mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with Melissa Rapp, Director of Admissions at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management

mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with Melissa Rapp, Director of Admissions at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management

Melissa Rapp, Director of Admissions at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management

Recently, we had the pleasure of speaking one-on-one with Melissa Rapp, director of admissions at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, who gave us the update on happenings at Kellogg over the past year. She also explained the admissions committee’s take on applying in different rounds and to different programs at the school, in addition to the following: 

  • How the campus’s new Global Hub has influenced the Kellogg experience  
  • The effect of Dean Sally Blount’s departure at the end of the year
  • Rapp’s excitement about the class profile for the incoming Class of 2020, which includes more women students than ever before
  • Kellogg’s video essay and its unique role in the admissions process
  • The admissions team’s view of class visits
  • A few of the school’s new classes that Rapp feels are particularly compelling

Read on for the full transcript of our illuminating conversation.

July 2018

mbaMission: Melissa, thanks so much for joining us today.

Melissa Rapp: My pleasure.

mbaMission: There’s so much excitement at Kellogg right now. Tell us about the Global Hub—seven years, a $350 million investment. How has it changed the Kellogg experience, and is it everything everyone expected?

MR: I think it’s everything everyone expected and then some. I can definitely speak for me personally. I was a little skeptical that a new building could have such a big an influence and create so much positive energy, but ever since we moved back into it last year [March 2017], it has really been an incredible place to work and learn. Now that we’ve been in the building for a year, we’ve had a chance to hear from students how it has affected their experience here, and what we’ve heard is overwhelmingly positive. The things they highlight are things like the classroom setups being customizable. Whether it’s for an in-class lecture or a debate or a small group discussion, the new classrooms support a variety of learning styles and give students a better opportunity to engage with each other and to leverage technology.

The whole building was constructed with an eye toward how we use tech as an educational tool and how people use tech in their everyday lives. So the classrooms are appropriately wired; you can always find a place to charge and use your laptop or phone to take notes. The design was always intended to promote collaboration. And it’s almost impossible to walk through the Global Hub and not see someone you know, because of the wide open spaces and the way the walkways on the upper stories cut across Gies Plaza , the large collaborative plaza on the main floor. You regularly run into your friends, your professors, so it’s a fun place just to hang out.

We’re seeing students come to the Global Hub not just for academics or because they have to but for the gym and the marketplace, where we have food available all the time. They use the space to work in small groups because the study rooms are so great, and because both the large and small areas were designed for collaboration. And a lot of people just really appreciate the view. It’s inspiring to be able to look down the lake at the city and to see all of Chicago that way. It’s just a very calming environment where you can find some quiet space, too. Some rooms are set aside specifically for reflection and quiet, so you can remove yourself from all the technology and buzz of the day and just sit peacefully and look out over the water. And that can give you a real sense of calm, which comes in handy around finals time. It’s amazing.

mbaMission: That sounds fantastic. Kellogg has another big change in the works. Dean Sally Blount is stepping down at the end of the year. I’m not expecting you to announce any candidates today, but if you want to, you’re certainly welcome to!

MR: I really wish I could, but …

mbaMission: Can you tell us how the search is going? What would you say to someone who is applying to a school that does not have a “CEO” in place?

MR: I think it’s important to remember that Sally is the dean until the end of August, and her presence is still really strong around here. We don’t feel like we’re missing anyone in our top leadership position. She still influences our work here on a day-to-day basis. And Kellogg is so much more than just one person. It’s a great time here at Kellogg, and we continue to attract incredible, high-quality, diverse applicants. I’m excited for you to see the class profile for our incoming Class of 2020. We have more women at Kellogg than ever before, and we’re going to continue developing programming to help our women students with their personal and professional growth. We also plan to continue innovating with our curriculum. We’ve introduced more than 100 courses in the past few years! Everything Sally has put in motion will continue, and the momentum and energy she infused into Kellogg are still very strong. Whatever the future holds as far as our next dean, I know Kellogg’s values and the Kellogg experience will remain quintessentially Kellogg.

Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management Class Profile - Class of 2020 - mbaMission

View the facts and figures about Kellogg’s students entering the Two-Year MBA Program in Fall 2018.

mbaMission: Great. Kellogg offers a variety of opportunities for would-be MBAs. For example, it is the only top U.S. MBA program to offer a one-year option for candidates who already have significant managerial experience. But I was thinking that a lot of people in traditional two-year programs also have really strong managerial experience, both educationally and professionally. So what determines the difference, in your opinion? When you meet applicants, do you ever think, “You’re kind of a one-year applicant” or  “You’re kind of a two-year applicant”?

MR: Determining which program is right for you is a very personal decision. And you’re right that some two-year students here at Kellogg would probably have been eligible for the one-year experience. And some one-year students would probably have been fine in the two-year program. The standards for the programs are the same, so we have the same quality of students in both. I think it usually comes down to career goals and expectations. The one-year program is better suited to candidates who have clear career goals that are not too divergent from whatever they’ve been doing.

The major difference between the one-year and the two-year program is the summer internship experience. That internship experience is pivotal to students who want to make a big change in their careers. So if you’re looking to pivot into an entirely new industry or function, we think that internship experience is going to be an important part of your overall MBA experience. For students who have already established a career in a certain industry or function and are just looking to accelerate that career—maybe move to a different company but stay in the same lane—the one-year program is a great option. Because they’ve already established themselves in that industry or function, they can leverage that experience during their career search, versus having to rely on their internship experience. So it does take somebody who understands that their career is on a certain path, and one they’d like to continue on. It’s a great option for someone who fits the selection criteria—come to Kellogg, have a great Kellogg experience, enjoy the student-centered culture, enjoy the benefits of the alumni network after graduating, and do it all in one year.

mbaMission: I have a similar question about the MMM Program. You completely revamped the MMM program a few years ago. Can you share with us how an applicant might be best positioned for that program?

MR: So, MMM is our dual-degree, full-time program that focuses on driving the innovation life cycle of products and services. What’s great about the MMM Program is that it is a fully integrated curriculum that we have put together in partnership with the McCormick School of Engineering. Those students, while they are getting the benefit of that innovation curriculum taught by top professors, are fully Kellogg students. There isn’t any kind of separation between them and our other Kellogg students. When we’re looking at our MMM applicants, the standards are very similar to those for our other programs. A Kellogg student should be a Kellogg student first and foremost.

With that said, a strong applicant for MMM shows a strong focus on his or her goals and how the MMM program can help achieve those goals. The program focuses on the intersection between business, technology, design, and innovation and is rooted in empathy, so an interest in these areas is key. Finally, our team considers an applicant’s potential for contribution to the smaller class of 66, where they will also take coursework from the Segal Design Institute, which is the engineering part of the degree, in a cohort model.

mbaMission: Historically, Kellogg has been known for marketing, though consulting has been trouncing marketing for some time in terms of placement, for at least a decade, I believe. Can you share an area where Kellogg has a real strength but for which it may be lesser known?

MR: My opinion is that Kellogg’s strength does not come from one particular program. It is Kellogg’s long-standing commitment to a core curriculum that really provides students with a broad base of knowledge, and that sets us apart. I think it’s important for applicants who are considering Kellogg to understand that we want to prepare you as a business leader, and we believe that a broad base of knowledge is critical to your ability to rise higher and higher in organizations. It’s so important that you have a working knowledge across all business functions if you want to be a CEO.

Once you have that solid base of knowledge, Kellogg allows you the flexibility to really tailor the program to your needs and to go deep in one area. So if you’re interested in finance, you can definitely layer higher-level finance electives onto your core curriculum to build up your strengths in that area. We also allow you to, if you’d like, continue that broader approach to your academic base. So you can choose a major—majors are optional, and our majors are grounded in our academic departments. They are Accounting, Economics, Finance, Managing Organizations, Marketing, Operations, and Strategy. But we also recognize that some people’s interests don’t fall neatly into one of those areas. So the faculty designed what we refer to as “pathways.” These are guidelines—roadmaps, if you will—for faculty-recommended courses in specific industries that will give you a holistic understanding of that field. So “pathways” are things like data analytics, entrepreneurship, growth and scaling, healthcare, real estate, social impact, and venture capital and private equity.

Really, no matter what your goals are, whether you want to focus in one particular area or think more broadly about your education, Kellogg will allow you to do that. I’m always very hesitant to define Kellogg by one particular program or one particular degree, because I think the beauty of Kellogg is that opportunity to develop your own path after building a strong base of broad knowledge that will equip you to be a leader.

mbaMission: Sure. Thank you for that clarification. Let’s move toward some pure admissions questions now. Kellogg’s average GMAT score is pushing ever higher. Is there any intentionality behind that, or is it just driven by really motivated applicants who want to see their scores go up?

MR: We’ve been fortunate to have an outstanding pool of applicants the past few years. What we’ve seen is that the applicant pool’s GMAT average has risen, so our class profile reflects the caliber of candidates who are choosing to apply to the school. The GMAT gets quite a bit of attention, but it’s just one aspect of our holistic approach to evaluating applicants. We never want candidates to stress too much over it or be intimidated by that score. We do look at candidates from all angles, and while that score does continue to go up, we don’t want people to think that’s a barrier to applying to Kellogg or to being a good candidate for our program.

mbaMission: Other programs seem to be actively pushing people to apply in Round 1 these days. Can you clarify Kellogg’s stance on a Round 1 versus a Round 2 application?

MR: My stance has been and will continue to be that candidates should feel comfortable applying whenever they are ready. I can appreciate that candidates, especially when applying to highly selective schools, look for any strategy that might be beneficial to them. But the truth is, at Kellogg, we really do offer a similar number of admissions in both of those rounds and a similar number of scholarships. So when I say I prefer students to apply when they’re ready, I mean it. There is not a strategic advantage to one round over another.

mbaMission: That response is about as straightforward and matter-of-fact as we could ask for. Kellogg has its unique video essay. Can you talk about its role in the admissions process?

MR: Absolutely! I’ve always been proud that we pioneered this technology after hearing from our CMC [Career Management Center] that lots of companies were starting to use a digital platform to screen candidates, so it was something our students were likely to see in their career search. We felt it would be a good way of introducing the technology to our students while also recognizing the benefits in the evaluation process. Because we’re so committed to getting to know each and every applicant as an individual, having the video essay has been a delightful addition to the process that allows the admissions committee to virtually meet every candidate and to hear in their words why Kellogg interests them and why they want to pursue an MBA. I’m sure you can appreciate that people can represent themselves differently in writing versus when speaking. To see their facial expressions and to hear the emotion and interest in people’s voices has really added a third dimension to our evaluation process and become an integral part of how we consider candidates.

mbaMission: It is interesting that you now have the video essay, but you also maintain an open interview policy. Why interview all applicants if you have the video essay?

MR: It’s a different way of expressing yourself. The interview still plays a very important role and gets at some different qualities than our video essay. We try to very carefully curate the things we ask for from candidates so we can really get at the qualities we’re looking for in different ways. Having both the interview and the video essay doesn’t feel redundant, especially since the folks evaluating applications can’t personally interview everyone. We definitely use the interview reports supplied by our alumni from around the world and find great value in those reports, but there’s something different about seeing someone’s face and hearing their voice. Even though the video essay answers are short, they provide that third dimension of evaluation that the admissions committee really enjoys seeing and hearing.

The interview will continue to be an important part of our application process. We’re going to continue to strive to interview all our candidates, because that’s important to us. It reflects our strong commitment to inclusion and diversity and to making sure every person has a similar application experience. But the video essay, again, has become an important part of our process, so we’ll continue to use it as well.

mbaMission: What can you tell us about class visits? Do you see them as an important indication of interest? If a candidate lives a certain extreme distance away from the school, does not visiting campus become more acceptable in the eyes of the admissions committee? Sometimes people wonder if they are expected to visit if they live within a certain radius of campus.

MR: Our evaluation process doesn’t include anything directly tied to a campus visit, but I do think it’s an important way for candidates to get a feel for the culture and the environment they’re going to study in for the next year or two. Someone recently made the comparison that if you look at luxury cars—let’s say a BMW, a Mercedes, and a Lexus—if you look at the stats, they are all high-performance luxury vehicles, and on paper, they look fairly similar. But if you talk to some die-hard BMW drivers, they would never be caught dead in a Lexus, and vice versa. I think that concept can be applied to the MBA, especially if you’re looking at top-tier schools.

The class profiles, the academics, the strong professors are similar. On paper, or on a website, they all look fairly similar. But Kellogg people are Kellogg people. And Harvard people are Harvard people. And that’s okay! I think it’s really about learning about the culture, getting the feel of the community, and there’s just no better way to do that than to be on campus, talk to students, and talk to alumni. So I always encourage candidates to visit the campuses of all the schools they are seriously considering. It’s a really important part of the overall experience. I don’t think many people buy a car without test driving it, and I don’t think many people should go to a school they’ve never visited. And I understand that that’s complicated for international applicants. Obviously, we have a lot of applicants that choose to visit, but for those who can’t, I think engaging with current students and alumni via LinkedIn or email or over Skype is a good way of getting a feel for at least the people who make up Kellogg.

mbaMission: It’s funny that you use a car analogy. I always tell applicants, “If you bought a car, how many cars would you test drive?” And they’ll say, “Three.” And I’ll say, “This is ten times more important and expensive.” And then they kind of get it. So, what can you say about reapplicants to Kellogg? Can you give your reapplicants out there a little hope?

MR: Absolutely, there is hope! Every year, we admit some reapplicants. Some folks just weren’t quite ready the first time. Some just didn’t perform as well on one aspect of the application as they could have. It’s important for reapplicants to understand that submitting the exact same materials will yield the exact same results. You’d be surprised—sometimes, we get identical applications from people. That additional year of work experience and opportunity should be reflected in the next application. Our platform lets us look at a candidate’s application from the previous year alongside the new application. Seeing what kind of reflection happens after someone wasn’t admitted, and seeing how they subsequently took advantage of opportunities at work, or opportunities to study more for the GMAT, or to gain more leadership experience, all those things are important to show in your new application. I often tell our reapplicants I meet that it isn’t so much that you worked another year, because we’d expect you to work another year. It’s more “So what? What did you learn? How did you grow?” Being able to express that in your reapplicant essay is a really important part of being a successful reapplicant.

mbaMission: Something you said earlier caught my attention, that Kellogg has added 100 new classes in the past couple years. Can you point to a class that is a real favorite—maybe one that is a little bit innovative or different in its approach, that students are really loving?

MR: There are several in the entrepreneurship space.

For example, two years ago, Kellogg introduced a San Francisco Winter Quarter program, allowing students the opportunity to gain course credit while working within a high-growth startup, venture capital, or private equity firm. Students spend three to four days per week at their internship while also taking three credits’ worth of courses on topics including building strong teams and company culture, understanding the application of social dynamics and network science to inform strategy, and navigating the world of venture investment. We will be sending our third and largest cohort to the Bay Area this winter.

Other courses that stand out include “Entrepreneurial Selling,” in which students learn how to acquire and delight customers by using selling skills in different contexts, and “New Venture Discovery,” in which students navigate the earliest stages of starting a new venture by identifying a problem in the market that is worth solving.

mbaMission: When I went to business school, there was a course I felt everyone should have taken but that no one seemed to know about. They brought in 17 entrepreneurs who talked about how they had purchased a business for less than $500,000. Just an amazing class. I had to wonder what classes at Kellogg might be like that! Do you have anything else you would like to say about Kellogg or to your future applicants?

MR: I’m just so thrilled that our application is already live! We were able to launch it earlier than we ever have before. We wanted candidates, especially in Round 1, to have plenty of time to thoughtfully craft their applications. We’re thrilled to have it live now. I definitely encourage everyone to have a look at it and get started on it. Our admissions team is happy to help with any questions. We’ve also started a director blog series, so if you want to hear more of what I think about things, you can follow that []. It is such an exciting time here at Kellogg.

mbaMission: Fantastic! Thank you so much for joining us. I look forward to visiting soon and to seeing Kellogg’s impressive growth continue.

MR: Thank you so much! It was a pleasure.

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