The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University raised many eyebrows all over the world with its decision to waive the GMAT and the GRE for applicants to its MBA program until June 1. Just as surprising, of course, is Kellogg’s public announcement that it will allow candidates rejected in earlier rounds this year to come back and apply for reconsideration in the same admissions cycle.
Those unprecedented moves, announced yesterday (April 14) by Kellogg, both surprised and shocked many rival business schools as well as the admissions consulting profession. What led an M7 business school, one of the very best in the world, to do something that extraordinary?
Kate Smith, assistant dean of admissions and financial aid and a Kellogg alumna, says it was the frustration and panic that she and her staff were hearing from prospective students who couldn’t find an open test center to take a standardized test and who may have difficulty accessing a virtual alternative of the GRE or the GMAT. On the same day Kellogg announced its decision, GMAC launched registration for its online option which won’t be available until April 20th, after which test-takers would still have to wait seven full business days before getting back their scores.
‘WE KNOW THIS WAS A BOLD MOVE BUT THIS IS A MOMENT TO HAVE EMPATHY’
It is the first time an M7 school has agreed to waive the requirement for standardized exams as well as language tests such as TOEFL and IELTS for applicants to its full-time MBA programs and evening and weekend MBA programs. “We know this was a bold move,” says Smith, in an interview with Poets&Quants. “We had a lot of conversations about this internally at Kellogg. We recognized that the world has completely changed in a matter of weeks. This is a moment to have empathy for what the world is facing. Many people around the world don’t have access to tests and not every applicant will be able to take advantage of the virtual solutions rolling out. That gave us a lot of pause. We have always cared deeply about giving access to people who want an MBA. If you look at the spirit of being open and inclusive, this lack of access was very concerning to us.
“We are responding to the frustration and panic of students who wanted to apply in this cycle and are facing barriers to do so. With the test waiver, we are being agile and responsive in enabling us to build the most diverse class of Kellogg students we possibly can and to mitigate the factors that are out of control of the applicant. We want to be on the cutting edge to build the best possible class.”
Smith insists, however, that the temporary waiver, effective for everyone who applies to Kellogg through its extended round three deadline of June 1, does not mean that the school is weakening its admission standards. Last year, some 1,019 out of the 3,779 candidates who applied for admission to Kellogg’s two-year MBA program were admitted, an acceptance rate of 27%. The school enrolled a class of 472 students with an average GMAT of 730, a score that was among the highest in the world for an MBA program, behind only Stanford and Wharton which were only two points and one point higher, respectively.
‘WE ARE NOT GOING TO RELAX ANY STANDARDS OF ADMISSIONS’
“We are not going to relax any standards of admission,” she maintains. “A test score has always been one of many factors we use to evaluate candidates along with their work experience, their leadership potential, and their passion to be part of the Kellogg community. We have always cared about the holistic individual. People are not just a test score, and Kellogg has always placed a high priority on people who have all the tenets we hold dear.”
Admission consultants believe that the move will likely increase Kellogg’s net applications in a difficult year and cause other schools to follow. “Other schools may see this as a way to push up app numbers for R1 to improve their selectivity, and if some schools start it will be hard for others to not.” says Alex Leventhal, founder of Prep MBA Admissions Consulting and an HBS grad. “There may be a herd effect that could happen as schools try to manage their selectivity numbers.”
Leventhal believes that there is more to Kellogg’s motives than showing empathy for applicants during the health crisis. “Sure Kellogg mints some of the nicest MBAs on the planet, so this move is in line with their brand character, but there is likely more going on,” he says. “I’ve had some clients get in off the waitlist who would have been passed over under normal circumstances.”
‘I AM NOT CONCERNED ABOUT OUR ABILITY TO BUILD AN EXCEPTIONALLY TALENTED GLOBAL CLASS’
The second decision Kellogg made, of course, is equally controversial. It is to allow applicants who were either waitlisted or rejected entirely in rounds one or two to effectively appeal their decisions and gain reconsideration from the school’s admissions staff. That decision already has some dinged applicants who have since been admitted and deposited to other programs to go back to Kellogg for this final round.
“We gave this a lot of thought,” explains Smith. “We decided we should offer this to ensure equity among all applicants in the cycle. There are people all over the world who are going to have access issues to apply. But then we thought about all the people who applied in this academic cycle and that could create an inequity for them. So we think it’s the right thing to do. I want to reiterate there will be no relaxation of our admission standards. We are trying to do what we think is right in a moment in time where the world has turned upside down. “
Smith concedes, as do other admission directors, that the highly ranked school routinely turns down applicants who are fully qualified to come to Kellogg and do well. “One of the hardest parts of being in this role is that every program only has a certain allocation of seats in the class,” she says. “My biggest lament has always been that there are hundreds of equally qualified students who don’t get in. I have always wished for the opportunity to admit many more. That said, this is not driving any of our decisions at this moment in time.”
The school’s R1 decisions went out in mid-December, while round two decisions were released on March 25th when Kellogg Dean Francesca Cornelli and Smith hosted a virtual welcome via Zoom for admits. R1 admits had to put down their deposits and accept their offers in February. The decision date for R2 admits is April 23. “We are mid-flight in round two,” Smith says. “I am not concerned about our ability to build an exceptionally talented global class. I am feeling optimistic. We all know we are facing uncertainty. But we will continue to put forth building the best class that Kellogg can be.”
Despite the widespread turmoil in MBA admissions this year, Smith claims that this year is “no different than any other year” when it comes to yield, the percentage of admits who enroll. “You never know the outcomes until a round closes,” she says. “Year over year everybody will expect melt. We are going to react when the information arrives and then assess and evaluate continuously. We talk one to one with every admitted student. We are going to work one to one with every student in our hopes to bring them here. We will work with each student’s unique circumstances.”
DEFERRALS FOR THE 2020-2021 ACADEMIC YEAR? FORGET ABOUT IT
The fall quarter for the full-time MBA program is expected to begin as orginally planned on Sept. 21. For incoming students to Kellogg’s accelerated MBA program and MMM degree, in-person experiences for a condensed summer quarter will now begin on July 15, starting with orientation, with classes starting on July 20th.
While no decisions have yet been made on whether the new academic year will begin on campus or online, Smith says the school has put in place a policy on deferrals. “We are not going to allow deferrals due to this COVID-19 situation,” she says flatly. “If someone can not get to Evanston and does not want to participate in a virtual solution, we will allow them to leverage this year’s application for consideration next year. They are essentially reapplying but we will waive their application fee and allow them to roll their application into next year’s applicant pool. They won’t have to start over from scratch. Every decision we are making is trying to accommodate the challenges students are facing. We will partner and collaborate with each and every student to get them here.”
That policy on deferrals, however, is already causing controversy. An international admit to Kellogg’s Triple MMM program today vented his frustrations on Reddit. “This has put me in a tough spot,” he wrote. “The course is scheduled to start in mid-July. I don’t think there is a chance I can get my visa on time for the course. I also do not know when the U.S. and my own country will fully open. I feel Kellogg is pushing students like me into a tough spot. We have to choose between either a sub-par virtual experience or renege on our seat. I don’t know what to do. I put in so much effort last year to reach where I am today. ”
‘SOME PEOPLE CALL US AND SAY, ‘REALLY?”
Meantime, there is little doubt that Kellogg’s newly announced admissions policies have shocked many. “It looks a bit like desperation; that everything is negotiable,” sighs a prominent admissions consultant. “There’s no end, then, to the lobbying or to the finality of a decision. I’ve never heard of a decision being reversed, even though every year I see people who should have gotten in and didn’t to any number of schools. And so they accept and move on. It just puts admissions officers in a more difficult position.”
Smith concedes that her announcement took many by surprise. “Some people call us and say, ‘Really?’ I think that surprise has been the first phase of reaction. And we are like, ‘Yes, it’s true, and here’s why and people have really appreciated that. I keep coming back to the spirit of the whole thing. There is an access and equity issue facing these candidates at the same time and that is what we are trying to address. We have always been interested in helping great students come to our programs. And that is the spirit of what we are trying to do.”