mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Beth Flye

Northwestern-Kellogg’s Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, Beth Flye, was kind enough to spend some time with us. Ms. Flye shares her thoughts on a variety of topics:

  • Kellogg’s plans for the size of its class and its new building
  • Her plans to review the open interview process at Kellogg
  • Her advice to applicants who are a few years away from applying to business school
  • The differences between applying in rounds one and two and more…

mbaMission: Hello, Beth. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. I’ll start with the same question I ask all Admissions Directors: What is Kellogg not known for that you feel it should be known for?

Beth Flye: That’s a great question, and my response to that would be finance. Schools, like companies, can have a reputation for being known for X product or X service, and I think a number of business schools fall into that as well. And while we do have a strong reputation in marketing, and we’re very, very proud of that, there are other fantastic academic programs here at the school. The one I would highlight as far as the immediate response to your question would be finance, no question about it. And why do I say that? I think it’s for a number of reasons. I think it’s the curriculum we have in particular, also the faculty. In terms of the output side, for students that want to make a career change—let’s say they’ve been in a different functional role or different industry, and they want to work in a finance functional role or financial services industry—it’s a great place to be.

Another thing, too, is if you were to ask me what the most popular majors are here. We have an array of majors, and there are three [that are most popular]. I call them the big three, and they may slightly change from year to year as far as what is first, but they are finance, strategy and marketing.

mbaMission: So, you enrolled the biggest class in Kellogg’s history this year, and I’m curious, are you expecting to scale things down or keep things consistent going forward? Was the increase accidental because of yield or was it by design?

BF: Our plan in terms of enrollment goals for the total enrollment for 2010 is that we want it to be on par with the class we enrolled this year. We did have a goal of bringing in a few more students. We came in at the high end of our goal range, plus about seven to ten extra students beyond that, which is fine. From a service standpoint, space standpoint, everything was okay on that front. We wanted to bring in a few more students, and we were able to do that. This handful extra that we had, that was on the yield side. Our goal is to be [within] roughly the same range for this coming year as well.

mbaMission: We talked a tiny bit about marketing a moment ago. The big Kellogg stereotypes involve marketing and teamwork—can you talk about how teamwork is really manifested at Kellogg?

BF: I believe in the philosophy here about teamwork. It’s actually very simple but powerfully true. I see it every day, not just with the students; teamwork is a way of life at Kellogg. It is a way of life that we think works for a number of reasons. Really, the bottom-line philosophy is to come up with the best ideas, to truly be innovative, to truly get to not just diagnosing a problem in a situation but also coming up with what’s going to be the strategy and plan for a solution. In order to do all of those things, the belief here is not to saddle one great mind with such goals and tasks but to put together a group of great minds. And that is where you’re going to get the absolute best approaches, again, whether it’s ideas, whether it’s solutions, whether it’s a strategic path. And it sounds very simple, but it is very true. And that’s coming back to the quality factor. I think that it starts with the input side, which is the admissions side.

So again, how is teamwork manifested in the classroom? It really starts with the class that we bring in. We want the best and the brightest and the most interesting and, of course, people that want to be at Kellogg. I think one question that people ask me a lot is, “Hey, I very much embrace teamwork, but will I have a chance to shine on my own?” And the answer to that is, “Of course.”

I think that’s one thing I would want to let your clients know or let the world at large know. That, hey, yes, you still are here to develop, and there will be numerous opportunities to do that as far as individual contribution. What we do here is work together, and students become very, very attuned to learning how to identify what other members of the team bring to the table, given the situation. I think our students become just really skilled in identifying the skills and talents of people very quickly and then learn how to employ those skills and talents and put them to work in a situation. Our recruiters comment every year—and we get a lot of great feedback that they see this more so with Kellogg grads than with most other B-school grads—that they [Kellogg students] have such an ability to be flexible, in terms of not just of getting along with people, but [also] working with others and learning very quickly how to draw out the skills and talents of their team members. That in and of itself, I think, is an enormous skill.

mbaMission: You mentioned recruiters on campus. I know that your main role is not in career services, but can you speak a little bit on what you’ve seen in terms of companies coming to campus this year versus last and the number of interview slots and that type of thing?

BF: Sure. The good news is, I’ll call it The Portfolio of Recruiters—you know, the companies that we’ve seen in the past couple of years—they are returning, and we are very excited about that. That’s a great thing. What is maybe slightly different, depending on the specific company, and maybe in some cases depending on the industry, is that the companies are more cautiously optimistic. When I was out on the road, I was down in Charlotte and did a presentation hosted by Wachovia, and a couple of alums on the panel that worked there were telling me that. Saying, “We’ve got X, Y, Z hiring goals, and we’ll be coming up there.” And that was great, and I heard similar messages from a couple of other banks, just for example. The great news is that there seems to be this vibe of cautious optimism.

However, some companies may not have as much of a robust or expansive on-campus interview schedule this year. So, for instance, Company C that was here last year will be back, will be recruiting Kellogg students, but it may not have as big an interview schedule this year. And to me that’s not surprising. I think the great thing, the biggest takeaway, is that it doesn’t sound like we lost anybody. That is great.

mbaMission: That’s fantastic. When I was at Kellogg a little more than a year ago, it was mentioned that some land had been staked out for a new building, and I was curious as to whether a new campus is going to be built. If so, have these plans been delayed?

BF: Great question. Let me tell you what I know. Plans are still in process as far as a new building for the Kellogg School. Just to give you kind of a leadership point about this, Northwestern has a new president that started this year, and I haven’t met him. I hope to at some point. I hear great things, and so I guess my question is: What’s the official status? Where are we in the plans? I know fundraising efforts are going on just as they have been, and they are in high gear, both at the university level as well as in Kellogg Development. Are we any closer to absolutely confirming a location, or when are we going to put a stake in the ground? I don’t have that information, but from what I gather, from what I know, this is still a go. Absolutely still a go.

And that’s a great question. The school has grown, and I would want, the school would want, prospective candidates to know that they absolutely will have the resources that they need as far as infrastructure to be successful here. That comes first and foremost. But ideally? We have some goals that we want in a new space. We have grown. We need, literally, some more space. And that’s going to happen.

mbaMission: I have a couple of questions about the application process itself. First, can you walk us through the life cycle of an application at Kellogg?

BF: Sure, absolutely, glad to elaborate about that. Essentially what happens is once the deadline day hits and people have submitted their applications—they’ve been hitting “submit” buttons before the application deadline, but after that time, I mean—what we do is then download on our end and begin processing. And that’s the simple term there [processing], but it’s a very important part of our operation. It’s assembling one’s application materials into a physical application file. As we put together those applications, and as they’re complete—and complete means we have everything, we have all the application components, all the information so that file is ready to go into the evaluation flow—basically the large majority of the files are going to be read by three people, and the first stop is with a member of our Student Admissions Committee.

Then it’ll go to an officer on my team who will see it, and then it will come to me. And believe it or not, now and then we may have some really difficult cases in which two of the three of us are really on different planes or all three of us are very different, and we have a process where we’ll bring in a fourth person. So the reason I highlight that is that there are lots of ways you can evaluate applications to business school, and while I would not say that ours is absolutely perfect, I think we come pretty darn close. We take it very seriously. A lot of time is invested on the evaluation side, and I never take it for granted that someone has made an active choice, as well as has made an investment to apply to Kellogg. And so by gosh, we absolutely owe every applicant the most through evaluation that we can give. And that’s exactly what we do.

In terms of what happens after a decision, well, within each of our deadline periods, we don’t have a primary decision release date. We do have a date, I believe it’s January 11 for Round 1, for which we let the folks in Round 1 know, “Hey, the latest you would hear from us would be January 11,” but we don’t pull the lever on January 11 so that all decisions go out. I don’t have an exact date handy, but I would say the latter part of November, we will start releasing decisions. So it’s almost like a mini-rolling basis with an application round period. That’s how that works.

mbaMission: Okay. So when you read an application, do you start with the applicant’s resume? Do you start with the essays? How do you actually approach reading each application?

BF: For me, my approach is as follows. I look at the data form section, or Part One as we call it. Here are just kind of key points. Who is this person? Name? Where do they live? Where did they go to school? What did they put down as far as grades, degrees, GMAT scores, brief work information, etc.? For me that is getting a snapshot. It’s kind of saying, okay, let me just sketch out who this person is. Sometimes I’ll go straight to the resume right after that. The resume is also to me a very nice snapshot about a person, obviously on the work front. So that’s what I do. I also see the evaluations that the two readers ahead of me have made. I then read as much as I need to read to arrive at a decision. Do I do an absolute word-for-word, cover-to-cover read on every file? No. Decisions would probably never go out! That’s the responsibility of the two readers ahead of me. But like I said, there are times when I will say, “Hey I really want to do a cover-to-cover read.” So that happens. Absolutely. That does happen.

mbaMission: Kellogg is one of the few schools left that has an open interview policy. It has to be grueling. Some schools, notably Darden, have made a switch. How and why do you stick with it?

BF: That’s what our policy still is for this coming year. Our policy is, we require you to request an interview, and we don’t admit anyone without some form of an interview. Whether it’s an alumni interview or one on campus, and in some cases—and this would be if someone is remote or we don’t have enough alumni—we’ll do telephone interviews. I do believe interviews are incredibly critical. I think business schools interview for similar reasons that companies do or any organization that is hiring someone. And for me, that means putting together, especially for those of us who later evaluate applications, putting together the two “Ps,” the Paper Perspective—that tangible, written information that these guys have submitted as part of their application—with the in-person, or People Perspective. And that’s very, very helpful. It has worked.

I will say that I am presently very interested in stepping back and taking a look at not just the policy but the interviewing model and looking ahead. Would there be a change for this year? Of course not. Not at all. But it is something that I want us as an institution to take a look at. It’s almost like giving our interview policy, giving our interview model, a physical. Is this in the best interest of the school? Is this model, this policy serving us well?

mbaMission: We find that applicants often want to reduce their applications to a science. Is there a “Kellogg” way to get into Kellogg?

BF: I know that your audience would love for me to say yes, and there are days when even I wish that there was a yes to that. But I would say no. But in my saying no, please know that it’s not a negative answer whatsoever. If anything, I think it’s positive. There are some areas with the application criteria that if you think about an application and visualize it like a pie chart, you’ve got one slice for essays, and you’ve got one slice for quality of work experience, once slice for interviews and so forth. The great thing both for applicants and for those of us in admissions is that no person is the same. That is something I am very conscious of with every single application I read. That’s a good thing.

I advise people to put together the absolute best application you can, and I think a big part of that, as clichéd as this is going to sound, is really just being who you are. Not trying to be who you think we want to read about or who we want to hear in an interview. Just be you. I think that’s where candidates sometimes fall into that trap of, “I’m trying so hard. I want my tone in the essays to be this.” They want to get in. I just think that first and foremost, getting back to the idea that it’s not a science, the most important advice, honestly, is to be yourself. Be yourself. To me, an application is a platform. Here’s another way I like to think about an application, it’s a different type of platform to educate us about who you are. Plain and simple. That responsibility does lie with the candidate. Educate us about who you are through this application.

mbaMission: That question was a setup! People constantly call us up at mbaMission and say, “What is the Harvard way to get into Harvard or the Kellogg way to get into Kellogg?” As if there’s one secret formula the Admissions Committee is withholding only for the school’s favorite consultants or candidates. People will say, “Kellogg is a marketing school, so I’d better tell my marketing story.” But if you’re not a marketing person, and your best story is about supply chain, then tell your supply chain story.

BF: Exactly. I think that’s an excellent point. I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s not a science. Do we like to see, as an example, really great academic performance? Sure we do. Who wouldn’t? Do we like to see people who have progressive work experience and have demonstrated promotion? Of course. But is that a guarantee of admission? No. And again, the good news is, we’re looking at all that criteria together holistically. We really are. Again, if you think of it like a pie chart, not everybody’s chart is going to be the same. Every single one will be different. And that, to me, is a good thing.

mbaMission: Here’s another typical question we hear: Will a spelling error, typo or grammatical mistake kill an application?

BF: My response to that would be, not necessarily. But I think there are a couple of things that really are pertinent for candidates to employ when they’re applying to Kellogg, or to any school, for that matter, and that are really critical in life, whether it’s work, outside of work, and those are good judgment and good self-awareness. We know applicants aren’t perfect. Sometimes Spell Check, when you meant to say “form” and it dispensed “from,” yes, that can happen. So if I see that one time, is it a deal breaker? No, not necessarily at all. Now if I see it scattered around, the first thing I’m going to be thinking is, “Wow, this person didn’t seem to invest a great amount of effort here.” That’s troublesome to me. See the difference?

mbaMission: Yes, absolutely. Similarly, then, do you read applications in search of reasons to reject a candidate or reasons to accept the applicant? I think people sometimes feel as though the application process is a punitive one as opposed to one in which the Admissions Committee is truly seeking to learn about the candidate.

BF: I think that’s a great question, and I’m just sitting here thinking to myself, “How do I do that?” I think with me, I guess my lens is, I’m looking for somebody great. I guess I have a positive attitude with every application that I pick up. We have an extremely competitive pool, but what that means is that we’ve got a great, great pool in terms of quality, in terms of composition and diversity. And that’s exactly what we want. Do we have a tough job in admissions on selectivity? Sure we do, but that’s exactly what we want. Whether you’re hiring somebody or admitting somebody to business school, you want to have the so-called pick of the litter. For me, I’m looking for the positive points, but if there is something there that is not as competitive, on average, it’s almost like in my mind, “Okay, note to self, what are some noteworthy points?” And those noteworthy points may be all really great as far as positives. Or it can be a mix. And that takes a little bit more thinking time as far as making an evaluation, making a decision. In some cases—and I’m happy to say, not many cases—there may be, just looking across the board, signs that the applicant is just not competitive. What I mean by that is, they don’t have the work, they don’t have the grades, they didn’t do well in the interview. But overall, we have a great pool.

mbaMission: So Round 2 is upon us. Are there any disadvantages to applying in Round 2 rather than in Round 1?

BF: For Kellogg, absolutely not. I’m glad that you brought this up. This relates to some very common questions that we get: “When should I apply? Should I do it for Round 1? Do I even have a prayer in Round 2?” And my response is the same. Number one, apply when you’re ready. It takes a lot of time, effort, a lot of thinking [to apply]. It’s a project. It really is. It’s not something that’s meant to be rushed. So for Kellogg, if someone for whatever reason does not feel comfortable applying in that first round, but they’re thinking that second round is really going to work, they should go for it. Absolutely.

In addition to applying when you’re ready, I would strongly encourage that if possible, apply in one of the first two rounds. Are we going to shun those who apply in the third round? No, not at all. The reasons that I say that are, just looking at history, most of our applications come in during the first two rounds. Therefore, we select a large proportion of the class from those first two rounds. Related to that, we’ve had a trend where our yield suddenly was significantly higher than maybe what we had forecast. That suddenly becomes a factor for us about how many more people we can admit. That’s why I’m saying, aim for one of the first two rounds if possible.

mbaMission: What would you say to someone who is two years out of college in terms of shaping their candidacy going forward? What advice do you have for someone like that?

BF: You mean, they’re looking at business school in their future but not applying right at two years out? Is that correct?

mbaMission: Exactly.

BF: I think in terms of just their work, they’re on a work path, even though their career may change, and it may change a few times. I think, make the most of your work experience. Not to sound like your parents, but absolutely do the best you can. A question related to this that I get a lot is, “What should I be doing? What type of work should I be doing?” I don’t see that as an issue. I think, follow your heart. And whatever you do, do it extraordinarily well. That is what I would say. Make the most out of it. Learn as much as you can where you are, and then apply those learnings in your work and career going forward.

The other thing is, if someone is looking ahead, be proactive. If you think you may be going down the business school path in terms of applying, what are some things that you can be proactive about? Go ahead and take the GMAT if you haven’t. I really do think there’s a lot to be said for test performance for those who have not been away from school too long versus if you take it 15 years later. Nothing wrong with 15 years later, but why not take it when you’re still relatively fresh coming out of undergrad? I would definitely do that. I would also go ahead and research schools. Get a feel for programs, from admissions to curricular offerings to career management. Go ahead and become knowledgeable about the business schools out there. What does an admissions process look like?

I would also say that if someone did not have the most competitive academic record, then show us that you can do the work. Take some classes. That’s not just going to help you as an applicant—it’s like spinach. It can only be good for you. I always tell people if you’re thinking ahead, think about where you can be proactive, not just as an applicant, but also envision yourself as a future student. What can you do to try to be as successful as you can? Those are just some of the things. And I think on the personal, extracurricular front, schools are looking for well-rounded people. Whatever your passions are, dive in headfirst. We don’t have an approved list of extracurricular activities; that’s not what we do. But I would say, make the most of your life, not just when you are in undergrad, not just academically and not just professionally. What other passions do you have? Go with that.

mbaMission: You’re like a myth destroyer here! This is the kind of information we give to candidates all the time, so it’s great to have it corroborated by you.

BF: Honestly, I will say from my working standpoint, thank heavens there’s not a short list. I would be bored to tears, and I think business school would be a boring experience. Just like on the work front, we’re not concerned about exactly what your title is and how marquee of a company name you have. What have you been doing? What did you learn? And it’s pretty exciting when you see somebody coming from Wall Street, and then you see somebody coming from the military in Israel, and the next thing you know, look at this, a rabbi is applying. It’s just incredible. My advice would be to just follow your heart, and do those things on the professional front, and do them extraordinarily well.

mbaMission: Is there anything else you want people to know about Kellogg or applying to the school? Is there anything we haven’t covered that you think is important for people to know?

BF: One of the things I think makes Kellogg incredibly unique is that we are about diversity. That has many meanings, not just that we have a variety of all kinds of students here, and we want that. We also have a diverse portfolio of majors and elective courses and that translates out. Really bright, interesting, unique students marry that with the diverse curriculum we’re offering, and what does that attract? That attracts a really diverse base of companies and industries. And we have historically fared very well in downward times with the economy, and I think a lot of that has to do with not just the quality of the students that we have here but again the diversity factor that really starts in admissions and goes all the way through the school and translates out on the recruiter side. That’s one thing I would highlight.

A second thing, which we touched on, would be the myth of “I can’t apply in Round 2.” Absolutely you can. Absolutely. I certainly hope we’re going to see a nice robust and high-quality pool in Round 2.  The third thing I would say is on the financial resources front. This has been a priority, and it continues to be a priority that we want to do as much as we can to help admitted applicants on the financial aid side. We do have financial assistance that admitted applicants can apply for, both U.S. citizens and permanent residents. We have an array of merit-based scholarships, no separate application required, and then we also have our Northwestern Loan Program. We never lost our loan program, and this is university funds. So, as you know, a number of schools last year suddenly lost their programs because the bank that they were working with pulled the plug. Our loan program is still in place, and I definitely think it is a reasonable program in terms of rates and so forth. And this is especially key for our international applicants.

And then related to financial assistance, for the military folks who have served post 9/11, we are a participant in the Yellow Ribbon Program, and we’re very, very proud of that. And so all the information about how many folks we can award funding to, the matching, etc., we’ve got that all on our Web site. But I wanted to let you know Kellogg is participating in that.

mbaMission: Thank you again, Beth. It has been great talking with you, and I really appreciate your time.

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