Stephen Christakos

Former Director of Admissions J. L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management (Northwestern University)

I'M GOING TO TALK MOSTLY about one essay that is fairly common among schools, the one that deals with why you're applying to a certain professional program and school and where you're headed careerwise. In this we're looking for students who show good self-awareness and a good sense of career awareness. We want students whose motivation for pursuing an MBA is clear, who seem to understand well what the Kellogg program offers, and who make rational arguments about why it's a good match for them. Applicants need to convey strongly why they're going to give up a job and spend the time and money to attend, and they need to be able to address where they're headed post-MBA.

I was admissions director at Wharton prior to Kellogg and at the University of Virginia's Darden School prior to that, so I'm kind of a unique person in this business in that I've been around and been a director of three top-tiered MBA programs. My advice to the applicant is to be honest in your essays, lay it out, and be as specific as you can, but don't try to second-guess what the admissions committee wants to hear. Keep it concise and to the point, and answer the question. You want particularly to avoid what I call the "grab-bag phenomenon": throwing into an essay everything you think the admissions people might want to hear. At the same rime, don't prejudge what the committee wants and therefore leave out important material. We do care about what we call the "sparkle quotient" in our classes; we want to know what students do with their free time, what makes them tick outside of work hours, and whether they've demonstrated the ability to work with and help others.

1 always encourage students to get applications for all schools in which they have an interest and start working on all of them simultaneously. If you instead finish one at a time and mail it off, you do not have the chance to revise an essay when you find a better way to approach a topic in a later application. Have your interview prior to or during the essay-writing process. It might help you to visit, talk through your motivation, talk through your accomplishments, and get to know the school's culture a bit before you finalize these essays. You learn a lot about yourself when you are interviewed. I often get application addendums or letters from candidates who have visited

We want to know what students do with their free time, what makes them tick outside of work hours, and whether they've demonstrated the ability to work with and help others.

and want to change an essay afterward.

Be careful on some of the gimmicky things: addendums to applications, videotapes, samples of your work (remember the old adage: "the thicker the file, the thicker the candidate"). If it's appropriate to send something in—if it's going to support a major accomplishment you've talked about—that's fine, but sometimes I think it's done just as an attention-grabbing gimmick and doesn't really shed more light on the applicant and his or her qualifications.

Each file is read by a minimum of three people: a student member of the committee reads it first, a staff member next, and then I review every file (there were 9,500 in a recent two-year period). If there's not consensus among the three, the file automatically goes to a fourth and occasionally even a fifth reader. It's a very thorough and very fair process.

For more than five years now, we've required an interview (96 percent of the applicants are able to comply); we've got 850 alumni in 31 countries now interviewing for us. The interview is often the first thing we have. And even if we have a file before the interview, we will not look at it because you tend to get biased. With a clean slate, we can get a sense of how you present yourself in person (that's important for a manager), how mature you are, how focused you are, your sense of humor, and how you verbalize a lot of the things we're going to be asking for later in writing.

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