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Admissions Director Q&A: Kellogg School of Management’s Kate Smith

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When Beth Flye, Kellogg admissions director since 2003, returned to her native North Carolina in spring 2011 to head up admissions for Kenan-Flagler’s new online MBA program, Kellogg decided to mine its own alumni for a replacement. Kate Smith, a 1998 graduate of the Kellogg MBA program, had spent the past 15 years building a career in brand management, first at General Mills and then at Pepsico. When Kellogg came calling, she was ready.

“It’s just incredible to have the opportunity to come back to Kellogg,” Smith told us. “For me, having a deep understanding of the school’s culture and heritage is really what’s most exciting,” she said. “My personal experience was truly life changing on so many levels.”

Smith returned to Kellogg in February 2012 as assistant dean for admissions and financial aid across all of the school’s programs. Having remained engaged with the school as a recruiter and in other capacities as an alumnus, she was able to hit the ground running and hasn’t had any major surprises since she got there, she tells us. Read on to learn more about what she’s most excited about in the year ahead, how she views the admissions process, her advice for applicants sitting down to write their essays and more.

Clear Admit: What is the most exciting event, development or change taking place in the year ahead at Kellogg?

Kate Smith: Envision Kellogg – our new strategic framework – is definitely the most exciting development, and we are at the forefront of its introduction. As we announced and shared publicly, we have really identified a road map for how we will reshape business education and thought leadership. This is our plan to equip and inspire leaders for the global marketplace. We did an extensive review and are excited now to see Envision Kellogg come to life.

As you think about the translation of Envision Kellogg to applicants, when it comes down to it we are really looking for the best and brightest talent from around the world. As applicants are engaged in looking at being a part of our future community here at Kellogg, they should know that we have identified a multi-year strategic road map, and that they are going to have the opportunity to participate in the dialogue of building out that agenda. We are actively looking at how to re-balance the academic portfolio, enrich our curriculum and expand our footprint around the world, and our students are going to be an integral part of that process.

Having said that, here at Kellogg we have always been a pioneer in thought leadership. Envision Kellogg really just means that there will be more and more opportunities to do so.

CA: What is the one area of your program that you wish applicants knew more about?

KS: On the broad level I would say that Kellogg has always been a pioneer and a bold thinker in management education, and there are so many great elements and aspects of all of our programs. But one that we are really looking to grow and promote is our one-year program. Kellogg is the only top U.S. business school to offer a one-year MBA, and applications for the one-year program are up 22 percent from 2009. The one-year program is really an ideal program for students who have met core coursework criteria in their previous education.

Coming off of Envision Kellogg we did a thorough assessment of market demand, and we definitely see growth in that program. It also continues to be a strong draw for international students – many of whom are looking for an opportunity to come for a year, have an intensive, great experience and then return to their countries, or elsewhere, to pursue their careers.

CA: Walk us through the life of an application in your office from an operational standpoint. What happens between the time an applicant clicks “submit” and the time the committee offers a final decision (e.g. how many “reads” does it get, how long is each read, who reads it, does the committee convene to discuss it as a group, etc.)?

KS: The Kellogg admissions process is thorough and holistic as we seek to embrace individuals who really embrace our culture. We engage in a 360-degree review and try to get to know applicants on all levels. The Admissions Committee is made up of students and admissions officers and directors in the admissions team. One of the things we are proud of is the student component and participation in this process. We see this as a unique element. Many times they are asking, “Is this someone I can see as a classmate?”

So the first stop is a student review. Then there is an officer review. And from there it goes to final review and sign off by a director. At times we come together and discuss applicants. So each individual application is usually reviewed collectively for about three hours. In terms of which candidates we come together to discuss as a group, ironically it’s sometimes the most amazing applicants. In truth, we engage in discussions on many different topics. It’s unique to each applicant and each file. Sometimes we will engage on the level of, “Did you see these attributes?” It’s not necessarily for a specific reason but rather as an opportunity to further understand each candidate.

We have a two-part application process where we first ask students to submit application basics and then we do an interview. We seek to interview every student who applies. Everything taken together – the information applicants submit, the interview, the essays, the recommendations – it is all part of our process of trying to understand the individual and how he or she will contribute to the Kellogg culture.

CA: How does your team approach the essay portion of the application specifically? What are you looking for as you read the essays? Are there common mistakes that applicants should try to avoid? One key thing they should keep in mind as they sit down to write them?

KS: I think the essay is the channel by which applicants can demonstrate their authentic selves and a greater level of depth. To me it is important that applicants represent themselves candidly – who they are, what they are passionate about and why they want to be a part of the community.

We are not, from an admissions standpoint, looking to steer anyone away. We seek to evaluate the best and brightest talent as we look to find those who are the best fit and the strongest additions to the Kellogg community.

We want students to really invest in representing themselves and convey the uniqueness of who they are in their essays. Many times I find applicants trying to guess what we are looking for instead of taking the time to reflect on what about them is unique, what special attributes they bring to our community.

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