Northwestern/Kellogg Essay Analysis

Essay 1: MBA Program applicants – Briefly assess your career progress to date. Elaborate on your future career plans and your motivation for pursuing an MBA.

We’ve analyzed versions of this question a dozen times, and even this exact one… still, it doesn’t hurt to add some flesh to previous analysis. Before we launch, what’s the purpose of a question like this? Is it to get to know the applicant? Sort of. Is it to be impressed by an ambitious and cool-sounding career goal? Sort of. It’s kind of those things, but mostly… not.

At the end of this essay, the reader is hoping to say the following: “Yep, this kid’s gonna be wildly successful.”

That is the “winning response.” It is the prize. You can have a boring as hell GOAL, and if your reader says the above phrase, you’ve just won. You can have a perfectly average, sparkle-free reason for pursuing an MBA, and if the reader utters the above phrase, you’ve still won. The goal is to exude near-guaranteeable future success. High high high earning prospects. Ability to land a job post MBA. Ability to parley a successful career—ANY CAREER—post MBA. Success, success, success… they want to know that you are going to be successful with or without an MBA, and they want to RIDE that success and attach their name to your LinkedIn profile for all the world to see. They want to world to see that the “successful CEO of blah” went to Kellogg. So, okay, you get it, you have to prove that you’re gonna be successful. How do you do it?

As we’ve said time and again, past success is the BEST predictor of future potential. So, whatever your future goals, if you’re able to demonstrate prior success in that field, you are taking a step in the right direction. If there is no quick and easy way to match up your past experience to your future goals, you will still want to find a LINK that makes the jump from A (past work experience) to B (new career path)… absolutely comprehensible.

So let’s get into it. Let’s look at that word “assess.” To assess is to evaluate or measure in some way. It doesn’t say “recount” or “relay.” Then you could just walk us through your resume point for point. No, sir. Assess means that at each milestone node that is RELEVANT to this essay (we’ll get there in a sec), you need to evaluate its importance with respect to your future goals. How did that first job trigger your ultimate career goal? Or how did that first job turn you off from A but onto B? We want a dynamic story here that shows how something from moment A in your life LED to moment B. Why did you choose job #2 at XXX company? Why not YYY company? Why not ZZZ position at YYY company? Explain the chronology… by “assessing” the career progress AGAINST your future goals.

This brings us to the importance of establishing your ultimate goals… first. Without a roadmap, the chronology is without context. When something lacks context, it ends up being mostly meaningless to the reader. Why am I reading about your first job as a banker at HSBC leading a team in XXX project blablabla. If I knew you were going to take over your family business in light bulb manufacturing, then I’m VERY interested to see how your job as a banker at HSBC would ultimately circle you BACK to wanting an MBA, and how your experiences will lead to positioning yourself as a fierce future CEO of the business, etc. Context. Context is king.

Lead off with a HIGH-LEVEL snapshot of where it’s headed. Give us a teaser. No details. No path, yet. Just a sense of what turns you on, where you wanna be, how you see the world in thirty years, etc. Just a frame about the painting.

THEN take us on the career journey showing us how it’s all leading up to THAT vision that we now have a handle on. This will segue into a more fully fleshed out career plan section, where you lay out the short term and long term goals. Now, 90% of applicants swing and miss here in a big way. Remember, we aren’t interested in your actual plan. All it needs to be… is exceedingly LOGICAL. A logical plan is an achievable one. That means “successful.”

As you walk through the plan, show off how well you’ve thought through everything. Don’t be general. Grill yourself. Imagine you’re trying to poke holes in it. Consider the bad economy. Maybe the path you’ve laid out is doable, but TOUGH. Prove to us that you’ve thought it all through, and walk us through why YOUR plan is bulletproof. Seriously folks, make THAT argument. Don’t just give us the plan, give us the plan PLUS why the plan cannot possibly fail. OR… provide alternative courses of action to demonstrate that you are  a realist, and if something were to not materialize, you are prepared to switch lanes and plow forward some other (exceedingly logical) way. Show us the determination through an absolutely well-researched plan.

How to research it? Honestly, that’s something only you can know. Talk to higher-ups in your organization. Folks who’ve “done it.” Find out what they did. Reference it in your argument. Do whatever you need to do to prove that your plan will work. As we always say, think of it as an investment that we’re making in YOU. Make us feel like we don’t have risk. Show us where our money is going. Put our minds at ease. The most fleshed out your plan, the better I’m gonna feel. Imagine I gave you a million dollars to invest and your plan was “Ahh don’t worry about it I’ll figure it out.” Not so confidence-inspiring. Show me a frickin pie-chart, show me EXACTLY where every cent goes. Tell me what happens in a down market. Tell me what happens if France invades Greece. Tell me what happens if there’s a typhoon in Indonesia. I wanna know that whatever happens, you’re on TOP of it.

This sense of confidence comes from a plan that has internal LOGIC. It works not because you made it work, but because it just frickin makes sense. If your plan doesn’t make sense… you may need to speak with someone with some experience to help you fashion a bulletproof path forward. And if that doesn’t work, we hate to say it, but you may just need to present a new plan altogether.

The motivation for pursuing an MBA can’t feel desperate. The ITCH can feel…. urgent. But you can’t come across as someone who’s doomed to stagnate or fail UNLESS you get an MBA. That isn’t the guy whose success is written in the stars. The successful guy doesn’t realllllly need an MBA. It’s gonna help him blablabla, but he was gonna be successful no matter what. THAT’S the guy an MBA program wants. Again, it’s low risk.

The guy who says, “if I don’t get an MBA, I’m not gonna make it in life!” is a RED FLAG. So, be urgent, but not desperate, cool?

Now, explain how much BETTER your inevitable success will BE…. with…. an MBA. Explain it. Here’s what’s gonna happen without = Great. Here’s what’s gonna happen WITH an MBA = FRICKIN INCREDIBLE. Show em both to us. Let us SEE the difference with our own eyes.

• Opening assault on our senses, snapshot of vision – 75–100 words

• Career Progress – 225 words

• Goals – 175

• Why MBA (now) – 100-125 words

Essay 2: Describe your key leadership experiences and evaluate what leadership areas you hope to develop through your MBA experiences (600 word limit).

Most folks spend 574 words on the leadership experiences, and then burn 26 lousy words as an afterthought on the “areas you hope to develop” aspect. Let’s bring this sucker into balance. 450/150, if not 400/200.

To understand why we wanna redress the balance a bit, let’s figure out what they want here. As usual, they wanna know that you’re gonna be successful, pure and simple. How to measure? Why, past experience, of course. And what better way than through leadership examples. This is huge. Solid leadership examples. The best examples tend to be people-leadership, but if it’s something like logistics, large-scale operational leadership stories, they’ll suffice. Anything that shows you in command, calling the shots. Taking charge. Enacting. Delegating. Inspiring. “Leading.”

Better to have a few GREAT leadership stories, than a series of weak ones. If you have more experiences than can be captured here, you can allude to that even. But focus on the two best ones. Three if you get and out of each with incredible detail… FAST. Two tends to be a strong, logical choice. So, figure 150 or so for each one, if you have an intro paragraphs that runs approximately 75 words or so.

In 150 words, the way to NAIL a leadership story is not to tell us what you led, but HOW you led it. What were your actions? How did you make decisions? Paint a picture of your style. Present the challenges in your way, then show us how you dealt with them. Set up the pins, and then knock ‘em down. Put us in the MIDDLE of the action. Don’t get ahead of yourself and tell it to us with all the hindsight knowledge. Tell it to us almost in “real time.” If you were confused, make us feel confused WITH you. If you had a breakthrough realization, walk us THROUGH that moment. Bring us into “the moment.” 150 words is more than enough. Remember, don’t impress us with the facts alone. Impress with the way your leadership style LED to your success.

For the second part, consider your future goals. Don’t just talk about skills you’d like to develop in the abstract. That doesn’t really tell us much. Come it in a more practical way. Revisit your future goals, consider the leadership skills you’ll need to be UNUSUALLY successful in that role. Are you there yet? If so…. why do you need an MBA? Presumably, there is at least one THING you can stand to develop, nurture, feed, etc. in the leadership department. Identify what that is, and explain why you want to develop it… with respect to your future goal. See the difference? Now you have context. Now you can say, once I develop Skill XX, I will be THAT MUCH MORE successful, or guaranteed to be successful in endeavor YY.

Essay 3: Assume you are evaluating your application from the perspective of a student member of the Kellogg Admissions Committee. Why would you and your peers select you for admission, and what impact would you make as a member of the Kellogg community? (600 word limit).

Another squandered opportunity often times. Why? Because not everyone is comfortable taking a risk. Now, in order to answer this question, you need to pretend you’re actually a committee member writing about yourself in the third person. You can, I guess, but unless it’s super compelling, it can sometimes come across a bit cheesy. A well argued “straight” essay will beat out the gimmicky one that is lacking in substance.

Now then. What happens when you put on this magical hat and assume the perspective of a Kellogg STUDENT? Remember, this is what a STUDENT thinks. A kid who may be YOUNGER than you, or the same age, or at most, a few years older. Not a blue-haired, crinkly, professor-type. A kid.

The answer is simple. They want someone who’s coooool. Someone with a neat background. Someone they wanna hang out with. Someone they… may wanna go into business with. If you seemed wholly obsessed with yourself and your career, you’re not gonna be that guy. If you seem like someone who has proven synergy in groups, seems to be a part of things like sports or club or communal activities, etc… you’re gonna seem like someone who may add value to a COMMUNITY.

Let’s talk about “community.” Think about a neighborhood. 10 houses. Families that all know each other. Kids have gotten to know each other and play together. During holidays, there’s an open door policy where neighbors will join others for dinner, etc, etc. One day, one of the families MOVES, and there’s an empty house. New potential neighbors are bidding for the house and the existing families wait in eager anticipation to see who it’s gonna be…. who’s gonna be our new neighbor?!

What are they hoping for? What’s the WORST kind of neighbor imaginable?

A noisemaker
Someone who is so quiet, it’s almost…. suspicious
Someone who’s greedy?

What’s an ideal neighbor?

Someone who…. contributes
Someone who……… adds value—SOMEHOW

It’s pretty open-ended. But do you see where it’s headed? The ideal new community member is gonna ADD something. This is the thing to capture. What are you gonna add?

Are you the guy who walks into the room and everyone starts to relax? Are you the guy who inspires a room to do super new and unusual and cool things? Are you the guy who’s gonna start up a club no one’s ever heard of? Are you the guy who’s gonna floor people with your experiences as a pig farmer? All of these are valuable things. This is absolutely 100% a question to poll others on. Ask them, “is this cool”? Ask us, ask your friends, ask whomever. But make sure you ask people who have the sand to say “nope, this is decidedly uncool—what else you got?”

One trick we’re big fans of is putting it in terms of things YOU’D look for in someone else, and WHY. And then show how you fit that profile similarly. It’s a simple, great trick to help focus what could be a very difficult and open-ended question. Give it a shot; try FIRST answering it with respect to what would YOU look for in a new Kellogg student? Make a list, give some short descriptions. Then go through that list and pick three things that YOU actually relate to, and explain how YOU will bring those things to the Kellogg community.

Got it? Good.
Still need a little more? We got you covered right here.

Essay 4: Complete one of the following three questions or statements. (400 word limit)
Re-applicants have the option to answer a question from this grouping, but this is not required.

a)     Describe a time you had to inspire a reluctant individual or group…

The key word here is “reluctant.” Without a reluctant other person or group, this essay is dead in the water. Why? Because what we’re looking for here is how you changed reluctant to believer. If your idea is great and your audience buys it immediately, you don’t need to be a great leader in order to execute. It’s the room of naysayers that exposes the truly gifted leaders. Because he’s the guy that’s gonna INSPIRE that room, and win them over through……….. “leadership.”

Set this one up. Spend 100 words setting up the RELUCTANCE. Show us what you were up against, and why you had every reason in the world to fail. Then walk us through the “what you did” aspect. 200 words. Show us how, step by step, you earned their buy-in. Don’t just tell us THAT you did; show us what maneuvers, what decisions, what risks, what actions LED to it. In the final 100 words, reflect on what you believe to be the “take home” point. What was it you learned? What was it you understood about leadership? What would you improve? What will you do next time? Where did you make errors? Etc. Reflect, wrap up.

b)    People may be surprised to learn that I…

This should be as far away from “safe” as imaginable. The absolute WOOOOORST thing you can do here is copy and paste an essay from another school and thinly mask it as a “people will be surprised to learn that I” essay. Unless you can HONESTLY fill in those blanks with a pre-written answer, please, for the love of god, spend the thirty minutes to fire up a legitimately cool, fresh new response. Thirty minutes. Consider it a dare.

This one has to have “fizz.” It has to be frickin bizarre, and cool, and unusual. If it isn’t, it’ll be just disappointing. If it doesn’t surprise the reader immediately, you’ve lost the battle outright. “People will be surprised to learn that I saved ten women and children from a burning building… with a broken leg.”

“People will be surprised to learn that I became the CEO of XXX company, a YYY million dollar enterprise, at age 17.”

“People will be surprised to learn that I know how to use a grapple hook better than Batman.”

I dunno, give us something that makes us go, “Wait, did I just read that correctly?”

“Surprise” does not mean impress. It means, “wwhhhhaaaaaaaaa?” It has to make us blink and read the thing twice. Be outrageous. Be silly. Be witty. Be chancy. Back it up with something cool that will add value to your future successful businessman self, of course, but… surprise us.

This one simply requires gut-wrenchingly honest feedback. It’s easy to assume something’s unique and cool and surprising, when in fact, we see dozens upon dozens of the saaame response. Hard to believe, but true.

c)     The riskiest personal or professional decision I ever made was…

To crush this essay, you need to understand and appreciate the definition of “risk.” At the most basic level, risk requires the potentially for grave… LOSS. Not upside… LOSS.

If someone said to me okay man, I’m gonna flip a coin. If it’s heads, you get to go on a date with Monica Bellucci, and you’ll be forced to kiss her. If it’s tails, you get to go on a date with Carmen Electra and you’ll be forced to kiss her. Guess what. I’m gonna take that bet, and fare pretty damn well no matter how it turns out. In other words, there is NOTHING but upside. Sure it could be a stakes of a bet, but without the potentiality for loss, it isn’t really “risk.”

If, however you said if it’s heads, you get to kiss BOTH Monica Bellucci AND Carmen Electra… but if it’s tails, you will lose $500,000. Um, now I’m not so sure I’m gonna make that wager. That’s a lot of money to lose. Some folks, some very lonely folks, might make take on that RISK.

Can you identify a time when you had something extraordinary to LOSE? This could be either personal or professional. The key isn’t which one, it’s when were the stakes the highest?

Now, you gotta navigate through the DECISION-PROCESS throughout that experience. This is the thing we wanna know about. Frankly, we don’t care much about the situation, nor do we really care about the outcome. In fact, those are largely irrelevant. What we care about is the moment of truth where you showed your true colors DURING the experience.

100 for setup. 200 for the meat of the process. The “what you did and why.” And finally another 100 for assessing it. Was it worth it? Would you do it again? Why yes? Why no? What did you learn about yourself in that moment? How is any of this relevant to how you see you future unfolding? (You don’t need to make a direct link to your future career goals, but it can help to see how the overall picture will start to stitch together, from various aspects of your life, including this one.)