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You can find a better version of my blog at http://www.adammarkus.com/blog/.

Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

July 22, 2011

Kellogg 2012 MBA Application Essay Questions

In the post, I analyze Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Business 2012 Application Essay Questions for the MBA and MMM programs. I have taken the questions from Kellogg's website.

I had three clients admitted to Kellogg's MBA Class of 2013, You can find testimonials from two of them here.  On my admissions consulting service website there are also testimonials from clients admitted to Kellogg in 2010 and 2009.

Some thoughts on Kellogg's location: A highly biased commentary on why location matters.

Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Business has the good fortune to be located in one of the prettiest parts of Chicago. Unlike its neighbor to the south, the University of Chicago, Northwestern is located in the pleasant and safe suburban town of Evanston. If ever there was proof that location impacts an institution, the placement of both of these schools certainly is that. I first became aware of this contrast when my parents moved from LA to Chicago in 1986. Since that time, I lived in downtown Chicago for over a year, in Hyde Park for about six months, and have otherwise frequently visited Chicago.

The University of Chicago is an academic powerhouse located in a not so nice neighborhood with little to do in the way of fun except for buying books (Hyde Park has great bookstores!). Students at the University of Chicago either live around the campus protected by a large private police force or decide to move North. Many of the Booth students live in downtown Chicago. I lived in Hyde Park and I can say that while I did go out at night, there was not much to do, especially once the bookstores closed. Chicago has many fine restaurants, but Hyde Park does not have them. Also, unlike the rest of a city well know for sports, the University of Chicago is not. As to bars, it has one good bar (there were two, but the other one, Cyril's House of Tiki, closed). The University of Chicago is an intellectually serious place and ideal for those who are looking for such an atmosphere. Personally, I like the atmosphere there and always enjoy visiting. One can find some social life at Booth. On my visits to Booth, I found it to be a friendly environment. Like the rest of the University of Chicago, Booth is a great place to study.

Northwestern University is located in an affluent community with a large number of bars, a wide variety of restaurants, nice shopping (but not for books!), and, just for the record, a great dog beach. Evanston is quite a pleasant place, but I never felt like it had the kind of serious academic atmosphere that one could find in Hyde Park, Berkeley, or Cambridge MA. It is too suburban for that. Northwestern, unlike its neighbor to the South, has a huge sports program (For more about that, see NUASports.cstv.com). With more to do, one can imagine it is harder to stay in the library at Northwestern than it is at the University of Chicago.

If you go to Kellogg, chances are extremely high that you will live in Evanston. Social life in Evanston is not limited to campus. The place simply is filled with people who are great communicators, friendly, outgoing, and able to thrive in a socially intense environment. If you are not that kind of person, don't apply there. If you are, it will be heaven. At Kellogg, they call it the "Kellogg Culture":
"Student culture at Kellogg is rich and multi-faceted, but a single principle ties it all together: teamwork.
Our students collaborate in the classroom (and outside it) to meet professors’ exacting standards. They organize conferences, chair student groups and invite distinguished leaders to speak on campus. They travel to nations around the world to complete coursework of their own design.
At Kellogg, you’ll form lasting social, intellectual and professional bonds with your classmates."
It should come as no surprise that Kellogg's essay questions reflect its focus on community.

Kellogg's 2011-2012 Essay Questions for the Class of 2014 are specifically designed to help admissions determine whether you demonstrate the appropriate "scholastic ability, personal character, motivation, leadership ability, interpersonal skills, career performance and management potential."

As you will see three out of the four essays in this set make the applicant provide explicit (Essay 3) or implicit (Essays 1 & 2) connections between themselves and the school. It is thus critical to be well informed about Kellogg before trying to write these essays. This school really focuses on fit, so you had better show it in your essays and in your interview. I pity the fool who applies to this school without taking the time to really learn about it. The admissions committee needs to see "big love" here, so make them feel it. Reflect enough on what they have to offer you so that your essay content related to Kellogg does not sound like a bad version of their website or brochure (who bothers with paper anymore?) content. The better informed you are about the school and the more you think about how it will help you grow professionally and personally, the more likely you are to make Kellogg love you back.

Essay #1 –
a) 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)
b) MMM Program applicants – Briefly assess your career progress to date. How do the unique characteristics of the MMM Program meet your educational needs and career goals? (600 word limit).
While I think the difference in the wording between a) and b) is worth noting, I think it is possible to essentially write an essay with the same structure for the MBA or MMM program. The difference in wording does not alter the fact that you must clearly connect your career goals and educational needs to either the MBA or MMM program.
Those applying to the MMM should certainly take time to make sure they see a strong fit for themselves. If you think your career goals involve integrating "management, operations and design, from concept to execution," I strongly recommend looking at the MMM site.
Gap, & SWOT, and ROI analysis are great ways for understanding what your goals are, why you want a degree, and how you will use it.

(To best view the following table, click on it.)

How to use this table:

Step 1. Begin by analyzing your "Present Situation." What job(s) have you held? What was/is your functional role(s)? What was/are your responsibilities?

Next, analyze your present strengths and weaknesses for succeeding in your present career. REMEMBER: WHEN YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT YOUR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESS DON'T ONLY THINK ABOUT WORK, THINK ABOUT OTHER ASPECTS OF YOUR LIFE. In particular, some of your greatest strengths may have been demonstrated outside of work, so make sure you are accounting for them.
Strengths: What are you good at? Where do you add value? What are you praised for? What are you proud of?
Weakness: What are you bad at? What are you criticized for? What do you try to avoid due to your own limitations? What do you fear?

Next, analyze the environment you work in right now. What opportunities exist for your growth and success? What threats could limit your career growth?

Step 2. Now, do the same thing in Step 1 for your "Post-Degree" future after you have earned your graduate degree. IF YOU CANNOT COMPLETE STEP 2, YOU HAVE NOT SUFFICIENTLY PLANNED FOR YOUR FUTURE and therefore you need to do more research and need to think more about it.

Step 3. If you could complete step 2, than you should see the "Gap" between your present and your future. What skills, knowledge, and other resources do you need to close the gap between your present and future responsibilities, strengths, and opportunities?

Step 4. After completing Step 3, you now need to determine how an MBA will add value to you. It is possible that an increased salary as a result of job change will be sufficient "ROI" for the degree to justify itself, but you should show how a degree will allow you to reach your career goals. How will the degree enhance your skills and opportunities and help you overcome your weaknesses and external threats? If you can complete Step 4 than you should be ready to explain what your goals are, why you want a degree, and the relationship between your past and future career, as well as your strengths and weaknesses.

The above table will also help you answer such common interview questions as: Where do you want to work after you finish your degree? Why do you want an MBA (or other degree)? What are you strengths? What are your weaknesses? What are your goals? Thinking about these issues now will help you to develop a fully worked-out strategy for how you will best present yourself both in the application and in an interview.

The wording of the MBA Essay Question does not mention Kellogg by name.  Still I would argue that you should certainly answer this question in terms of Kellogg in particular and not an MBA in general. One very strong point of Kellogg is that it can be used for a great variety of purposes and offers a very flexible curriculum. The downside to this is that many applicants just see the options, but don't focus enough on what they need from Kellogg to achieve their goals. Going through a formal process like the one I have outlined above will help you determine what you really need from Kellogg. The more specific you are about that, the better. Japanese applicants to Kellogg, should most certainly make full use of http://www.kelloggalumni.jp/kellogg_life/.

You need to make admissions excited about your future. To do so, you should think about whether your goals are compelling. Admissions committees ask applicants to write about their goals after graduate school, but can applicants actually know what will be on the cutting-edge in two or three years? While many applicants will be able to successfully apply with relatively standard goals ("I want to be a consultant because..."), try to go beyond the typical answer to make your goals compelling. For more about writing goals that are both ambitious and visionary, see here.

Be informed. Admissions needs to believe you know what you are talking about. If you are changing careers, no one expects you to be an expert, but you should come across as having a clear plan based on real research into your future. If you are planning on staying in your present industry, you should be well informed not only about the companies you have worked for, but about the industry as a whole. If you are not already doing so, read industry related publications and network.

Those who are changing fields should most certainly read industry related publications in their intended field. Think about conducting informational interviews with at least one peer-level and one senior level person in that field. Conduct a peer-level interview to get a good idea of what it would be like to actually work in that industry. Conduct a senior-level interview to get the perspective of someone who can see the big picture and all the little details as well.

Don't know anyone in your intended field? Network! One great way to start is through LinkedIn. Another is by making use of your undergraduate alumni network and/or career center.

LEARN WHAT IS HOT. No matter whether you are changing fields or not, learn what is hot now and try to figure out what will be hot by the time you graduate. Now, of course, this is just a plan and chances are that what is hot in your industry or field now may very well be cold in the future. The point is to come across to Wharton as someone who is not only well informed, but who has CUTTING-EDGE knowledge related to their goals. Some great general sources for learning what is hot:

From the Business Schools: Feed your brain with cutting-edge ideas from the best business schools in the world. Start with Kellogg Insight. Other great sources of information include Stanford Social Innovation ReviewHarvard Working KnowledgeHarvard Business ReviewHarvard Business School PublishingUniversity of Chicago GSB's Working PapersThe University of Chicago's Capital IdeasKnowledge @ Wharton, and MIT Sloan Management Review.

You may also want to do a search on iTunes for podcasts: In addition to Kellogg Insight,  my favorites are Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders (from the Stanford School of Engineering, but totally relevant to MBAs), Chicago GSB PodcastNet Impact, and Harvard Business IdeaCast. INSEAD, IMD, LBS, and Wharton also have podcasts. 

LinkedIn Answers: I would suggest that everyone join LinkedIn and make use of LinkedIn Answers. LinkedIn Answers is a great way to tap into cutting edge expertise (including my admissions advice!) Follow LinkedIn's rules and you will often be able to obtain excellent information.

Hoovers: For information about specific companies, Hoovers is just a great way to learn about key facts including competitors (a very useful way of knowing who else you might want to work for and to learn about an industry). While primarily focused on the US, Hoovers does have listings for companies worldwide.

Vault: For scope of coverage, this site is a must. Vault includes both career and admissions information. It includes both company specific and industry-wide information.

Other sources: Read magazines, websites, and books that relate to your intended field.

I think describing one's career progress is something many applicants actually have a great deal of difficulty with. The primary reason is that they don't actually think strategically enough about what they say about themselves. Interpret your career to connect it to your goals and why you want to go to Kellogg. Your resume will provide Kellogg with a description of your career, but in this essay help them understand what it means by interpreting your career for them.
You will note that this questions specifically asks that you "Briefly assess your career progress to date." I think that means not spending 50% of your essay analyzing your career progress. I would advise my own clients to limit it to about 100-200 words. There is plenty of space in the other essays to write about the past, so don't do too much of it here. Just provide a very focused answer that connects to your career goals and reason for wanting to attend Kellogg. 

When you initially write Essay 1, you might find that it does not seem to be coming together as a single essay. If that is the case, you might simply not be telling your story in the right way. The way you tell your story will depend on your situation. Applicants with extensive experience whose goals connect directly to their past experience will be telling a story based on continuity, while applicants looking to change careers will be telling a story based on discontinuity. A story based on continuity is often easiest to tell in a fairly linear way because the future is based directly on what happened in the past. By contrast, a story based on a discontinuity should be told to emphasize the need for the change In either case, it is critical to explain why you want an MBA or MMM from Kellogg.

Essay #2 – Describe your key leadership experiences and evaluate what leadership areas you hope to develop through your MBA experiences (600 word limit)
Given the importance that Kellogg places on leadership in teams, I think you should think about your leadership capacity and/or potential not only in relation to your future professional objectives, but to your ability to be a leader at Kellogg.
You will need to focus on more than one story as the question specifically asks for you to do so. I suggest focusing on two to three key experiences.

I have developed the following grid to help you outline leadership stories. The categories this grid employs may go beyond any particular schools essay requirements. Filling it out completely will help you write about your leadership in a way that will help convince admissions of your leadership potential.CLICK TO ENLARGE. 

How to use the grid:

1. Decide on a specific story.
2. Identify the most significant things you did in the situation, these are you action steps.
3. For each action step identify:
  • What skills or qualities you demonstrated to complete this step.
  • The strengths you demonstrated to complete this step.
  • The kind of leadership you demonstrated.
  • What you still need to learn about leadership.
4. Think about the results and identify how they relate to your action steps. So, at minimum, you should be able to state the impact on others and/or yourself.

5. After completing the chart you will see that some aspects of your action steps may be repeated. If there is a total duplication and nothing new is shown, either you need to redefine the action step or you may decide not to focus on it very much.

6. Once you think you have two to four fully worked-out action steps for two to three stories, start writing your essay.

7. Next start re-writing. Eliminate duplicate points made between action steps. Make choices about what parts of each action to step to highlight. Given that there are usually word limits, you will have to make some decisions about what to include. Simply providing a description of your actions, is not enough. Consider what it signifies about you. Consider what your actions reveals about your leadership potential.

8. Make sure that each story focuses on a different aspect of leadership. By all means, make sure that at least one of your leadership experiences relates to teamwork.

THE HARDEST PART OF THIS QUESTION: "evaluate what leadership areas you hope to develop through your MBA experiences"
Based on working with many clients on this question, I can say that evaluating what leadership areas need to be developed is actually the hardest part of the question for most people. You maybe able to connect your leadership needs very directly to the leadership stories you tell in this essay, but there is a real possibility that you will have to think way beyond those stories.  In particular, I suggest identifying your leadership development needs that Kellogg can help you to address in terms of your future career goals. To minimize duplication between Essay 1 and Essay 2, focus more on your specific leadership needs in Essay 2.

Finally, thinking and writing about leadership is an important part of preparing for interviews because you can be certain that you will have to talk about leadership. So, you might find that the parts of the outline you jettison now will become valuable when you will want to have alternative stories for your Kellogg interview.

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)
This question combines the function of the standard contribution question that Kellogg had previously asked for many years with a variation of an old Kellogg question on evaluating your application as though you were a member of the admissions committee (the old question did not specify if it was a student member).
Within the context of the Kellogg application, Essay # 3 is really one of the most important places to show why you will fit into this intensely social environment where both personal initiative and the ability to work with others are highly valued.
Kellogg is looking for students who will make a contribution. And this really makes sense because of the collaborative nature of MBA education. While professors play an important role in the classroom, students learn from each other on a continuous basis both inside and outside of class.

One of the chief functions of an MBA admissions committee is to select people who will be good classmates. The director and the rest of the committee have done their job properly if they have selected students who can work well together, learn from each other, and if these students become alum who value the relationships they initially formed at business school. Students members of the committee bring a peer's perspective to the process. They are also are likely to be the first to read your file:
 "Files are typically reviewed first by a student member of the admissions committee, then forwarded for additional review by staff members, including the Director of Admissions." 

There are a number of ways of trying to determine whether someone really "fits" at a particular school, but certainly the most direct thing to do is just ask the applicants. One way they ask is by asking applicants why they want to attend as in Essay 1 or in terms of what leadership skills need to be improved as in Essay 2. Another way is to ask applicants what they can contribute.
In the case of Essay 3, you are being asked to critically evaluate yourself as though you were a student member of the admissions committee. Three things to keep in mind:
1. If you cover a topic that is discussed in other essays, it is critical that you provide a new interpretation. There would be little value added if all you do is simply repeat what is covered elsewhere.  By the way, it would be quite reasonable to refer to other parts of the application in Essay 3.
2. For each contribution you can make, be as specific about how this will be a contribution at Kellogg. This essay is really a great test of your knowledge of and commitment to the program. If you can visit Kellogg, do so. If you can't, network as intensively as possible to gain deep inside knowledge about the program.
3. Try to provide unique and interpretations of why you are good fit for the Kellogg community. Market yourself effectively! That is too say, you are your own brand, so sell admissions on why you are unique admissions opportunity for them.
One way I like to think about contribution questions is to use a matrix such as the following:


I use the above matrix for all types of contribution questions, modifying the categories to fit the question. When it comes to contribution questions, I think it is important to tell specific stories that highlight specific ways you will add value to your future classmates. Luckily, Essay 3 specifies that you should be looking only for those aspects of your application that really best demonstrate why you should be a part of the Kellogg community.
The number of contributions that can be covered in 600 words will obviously vary greatly.  Consider that some contributions might be fully analyzed and justified in a matter of 20-50 words, while others will require 150-200. I suggest finding something between three and about six (!) contributions to discuss. Just make sure each contribution is meaningful and described effectively enough. Keep in mind that you want admissions to be excited by you, so if you make this a mere summary of why you are good fit, you will be boring them.

Essay #4Complete 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…..

Kellogg provides you with three options. Use whichever one you think will add value to your application. Given the open-ended nature of your options, take the time to make this one particularly memorable. Specifically ask yourself, "What  story about me can I tell Kellogg that helps them understand why they should admit me?" Which of these three options will best enable me to tell that story?

a)  Describe a time you had to inspire a reluctant individual or group.
Last year the question was somewhat similar: "Describe an instance where you encountered resistance in a professional team setting. How did you address the situation?"
Kellogg is the kind of place where one can easily find the sort of extroverted people who clearly know how to be popular. While this is certainly not true about all of those who attend or are admitted to Kellogg, it is certainly place for those with a strong interest in teams and leadership in teams. 

Writing on this question gives you the opportunity to show that you can influence others and overcome their reluctance.

Leaders have to be capable of overcoming the deadweight of organizational inertia, the conservatism based on past successful practice, and/or the fear of change. Inspiring minds and organizations is no easy thing.  

Identify the most significant things you did to overcome the reluctance you faced and how you were able to inspire. Try to break your actions down into action steps. For each step
-Explain what skills or qualities you demonstrated to complete this step.
-Clearly state the result of your actions. If appropriate, provide an analysis of what this solution meant to you.

It is also important that each action step reveal something distinct about you: The way you think, the way you interact with others to solve problems, your communication skills, or other abilities or qualities. This essay will become very boring if you simply focus on the details and not your underlying capabilities.  Think about what this essay reveals about your ability to work with other students at Kellogg.

By all means avoid making this merely an essay focused on action. You really should provide admissions with a deep understanding of the way you persuade and inspire other people.

  People may be surprised to learn that I….. 

I only suggest answering this one if you actually have something surprising to discuss, but since I really believe that most people have an interesting answer, it is one of my favorite questions. I am glad that they did not change it this year.   I actually like this question quite a bit because it is a great way for applicants to highlight something really unique about themselves. The point is that it should be something that would not be obvious about you. The focus may be on something very specific that you did or something about your character. Whatever it is, it should not simply be surprising, but also relevant. It should be something that will add value to you as student at Kellogg and/or to your future career. If it is highly personal, it should reveal a quality or aspect to you that is not merely interesting, but also something really worth knowing. A good answer here might involve an unusual hobby or experience, but the possibilities are endless.

c) The riskiest personal or professional decision I ever made was…..
This question is totally new for 2012. Your answer should do the following:
1. Describe the risk you took and explain why took it.
2. State what the outcome was.
3. Explain the significance of the risk and what it means to you.
Your essay will fail if your reader cannot accept that you were taking a risk. Through the process of reviewing my clients' early drafts and working with reapplicants,  I have read many bad versions of this essay. Such essays are usually bad because the decision being made is not a real decision and/or the level of risk involved is too small.

The outcome might be very simple or complex. It might involve a change within you or a change to an organization/group or both. Whatever it is, make sure that you are identifying the outcome as clearly as possible.

Required essay for re-applicants only - Since your previous application, what steps have you taken to strengthen your candidacy? (400 word limit)
Reapplicants should read my previous post on reapplication. Use this space to specifically explain what has improved about you since you last applied. You can certainly mention improved test scores, but I would not use very much of your word count for that. Typical topics include: development of a new skill, promotions that demonstrate your potential for future success, involvement in an extracurricular activity, learning significantly more about Kellogg, and why your goals discussed in Essay 1 now are better than the ones you presented last time.
-Adam Markus
アダム マーカス
I am a graduate admissions consultant based in Tokyo, Japan with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form, which is publicly available on google docs here, and then send your completed form to adammarkus@gmail.com.  You can also send me your resume if it is convenient for you.  Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. See here for why. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.

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July 21, 2011


One question that I frequently asked is about the minimum GMAT required for INSEAD.

What INSEAD's site says is the following:
While we do not have a minimum score required for admission, we advise candidates to aim for a score at or above the 70-75th percentile for both the quantitative and verbal sections of the GMAT and a percentile of 75-80th or above for the quantitative and verbal sections of the GRE. Please keep in mind, however, that standardised tests are just one of several admission criteria. A high score does not guarantee admission, and a below average score does not eliminate a candidate.

Based on my experience, they are simply hedging this a bit too much because the 70% in the quantitative and verbal sections really is a minimum for a viable application.  I have had two candidates in the last years apply who overall scores over 70%, but verbal or quantitative scores below that and they were both told to retake GMAT,  but that there applications were otherwise great, and once a new score meeting the 70% range requirement was submitted, their application would reevaluated.  One candidate decided to attend another program, the other received the necessary GMAT and was admitted.   If your score is at all under the 70% mark, I highly recommend taking GMAT again.

Keep in mind that at INSEAD, GMAT (or GRE) is the only criteria, aside from English minimums- (TOEFL (iTOEFL: 105, Computer-Based: 260, Paper-Based, 620); IELTS (7.5); CPE (B) and the PTE Academic (72), TOEIC Listening and Reading (950); TOEIC Writing (170); TOEIC Speaking (190)-  for those applicants who need to demonstrate it, that INSEAD applicants have in common.  Given the extremely diverse nature of INSEAD's students in terms of nationality, education, and professional background, this makes perfect sense.  I think the minimums reflect the fast paced nature of a program that requires both solid English and quantitative skills.  Even a bachelor's degree is not required at INSEAD in the case of exceptional candidates.

I have worked with a hugely diverse group of clients who have been accepted to INSEAD, but the only thing they had in common was that their GMAT score met the 70% minimum.

-Adam Markus
アダム マーカス
I am a graduate admissions consultant based in Tokyo, Japan with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form, which is publicly available on google docs here, and then send your completed form to adammarkus@gmail.com.  You can also send me your resume if it is convenient for you.  Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. See here for why. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.

Word Count Later, Ideas and Stories First!

One strategy that I consistently use with all of my MBA, LL.M., MPA, MPP, Ph.D., and other graduate program clients is that I encourage them to initially not worry about word count (or page count, line count, or character count).  The reason to write more than the word count is that the best part of the story, the most compelling part, might simply be edited out or never written at all because the writer is too initially focused on a constraint that only applies to a final draft.  

While there are people who can write first drafts that are near perfect, most cannot.  So it makes little sense to focus initially on word count.

This does not mean that my clients necessarily show me a 2000 word essay when the ultimate essay will need to be 400 words long, but if that is what it takes for them to get a good first draft, it is not a problem.  Most really good initial drafts that I read are 10% to 100% over the limit.   By good initial draft,  I mean one that has within it the potential to become a final draft.  Some first drafts are simply so far from what the applicant needs that there chief function is to serve as a basis for brainstorming what will become a good first draft.  Some first drafts have a key idea or episode, but are so short that the real story is not coming through at all.   Beyond what I might help a client brainstorm, my advice is to always write down anything they think is really useful for the essay.  

Once a good draft is in place,  through the process of revising word count might go down or go up a bit.  As long as the word count is not out of control, say 10% to 30% above what the final version needs to be, I would say not to worry about it until making the final working version.  This final version, is, of course, subject to potential revision, but the point is that it is good to be final.  After all, writing is never finished, one simply just stops revising.

Word count really is the last consideration. It is part of the final editing process for an entire essay set. While some of my clients are great at editing their own essays, many find that killing their own words is something that they don't like to do, which is why editors exist. My own approach to editing is not to rewrite my client's work, but simply to suggest what needs to be cut and/or what the client should better summarize.

My entire approach is based on the idea that in the end, the critical issues are that the reader believe in the authenticity of the applicant's voice, understand what the applicant's essay, and be excited enough by what they read to either offer an interview or, in the case of graduate programs that don't require an interview, accept the applicant. 

-Adam Markus
アダム マーカス
I am a graduate admissions consultant based in Tokyo, Japan with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form, which is publicly available on google docs here, and then send your completed form to adammarkus@gmail.com.  You can also send me your resume if it is convenient for you.  Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to.  See here for why. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.

July 20, 2011

Wharton's Class of 2014 Essays are up, but...

7/23 Update.  Wharton has added the word counts (300 words for the professional objectives essay and 600 words for the other three).  My analysis will come out next week. Thanks to a reader for letting me know.  

Well, Wharton's MBA Class of 2014  admissions essays are up. Kind of.  Here they are:


What are your professional objectives?


1. Reflect on a time when you turned down an opportunity. What was the thought process behind your decision? Would you make the same decision today?

2. Discuss a time when you faced a challenging interpersonal experience. How did you navigate the situation and what did you learn from it?

"Innovation is central to our culture at Wharton. It is a mentality that must encompass every aspect of the School - whether faculty research, teaching or alumni outreach." - Thomas S. Robertson, Dean, The Wharton School
Keeping this component of our culture in mind, discuss a time when you have been innovative in your personal or professional life."


Look closely.

No, I did not miss it.  Maybe they will fix it soon, but as of 6:04pm on July 20th Tokyo time there are no word counts listed for the essays. Of course, I tried to look at the online application, but that is not schedule to go live until August 1st.   I also checked the Wharton  MBA Admissions Blog, but nothing there either.  Oh well.  I guess my Wharton analysis will have to wait for a while.  Chicago Booth will be the next school I focus on.

By the way, unlike the overall set of questions Wharton asked last year, these are very easy to write on, but more about that sometime later.

If you notice that Wharton has posted the word counts, please let me know at adammarkus@gmail.com.

Adam Markus
アダム マーカス
I am a graduate admissions consultant based in Tokyo, Japan with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form, which is publicly available on google docs here, and then send your completed form to adammarkus@gmail.com.  You can also send me your resume if it is convenient for you.  Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to.  See here for why. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.

July 19, 2011

Stanford GSB MBA Essay Questions for Class of 2014

This is the first of five posts analyzing the Stanford GSB MBA Essay Questions for Class of 2014 Admission. The five posts are overall comments, Essay 1, Essay 2, Essay 3, and additional information/resume/employment history/activities. My analysis of Stanford GSB interviews can be found here. In addition to the Class of 2014 posts, I also recommend reading and/or listening to my presentation, "So you want to get into Stanford GSB?" which was made to a Japanese audience in March 2011. That presentation focuses on issues that are applicable to all applicants as well as some issues specific to Japanese applicants. 

In this post I provide some overall comments about the Stanford GSB MBA essay set for admission to the Class of 2014, an analysis of the centrality of demonstrating Stanford GSB's three central admissions criteria- Intellectual Vitality,  Demonstrated Leadership Potential, and Personal Qualities and Qualifications-, and some suggestions for how to proceed in order to put together a great application for Stanford GSB. I had three clients from three different countries admitted to Stanford for the Class of 2013, which is .075 of the entering class of 400.  You can find testimonial from one of those clients here as well as testimonials from clients admitted to Stanford Classes of 2012, 2011, and 2010.  My full Stanford results can be found here.

Here are the complete essays and instructions from the Stanford GSB website:
"We read your essays to get to know you as a person and to learn about the ideas and interests that motivate you. Tell us in your own words who you really are.
In other parts of the application, we learn about your academic and professional accomplishments (i.e., what you have done). Through your personal essays (Essays 1 and 2), we learn more about the person behind the achievements (i.e., who you are).
Because we want to discover who you are, resist the urge to "package" yourself in order to come across in a way you think Stanford wants. Such attempts simply blur our understanding of who you are and what you can accomplish.
We want to hear your genuine voice throughout the essays that you write and this is the time to think carefully about your values, your passions, your hopes and dreams.
In your short answer responses (Essay 3, options A, B, C, or D), we learn more about the experiences that have shaped your attitudes, behaviors, and aspirations.
Truly, the most impressive essays are those that do not begin with the goal of impressing us.
Tell us in your own words who you really are. Answer essay questions 1, 2, and two of the four options for essay 3.

  • Essay 1: What matters most to you, and why?
    • The best examples of Essay 1 reflect the process of self-examination that you have undertaken to write them.
    • They give us a vivid and genuine image of who you are—and they also convey how you became the person you are.
    • They do not focus merely on what you've done or accomplished. Instead, they share with us the values, experiences, and lessons that have shaped your perspectives.
    • They are written from the heart and address not only a person, situation, or event, but also how that person, situation, or event has influenced your life.
  • Essay 2: What do you want to do—REALLY—and why Stanford?
    • Use this essay to explain your view of your future, not to repeat accomplishments from your past.
    • You should address three distinct topics:
      • your career aspirations
      • the role of an MBA education in achieving those aspirations
      • and your rationale for earning that MBA at Stanford, in particular.
    • The best examples of Essay 2 express your passions or focused interests; explain why you have decided to pursue graduate education in management; and demonstrate your desire to take advantage of the opportunities that are distinctive to the Stanford MBA Program.
  • Essay 3: Answer two of the four questions below. Tell us not only what you did but also how you did it. What was the outcome? How did people respond? Only describe experiences that have occurred during the last three years.
    • Option A: Tell us about a time when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.
    • Option B: Tell us about a time when you made a lasting impact on your organization.
    • Option C: Tell us about a time when you generated support from others for an idea or initiative.
    • Option D: Tell us about a time when you went beyond what was defined or established.

Essay Length

Your answers for all of the essay questions cannot exceed 1,800 words.
You have your own story to tell, so please allocate the 1,800 words among all of the essays in the way that is most effective for you. We provide some guidelines below as a starting point, but you should feel comfortable to write as much or as little as you like on any essay question, as long as you do not exceed 1,800 words total.

  • Essay 1: 750 words
  • Essay 2: 450 words
  • Essay 3: 300 words each


  • Use a 12-point font, double spaced
  • Recommended fonts are Arial, Courier, and Times New Roman
  • Indicate which essay question you are answering at the beginning of each essay (this does not count towards the 1800 word limit).
  • Number all pages
  • Upload all four essays as one document
  • Preview the uploaded document to ensure that the formatting is true to the original
  • Save a copy of your essays

Editing Your Essays

Begin work on these essays early, to give yourself time to reflect, write, and edit.
Feel free to ask your friends or family members to provide constructive feedback. When you ask for feedback, ask if the essays' tone sounds like your voice. It should. Your family and friends know you better than anyone else. If they do not believe that the essays capture who you are, how you live, what you believe, and what you aspire to do, then surely the Committee on Admissions will be unable to recognize what is most distinctive about you.
There is a big difference, however, between 'feedback' and 'coaching.' There are few hard and fast rules, but you cross a line when any part of the application (excluding the Letters of Reference) ceases to be exclusively yours in either thought or word.
Appropriate feedback occurs when you show someone your completed application, perhaps one or two times, and are apprised of errors or omissions.
In contrast, inappropriate coaching occurs when your application or your self-presentation is colored by someone else.
You best serve your own interests when your personal thoughts, individual voice, and unique style remain intact at the end of your editing process.
It is improper and a violation of the spirit of the Fundamental Standard and Honor Code and the terms of this application process, to have someone else write any part of your Stanford MBA Program application. Such an act will result in denial of your application or withdrawal of your offer of admission.

Additional Information

If there is any other information that is critical for us to know and is not captured elsewhere, please include it. Examples of pertinent additional information include:
  • Extenuating circumstances affecting academic or work performance
  • Explanation of why you do not have a Letter of Reference from your current direct supervisor or peer
  • Explanation of criminal conviction, criminal charges sustained against you in a juvenile proceeding, and/or court-supervised probation
  • Explanation of academic suspension or expulsion
  • Any other information that you did not have sufficient space to complete in another section of the application (please begin the information in the appropriate section)
  • Additional work experience that cannot fit into the space provided
  • Additional information about your academic experience (e.g., independent research) not noted elsewhere"

I know that was long, but I think it is really important to actually read the whole thing. Especially note the three year limit on Essay 3 topics and the fact that you can decide how to divide your 1800 words amongst the four essays. The rest of this post consists of my general comments on Stanford GSB and writing the essays. Specific essay questions are analyzed in the rest of this series.

I 'developed' this very simply spreadsheet so that word count between essays can be easily calculated simultaneously.  You have 1800 words to play with, but you don't have to use them in any particular way.  I can say that my successful clients distributed word count in a variety of ways. It is available on Google Docs here and Scribd here.  You will no doubt be impressed with my spreadsheet skills.

The simple reality is that Stanford is for really smart people. My clients who get interviews and most certainly those who are admitted are, without exception, objectively smart people. One primary way, but not the only way, to measure this criteria is by looking at the key numbers (Taken from the premium version of US News & World Report):
GPA: Average 3.69 80% range from 3.38-3.95
GMAT:  Average 728   80% range from: 680 to 770
When I am helping clients determine whether to apply to Stanford, GPA is a major consideration, simply because the numbers make that clear enough.  While GMAT can be a hinderance, it is a solvable problem, whereas undergraduate GPA is simply a fact.

When I am talking with a client, if I have somebody with a really strong academic background and I see a real sense of purpose and focus to their academic and professional career, I might advise them to apply to Stanford. And in the last few years, I have literally convinced two of my clients to apply to Stanford because basically I said "Hey, you’re perfect, you’re what they are looking for."  And that’s a sense.  It’s not objective.  And so, it’s just based on my experience. I am not always right about this, but I am right about it enough of the time to think I know when I have an applicant who is right for Stanford.

The Curriculum: Hard!
Consider what my former client, a member of the Class of 2010, said in an interview with me:
Adam: How hard was the first year?
Yukihiro: The first year in GSB was very tough! Especially in the first quarter, students must prepare hard for each class and deal with tons of readings and assignments. Actually, if there is one thing I have to complain about the program, it is that there is a risk that the understanding about each subject might be become halfway due to the lack of time. Even American students said the first quarter was very tough. Also, there are a lot of parties, networking and recruiting events in MBA. The students must manage their time efficiently to tackle the academic requirements.

When I visited GSB in May 2010, I had the opportunity to meet with Yukihiro as well as a former client who is a member of the Class of 2011, both expressed that the program was challenging. Please also see my interview with a member of the Class of 2011 as he also discusses this issue.

Another consideration is that in the past, Stanford has clearly not been so closely associated with a leadership-focused education. Whether this is true or not is another issue, but it certainly has been the case that HBS has been much more clearly associated with a leadership-focused education. At this point, I would not consider such a dichotomy to be useful. Consider what Stanford says about the first quarter, Management perspectives curriculum:
Through your first quarter Management Perspectives courses, you will examine questions that transcend any single function or discipline of management such as:

You will begin to understand the larger context of management and recognize  deficiencies in your own knowledge that you will fill with Management Foundations classes in your second and third quarters.
Right from the start, you also will focus on developing your leadership style and honing your skills of oral and written persuasion.
Compare this to how HBS describes its Required Curriculum:
HBS's MBA curriculum includes a range of exciting courses and is frequently refreshed with new content. The goal is to give students a firm grasp of broad-based fundamentals. The School's inductive learning model goes beyond facts and theories—a process that teaches individuals not only how to manage organizations, but also how to continually grow and learn throughout life.

Now I will not deny that there are significant differences in the use of learning methods, culture, and the overall structure of these two programs, but are the expected learning outcomes different? If the objective is to teach individuals how to be global leaders who can change and grow overtime, the answer is "No." Maybe this comes as no surprise to the reader, but I do point it so that no one thinks leadership matters less at Stanford than it does at HBS.

A blog post by Kirsten Moss, Stanford GSB's Director of Evaluation, indicates the extent to which there is a focus on finding students who demonstrate leadership potential:
We wanted to develop a set of questions that would stand the test of time--that would effectively elicit only the information most critical to our assessment criteria.
The 2008/2009 questions have changed little from last year; based on our satisfaction with the thousands of essay responses we read last year, we only made slight refinements.
Let me summarize why each of them is meaningful to our committee:
Essay A [WHAT IS NOW ESSAY 1]: What matters most to you and why?
This question helps us learn about your ideals and values. They set the context for how you see the world. They are your guideposts when you make any decision from what type of job you pursue to what type of culture you will create in leading an organization.
Essay B [Now 2]: What are your career aspirations? How will your education at Stanford help you achieve them?
This question helps us understand your professional dreams and from where your passion comes to achieve them. We also get a glimpse of what skills or knowledge you think you need to develop to reach them.....
We all have important stories to tell. We want to share moments when we have achieved great things or helped to shape the world around us. Essay C [Now 3] lists four potential questions (or prompts) to help you identify which are the two most important stories you have to tell us. The prompts themselves are not as important as the stories that they bring to the surface.
Good luck completing your application this year. I hope my "confessions" have given you a little more insight into the journey you are about to begin.
Moss's "confession" makes it very clear that rather than having completely open-ended criteria about who will fit at Stanford, the admissions committee is specifically looking to admit applicants who can (ESSAY 1) express values and ideals that will guide them as leaders and/or decision makers, (ESSAY 2) express why their professional goals require a Stanford MBA education, and (ESSAY 3) clearly demonstrate leadership potential.

I think reading what Stanford says about  Personal Qualities and Qualifications is the best place to start when thinking about this third criteria.  In essence, Stanford wants to why should be a part of the 6%-7% of the applicant pool that they will be admitting.  What makes you stand out?  How will contribute?  What is it about your experience and attitude that will not only make you a good fit for Stanford, but will give you the potential to make an impact to the Stanford community?  This does not just come out in one particular place, but is something will come of your entire application as well as in an interview.  

In my analysis of Essay 1, I will discuss the critical importance of providing honest answers to Stanford's questions, but the following comments from Derrick Bolton apply to the essay set as a whole:
Please think of the Stanford essays as conversations on paper—when we read files, we feel that we meet people, also known as our "flat friends"—and tell us your story in a natural, genuine way.
Our goal is to understand what motivates you and how you have become the person you are today. In addition, we’re interested in what kind of person you wish the Stanford MBA Program to help you become.
Reflective, insightful essays help us envision the individual behind all of the experiences and accomplishments that we read about elsewhere in your application.
I can confirm that what has always made a winning set of essays for Stanford is the ability to commit to making an honest and insightful presentation of yourself. Based on my experience I can say the following are not effective:
1. Over-marketing: While I believe in the value of the marketing metaphor to some degree, I also believe you have to be able to understand that a crude, over-determined approach to doing so will not work here (For more about this, click here).   If you are not real, you fail as one of Derrick Bolton's "flat friends."
2. Not writing your own essays. If your essays are not written in your own voice and don't reflect your English ability, don't expect to make it past Derrick Bolton's team. My own approach to helping my clients does not involve me writing their essays, but instead I act as a coach, a close reader, and someone who can benchmark their work against those who have been admitted. I make the assumption that overly cooked essays that look like they were written by a professional journalist when you are not one or by a native English speaker when you are not one or similar inconsistencies are unlikely to succeed.

IS STANFORD RIGHT FOR YOU? Stanford really does provide great advice about both the Stanford GSB essays and about how to handle your applications. Review the curriculum, the school's mission statement, and the vast online resources (including a blog, podcasts, and "Myth Busters" ) that admissions provides to make this determination.  Also see my discussion of Stanford GSB in my analysis of Essay 2. Don't make assumptions about what Stanford GSB is or based on what someone told you it is. Instead, make that determination yourself after sufficient research. If you are thinking about Stanford GSB and have not yet attended one of their Outreach Events, I suggest doing so if you can. Visiting when school is in session is ideal.

Applicants often ask me this question. I think it is important that your goals, Essay 2, be clearly established first. If you think about it, what matters to you most (Essay 1) must be consistent with and complimentary to your goals. As far as Essay 3 goes, the potential you show through the skills and values that you demonstrate in Essay 3 must also support the goals you write about in Essay 2. Therefore start with Essay 2.
As to whether you should then do 1 or 3, chances are, if you have written a bunch of essays for other schools first, that you have multiple options for Essay 3, but don't make any final decisions on Essay 3 until you write Essay 1 because you might very well find that a particular story that is ideal for Essay 1 was one you were considering  for Essay 3. Use your best examples to support what you say matters to you most because you should try to make your answer to Essay 1, the only truly Stanford specific question, as strong as possible.

Getting into Stanford GSB is simply harder than getting into any other MBA program, but if it is where you want to go and if you think you fit there, commit to putting a significant amount of time into making a great application.

-Adam Markus
アダム マーカス
I am a graduate admissions consultant based in Tokyo, Japan with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form, which is publicly available on google docs here, and then send your completed form to adammarkus@gmail.com.  You can also send me your resume if it is convenient for you.  Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to.  See here for why. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.

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