Ahead of the CentreCourt MBA Festival in Chicago, Fortuna Admissions Director Matt Symonds catches up with Melissa Rapp, Director of Admissions for the full-time MBA program at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, to share her insights and admissions advice.
If we draw back the curtain on a typical day in the life of the Kellogg admissions office, can you talk us through a typical round and how you and the team make decisions.
We spend about of a third the year being out in front of people and getting to actively engage face to face with candidates interested in Kellogg. And then in September we have to role switch and hunker down so that we can read all the applications. My team actually spends a fair amount of time working from home – we encourage comfortable clothes during the reading season! The volume is such that it is just about all that we do. We do read every application, we look at every essay, we review every video essay and then as interview reports come in we continue to refine our opinions about candidates, and that takes us almost all the way right up until our admit call day. So the perception of the glamorous life of admissions is encumbered by the reality of evaluation, and continues to be a very one to one kind of thing. Our team spends as a great deal of time getting to know our candidates, understanding their motivations and putting together a class that we’re going to be very proud of.
Do you bring in faculty as part of an admissions committee, or are files read by several of you and then on going discussions as you look to craft the diversity?
It’s held mostly with the admissions staff that we look at the annual class. We do take some faculty input throughout the year to understand how our students are performing in the classroom and in the general community. So there is a flow of communication not just with faculty, but with our Student Life Department and with our Academic Affairs Department. We work very closely with them to make sure that we are delivering a class that is successful.
What is your one most important piece of advice for anyone applying to business school?
I think the most important thing for an MBA applicant to understand is their motivation for looking to get an MBA, and have the ability to clearly articulate where they have come from, what they have learned, and how they feel like the Kellogg experience will enhance them both personally and professionally and allow them to achieve whatever goal they’re currently striving for. It is important for us to hear what candidates hope to do with their MBA, which is not to say we hold them to that goal. We’re pretty aware that students will say one thing in their application and hopefully in some cases they come to Kellogg and learn about something that they may not have even known existed or that they didn’t know about themselves. So if someone believes that they are going to continue on a path in brand management, but they come to Kellogg and just find a passion for entrepreneurship, that’s wonderful in fact.
But during the application phase, it is important for them to have some sense of why they want to get a Kellogg MBA and be able to articulate not just why they need an MBA, but why they think the Kellogg experience will benefit them. I do think the most important thing for the candidates to do is to take the time they need to reflect and to understand themselves and their motivation. And what is disappointing is when I can see in an application that a candidate has all of the pieces but doesn’t seem to be able to put them together. They did well as an undergrad, they’re doing well in their job, but they just fall short of being able to tell the whole story or to tie the pieces together.
Can you tell when someone has taken the opportunity to step back and really enjoy applying to business school?
Yes, you can tell that. And that’s a little bit of a reflection if their ready for an MBA experience as well. They have the maturity and self-awareness to be able to thoughtfully speak to where you have succeeded, where you have failed and what you have learned from both of those types of experiences really does show us somebody who’s ready.
The incoming class has an average age 28, with a broad range of work experience. Can you be too young, or too old to apply for an MBA?
I don’t think you can be too young or too old. I do think you can be under or over experienced. Part of the Kellogg experience is definitely learning from your peers, so if you don’t have enough experience to draw on, it can be difficult to keep up with classroom discussions and to contribute in a meaningful way to those discussions. So if you have less than two or three years of experience, another year or two will really make you a stronger candidate and I think will enhance your experience as an MBA student. On the flip side, if you’ve had many years of experience and have a deeper experience base to pull from then our Executive MBA program might be a better fit for someone. This is where peers typically have 10 years or more experience. So instead of too young or too old, I think I would more focus on are you under experienced or over experienced.
There are plenty of bankers, consultants and engineers applying to business school. How can they stand out from the competition?
I think every candidate has the opportunity to stand out as an individual. We see applications from all walks of life, and the industry you’ve worked in is not nearly as important as the experiences you have. How you have grown, what progress you’ve made to being an inclusive low ego high impact leader, and the spirit of wanting to improve yourself and take advantage of everything that Kellogg has to the offer, those are the things that will make you stand out as an individual. While some people may have a similar job to what you do, there are no cookie-cutter people in the world. Every good MBA candidate is able to show themselves as an individual, and probably the most fun part of my job is getting to know people beyond what they’ve done as a job to being who they are as people.
We definitely do look to have a diversity of industries and functions represented, but I don’t think there’s any danger of us not having consultants in the classroom.
How important are letters of recommendation, or are they all too enthusiastic to make a difference?
I think they are still important and I think they remain valuable because sometimes there are things that are difficult for you to see about yourself, both positive and sometimes negative and so that third party opinion about someone can really help us focus on an applicant’s strengths and weaknesses and dig deeper in different parts of the application to see if there’s a storyline there, but we deeply appreciate recommenders taking the time because they really do still continue to help with the evaluation process.
Are there certain characteristics that you’re hoping to see reflected, such as the ability to contribute to a team, a collaborative leadership style that a recommender can capture in the letter of recommendation?
Absolutely. Those are the kinds of things, especially a candidate’s ability to demonstrate inclusivity, to be able to contribute to a team, to have some of that low ego high impact DNA in the work that they’ve been doing, those are the kinds of thing that we really love to see letters of recommendation reflect.
The average GMAT for the full-time MBA program is a record high 732. How important is the GMAT in the admissions process?
We’ve been very fortunate to continue to have an outstanding pool of applicants year after year and the GMAT score of our applicants is rising at a similar increase than that of our incoming class. So it wasn’t necessarily something that we pushed to do, but rather we saw the people choosing to apply to Kellogg were bringing higher and higher scores, which then was reflected in our class,
The GMAT is one part of the application and it reflects how a candidate was able to perform on one given task on one given day. If it were just as easy as pick the highest scores… fortunately it’s not that easy and we do ask for a lot of other information as well. We take all that information very, very seriously – we’re going to look at transcripts, we’re going to read your essays, we’re going to have you interview. And we do those things because we know that there are people in the world where their GMAT doesn’t reflect them. When a candidate has a GMAT score that they either feel is not competitive of that they are concerned about, then my advice is always then take who you are and what makes you incredible and make me forget about your GMAT score. Because if I get to the point in an application where I am reading about your experiences and the things that you’re passionate about, and then I look at your score, there are definitely stories out there that make me say, I don’t care. I don’t care what your score is, this person is Kellogg and Kellogg needs this person. The fun part of my job is getting to find those people.
McKinsey hires a great many Kellogg MBAs, and values the people skills and humility of your graduates. But in a world of big data they talk about analytics skills. So is the GMAT nevertheless an important reflection of making sure that people can handle the numbers?
Absolutely, and not just handle the numbers, but handle the rigor of the classroom. The GMAT is a tool that we do use to assess if a candidate is able to keep up with the rigor of our classroom. But it’s only data point. We do look to their undergraduate GPA for selection to also help us assess their readiness. I don’t want to put anyone in the class who is going to really struggle with the academic side.
Can you give us an example of the classic mistakes you might see in an application?
First I just want to say there is really nothing that rules out a candidate immediately unless they’ve submitted an incomplete application. But one mistake that we see is people anchoring a little too much in what they think we want to hear versus what their story is. It is pretty easy to spot when you read as many things as we read. So essays that are maybe a little too polished or don’t sync nicely with video essay responses is something that we sometimes see. So if you’re not using your authentic voice that’s a pretty big mistake when it comes to writing your essays.
I think also either over or under-researching Kellogg can be a little bit of a mistake. Under researching is pretty obvious – you don’t understand what Kellogg is about versus the other schools and you don’t have a clear idea of what Kellogg is looking for. But by over-researching, I think that when we see a candidate memorize something that they’ve heard in an information session or regurgitate something that they’ve read on our site, we know what we say. So it is important for them to advocate Kellogg, but it’s very important for them to understand how that applies to them.
The other mistake that we still see are people re-using essays across different schools, and it just breaks my heart to read an essay that says ‘I can’t wait to be at Chicago Booth’. I know that candidates are looking at other programs, and I encourage candidates to look at other programs, but it’s also important to take the time to apply to each school as an individual.
How important is it for an applicant to visit Evanston, to experience not just the Global Hub but also the close-knit Kellogg community?
We always encourage candidates to do everything they can to make the campus visit, especially for one of our preview days or, if they’re admitted then for one of our admitted student events. It is so critically important for students to really understand the community that they’re joining. I think most people can appreciate the fact that you wouldn’t buy a car without test-driving what is essentially a high-end vehicle. You’re going to invest more into your MBA then you will into a car, so it’s definitely worth taking the time and using your resources to visit. But we understand that there are students for whom visiting Evanston may be out of reach, either for a resource reason or a timing reason or logistics, whatever the case may be. And so that’s not a part of our evaluation process. We don’t look for whether or not a student has been able to visit.
But we are all over the world conducting information sessions. We try to have alumni at all of our information sessions, so if you aren’t able to come to campus I think the next best thing you can do is engage with us either during one of our off-campus information sessions or reach out to alumni who might be a part of their current network. And I also encourage them to get on something like Linkedin, and look for people who are Kellogg alumni and reach out to them. I think our alumni and current students are incredible ambassadors, and all eager to engage with potential candidates and to share their story and to share their experience at Kellogg and how it’s impacted them. I think that’s one of the nice things about our very collaborative environment, so I have no hesitation in encouraging candidates to put out a few phone calls and see what happens.
You can read the rest of our interview here on Forbes. To find out more about the Kellogg MBA you can meet Melissa’s admissions team at the CentreCourt MBA Festival in Chicago, and talk with Fortuna Expert Coach and former Kellogg Director, William Kotas.