How To Ace The Kellogg MBA Essays

How to ace the Kellogg MBA application essays

Kellogg prides itself on building a truly diverse class across many dimensions. Among its signature traditions during MBA orientation is the moment when the Dean of Admissions offers a rousing speech called “One of You,” which runs down a list of remarkable highlights about new students. What this means for MBA applicants is that there’s a place for you based on your true, authentic self.

Kellogg takes great pride in identifying candidates who have really self-reflected on what they want and how Kellogg will get them there. That its two required essays remain unchanged is a signal of how well they’re serving the admissions committee in terms of sussing our which candidates are a fit. My experience as a Kellogg Admissions Interviewer — and Kellogg MBA alum — gives me insight into how the best candidates translate their experiences into a narrative that’s both compe

First and foremost, you’ll want to understand why Kellogg is asking each question and what adcom is hoping to uncover. The clues, of course, are embedded within the questions themselves:

Essay 1: Kellogg’s purpose is to educate, equip & inspire brave leaders who create lasting value. Tell us about a time you have demonstrated leadership and created lasting value. What challenges did you face, and what did you learn? (450 words)

Essay 2: Pursuing an MBA is a catalyst for personal and professional growth. How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg? (450 words)

Let’s start decoding, piece-by-piece.

ESSAY 1 DECODED

“Kellogg’s purpose is to educate, equip & inspire brave leaders who create lasting value.” 

To unpack the opening statement: What the question is asserting here is that walking through Kellogg’s door means that you’re not only going to receive a world-class MBA, but you’re also expected to contribute to your peers and the school in a manner that “create(s) lasting value.” Will you be a passive observer of your MBA experience, or will you be an active contributor?  Do you expect your MBA to happen to you, or do you expect to drive the type of MBA experience that leaves your classmates wishing they had more time with you? The Kellogg experience is only as unique as the collective contribution of the class, and this means that Kellogg is trying to uncover your capacity to lead and participate in this collective experience during school and beyond as a Kellogg alumni.

“Tell us about a time you have demonstrated leadership and created lasting value.”

This part is directed at your specific leadership experience. Kellogg is trying to get a sense of who you are as a leader, and how you’ve shaped the organizations in which you’ve been involved. The words to pay attention to are “created lasting value.” This part is so important, it’s mentioned twice in the same prompt. This is an opportunity to tell a story. Think through — why must you tell this story? How is the world better off from you having told this story? What leadership experiences can you demonstrate that shows you’ve been able to leave people and places better than you found it? How does leading in this manner align with your personal values? What examples can you draw forth that showcase where the organization was before you came in, while you were there, and after you’ve left?

“What challenges did you face, and what did you learn?”

This is both the meat and resolution of your story. Who are the characters of your story? What setting are you in? What are the stakes of you not succeeding in your leadership challenge? How did you progress through the challenge? Don’t just share what you learned and stop there; essays that nail this question will also demonstrate how what you learned can translate to your contribution towards the Kellogg class of 2020, during your MBA and beyond.

ESSAY 2 DECODED

“Pursuing an MBA is a catalyst for personal and professional growth. How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg?”

Essay two demands your profound introspection, and standout applicants will seize the opportunity to self-reflect and showcase how they have grown both personally and professionally. This is an opportunity to stretch beyond the ‘turn your weaker strength into a stronger strength.’ For example, “I’ve been ok at analytics, but through xyz experience, I’m now 10% better at analytics.” If you were watching a movie of this story, would you root for yourself? If not, consider this an opportunity to dig deeper. What part of yourself have you triumphed over but that you’ve been afraid to share? Have you overcome an early childhood speech impediment, for example? (True in my case.) Did you make a horrible mistake at work, but then somehow, against all odds, you righted the ship and now you’re revered?

Kellogg is looking for your ability to confront your truth. Is it uncomfortable to share what’s gone bad in the past? Absolutely. But do you have the self-awareness and humility to share what may not have gone right, and translate that into an opportunity for growth? How will your Kellogg experience help you amplify the areas of growth you’ve identified?

VIDEO ESSAY DECODED

Lastly, Kellogg asks each applicant to complete video essay questions after submitting the application. The admissions committee is looking for your unscripted answers, which convey a sense of your personality and character. “Be yourself,” advises the school in its video essay Q&A, which also stresses that you prepare some fresh material and avoid regurgitating examples from your essays.

You can expect a “getting to know you” type of question. There’s no right answer to this one, so let your personality and poise shine through. Everyone will also get this Kellogg-specific question, “What path are you interested in pursuing, how will you get there, and why is this program right for you?” This means know your 30 second career path pitch cold — how does your current experience tie into your desire to obtain an MBA, and how does that relate to what you plan to do longer term after you graduate?

The rest of the questions will be randomly generated of the interview variety. You’ll have 10 practice questions to warm up, which you can complete as many times as you want to get comfortable with the format and technology. That said, you won’t be able to re-do answers to the official video essay questions.

Here’s a few top tips to performing well on the video essays:
  • Plan your answers: you’ll have 20 seconds to think about the question before you answer.  Jot down a few bullets or talking points. It might be helpful to outline a quick structure, e.g., main answer, and supporting examples.
  • Stand for more energy.
  • Prepare for this question that Kellogg has revealed they will ask — “What path are you interested in pursuing, how will you get there, and why is this program right for you?”
    • The question that’s not asked here, that I recommend including in your response, is “Why are you interested in pursuing this path?”
  • Be prepared for a behavioral question on a conflict you’ve faced at work.
  • Record yourself when you practice. What type of impression are you giving off? Are you friendly? Would others feel comfortable working with you?
  • Don’t forget to smile — you’re on camera after all.
  • Think through — if the person reviewing my video essay takes nothing else, what is the number one thing I want them to remember about me?

The key in writing standout MBA essays — for Kellogg or any other top B-school — is to embrace your genuine story even if it seems entirely normal; failing to do so trips up more applicants than you can imagine. “The worst thing you can do is play it safe and write something you think admissions wants to hear,” says my Fortuna Admissions college, Sharon Joyce (see her article, Writing a Powerful MBA Essay). “This is a medium to be courageous, although memorable cuts both ways — how well you walk the line between original (good!) and weird (lamentable) reflects your judgment.”

So if you’ve taken a traditional path in banking because that’s your interest, then own that. After all, an entire class can’t be filled by Peace Corps workers who started their own microfinance funds and sing professionally on the side. Delivering an authentically crafted story that conveys your core passions and purpose — in a way that elicits emotional impact — this is the secret sauce in creating connection to an admission reader’s heart.


Fortuna-AdmissionsJason Yeh is an expert coach at MBA consulting firm Fortuna Admissions, as well as a Kellogg Admissions Interviewer and Kellogg MBA Alum. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 13 of the top 15 business schools.

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