- Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management is one of the best of the best in terms of business schools — ranked No. 10 in the world, according to education specialists Quacquarelli Symonds.
- Business Insider spoke with eight Kellogg alumni, two of whom have worked or currently work in admissions at the school, about the application process.
- These veterans suggested doing plenty of research into Kellogg as well as your own career ambitions to make yourself stand out, and be authentic and humble.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management is at the top of the food chain no matter whose ranking you use. Its MBA program is ranked No. 10 in the world, according to education specialists Quacquarelli Symonds' 2020 Global MBA Ranking. It was also ranked No. 4 in the world in 2019 by The Economist and is currently ranked No. 6 domestically by U.S. News & World Report and No. 3 by Forbes.
But whether it lands in the top 10, top five, or top spot any given year, there's no question that students who aspire to get an MBA from an elite institution want to get in here. A 2020 article on the business school forum Poets & Quants flags the fact that last year, while 3,779 candidates applied to Kellogg, only 982 were admitted, leaving the acceptance rate at just under 26%.
Want to learn how to be one of the lucky few? Business Insider got the scoop on what works and what doesn't through exclusive interviews with Kellogg admissions staff and alumni. The tips and insights that follow just might be the ones you need to help you get the acceptance letter you've been dreaming about.
Do your research by perusing Kellogg's website, talking to students and alumni, and listening to podcasts
The senior director of full-time admissions for Kellogg School of Management, Renee Cherubin, is a 2006 alumnus of the MBA program. Her first line of advice is that candidates take some time to familiarize themselves with the school's admissions criteria. She also recommended reviewing blog posts on Kellogg's website for admissions tips and student perspectives, and speaking to current students and alumni about their experience. (You can read about Cherubin's own Kellogg student journey on the school's blog.)
Cherubin said the most straightforward way to connect with a student or alum is by reaching out to the Kellogg admissions team at [email protected]
"Let us know what you're interested in discussing and we can connect you directly to a student or alum," she said. If you'd prefer to track down your own resource, she recommended contacting your closest alumni club (you can search clubs on the Kellogg website) or connecting with individual alumni on LinkedIn.
"You'll be hard pressed to find a Kellogg alum that won't warmly welcome this request and make time to connect with you one on one," Cherubin said.
Here are some things you may want think about when approaching alumni and current Kellogg students:
- Talking to someone that made a career transition that you're envisioning for yourself.
- Having your significant other connect to the partner of a current student to learn about their experience moving with their partner (and potentially their children) to best navigate a similar transition for your family.
- Speaking with someone from your region of the world to learn about fit, inclusion, and cultural nuances.
Cherubin additionally recommended reaching out to a Kellogg student club that's tied to your region, such as the Africa Business Club, the Asian Management Association, or the European Business Club, to name a few. You can access these clubs directly via the Kellogg website.
Philip Cooney, a 2019 alum and strategy consultant senior at USAA, suggested also listening to podcasts to get familiar with the application process. "There are plenty out there, which I listened to on my commute to work and when I worked out," he said. He added that he found Linda Abraham's "Admissions Straight Talk" to be a great resource.
Understand which of Kellogg's programs is right for you
Kellogg offers four distinct options to earning your MBA: the One-Year MBA Program, the Two-Year MBA Program, the MMM Program (in which you earn both an MBA from Kellogg and an MS in Design Innovation from the Segal Design Institute at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science), and the JD-MBA Program (in which you earn an MBA from Kellogg and a JD from Northwestern Law).
Megha Kosaraju, who graduated from Kellogg last June and recently took a position as a senior strategy and innovation fellow at Medtronic LABS, identified the biggest challenge of applying to Kellogg to be sifting through the jargon and acronyms to determine which program is the best fit for your needs, which she notes can get confusing on any school's website.
"It's hard to know which elements are core to the school's identity and which are smaller, more extraneous parts of the experience," Kosaraju said. To overcome this obstacle, she got on the phone and met with current students and alumni. "They were able to help me highlight the 'must-mention' programs in my essays, and blend them with more specific classroom and extracurricular experiences that showed the depth of my research and unique ways I planned to shape my time at Kellogg," she said.
Kosaraju added that while 1Y, 2Y, MMM, and JD-MBA students all ultimately learn together as part of a single community, the format of each of these programs is uniquely and intentionally designed for different types of students. "Take the time to figure out which one is best for you and explicitly express why" that's the case in your application, Kosaraju said.
Emulate what Kellogg's looking for — high-impact leaders without egos
"At Kellogg, we look for applicants who are able to demonstrate leadership by spearheading change, striving for excellence, and/or creating lasting impact," Cherubin said. "Our students are the kind of people who aim to leave an innovative mark on their companies before and after Kellogg."
She added that Kellogg values people who are fully engaged and "all in" with their student experience — specifically people who will be "high impact, low ego leaders" who always look to elevate everyone in the room.
Cherubin shared an example of a recent Kellogg student who, during a summer internship, was paired with an intern from another business school for a project. When the Kellogg intern finished his part, he offered to help the other intern, who was struggling to complete his section. While the other intern initially turned down the assistance, as the night went on he took the Kellogg student up on the offer.
"The next morning the peer came to the Kellogg student and said thank you and noted that his fellow classmates would never have offered to help the way the Kellogg student offered and continued to offer to help," Cherubin said. "The Kellogg student returned to school and noted that this experience opened his eyes and showed that the Kellogg culture is really different."
And make sure you're comfortable with collaboration
Caryn Altman previously served as an admissions officer at Kellogg and also holds an MBA from the school (having graduated in 2000). Today, she serves as the in-house Kellogg expert at Stacy Blackman Consulting, an MBA admissions consulting firm.
Altman said to focus, throughout the application process, on your ability to work within a collaborative environment — and to be honest with yourself if that's really an environment you thrive in and want to be a part of.
"People who work best in solo settings, owning just their own work, will not be comfortable in Kellogg's highly collaborative atmosphere," Altman said. "While I'd highlight your accomplishments, I'd look to balance that with the benefit of working with your teams. 'I did this, I did that' or casting blame on teammates is the surest way not to leave a good impression on the admissions committee."
Kosaraju added that at Kellogg, professors frequently include group-based projects in their curricula and encourage students to work with classmates who they haven't worked with before. "Kellogg wants to know that you can think outside of just yourself and that you'll be a good community member," she said.
Outside of classwork, Kosaraju describes an atmosphere on campus of "paying it forward":
"Because you never know how others will help you out or in what situation you'll be paired together, there is an unspoken sense of doing good for your peers without expecting anything in return," she said. "In my application, I shared examples of times I had worked with diverse teams and how I adjusted to their various needs. I also shared stories of times (in and out of work) that I had reached out to someone who seemed to be in need."
Don't sweat the video essays, and leverage them as another way to showcase your personality
A few top-tier MBA programs now require candidates to submit video essays as part of their application, and Kellogg is among them.
"Our holistic application process allows us to get to know each applicant and how they would bring their traits to Kellogg in [their] own unique way," Cherubin said. "This especially rings true with our video essay, which allows applicants to introduce themselves to our team and provide an authentic glimpse into their personality and their goals — no matter where they are located in the world. There is a tremendous opportunity to relay your Kellogg knowledge when asked, so do your research and be sure to demonstrate it where possible."
Kosaraju explained how she leveraged the video essay as a way to showcase her personality. "I prepared a thorough response in advance for the one question I knew I'd get: 'Why Kellogg?'" she said. "This is the one chance you get in your application to succinctly summarize both your story and the top things about Kellogg that will help you make the leap from your past experiences to your future aspirations. I recognized that this was my chance to make admissions' job easy for them by clearly laying out how Kellogg fit into my journey."
Beyond that strategy, Kosaraju said she "just took a deep breath" and treated the process like she was having a conversation with a friend.
Highlight 'unique points of difference' throughout your application
Altman emphasized the importance of pinpointing "unique points of difference" throughout your entire application — in your essays, resume, interview, etc. — since it can be challenging to distinguish yourself from other applicants of similar backgrounds.
"This is especially the case for those coming from oversubscribed professional backgrounds such as consulting and banking, along with oversubscribed populations from particular areas of the world," she said.
She advised applicants to highlight areas of accomplishment or unique background stories to help differentiate them from the applicant pool. "For example, instead of just discussing that you closed X number of banking transactions, focus on what you did that was not the norm on these transactions — so things like, led at a level above, reporting directly to the MD, or presented to a C-level client on multiple occasions," she said.
Spend at least 6 months prepping for the GMAT
For Kellogg's Class of 2020, the average GMAT score is 732. And while the GMAT alone won't get you into Kellogg, you still need to land in that range to be seriously considered.
"Test scores are just one data point, but they are an important hurdle to get over," Cooney said.
That's why James Both, Kellogg class of 2014, suggested extensively preparing for this mandatory exam.
"I enrolled in an online and at home study test prep class that offered me flexibility for preparing for the GMAT," said Both, who's now the CEO and founder of One Hour Smart Home. "If you've been out of school for a while, the most helpful thing is to constantly take practice exams to get used to the pace you need to maintain while taking the GMAT." Both recommended dedicating at least six months to a year studying for the exam.
Sahar Jamal, a 2019 Kellogg graduate and the founder of Maziwa Breast Pump, agreed with the tactic of completing practice tests to prep for the GMAT. "Take a practice test right away, even if it scares you," she said. "You will likely get a low score, but that's okay because it will give you a sense of the areas you need to work on."
She also favors starting the GMAT process early. "Make sure to book the test, otherwise it can be tempting to procrastinate," she added.
Prep your materials and references as soon as possible
Cooney suggested that it's never too early to get all your materials — even the less important ones — ready to apply.
For example, he advised getting your resume in tip-top shape as soon as you can. "There's nothing stopping you from getting this in final shape well before applications are even released," he said.
Also, make sure to give your references a heads up that you're considering Kellogg. "Identify and sensitize your recommenders to your request well before you'd like them to start working on recommendations," so they can get you everything you need on time, he added.
And, he pointed out, "most of the essay questions don't change drastically from year to year, so don't wait until the 'official' questions drop to start drafting your essays" — even if you may have to tweak them later on, at least you'll have something to work with.
When lacking in certain areas, show grit, a track record, and potential — but stay humble
Today, Margaret Arakawa is a CMO at Outreach, a sales engagement platform, after having spent nearly two decades at Microsoft, where she most recently led the multi-billion dollar US Windows and Surface businesses. But back when she was applying to the Kellogg School of Management, she had to figure out how to overcome some significant obstacles on her path to the C-suite.
"I had to overcome being poor and juggling schoolwork while waiting tables to pay for rent and tuition," Arakawa said. "I couldn't afford to intern at a Fortune 500 company or travel the world creating nonprofits, so my resume was light." Her strategy was to show the admissions committee her grit and tenacity, as well as her track record.
"Despite the financial limitations that I had in high school, I got good grades and SAT scores, and I 'raised my hand' to lead an array of extracurricular activities," Arakawa said. "Even when I wasn't the most talented, I worked hard. I landed the first-chair position in the state orchestra by sheer will and determination. It didn't take money; it took hours of driving my mom and sister crazy practicing clarinet in a tiny apartment."
She recommended that other candidates take a similar approach with their own situations. "Don't stress about what you haven't done," she said. "Focus your energy on positioning your past experiences in a way that demonstrates your grit, your performance, your potential, and your inimitable value."
When describing your accomplishments, however, Jamal likes to remind candidates that the program caters to "high impact, low ego" leaders.
"Rather than embellishing your experiences and accolades, be humble about what you've achieved, vulnerable about what you still need to work on, and genuine about how Kellogg will help you get there," Jamal said. "Typically the applicants that will be successful are those who are more understated than boastful."
Nikhil Kelkar, who just joined the ranks of Kellogg alumni last year and is now in brand and product marketing at GSK, also noted that if you're applying with deficits in your academic record, it's important to show other strengths.
"My strength was my prior work experience," he said. "I was applying with more than eight years of work experience and with global team management experience under my belt. I leveraged this people management experience to differentiate myself in my application."
Get feedback and give thanks to the people who've helped you out
When you've nailed down the various steps of the application process, Cooney says the final phase should involve gathering and incorporating outside input.
"You need feedback from people who know you to answer: Does this sound like me?" he said. "You also need feedback from people who know the MBA program to answer: Do [I] sound like someone who will be a good fit at this program? You need to give yourself enough time to regroup and revise if the answer to either of these questions is 'no.'"
Cooney explained that about 18 months before his application was due, he signed up for Service To School, a nonprofit dedicated to helping active duty and military veterans transition into higher education. Through the program, he was paired with a veteran who underscored the importance of connecting with other veterans at Cooney's target programs.
While initially hesitant to share his resume and essays, once Cooney reached out for the recommended feedback, he described feeling "overwhelmed" by the willingness of current students to lend their time to speak with him. It was a worthwhile endeavor, as he realized that he had more work to do to translate his non-traditional background into language that anyone could understand. He also received great feedback on how well he was connecting his post-MBA goals to the program's offerings.
"By connecting with students from similar backgrounds and being open to their feedback, I was able to be more confident that the applications I submitted were both true reflections of me and tailored to the programs I was applying to," Cooney said.
And of course, once you submit your applications, Cooney suggests taking the time to properly thank all of the people who had a hand in getting your applications in order. (And if you get in, let them know the good news, too!)
Stay true to who you are in every stage of the process
Kelkar recollects being asked in his Kellogg interview: "What clubs would you want to join at Kellogg?" While recognizing at the time that this would have been a great opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge of the different clubs, he chose to be honest and say that he would in all likelihood not join any, as he would be looking to spend time with his newborn outside of his classwork.
"I am not sure if I got dinged because of this answer or not — but in that moment I wanted to set realistic expectations of what I expected from the program, and what the school could expect from me as a candidate," he said.
Kosaraju agreed that you should remain relentlessly authentic throughout each step of the application. "One of the best pieces of advice I got during the admissions process was that 'the worst thing that can happen is for you to not get in and wonder whether the 'real you' would have been accepted," she said.
This article was originally published on Business Insider September 11, 2019.
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