Kellogg’s New MBA Gatekeeper

by John A. Byrne on

Kate Smith, Kellogg's new director of admissions. Photo by Andreas Larson

It was over a lingering dinner at Convito Café in Wilmette, Ill., that Kate Smith first thought about the possibility of leaving her corporate job and working for her alma mater Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. A 1998 Kellogg MBA, Smith was dining with Roxanne Hori, who had successfully led Kellogg’s MBA placement effort for nearly 17 years.

Leaning over a table at the Italian-French trattoria, Smith confided to Hori that she might be ready for a career change. Kellogg had recently hired Sally Blount, a new dean from New York University, and Smith was keen to know how what Blount had in store for her alma mater.

“’I need to go through a more rigorous self-assessment of where I should go next,’” she recalls telling Hori. “’That said, tell me what’s going on at Kellogg right now because I’m so intrigued by Sally and what I’ve read and what I see coming. You’re in the middle of it. Tell me what’s going on.’”

By the time she and Hori walked out of the restaurant and onto the Sheridan Road sidewalk, Smith had decided she wanted to be a part of Kellogg’s new leadership team. After a series of interviews in late 2011, she was hired and arrived during the midst of the round-two application deluge in February of this year as assistant dean of admissions and financial aid. For someone who had spent the past 14 years working for some of the biggest consumer brands in America at General Mills, Quaker Oats, and PepsiCo, the MBA admissions game seems at first an odd fit.

FROM MARKETING GATORADE TO POPULATING KELLOGG WITH THE BEST AND BRIGHTEST

But Smith, 42, who left her job as senior director of marketing for Gatorade to join Kellogg, recalls an early desire walking the hallways of Kellogg as an MBA student to someday return to the university in a working capacity. Over her corporate years, she stayed close to the school, returning to interview and recruit MBA students as well as to participate in classroom and panel discussions on marketing.

And in nearly every way, Smith is the quintessential Kellogg grad: an exceptionally bright and engaging person with infectious enthusiasm and passion—especially for the school. “I am literally here as a byproduct of the experience that Kellogg is,” she says. “I loved Kellogg. I was thrilled to be admitted and accepted here and it was an amazing experience.”

          SMITH’S FIRST CLASS OF KELLOGG MBAS     

Born in Minnesota, the six-foot-three-inch Smith was a hot basketball prospect in high school. Some 100 colleges and universities vied to recruit her. Smith ultimately went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she became captain of the women’s basketball squad. She graduated in the 1992 recession with a marketing degree. “There weren’t any great marketing roles for an undergraduate in that era,” says Smith. “So as I looked at my opportunities and I followed another path: commercial real estate.” Two years into it, however, and the desire to do marketing was felt. Kellogg became the obvious choice for a career-switching MBA.

In her first season as Kellogg’s gatekeeper, Smith saw applications to Kellogg’s full-time MBA program fall by 7% to 5,071 from 5,459. Interestingly, though, applications to Kellogg’s one-year MBA program rose 6% and the school increased the size of its one-year program by 15% to a record 100 students. In July, Smith unveiled an entirely new slate of essay questions for this season’s MBA applicants while cutting the total word limit to 1,525 words from 2,200.

What makes Kellogg’s admissions virtually unique is that the school requires all applicants to request an admissions interview. No business school interviews more applicants in any given year. About 67% of those interviews are done by alums, 26% by Smith’s admissions staff of eight full-time staffers, with the remaining sessions done by current Kellogg students.

In a lengthy interview with Poets&Quants, Smith explains the process Kellogg uses to select its MBA students as well as the core characteristics it seeks in an ideal MBA candidate. And Smith explains why she quit her job to return to the school she loves.

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  • theKomodo

    This is an excellent article, John. I’m surprised no one has commented on it yet. Thank you for the hard work in interviewing the various associate deans of admissions in the Gatekeeper series. You asked a lot of great questions that uncovered a lot of useful information about the admission process specific to different schools. Very valuable for applicants like me. Keep up the great work!
    PS: Would be great if you could expand the series to include other schools such as Columbia, Tuck, Fuqua and Darden. Thanks.

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