MBA goals need to be practical, not just theoretical
In the good old days when Wharton still offered feedback to rejected applicants, I talked with a potential client who was reapplying to Wharton. He had received feedback on his application and had, in fact, really liked his application. “They said I was well qualified, and I would be a good fit for the school.” Pause. “The problem was my goals. Venture capital. They said it wasn’t a feasible goal for me.”
Like many people, this person dreamed of going into VC – he surely could do it, given the chance, and it would be wonderful for him – just that his chances of getting a VC job post-MBA were about zero. The adcom knew that, and he should have known it too.
Inappropriate goals, ineffectively presented goals, and impractical goals can get otherwise well-qualified applicants dinged from top MBA programs. This story is not an isolated case. I have heard similar ones every year for the 20+ years that I’ve been involved in the admissions world.
How do you avoid this scenario?
With effort, thought, and research, you can show how you’ll make your goals a reality.
Many people start their MBA application process with their goals sort of sketched out in their head. But merely “sketched out” won’t cut it.
It’s not enough to focus only on what you’d like theoretically. You’ve got to figure out how you’re going to make it happen. Do you recognize the obstacles that might get in your way, and are you prepared to work to overcome them? The person in the above story belatedly discovered this reality at the cost of his admission to his dream school. It’s not that you should never present complex or difficult goals in an MBA essay, but rather that if you do you should acknowledge that fact and present a concrete path to their achievement.
Let’s say that our Wharton applicant had said in his original essay that he knew how hard it would be for him to land a VC job, and mapped out a plan to go about it. If it still didn’t work out, he was ready with Plan B (or Plan C) that could also take him to his long-term goals. In this case, he might have been admitted, depending on how positively the adcom viewed the rest of his application.
Goals need to be specific, credible, well-articulated, engaging – and ideally – exciting. But how do you craft them in the goals essay? The next four sections in this article will walk you through that process step by step.
Compelling, believable goals need to focus on what you want to do
“I want to move from the buy side to the sell side.”
“I want to shift from technology consulting to investment banking.”
Sorry, these are not goals.
A goal isn’t something you want. A goal is something you plan to do. It’s something you want to achieve, an impact you want to have, and the process you plan on implementing to get there. Therefore, a goal needs to be specific and include a plan. As the author of The Little Prince said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
The two key components of an MBA goal are industry and function. For many people, geography may be a third key component, if it is integral to the goal (e.g., developing solar energy in northern Africa).
What will the work actually consist of? What do you hope to accomplish? These details flesh out the goals.
Here are some examples that incorporate the above elements:
- “I plan to return to operations but work at a higher, decision-making level, such as Senior Operations Manager, in an East Asian semiconductor firm or a related industry. In this role, I would, for example, oversee $XXX operations, a global high-tech supply chain, and manage a diverse range of technical and business professionals.”
- “Currently I’m a BPR consultant; I plan to shift to strategy consulting at a top global firm such as Bain or McKinsey, ideally focusing on clients in the pharma/biomedical space, and help them set up operations in Eastern Europe.”
How you can write an MBA goals essay that goes beyond static to dynamic!
It’s one thing to write goals that are clear, credible, and convincing. But can you make them exciting? How can you make the adcom reader think as she reads, “Wow, it would be great if she could do that!” Capturing the reader’s engagement and enthusiasm is really what your goals essay should aim for. As all my clients have probably heard me say, you want to make your reader your cheerleader.
To get your readers excited by your essay–and your candidacy–you need to deliver “goals plus.” This explains how your goals developed from your experience, and describes your motivation and vision to achieve them. Let’s define those terms.
- Experience means when, where, and how your goals developed. This element adds to your story’s credibility.
- Motivation is that spark point, that “Aha!” moment when something gained traction with you. When did you become engaged and captivated in some way so that you wanted to pursue a given path?
- Vision is the broader impact of achieving the goal, beyond your own immediate efforts.
These three elements will likely be intertwined. Here is a brief example taken from a sample goals essay:
“Last year, when I was in Taiwan advising a global financial services company on consolidating its Asia strategy, I found myself thinking what a shame it was that my relationship with the client proved responsive rather than proactive. With my knowledge of the region’s changing demographic and logistical realities, I could have recommended strategic opportunities a year ago to prevent the client from getting bogged down in redundant acquisitions and incompatible markets. Following that experience, I envisioned a new consulting paradigm resembling primary care medicine, based on a long-term, prevention-focused relationship between the consultant and client.”
Adding experience, motivation, and vision turns the goals from static to dynamic. Three other advantages of “goals plus” include:
- Enhanced credibility based on your personal experience.
- Differentiating you and your goals because it’s your story, and naturally unique.
- Creating a more engaging and memorable story than what you would have in pure exposition.
Unpacking short- and long-term goals for your essay
“Goals” usually need to be broken down into short-term, intermediate, and long-term. It helps to have this whole picture in your mind regardless of where you’ll focus in a particular essay. Short-term refers to the time frame immediately post-MBA to about two years later; intermediate covers the time about two to five years post-MBA; and long-term applies to the time following that. Usually essays ask for short- and long-term goals, but you’ll need to know your intermediate goals as well to bridge the short and long term.
Short-term goals should be the most specific, for obvious reasons and because they also link directly to the MBA program. As you describe successive steps in your career that reach further into the future, the less certain you can be about how things will play out. Don’t write beyond what seems reasonable and practical; obviously avoid writing in detail about what you’ll be doing in twenty years. So many industries are in great flux, so that point should be acknowledged in your goals.
It’s true that your short-term goals operate as a stepping stone toward achieving your long-term goals, but if room allows, focus not only on what you will learn but the experience you will gain, and the people you will meet. Short-term goals should also include the elements noted above – what you want to do and accomplish/contribute.
Responding to specific goals questions
Different sets of essay questions will emphasize different aspects of the goals; they’ll require different lengths and have different tones. Some are open, while others are focused and directed. The key is to “read” not just the words but the tone of the question. The trend toward short, focused goals essay questions continues, and fewer essays ask for your “vision.” Most want the facts, straight.
Read for context in each question: What is the question really emphasizing? Is there an equal focus on short-term and long-term, or do they just mention post-MBA goals in general? Be guided by the question as it is asked specifically. Any elements you introduce should support your main points.
When a question asks why you want an MBA or want to attend the particular program, link these points directly to your goals. Ensure that your goals really require an MBA education; the adcoms want to see that you really need the resources they offer, which they view as precious and not to be squandered. (And they’re right!)
If you can weave in your school visit and/or interactions with students and alumni, great!
Do you have a backup plan? Show it.
Think you’re done with MBA goals? Think again. With a seemingly permanent state of global economic volatility, having a backup plan for your immediate post-MBA goal is not only smart planning for you but also enhances your goal essay’s credibility. It’s particularly important if you’re targeting a difficult-to-enter industry (remember that VC-dreamer?) or changing careers. In fact, adcoms have specifically said that they welcome this recognition of reality; it gives them more confidence that you will land a job.
However, space is limited, yet you also can’t afford to sound undirected, either. In the goals essay, focus mostly on your main short-term goal. Then add one to three sentences about a reasonable alternative that you’d also consider, explaining how it also would be a good step toward your further goals. Example: An applicant is targeting an IT manager role post-MBA with the long-term goal of CIO; a backup plan could be a tech strategy consulting post-MBA job.
Show your research!
I’m frequently surprised at how few people do real-life research into their goals before writing essays. Digging around on the web for a couple of hours and talking to people in careers related to your goals can yield rich detail for your essays. Moreover, mentioning this research enhances the sense of commitment to your chosen path. Read up on the industry and its current and future challenges, and conduct informational interviews (See “MBA Discusses Coffee Chats”) regarding the industry or business function.
Investing in this due diligence will enable you to write intelligently and engagingly about your goals. It makes the essay more interesting, and will prevent big mistakes, such as that of the Wharton reapplicant mentioned in the beginning of this article. By presenting selected tidbits of your research in your essay you’ll show you’re resourceful and committed, someone who is likely to have something meaningful to contribute in class.
Don’t spin your wheels trying to identify, define, and write about your goals. Team up with an insightful, expert admissions advisor who will help you get the job done and get ACCEPTED. Learn more about MBA Admissions Services here. GET ACCEPTED!
“I couldn’t wait to tell you—I was accepted to Wharton!” (Or HBS, or MIT EMBA, or med school, or law school, or MA/MS/PhD programs…) This type of message is unequivocally why working as a grad admissions consultant at Accepted since 1998 remains fresh, exciting, and deeply rewarding. In an admissions climate of ongoing flux and through several business cycles, I have seen countless changes and surprises – but, most important, what hasn’t changed: the need for applicants to understand their goals and learning needs; to demonstrate their unique fit with their target programs; and to execute thoughtful, compelling applications. I have the experience and skills to help you do exactly that, as I have helped hundreds over the last 20+ years.