How Northwestern Handles Admissions

Kellogg's Beth Flye explains how the B-school sizes up applicants and talks about who is likely to make the cut

Beth Flye is director of admissions at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. She has been working in MBA admissions since 1996 and has been at Kellogg for five and a half years.

Flye recently discussed Kellogg's admissions process and its holistic approach to reviewing applications with BusinessWeek Project Assistant Daphna Behar. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation.

Are there any major changes to the application process this year?

We have not made any major changes at all. We always review our application, the entire process, shortly after each season. We made some minor tweaks but no extreme changes for the 2008-09 application season.

Are you seeing more applications now than in the recent past?

We had a 20% increase in applications this past year. We know, based on industry data the past few years, that the trend is upward, and we had more applications than anticipated. That was a positive thing. Most importantly, the critical element we ask is: "Do you have the right people in the applicant pool?" And we had another year of really great candidates. Kellogg is already selective, and when you add more great applicants to the pool, it makes our jobs that much harder. But that's what I call a "positive dilemma."

So who is the so-called right, or ideal, applicant?

There is no absolute, black-and-white answer to that question. We assess many different dimensions of each applicant. We like to see demonstrated evidence that the person has the intellectual ability to handle the rigor and challenge of our program. We also want to see a great background of work experience. The better word is quality. By quality, I mean more than just a person's title and where they worked. It encompasses what a person was doing, what they've learned, how they have had an impact, and whether there is evidence of progression. How does that person's background link up to what their post-MBA career aspiration is? There are also a number of what we call "intangibles." We don't just want great people who are going to be the next leaders of companies worldwide; we also want people who are good fits for Kellogg. This is a team-based, leadership-based, collaborative-based environment. It is also the type of program where we want students to learn from each other. We want students who can roll up their sleeves, dive into the Kellogg pool, and be willing to be challenged, for the sake of learning, as well as to challenge others. A lot of that comes through in the application, in the essays, in the interview, and in what the two recommenders tell us.

What's the most unusual or difficult essay question on your application? What's your advice to students on how to answer it?

I don't think our questions are about difficulty. They are about reflection. A lot of people find it difficult to talk about themselves. That is the whole purpose of the essay—to have the person respond to us in his or her own words, based on who they are. For a lot of people, that is a challenging thing to do. Granted, it's subjective, meaning we have no template for right or wrong answers. But what I would describe as a great essay is one that is insightful—that the person really thought about the question and was authentic and honest in putting what he or she thinks on paper. Applicants sometimes step into the trap of trying to tell us what they think we want to hear. But what we truly want are their thoughts.

What do students tell you is the hardest part of your admissions process? How do you help students deal with it?

In my tenure to date, I have not had newly admitted candidates say what was hard about the application process. We are not trying to have a "hard" application process. What we want is to collect the information we need to help us make the best decision. It's a holistic approach to evaluating candidates. My professional opinion about that, as well as my own personal philosophy, is that this is a good thing. We are reading candidates' information, we have recommenders, we have an interview. One may argue that we have an imperfect set of information, but we are confident we have a diverse set of information to help make the best decision we can.

How do interviews work? What are some of key mistakes that applicants make?

Applicants must request an interview. Our application is divided into two parts. Part one is called the data form, which asks for a lot of general information about the person, along with the application fee. Once they submit that, there is a section in which the applicant can request an interview. The interview is either here at Kellogg, or it can be with one of our alumni in the area where the applicant is located. Ultimately, we do not admit anyone without some form of interview—an on-site interview here on campus, or with one of our student interviewers, or with one of our graduates. In some cases, we also do telephone interviews, primarily for international students and for those in the military.

You have student interviewers involved in the admission process? Do they have the same duties as someone in your office would?

We solicit help from our students in a number of ways. One way is to hire admissions counselors. There is an application, a student goes through an interview process, and we train the student the way we train a new member of our team. Student interviewers have the same responsibility as the alums or anyone else here in the admissions office. They do a face-to-face interview with an applicant and write a report of the interview, which becomes part of the applicant's file. When the application is up for review, the interview report becomes part of the assessment.

Are there any common mistakes applicants make throughout the application process?

What is most important—which I am sure most people have already heard—is to be yourself. Again, that links up to what I said earlier, that applicants try too hard and are more focused on what they think we on the other side of the table want to read or hear. "Who I am" is critical in the essays, and also in the interview.

What do you want to see in applicants' recommendation letters?

The best advice I could give is to choose wisely. For us, the most important thing is that the person knows you well. It is usually clear, based on what the person has written, how well the person knows the candidate. We want a helpful and useful recommendation—in other words, someone who goes beyond a simple and literal answer to the question.

Do students apply in rounds? Are there any benefits to being in an earlier round?

We now have three application rounds. As for timing, we always encourage a person to apply when he or she believes they are ready. Aside from that, we do encourage them to apply in one of the first two rounds, especially if the applicant is applying for a one-year program, or if the candidate is international, applying from outside the U.S. We want to give these applicants as much time as possible to be processed.

How many international students are typically enrolled at Kellogg?

In recent years, 30% to 33% have been from other countries. Right now, we are trending around 35%.

Has anyone recently been admitted who didn't fit the mold of a traditional Kellogg applicant?

We have had a lot of public school teachers who have decided to make a career shift. Most of the ones I've seen have wanted to stay in education. A common change is people wanting to work at charter schools. Most recently, we had a gentleman in the new class who is a rabbi, and he is ultimately making a career shift.

What financial-aid opportunities are available to students?

Students who have been admitted have three avenues of financial assistance. One is a merit-based scholarship, awarded at the time of admission, but we re-award them, because not every single person who receives that scholarship chooses to come to Kellogg. There is no application for these; they are based on criteria. The second avenue is for U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have been admitted. They can apply for financial aid through Kellogg and qualify for funding on a combination of merit and financial need. Thirdly, we have the Northwestern Loan Program. This is a popular option for our international students. In addition, we encourage all our students to look beyond the avenues we offer to external scholarship opportunities. Various banks, for instance, give educational loans. We believe in shopping around to find the loan best-suited for each particular student.

How important is an applicant's quantitative GMAT score?

We focus on the highest score from a given test date. We do not have a minimum score for the GMAT or any of its components. However, when we are trying to assess one's academic background and whether the person will be successful academically, we look at undergrad transcripts in conjunction with their GMAT score. This falls in line with our holistic approach. One item does not necessarily determine admission. We look at all of the information together, in its entirety.

What are good reasons for wanting to get an MBA at Kellogg?

First, our academic program is absolutely superior, in my opinion. We are a general management program, which means we do have core courses, because we want people to have a strong general management foundation for whatever it is they want to pursue after business school. But we also have flexibility in terms of other offerings. We have a strong hallmark, and that is diversity—diversity in academic offerings—not just in the student culture but in the school itself. All of that helps with career management. We have a wide and diverse group of recruiters who seek out our students, because of the talent and diverse backgrounds and interests they have. This is also a very active learning environment. We want students to learn from each other, as well, and have many opportunities to put some of their knowledge to work.

Do you have any specific programs to attract women?

Throughout the years, we have had outreach programs, and we are partners with the Forte Foundation. This is a great school for women. When I first started at Kellogg, the culture was very embracing and inclusive, and it continues to be. That is one of the messages we trumpet constantly. We expect our two-year incoming class to be 39% women. More women are starting to take a look at the option of business education, and I encourage them to do that. I want women to know about the MBA, and we want to be on their list.

Are there any stereotypes about Kellogg that you'd like to disprove?

People sometimes think that we are a school solely about marketing. That would be a stereotype. We do have a great program in marketing, and we want that reputation to continue. The misconception is that, at times, people don't know about the other great academic offerings we have. The spotlight has been on marketing for a long time, and in recent years, we as an institution have sought to spread the spotlight to shine on other areas—on finance, for example. If someone wants to take the finance route, Kellogg doesn't automatically come to mind, but the truth is we have an excellent program. We have an asset management program. This leads me to say to candidates out there, do diligent research, for any school, but especially Kellogg. When it comes to Kellogg, I think people are going to be pleasantly enlightened to see how many opportunities are here.

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