Every MBA candidate expects to write a goals essay. Everyone expects to tell a leadership story. These are the “flagship” pieces of any application–the essays that will help the admissions committee figure out what you’ve achieved and how you approach your professional life. But then, there are the “wild card” questions–these are almost always very personal, and they generally require very brief responses. “If you could be a character in a book, who would it be, and why?” “What’s your most precious tangible possession? Intangible possession?” “What are you most passionate about?” “If you could spend a day anywhere… if you could invite anyone to dinner, living or dead…” and so on.
Why do the admissions committees ask questions like these, and–as so many of my clients have asked me–WHAT do they want to hear in response? What are they digging for?
Not all schools ask questions like these on their applications, but many do. If you look for the “question behind the question,” you’ll find that it invariably has something to do with their desire to understand your value system, your priorities, and your overall character. They don’t just want to know what you’ve achieved (they can find most of that on your resume) or what you want your next job to be, though that is certainly important–they want to know who you are, what you care about, and how you respond to the world around you.
Remember, they’re putting together a class of actual human beings–not just a bunch of high achievers, but a group of individual, idiosyncratic people with an incredible variety of likes, dislikes, belief systems and cultural practices–and they need to know how you’re going to fit into their particular academic and social environment.
There is clearly no single “right” answer here, but there are plenty of wrong ones. The least effective essays I ever see on these topics generally involve inviting Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, and/or Bill Gates to dinner, or explaining why a framed undergraduate degree is one’s most precious possession. And of course, far too many people write that if they could spend a day anywhere, it would of course be in the same “world-class, cosmopolitan” city where the B-school in question is located. These answers are doomed on many levels. They’re predictable, they’re dull, and they often make the mistake of assuming that adcom members are likely to respond positively to empty flattery and generic responses!
The best essays that I’ve read on this topic, on the other hand, offer the reader a small–but very clear–window into the writer’s character. The personal items they discuss aren’t particularly grand or expensive, their dinner guests don’t always have instantly-recognizable names, and the books they choose to leap into aren’t always best-sellers, but their responses are clear, authentic and insightful.
I think that your first and most important task here is to be as honest as possible with yourself–and in the essay you write–even if what you want to write about doesn’t feel terribly impressive. I once worked with someone who wrote a terrific “important tangible possession” essay about a tiny piece of folded paper that he had carried in his wallet since middle school–a piece of paper with some meaningful words on it, written by someone he cared about. That essay worked because the writer approached it honestly, from a very “micro” level, and didn’t try to hammer his reader over the head with a grandiose conclusion about life, leadership, or anything else. He simply answered the question and explained his response. That’s all–but that was perfect!
In those essays that ask you to imagine yourself in a fantasy context or circumstance, it’s a good idea to keep things grounded by focusing on illustrating some of the specific personal qualities you want to highlight in your application. You can write a good essay about spending your “anywhere in the world” day practically anywhere–at a monastery in Mykonos, an archaeological dig in Egypt, a homeless shelter in Chicago or a food festival in Milan–you just have to come up with some really compelling reasons WHY you would do this, and discuss not just where you would go, but how you would spend the time and with whom. Naturally, you’ll want to choose something that is a bit of a challenge–not just something you could step outside your front door and do this Thursday–but you don’t have to go overboard. You can even have a little fun with these sorts of topics–don’t be glib and silly just for the sake of it, but feel free to let your imagination go a little bit.
Finally–and perhaps most importantly–don’t spend too much time second-guessing yourself. You don’t have to prove that you’re incredibly cultured or brilliant… you don’t have to drop important names… you don’t have to “boldly go where no one has gone before”–you just have to show them who YOU really are, and in doing so, hopefully get them to care about you enough to let you in!
By Sonia Michaels, who has years of experience helping successful clients write revealing, authentic essays.