobbies, talents, experiences, values, goals, and quirks. Brainstorm an extensive list and then eliminate any items that seem too common (e.g., a BA in finance) or basic (e.g., your hometown) until you have a collection of truly distinctive qualities you can weave into your response. Your goal is to provide a well-rounded picture of yourself that draws from multiple areas and shows that you possess characteristics and/or knowledge that would make you a positive addition to the Kellogg community.

Remember to bring energy and enthusiasm to your submission. You are trying to connect with others, so charisma is welcome, and a less rigid and traditionally “professional” demeanor is okay. Forego any fancy or dramatic tactics (e.g., starting with a quotation, launching into an anecdote), and just be as natural and authentic as possible. Do not pitch your candidacy, detail your career goals, or express your admiration for the program. As they say, you only have one chance to make a first impression, so dedicate the time and effort necessary to ensure that your introduction is engaging, substantive, and true to who you are.

For the second video, you need to briefly discuss your anticipated professional path and why Kellogg is the right program for you, so you must truly understand why you are choosing it 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 knowledge of the school’s resources and be able to clearly and concisely express which ones are of particular importance and significance to you—and why. Then, when recording your video, you will need to convey this information in a sincere and compelling way. That will not happen if you are listing facts you have simply committed to memory! (For a thorough exploration of Kellogg’s academic program, unique offerings, social life, and other key characteristics, be sure to download a free copy of the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to the Kellogg School of Management.)

For the third video, the school has updated its question so that it no longer asks about a general challenge you have faced but instead focuses specifically on the tumultuous events of 2020 thus far. Although the context has been narrowed, the query gets at the same core concepts of self-assessment, resilience, and dedication. The school wants to know that you are capable of learning from difficult circumstances and that you are subsequently inspired to take action to rectify the problematic situation and/or to avoid similar obstacles in the future—or at least better prepare yourself for them. The scale or scope of the challenge you discuss is not as important as how revelatory it is about you personally, and your answer needs to encompass not only what the challenge was and why it was difficult for you personally, but also what you did or have done in response. Whether you chose to address something internally (e.g., educating yourself on a certain topic) or to apply yourself outwardly (e.g., joining a volunteer effort), you want to clearly convey your motivations and intentions, so that the admissions committee can better understand how you perform under pressure and seek opportunities for improvement. 

One minute is not very long, so run through several practice sessions—perhaps in front of a mirror—to get a sense of how quickly those 60 seconds will pass when you are in front of the camera. Although you can prepare as much as you want, you get only one chance at the recording. If you stumble while answering or ultimately are unhappy with your answer, unfortunately, you cannot do anything about it. You will not be able to rerecord your responses or try again another time. This may make you nervous, but we encourage you to view the situation a little differently. Kellogg wants to get to know the authentic you through these video essays. If you fumble for words or lose your train of thought, just laugh or shrug and continue with your response. Accepting a mistake with a sense of humor and grace will give the admissions committee a more positive and natural impression of your personality than rigid scripting and overpreparation ever could.

The Next Step—Mastering Your Kellogg Interview: Many MBA candidates find admissions interviews stressful and intimidating, but mastering this important element of the application process is definitely possible—the key is informed preparation. And to help you develop this high level of preparation, we offer our free Interview Guides! Download your free copy of the Northwestern Kellogg Interview Guide today.

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2020–2021 MBA Essay Analysis

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