Analyzing the Applications: the Kellogg Essays

By Kyle Watkins (last updated: December 17, 2013)

After covering Kellogg’s video essay question in a recent post, and with only about two and half weeks before Kellogg’s first-round deadline, we wanted to take a step back and consider the best approach to tackling the school’s essay questions.

The Kellogg School of Management

The Kellogg School of Management

More than perhaps any other top-tier MBA program, Kellogg places significant emphasis on a candidate’s character. First, consider that Kellogg interviews all of its applicants. They’ve clearly demonstrated that they need to meet each candidate to judge whether he or she is a fit. They don’t simply weed out 80%, as HBS does, based on stats, resumes, and essays alone. Second, consider the questions implicit across Kellogg’s website and admissions materials: What do you value? What motivates you? How strong are your interpersonal skills? Are you mature? How do you contribute to the community? You shouldn’t have to search long to find phrases like those across Kellogg’s website or admissions office.

Given this emphasis, it’s important your Kellogg essays focus primarily on one of a few areas: your character, your motivations, your leadership style, or your interpersonal skills. Of course, you must also talk about what you’ve accomplished, but that will never be the focus of the best Kellogg essays.

With that in mind, let’s breakdown each of Kellogg’s essay questions:

Essay 1: What’s the greatest obstacle you’ve overcome (personally or professionally)? How has overcoming this obstacle prepared you to achieve success now and in the future? (350 word limit)

As with any essay, the hardest part about nailing this answer will be picking your topic wisely. Perhaps the first choice you will have to make is whether you write about a personal or professional obstacle. The best essays will almost always be about personal obstacles. However, so will the worst. So, if you are going to choose a personal story to tell, make sure you set the bar high for what qualifies as relevant and appropriate. It has to be a truly defining moment for you. Many, if not most, applicants will not have such a personal story. I certainly did not. And that’s fine. It’s better not to force it if the substance isn’t there.

For any essay — personally or professionally focused — make sure the obstacle you articulate is significant and substantive. It can’t be something trite; for instance, don’t write about a time you had to complete a project on a short deadline or work with an especially difficult client. It should also be an obstacle that illustrates what you value. That is, when faced with a difficult choice that pinned two competing virtues against one another, which did you choose and how did you think about the tradeoffs?

It’s critical, too, that candidates avoid writing essays that paint other people as the obstacle. For instance, it would be unwise to talk about how you had to learn to work with a difficult boss or manage a substandard subordinate. Remember, Kellogg is about character, values, and maturity. The admissions committee won’t look fondly upon applicants who see other people as the biggest obstacles in life. Instead, it wants applicants who see others as partners in overcoming other obstacles.

In that vein, this question provides an opportunity to focus more on words like “us” and “we” than “I” or “me.” Kellogg wants to see applicants that are capable of leading collaboratively: “It takes courage to go forth alone. It takes more courage to convince others to follow,” Kellogg says. They emphasize togetherness, not individual accomplishment.

Don’t forget to address the second part of the essay: how the obstacle helped prepare you for success now and in the future. Kellogg wants to know how your prior experiences have shaped your vision. Tie it back to how it has influenced your management philosophy — after all, while character is important, you still are applying to an MBA program. You’ll have to keep it concise; 350 words will feel limiting, but don’t exceed that word count. Even 351 words is too many. The admissions committee provided you pretty clear direction; make sure you demonstrate that you’re capable of following it by sticking to their instructions precisely.

Essay 2: What have been your most significant leadership experiences? What challenges did you face, and what impact did you have? This is your opportunity to explain how you Think Bravely. (500 word limit)

If you’re not familiar with Kellogg’s Think Bravely mantra, then take the time to learn it well. It comprises two key ideas that you need to demonstrate in this essay: “passionately collaborative” and “world changing.”

To demonstrate the first key idea, you need to again emphasize how you view others as partners in a mission to effect positive change. You’re humble enough to know you can’t do it alone, that you don’t have all the answers. However, beyond that, the essay prompt makes clear that you need to describe the impact that YOU had. How did you lead and inspire others to accomplish a common mission? Balancing the focus on your own leadership capabilities with the humility of demonstrating you can’t do it alone is not easy, but it’s critical to answering this question effectively.

To demonstrate the second key idea, make sure you pick a leadership experience that illustrates your commitment to change the world. That isn’t to say the change needs to be altruistic or humanitarian. It can be any endeavor that seeks to better the private sector, public sector, or non-profit sector. But it must prove your ability to think and act big. It must demonstrate a healthy appetite for change and progress.

Essay 3: Part 1: What career/role are you looking to pursue and why? (250 word limit) / Part 2: Why are Kellogg and the MBA essential to achieve these career goals? (250 word limit)

This is a variant on three common essay questions: What is your career vision? Why do you want an MBA? And why specifically a Kellogg MBA? We’ve discussed some of these question before, and they’ve certainly been examined at length across books and the web. However, when approaching Kellogg’s variant on these questions, keep the same basic guidance in mind: Remember that Kellogg’s application process, more than most MBA programs, looks at an applicant’s character. They look for applicants that thrive in leading collaborative environments to make big changes.

If you have specific questions about your Kellogg essays or would like our general guidance on a draft you’ve put together, please reach out through our free consultation process. We’re happy to give your essay a quick look so you can bounce some ideas off us. And if you want to assess your odds of success, try our MBA matching algorithm and get an assessment of your profile within a couple of minutes. Good luck!

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