What follows are my thoughts and tips on this year's version of the Northwestern Kellogg MBA admissions essay prompts.
Essay 1: What’s the greatest obstacle you’ve overcome (personally or professionally)?
How has overcoming this obstacle prepared you to achieve success now and in the future? (350 word limit)
There are a few very distinct components to this essay question: (1) an accomplishment story in which you overcame a significant obstacle (2) the transferrable skills or strengths you gained from this experience, (3) how you are using these strengths now, (4) your career direction in the future and (5) how you will utilize those strengths to be successful in accomplishing those future goals.
The problem, of course, is that you only have 350 words to do all that. The solution is to look at the essay set as a whole and realize that the detail on point 4 (your career direction in the future) can be a quick summary as you'll give more details on your goals in essay 3.
Beyond that, don't be intimidated by the small word count here. Write an initial draft that says everything you want to say, and then as you revise it, focus (a) on eliminating the elements that aren't absolutely necessary or impactful and then (b) look for places where your explanation is over wordy or could be more direct. This will help you get this story down to the limitation, or at least close to it.
When deciding the best topic to write about, there are three important decisions to be made. One is whether to choose a personal or professional topic. The answer, I think, lies in the approach you take to the entire set. Ensure you have a balanced approach between work stories and personal stories. If you don't, i.e. if the essay set is too skewed towards professional stories, ask yourself where you could substitute in a personal episode. It could be this essay.
The second decision is to figure out which of your experiences have involved a significant obstacle that you were able to overcome to achieve success. Note the importance of having a story in which you (not the team or others) achieved success. The obstacle should be "big" - i.e. the greatest you've ever faced. Be sure to show how/why in your essay.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need to choose a story that allows you to demonstrate the acquisition of meaningful and relevant skills. If your obstacle story doesn't have such an outcome, you either need to brainstorm more effectively/strategically, or consider another topic.
Essay 2: What have been your most significant leadership experiences? What challenges did you face, and what impact did you have? This is your opportunity to explain how you Think Bravely. (500 word limit)
Leadership experiences is plural so I recommend writing about more than one experience in this essay. Two is ideal, as it may be difficult to put more than that into a single 500 word essay. Two is also ideal, as those who wish to emphasize that their leadership goes beyond their jobs can use one professional and one personal example in developing their answer to this essay.
Significant experiences with challenges and impacts have two key factors: a) your could learn from them and b) you could make a difference on the people around you by accomplishing something. I think it necessary to try and show both in the overall essay, and even in possible in each episode you choose to write about. Choose episodes in which you had an impact as a leader, and for each be clear about what you did, the impact of success, and what you learned (about leadership or about yourself) from each. The goal is to paint a picture of who you are and how you lead today - as the result of your accumulated experiences and learning. Be careful - if the story contains a significant obstacle, you may choose it for essay 1.
The last part of the question references Kellogg's concept of Think Bravely. This appears to mean being able to envision major changes by thinking outside the box, taking the necessary steps towards implementing these changes, and importantly, encouraging/enabling others to join. Watch this video here. Additionally, here is a brief analysis from Kellogg Dean Sally Blount here.
Consider the leadership episodes from this perspective. While it is not advisable to copy the words and feelings from the videos into your leadership experiences in this essay, it is worthwhile to ask yourself if, after reading your stories, you feel that Kellogg would believe that you exemplify these ideals, or are capable of becoming the kind of transformative leader they wish to mould at the school. Do your experiences help show that you have the potential to make amazing and significant changes in the future? If they don't, you may not be choosing the right ones.
Part 1: What career/role are you looking to pursue and why? (250 word limit)
Part 2: Why are Kellogg and the MBA essential to achieving these career goals? (250 word limit) (Please answer Part 2 in terms of your program choice: One-Year, Two-Year, MMM, JD-MBA).
This - the combination of parts 1 and 2 - forms the standard goals - why MBA - why school essay. In order to prepare to write his essay, or any other goals essay for that matter, you need to deeply consider the following questions:
What are your current strengths and skills?
What are your short-term and long-term goals?
How will those current strengths and skills be useful in achieving those goals?
What additional skills or experiences do you need?
How (with specific examples) can you get these additional skills and experiences at Kellogg?
Your answers to these questions and the alignment that comes as they are put together will become the building blocks of this essay. Note that there is overlap with essay 1. Identifying these points of overlap should help you to develop a consistent message across your essay set and even help you achieve the tight word limit on some essays.
In terms of the goals, be ready to detail clear and specific goals, and why it this a desirable and important move for you. Lastly, to address the why Kellogg part, be specific and give several examples that demonstrate, beyond a doubt, that this school is the ideal destination for you. A strong essay will incorporate examples of classes, extra-curricular activities, and even the "intangibles" such as what you learned from alumni or a school visit.
Additional Information (Optional): If needed, briefly describe any extenuating circumstances (e.g. unexplained gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, inconsistent or questionable academic performance, etc.) (No word limit)
This additional essay is intended to address possibly negative elements of your application. The content (and decision as to write it or not) should be decided and then developed on an individual basis - but certainly if you have failed a course in university or had a bad term or semester in terms of your GPA, for instance, you'll want to aim to highlight all the great and meaningful things you were doing at that time, or offer up something else as an explanation.
There's no word limit but I doubt most careful writers would exceed the maximum length of the longest essay in the set (500 words) as an absolute maximum limit.
Many applicants ask me if it is a bad thing if they have to write here that their current supervisor cannot be their referee because they are self-sponsored and have not yet revealed to the co-workers that they are applying for an MBA. I advise that applicants should never be concerned about such a situation, and they should certainly use this space to mention that. The only thing to keep in mind is that the referees they do choose should still be well-positioned and capable of commenting on their performance as well as their professional/personal growth and skill development.