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Northwestern / Kellogg MBA Essay Topic Analysis 2019-2020

essay topic analysis

The following essay topic analysis examines the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management’s (Kellogg) MBA admissions essays for the 2019-2020 admissions season. You can also review essay topic analyses for all other the leading MBA programs as well as general Essay Tips to further aid you in developing your admissions essays.

Northwestern / Kellogg MBA Essay Topic Analysis 2019-2020

Let’s take a closer look at each of the Kellogg MBA essays for 2019-2020.

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)
This question asks the candidate to recount a leadership experience in which they had a substantial impact, and which  also involved overcoming challenges and learning something that will continue to serve them in future situations. The word “brave” also stands out, likely a hint that Kellogg welcomes applicants who can demonstrate that they are willing to take calculated risks and look beyond how things have always been done in service of the larger mission or goal.

When Kate Smith, the Assistant Dean of Admissions & Financial Aid at Kellogg, announced this essay question in the school blog, she also noted “We’re looking for those individuals who have found or plan to find unique ways to demonstrate the Kellogg purpose in their careers. As you consider leadership in particular, keep in mind that Kellogg was the school that pioneered the team-based learning model that is now ubiquitous among the top business schools. We want all of our students to be able to step up when their teams need them.”  With that in mind, you’ll want to choose leadership examples that showcase not only your ability to rally others around you and guide them toward an objective, but also your ability to do so in an innovative way.

Regarding the sorts of examples that one might cover, the wording of this question is technically wide open to personal and professional experiences. Rather than gauging the significance of an experience solely in dollar amounts or percentages, we encourage applicants to attend to the follow up question about the challenges faced and lessons learned. Whether the challenge was logistical (like stretching yourself to coordinate across internal teams while managing a client’s expectations) or interpersonal (such as developing a good working relationship with an adversarial colleague), effective responses will highlight a transferable skill that was formed or strengthened during this process. Of course, the end result must be lasting and positive.

With respect to structure, we recommend a basic STAR approach for this response. Begin by describing the situation, the players, and stakeholders involved before moving into the task: what you needed to accomplish in your leadership goal. You should also lay the groundwork for the challenges you encountered, identifying the factors or relationships you would need to navigate to be successful. You should then move into the action, providing a chronological account of how you moved through the project or process. It would likely make narrative sense to introduce the challenges and how you overcame them as part of this narrative rather than addressing this in a separate section.

Finally, you should comment on the result — the outcome of your leadership efforts and the resolution of the story. Given the focus on “lasting value,” this will likely involve a comment on a positive impact and happy clients, customers, or stakeholders. The response should then conclude with a reflection on the lessons you learned, and perhaps a comment on how they have served you since and/or how they position you to add real value to the Kellogg community.

Essay 2

Values are what guide you in your life and work. What values are important to you, and how have they influenced you?
When announcing the essays, Smith followed this new question with the commentary, “Our goal this year is to uncover what motivates and inspires you. What drives you? How will this make you a meaningful member of the Kellogg community?”  This question reflects Kellogg’s interest in identifying students who are in a position to contribute meaningfully to the school’s community. Candidates will be well served by some deep reflection on this topic, with the ultimate goal of offering insight into how they have enacted—and will continue to enact—their defining values.

If you are struggling to determine your defining values, you may try to ‘work backwards’ when crafting this essay via a simple exercise.

If you find yourself struggling with how to answer this question, try this simple exercise:

  1. Write down the 15 to 20 most important events, accomplishments, interests, or experiences in your life. Include the good, the bad, the astounding, the ugly, etc.
  2. Look at the list you have generated and try to determine the values that unify the important events, interests, and ideas in your life.
  3. Select a small number of diverse items from the list that best support a given value and use them to define your approach and kick off the drafting process for the essay.

In short, since the purpose of this question is to let the admissions team get to know you better, you might start with some notes about who you are and all that you have experienced and accomplished, and then work backwards to find the prevalent values.  Keep in mind that your direct ‘answer’ to the question here is NOT what is going to make you stand out (it may even be somewhat pedestrian). Rather, it is the series of anecdotes and supporting evidence you provide in support of your values that will help you convey your unique candidacy to the admissions team. This exercise of working backwards allows you to not only distill the values that really resonate with you, but can also help you find specific examples and anecdotes that will help you show your values in action.

As the Assistant Dean of Admissions & Financial Aid mentioned, the adcom wants to know how your values will make you an asset to the Kellogg community.  Therefore, it would make sense to wrap this essay up with connections to Kellogg’s offerings. Consider specific classes, programs, potential collaborations with other parts of the school, clubs, conferences, or other offerings that your involvement would enhance. Learning about the school’s curriculum, special programs and extracurricular activities–whether through a visit to campus or conversations with alumni–will help you craft a response that really stands out.

Re-applicant Essay

Since your previous application, what steps have you taken to strengthen your candidacy? (250 word limit)
The framing of this question suggests that the adcom is more interested in proactive steps toward material improvement of one’s candidacy, as opposed to a reflective discussion of personal growth (in fairness, the growth angle is well covered in the school’s required essays). Applicants should therefore focus on the specific ways they’ve worked to strengthen their candidacies over the past year (e.g. assuming more responsibility at work, attending conferences in line with your long-term professional goals, retaking the GMAT, or bolstering community involvement), and the reasons that they believe themselves to be a better applicant to Kellogg this time around.

Additional Information

Use this section if you think the person reviewing your application might have a few questions about one or more of your responses. This could include:

  • Unexplained gaps in work experience
  • Academic, GMAT or GRE performance
  • Extenuating circumstances that we should be aware of when reviewing your application

The wording of this prompt signals that comments in this section should be limited to explaining potential liabilities or inconsistencies in one’s application. While applicants are free to write as much as they like here, we recommend a straightforward approach that uses as few words — and as little of the reader’s scarce time — as possible. Applicants who chose to respond to this essay should adopt a humble tone, acknowledge the issue without making excuses, and gently suggest other aspects of his or her candidacy that may help to compensate for this weakness.

Clear Admit Resources

Thanks for reading our analysis of this year’s Kellogg MBA essay topics! As you work on your Northwestern MBA essays and application, we encourage you to consider all of Clear Admit’s offerings:

Need help with your essay?

Call Veritas Prep at +1-310-295-2098 or click to

Posted in: Essay Tips & Advice, Essay Topic Analysis, Feature Small

Schools: Northwestern / Kellogg

About the Author

Lauren Wakal
Lauren Wakal

Lauren Wakal is the Editor-in-Chief of Clear Admit, responsible for overseeing content creation for the site. Lauren has been covering the MBA admissions space for more than a decade, from in-depth business school profiles to weekly breaking news and more.

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