Forster-Thomas Essay Coach Ben Feuer provides his advice on how to answer Kellogg’s MBA essays

It’s one of those movie clichés everyone remembers: The ragtag bunch of misfits who, when assembled and given the proper direction, manage to beat the big scary team from Center Central—you know, the guys whose uniforms match.

That’s one way to think of Kellogg. After all, it didn’t make the top five in the Financial Times’ global MBA rankings this year, or even the top twenty.  Isn’t Kellogg just a safety for the 700+ GMAT crowd?  Another also-ran?

Think that way and you’ll end up the same way those boys from Center Central did—eating turf and wishing you’d taken your app more seriously.  The truth is, Kellogg is a top-notch school with a unique mandate: it’s all about achieving in group settings (read: Being part of a championship team).  That’s why their mission statement lists “grounded wisdom” and “collaborative spirit” ahead of vision.

So, think you can make a champion misfit?  Well, you better be ready to put it all out there, because Kellogg’s essays will challenge you to do just that.

 

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. (600 word limit)

Yeah, it’s another goals essay.  But pay close attention to the wording.  They’re emphasizing your career progress to date, and they’re not mentioning short- and long-term goals as distinct entities.  What does this mean?  It means we’re back to “grounded wisdom”.  Kellogg is looking for a track record of high achievement in a particular field and a short-term goal that reflects that.  Prove to us that you’re going to be ready to work on day one after graduation… that’s what they’re saying.

Also, even though they don’t specifically ask for your motivation for pursuing a Kellogg MBA, you had better read between the lines and do your school-specific research.  Kellogg wants you to want them, but you have to be able to tell them why they’re the right program for you.

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

This is a standard leadership essay, with a few important tweaks to consider.  The first is that they’re asking for experiences.  Plural.  So you need to work at least two stories into this essay.  They’re also asking you to evaluate potential growth areas (This is going to be a theme at Kellogg … how can we help you grow?  White boys beware, if you try to come out of this looking like Mary Poppins—practically perfect in every way—you will crash and burn).  Do a little head math and you come up with approximately 200 words for each story, and 200 words of what you hope to develop.  What does this remind us of?  It rhymes with Schmarvard Shmuniversity.  And if you’ve read our blog on Schmarvard, you know that there’s no room for anything artsy, fartsy, or god forbid, both artsy and fartsy.  Stick to the story, and try to devote at least a third of each example to takeaways, lessons learned, analysis and personal growth.

One important way Kellogg differs from that other Burgundy-flagged school is that it treats the whole essay as a single unit.  So you need to consider transitions.  Think about a way to tie your examples together at the beginning, and don’t forget to place your stories on the timeline of your personal development (in 2008, after graduating, I was a young greenhorn when I…).

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).

My candidates always dread this essay, and I always love it.  Nothing encapsulates Kellogg better than this essay, and I personally suspect that this is essay they use to really separate the wheat from the chaff. 

The purpose of the essay is to make you put yourself in admission’s shoes, and do their work for them, explaining to them why they should accept you. The wording of the essay has recently been revised, so you are now allowed to introduce information that doesn’t exist elsewhere in your application, and if you choose, you no longer have to write from the perspective of a student committee member.  That said, I still recommend that you do.  It shows creativity and allows you to demonstrate the depth and breadth of your understanding of Kellogg—which is extensive, right?  Because you really want to go to Kellogg, right?  If not, see paragraph one.

As for the content, devote equal time to your undergraduate and post-graduate achievements.  Try to think about things the way admissions would—are you worthy of admission, based on your numbers?  Will you contribute to the incoming class?  How?  What makes you stand out?  And perhaps most importantly, what will Kellogg do for you?  How is it a natural and necessary step on the way to your goals, both short- and long-term? 

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.
b) People may be surprised to learn that I…..
c) The riskiest personal or professional decision I ever made was…

a) If you are a leadership juggernaut, this can be an opportunity to squeeze in that amazing third story you didn’t get a chance to fit into your essay #2.  But most of the time, that isn’t going to be your best use of precious words.  Beware of repurposing to fit this prompt just because it’s easier than writing a new essay—unless, as I said, you really have a GREAT leadership instance.

b) This is the choice for people who want to spread their creative wings.  If you’re afraid to do that, then you should DEFINITELY choose this prompt.  You have to push yourself to write great essays, and surprising someone with your first sentence is a good challenge to set for yourself.  Once you have surprised them with your opening sentence, continue surprising them by showing your response to the situation or your evolution over time.  You should be different at the end of this essay than you were at the beginning.

c) This is a chance to show the gears turning.  Really delve into the introspective side of your personality.  Remember that these kinds of essays should always be a choice between one good and another good.  It’s a decision, not a bummer. 

See our Kellogg Class of 2014 MBA Essay Guide for more information.


Forster-Thomas Essay Coach Ben Feuer on how to answer MIT Sloan’s MBA essays

If MIT Sloan were a dog, it would be an Irish Setter … you know, that dog that sticks out its head and holds up one leg to show the man in the coonskin cap which direction to point his Winchester? That’s right, MIT Sloan is a pointer. It’s a forward-looking, forward thinking school full of high achievers focused on the promise tomorrow brings … and no, not everyone there looks like Sheldon from Big Bang Theory. MIT Sloan has a hip, diverse incoming class, and if you’re looking to join the party, you’d better glom on to these essay notes like they were the brand new Blu-Ray box set of Star Wars (Sorry, that’ll be my last MIT nerd joke).

Prepare a cover letter (up to 500 words) seeking a place in the MIT Sloan MBA Program. Describe your accomplishments and include an example of how you had an impact on a group or organization. Your letter should conform to standard business correspondence and be addressed to Mr. Rod Garcia, Director of MBA Admissions.

Here it is … the stealth essay. Many people don’t even realize that this IS an essay, but believe me, if you don’t take the cover letter seriously, you will live to regret it. You need to bring the same energy, specificity and creativity to this as you do to all your other essays.

That said, there are some quirks particular to the format. Use proper formatting and include your mailing address at the top, as well as Rod Garcia’s. And don’t forget to use a proper greeting, like ‘Dear Mr. Garcia:’, and sign-off, like ‘sincerely’.

MIT doesn’t have a traditional goals essay or a traditional why MIT essay, so if there’s anything you’re burning to say about how right MIT is for you, or how well it fits in with you life’s ambition, the first and last paragraphs of this cover letter are the place to say it. Don’t go overboard, but do make it clear why you think MIT is the right fit—and if you can’t figure out why, you probably shouldn’t be applying.

When you talk about your accomplishments, don’t go in depth; you’ll have three other essays to do that. Instead, do two broad survey paragraphs centered around periods of time—for example, covering your life during college and your career since college. But do note that MIT specifically requests a story where you had an impact on a group or organization, so devote at least one full independent paragraph to telling them that story.

And remember: for this and all other MIT essays, that thanks to a flirtation with B.F. Skinner, MIT has gone behaviorist, judging you based solely on your actions. That means no takeaways, no talking about what your accomplishment taught you, at least not in a focused, dedicated paragraph.

Essay 1: Please describe a time when you went beyond what was defined, expected, established, or popular. (500 words or fewer, limited to one page)

MIT’s essays can’t be approached individually. They have to be approached as a unit, holistically. By presenting them with what amounts to a theme and variations on your leadership background, and by solely focusing on your actions and behaviors, MIT is forcing you to focus on what matters to them. So, as Primal Scream would say: don’t fight it, feel it. Bearing in mind that you are limited to the last three years, brainstorm times in your life when you struggled, times when you had something very important to accomplish but something or someone was standing in your way.

Squabbling with a difficult boss? Advising a colleague who just couldn’t get with the program? Raising funds for your school play (or casting it)? Landing a fantastic deal by pulling off a personal coup? Getting your grandmother to finally forgive your sister for marring a Kuwaiti man?

Any of these could be examples of you going beyond what was expected. The key is … how far did you have to push yourself to get to that point? How different were you after doing it than you were before you began?

Essay 2: Please describe a time when you convinced an individual or group to accept one of your ideas. (500 words or fewer, limited to one page)

When thinking about balance, it’s important to consider not just the setting, but the role you played in the setting. How many sides of yourself can you show through these three essays? Can you show yourself leading by example, cajoling and persuading, giving orders and holding people to their promises? Be diverse. Show that you can lead in different ways.

Convincing an individual or group to accept an idea is the essence of leadership. It always begins with a problem. After all, if everything was perfect, why change it around? The idea doesn’t have to be yours alone, but you must be able to talk about how you became its champion—how you were able to show everyone potential in the idea that they didn’t see before.

Essay 3: Please describe a time when you had to make a decision without having all the information you needed. (500 words or fewer, limited to one page)

At this point, the leadership fountain is probably running dry. So get some help. Talk with people who know you well—go through your resume and your shared history with them. Ask them what they remember about the time when you did this or that together. They may be able to remember things you cannot. Or, sometimes, they’ll have a perspective you never imagined possible.

Having to make a decision without all available information implies that you didn’t know the whole story when you went in—and then the OTHER shoe dropped. Often these stories involve people getting to a certain point, THINKING they’ve succeeded, and then realizing that they’d only just gotten started. Setbacks can fit well into this format, assuming you learned something from it and it ended in success, of course.

See our MIT Sloan MBA Essay Guide for more information.


Forster-Thomas Essay Coach Rafe Tennenbaum provides his advice on how to answer the NYU Stern MBA essays. 

Essay 1. Professional Aspirations

Think about the decisions you have made in your life. Answer the following:

  • a) What choices have you made that led you to your current position?
  • b) Why pursue an MBA at this point in your life?
  • c) What is your career goal upon graduation from NYU Stern? What is your long-term career goal?

Unlike most goals essays, Stern provides an outline for you to follow. The rule of thumb for any essay is: when a school just lists the components of a question they want answered in a sentence or two, your essay can provide the answer in the order you want, within reason. But if the essay question sets forth a lettered or a numbered outline, you must follow that outline. In this case, Stern's outline scrambles the ordinary goals essay strategy (long-term goal, short-term goal, your professional background, "why now?", what you’ll contribute).The interesting thing about Stern's goals essay is that the resulting profile they get tends to be quite different. By making you start with who you are right now, rather than what you want to be doing in two or three years, they're encouraging you to sell yourself out of the gate. If you've done fabulous things in your career, show' em off right here -- but don't just brag; make sure they have a narrative thread -- a sense of purpose, a through-line that shows you're the one pulling the levers. Most goals essays encourage you to dream -- the Stern goals essay is encouraging you to be creative about how you got to where you are. 

Notice that Stern asks you to tell them about your short-term goal before the long-term goal.  Say what you will about New York City -- it's real.  And NYU is asking you to be realistic.  Which is why they want to hear about the short-term goal before the long-term goal -- as we say in Brooklyn, whaddayagonna, move into your parents’ basement when you graduate business school? Geddouddahere! 

Essay 2. Your Stern Experience

We take great care to shape the Stern community with individuals who possess both intellectual and interpersonal strengths.  We seek individuals who are highly intelligent, collaborative and committed to flourishing as Stern leaders. Please answer the following questions:

  • a) What is your personal experience with the Stern community? Tell us what actions you have taken to learn about us.
  • b) Describe what most excites you about Stern from both an academic and extracurricular perspective.
  • c) How do you anticipate making your mark on the Stern community? Be specific about the roles you will take on and the impact you hope to achieve.

Getting into a business school is like courting a woman: you've got to show her you want her.  No wealthy, beautiful matinée idol worth her Louboutins is going to accept your proposal if you preface it by saying, "Well, the last one dumped me, so how's about you and me hooking up?"  You've got to hand it to Stern -- they are upfront about making you take the trouble to praise them. 

It makes sense, really.  To begin with, Stern doesn't want to be bothered with your application if you aren't serious about wanting to attend.  And Stern wants to hear not only that you want to go there, but that you know what you're getting into.  That makes Stern like nearly every business school in the world -- except Harvard, naturally, who has heard it all before, dahling.  But since Stern gives you a whole 500-word essay for this, they’re explicitly asking you to spend a few days immersing yourself, talking to students and alumni, and sitting in on classes.  Grab this question as an opportunity to pay a visit to New York City and take a bite out of the Big Apple.

Essay 3. Personal Expression

Please describe yourself to your MBA classmates. You may use almost any method to convey your message (e.g. words, illustrations).  Feel free to be creative.

A note about New York City geography: there's uptown and downtown.  Stern is downtown.  So is Essay 3.  If you're fashionable and creative, if you're fun and wear your heart on your sleeve, or even if you just have a slightly quirky point of view, this is a question to have fun with. 

Certainly if you've got a real talent, consider putting it to work.  But be honest -- performing a song about yourself could be a great idea -- if you can actually sing and play guitar.  And keep in mind, "describe yourself" gives you a lot of leeway.  Don't think “the story of your life”; think “a story from your life.” It's not going to be an autobiography, it's going to be a narrative about you – about something you love, maybe, or some setback or accomplishment (probably personal) that shows you being characteristically yourself.  Or, it could be a pivotal episode from your youth that had a profound impact on your development, or a slice of life that shows you dealing with something characteristically, and hopefully at your best.  Remember that your execution of the idea, if it's skillful enough, will describe you just as well as the facts of the story you're telling -- just the fact, for example, that you had the idea to use this essay to confess something your best friend doesn't know about you says that you are smart enough to understand the importance of taking risks.  Don't do anything dumb -- but remember that the dumbest thing you can do is to play it safe. 

A few things to keep in mind: as they note lower down in the guidelines and restrictions, it's "not a test of creativity": in other words, don't strain -- if you can whip up a PowerPoint or a Flash animation without too much trouble, AND you've got an idea that actually describes yourself, go for it.  On the other hand, if what you had in mind was a 135-minute biopic with a cast of hundreds and a CGI episode and you have to learn Final Cut Pro in an hour -- you're probably on the wrong track.  As the question goes on to elaborate, this isn't a creativity test -- you're not trying to prove anything, you're communicating something about yourself. 

Finally: there's nothing wrong with answering this question with an essay.  Just make sure you write something honest that says you understand who you are. 

For more information, see our 2011-2012 NYU Stern Essay Guide.  


Forster-Thomas Essay Coach Rafe Tennenbaum on how to answer Booth's MBA Essay questions.

 

Essay 1: What are your short- and long-term goals, and how will a Chicago Booth MBA help you reach them? (600 words)

Out of the gate, a simple and straightforward Goals essay question with a reasonable length -- thank you, Booth!

Aim to write 300-400 words on your goals, and the remaining 200-300 on Why Booth. Any less than 150 words on Booth is a mistake; you need sufficient space to convince them that you know the school and you like it.

 

Essay 2: At Chicago Booth, we believe each individual has his or her own leadership style. How has your family, culture, and/or environment influenced you as a leader? (750 words)

This is certainly an unusual question, but when it's answered well, it provides an extremely valuable sense of your leadership pedigree -- a tradition of core values and a background of stepping to the forefront.  None of which should be surprising, since after all this is the University of Chicago we're talking about, located smack in the middle of the Midwest.

Sometimes the Booth leadership essay can look like a brick wall towards which your candidacy is racing at 100mph.  It forces you to ask what your "leadership style" is (whatever that means) and where you got it.  It might strike you as tough to answer, particularly if you have little seniority in your job, or if you feel whatever leadership experience you have got  was earned through a combination of working your butt off, learning from your screw-ups, and sheer dumb luck. 

The first thing to do is to find those examples when you led. Remember, don't confuse "leadership" with "being a boss."  Leaders find opportunities to lead whatever the situation -- it can be setting an example, or taking a moral stand, or taking on the toughest tasks -- it's really about stepping up. 

If being asked, "What influenced your leadership style?," doesn't make sense to you, have another think.  Most of us learn about leadership from a family member – a parent, or a grandparent, or an aunt or uncle who took an interest.  Sometimes we've learned from an activity our families made sure we did.  If you were taken to figure skating classes starting when you were a toddler, and one of your instructors took an interest in you and helped you develop, there's a pretty good chance you gained a lot of knowledge and understanding of what it takes to lead by this very significant person who spent a lot of time and effort showing you how to get better, how not to give up, how to practice, and maybe even how dedication to a pursuit or a discipline is good for you.

Some things to avoid: writing about Gandhi, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, or Kim Kardashian.  All had inspiring messages (or a good body), but if you try to answer this essay with historical or social lessons, well, congratulations! You've probably just turned an important business school essay into a ninth-grade term paper.

 

Essay 3: Considering what you've already included in the application, what else should we know about you?  In a maximum of four slides, tell us about yourself.

Don't be intimidated by that famous Booth Essay 3 -- in fact, the single most important thing you should do with this essay is make sure to relax and have fun with it.  The more you enjoy coming up with an idea and putting it together, the more entertaining it will be for them to read -- and, if you do it correctly, the better idea of you it will give them.  The wonderful thing about Booth #3 is it gives you complete freedom to come up with whatever format you'd like, so long as it'll fit in four slides.  Are you a baseball fan?  Maybe baseball cards will work for you.  A musical theater enthusiast?  Think "Playbill."  Once you've found the medium that precisely fits your passion, you can use your knowledge of the genre -- whether it's a tourbook, a celebrity gossip magazine, or music CD covers -- to find opportunities to tell Booth about yourself. 

What do you want to tell them?  Well, it's not about your GPA or how good you are at your job; they know those things already.  Passions, hobbies, friends, family -- this question is kind of asking you to show off your personal warmth in a kind of homey way.  Remember when your best friend or significant other put together that scrapbook and proudly handed it to you on your birthday?  It's something like that, but without the naughty words.  You're pulling together all the things you like about yourself -- the very same things that would make people say, "Wow, this person is pretty cool, I would definitely want to have a cup of coffee with them -- or maybe even invite them into my office to discuss the possibility of going to the very business school where I work."  Don't forget the pictures, either – candid photos of yourself smiling and looking charming or enthusiastically pursuing your pastimes definitely belong here!

For more information, see our 2011-2012 Chicago Booth MBA Essay Guide. 


Evan Forster on how NOT to answer Stanford GSB'sn notorious What Matters Most essay question.

In just seven words—“What matters most to you, and why?”—Stanford GSB strikes fear into the heart of even the most accomplished candidate. With good reason: This is perhaps the most difficult essay question of all. Answering it requires a level of digging down deep that doesn’t come easy for most. It separates the men from the boys—those of you who understand inspiration and transformation as opposed to those of you who are trying to game the system through “branding techniques.” Save the latter for your company, not your candidacy.

Here's how NOT to answer this essay.

Pitfall 1: Over-connecting your long-term professional goal to what matters most to you.

One common version of this is that you’re committed to a long-term goal wherein you want to go into private equity so that you can grow Goldman Sachs’s new media group. Because you are passionate about this goal, it’s obvious that it matters a lot to you. Duh! On the surface, it probably even matters more to you than anything else at this particular moment, especially if you’ve only recently realized how passionate you are about transforming Goldman. The key word here is “surface.” Derrick Bolton, director of admissions at Stanford GSB, wants you to dig a lot deeper than that; he has even suggested that candidates use the essay as an opportunity to learn about themselves, and invited you to be transparent about that in the actual writing of the essay.

Pitfall 2: When “what matters most” makes your goal look like a strategy or gimmick as opposed to a value you deeply care about.

Those of you who have found a long-term goal that is about transforming the planet in that Free Willy way—you know, ending world hunger, irrigating the Irrawaddy River through venture capital—are particularly susceptible to such overkill. In these cases, the mistake is also particularly tragic: Having a persuasive, convincing Free Willy goal is a powerful thing, but it can easily be dismissed as an eye-roll-inducing gimmick when beaten into the ground in a what matters most essay.

Linking this essay with your long-term goal essay does seem like a nifty idea, but don’t think you are the first person to come up with it. It’s been done thousands of times, but in perhaps only ten of those times was it done well. As someone who probably has strong quantitative skills, what do you think the odds are that you’ll be one of those ten?

--Auntie Evan


Evan Forster on how to take on the Stanford GSB "What Matters Most" essay

While a great goals essay should encompass what matters most to you professionally, what Stanford GSB is looking for in this essay is what matters most to you as a whole person—not just as a professional. As Derrick Bolton, Stanford’s director of admissions, wrote in one of his online letters from the director, “This probably sounds strange, since these are essays for business school, but we don’t expect to hear about your business experience in this essay... Tell a story that only you can tell. If you concentrate your efforts on telling us who you are, differentiation will occur naturally; if your goal is to appear unique, you actually may achieve the opposite effect.”

Often, this essay goes hand-in-hand with open-ended questions such as Columbia’s “Please tell us about yourself and your personal interests.” As Columbia B-school says in its application, “The goal of this essay is to get a sense of who you are, rather than what you have achieved professionally.”

Similar soul-searching applies to questions asked by schools like Kellogg, Fuqua, and Anderson to name a few, not to mention HBS’s “How will you introduce yourself to your classmates” question. (All ask these types of background/what-makes-you-unique questions.)

How do you get to the answer? For Sabrina, a candidate I worked with a few years ago, a lifetime of experiences led her to understand that what mattered most was “being true to myself.” Any corniness this theme may have dissolves instantly when you hear the backstory. Sabrina spent her childhood training to be a world-class athlete—and succeeded—yet, on the eve of an Olympic-level event, she was forced to choose between attending college or pursuing a medal. That’s when Sabrina realized she never wanted to be an athlete, and had lived her life to please her father. After she walked off the field, she vowed to remain true to herself from then on—and embarked on a lifetime of accomplishments she truly cared about.

Caution: Because of the level of sophistication this essay calls for, what matters most (or any open-ended question) is often best answered after all other essays for all other schools have been tackled. Just because a school with an open-ended question like Stanford’s “what matters most” may be your first choice—and you want to finish that application first—that’s no reason to jump forward and answer this question early on in your essay-writing process. In answering all the other essay questions, you’ll be exploring many aspects of your life. All the introspection that’s required for those essays needs to percolate in the brain for some period of time. This percolation most authentically leads you to what really matters most to you. After the other questions have been answered, if there’s something important still left unsaid, still nagging at you because it seemed just too personal, that subject may be a great starting point here.

--Auntie Evan