Northwestern Kellogg MBA Essay Analysis, Your 2014-2015 Application

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Are you ready to dig into your essays? Application essays are specifically and cleverly designed to get into your head. We like to turn the tables on the admissions committees and get inside their heads. Why are they asking these questions? What are they looking for? Read on as our experts break down application essay questions to help YOU plan the attack.

Gone are the convenstional questions about goals and achievements - Northwestern Kellogg MBA Essays are looking for CHARACTER. Time to step it up.

Northwestern Kellogg MBA Essay Question 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)

What this is… is a great question. Before we dig into how to answer it, let’s soak up all the hints first. Why would Kellogg make mention of “resilience, perseverance, and grit” unless those were things they valued (and are therefore looking for specifically in would-be MBAs)? Whatever your story, whatever your challenge, if they don’t lead to the development or sharpening of those things in particular, you’ve missed the purpose of this prompt. In other words, if the conclusion of your essay is “and this is an amazing example that shows how smart and capable a leader I am,” you’ve missed it. The conclusion you want is “I was pushed well outside my comfort zone, but learned over and over that even the most awkward, unpleasant, direct lines of communication are always more effective than the alternatives.”

“Building” character. Let’s consider that word a bit. When you build a house, you don’t use a crane to drop a magically pre-assembled house onto the foundation. In other words it doesn’t from no-house to… house, with the snap of your fingers. You lay that sucker brick by brick, nail by nail. It’s a process. It’s linear. The experience you describe for this essay must show development, which means there’s a difference between the Before & After picture. Before this episode, there were certain assumptions you relied on in your approach. Or there were certain go-to leadership tactics. Or there were certain principles you had held steadfastly to. Whatever the “thing” is, it needs to have EVOLVED somehow through this experience. We wanna know what it used to be. What happened to “test” it. And how it changed.

This is important. If there wasn’t a shift in your tactical algorithm, a change in your philosophy, a renewed sense of … something, your story is gonna feel like a fleshed out resume bullet point. Instead, we need to see an EVOLUTION from how you were or behaved or viewed things BEFORE this event to how you then were or behaved or viewed things DIFFERENTLY ON ACCOUNT of this event. Identify those things before you begin, and the rest will be easy.

  1. This is what I was like before the experience: XXX
  2. This is the aspect of this experience that challenged that: YYY
  3. That original approach/way of being/understanding of ABC, failed, forcing me to learn something new. That thing was: ZZZ
  4. This is my NEW understanding, my NEW approach (if not new, modified, evolved, etc.)

Once you have that locked and loaded, now we can begin delivering this thing with some punch. (Easy, once the STORY points are solid.)

You have a few choices for how to OPEN this.

  • Option 1 is to present us with the BEFORE version of you. Explain how you viewed something, or how you would typically behave in Situation X. Then introduce the event/situation that tested that approach. Show how it didn’t quite work, forcing you to learn something new… and take it from there. Or,
  • Option 2 is to drop us directly into the SITUATION. This was the background, these were the objectives, these were the challenges, and this is what was at stake. Then you can walk us through “this is how I was accustomed to approaching it: XYZ. Well, that approach imploded. Uh oh.” And it goes from there, and you talk about how you had to “learn” whatever it is you learned.
  • In either case, you’ll eventually get up the point where you’re walking us through the execution of the event in real-time. (Don’t tell it with hindsight bias–one trick is to write in the present tense, as though it’s happening now. This will help you not to layer analysis in too prematurely. We want to know understand the gear-churning as it happened, We want to see how you and when you were confused, frustrated, angry, vulnerable, etc. Hindsight bias has a nasty way of whitewashing all of that stuff.)
  • Now we get to the analysis piece. This is the part where you walk us through what the change was in you, and grapple with what you gained from it, and why it’s significant. If the lesson doesn’t have future implications… who cares. Let’s see why this will positively affect you in the long term.

The key to this essay is to develop a clear picture in your head of Before & After. The sharper the contrast there, the more something in you was TESTED, the better. If the challenge here didn’t force you to step outside your comfort zone, walk into unchartered territories, cause you to feel anxious ever, etc. then you may not have the most appropriate example. This isn’t a question about a time you were placed in a perfect situation and were able to shine from start to finish. There need to be bumps. Times you QUESTIONED others, and most importantly YOURSELF. The more you’re able to puncture your self-confidence, and question your own sense of right and wrong, the better.


Northwestern Kellogg MBA Essay Question 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)

Again, let’s pay attention to the hints. They could have just asked about a leadership experienced, right? Instead, they define leadership as they see it, using words like “collaborate” and “motivate” and “influence.” There’s also a hint in the word “teach” – it implies that you STRETCHED somehow through this experience to grow your sense of collaboration, teamwork, leadership, etc. What does that mean? Well, it means that if you didn’t LEARN anything on account of this experience, it’s not gonna pack as much punch. People who are able to demonstrate the way in which they learned something tend to more likely to have internalized that idea than those who have difficulty remembering what it was like “before they learned the lesson.” This requires… humility. It requires the uncomfortable exercise of traveling back in time to the moment BEFORE you “gained” something. To a time where maybe you WEREN’T quite as sharp, or talented, or effective as a leader. If you can remember that time, and you can remember the moment that changed, and if you can examine why things changed, it all adds up to a guy who has limitless potential to learn, improve, and succeed. It may surprise you to learn that MAJORITY of the essays we read do NOT initially convey this. It takes hard work to confront the way you were BEFORE you improved.

So let’s hop into our Deloreans and zip backwards in time. Now, you’ve heard us talk about choosing your stories carefully, and grabbing only from your greatest hits (as opposed to answering these questions so literally that you ill-advisedly choose the 7th most impressive story in your repertoire simply because it seems to answer the question better—don’t do this!). Once you’ve chosen your BEST leadership story, before you begin shaping your response, we need to identify a few key pieces:

  1. What aspect of leadership and collaboration was NEW to you in this experience? There must have been a moment when one of your previously-held beliefs was called into question. Or a tactic you were comfortable with failed, or was ineffective. Or a moment where you simply didn’t know what to do. Something OTHER THAN… it all went exactly according to plan before you were perfect from the start. This won’t give Kellogg any sense that you have a bend to your learning curve potential. The capacity to stretch, and proactively seek improvement. So, dig deep here and figure out where there was a shift. An evolution. A surprise. Something.
  2. Now, consider TWO separate scenarios: Scenario 1 is how the experience would have played out according to your PREVIOUSLY-HELD assumptions, or familiar tactics, whatever the “Before” version of you was. Extrapolate how it would have ended, what the collaboration/teamwork would have looked like, etc. Scenario 2 is how the experience ACTUALLY turned out, given that there was a slight SHIFT in your abilities as a leader, because presumably, you learned to do or try something different. This version HAS to be more compelling somehow—ON ACCOUNT OF that thing you picked up along the way. Considering these two scenarios will help you isolate exactly what the difference was in YOUR leadership tactics that led to gelling your team more successfully. We’re interested in the DELTA here folks. We wanna know that YOU know how sensitive leadership tactics can be. And that minor shifts can lead to major differences in outcome.

Once you have these two pieces licked, now you can start building a compelling narrative. Structurally, fairly straightforward:

  • Start with setting the scene, acquainting us with what the objective was, what the team looked like, all that table-setting stuff.
  • Now, acquaint us with how you were USED to handling this type of objective. In other words, what was your default approach to LEADING THIS TEAM specifically? Explain what that approach was and why you believed that it would be effective. (Don’t be afraid to be partially correct here, or even wrong!)
  • Finally, explain what happened along the way that caused you to call this tactic into question, or to MODIFY it, such that it forced an evolution in your understanding of what makes teamwork truly click? Initially, simply explain it in a very straightforward way, just tell us what happened, so we know.
  • Now, in the final section, you can analyze and dig into the “whys.” Here you’ll wanna explore what makes leaders effective, and try to sell us on why these new insights (gained from this experience) will make you even MORE effective than you had been. What are the applications of this lesson beyond this one story? What else are you eager to learn?


Northwestern Kellogg MBA Essay - Optional

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

Here’s everything you need to know about writing the Optional Essay… the right way.

Optional Essay/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)

And for all you reapplicants out there… let’s show the adcom a better version of yourself this time around, eh?


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