Making the Goals Essay Work for You

by Deborah Knox on

When most MBA applicants initially contact me, they’re pretty clear regarding which business schools they’d like to attend: Stanford, HBS, Wharton, Chicago, Sloan, Kellogg, and other top schools. When I ask them why they want an MBA, the answers are often less precise. Advancing my career. Finding a better job. Getting out of engineering and into management. Plugging holes in my background. Networking. Continuing to learn and grow. Being around smart people (no kidding!). Or it’s “to get the rubber stamp” because I’m going back to consulting/investment banking/private equity/venture capital.

If truth be told, it makes sense not to be completely clear about your future career trajectory. After all, if you’re accepted to an MBA program, you’re about to embark on a life-transforming journey, one which will expose you to an array of companies, industries, geographies, functions, and opportunities. Believe me, it’s like being a kid in a candy store. You may even meet the business partner you hadn’t yet dreamed about and become an entrepreneur! When I applied to business school, I thought I wanted to market luxury services and products in Europe after graduation, but after befriending ex-Bain and ex-BCG employees, I set my heart on management consulting and pursued that course for several years.

While HBS hasn’t held much stock in the goals essay in recent years for these reasons and made the bold move of eliminating it in this year’s application (unless you count the 500-character mini-essay asking how pursuing an MBA will contribute to your moving into your target post-MBA industry and function), most other top MBA programs still ask this question. (This season Darden doesn’t ask this question; Duke has a mini-essay on the topic; and while MIT doesn’t ask about career goals directly, it does make sense to refer to them in your cover-letter “essay.”) And you’ll be hard pressed to fill up 400 to 750 words elaborating on how you want to learn and grow, so it behooves you to come up with a well-articulated post-MBA goal.

At the same time, you don’t want to overspecify it such that it borders on being next to impossible. Saying “I want to be CEO of Company A in ten years” is pretty unlikely unless you’re referring to your family’s business. But something like “I would like to be CFO of a company in an industry that is beginning to take off, where there are no firmly established business models (e.g., in-home solar energy) so I can exercise my creativity and help shape the field” is sufficiently detailed but not overdefined. I actually think working on this essay is quite a useful exercise. Even if you don’t end up doing what you write about, you’ll have engaged in a process that you can use when you’re deciding what you’re going to do after school and beyond. And it shows admissions committees that you have the requisite self-awareness, drive, and basic business savvy to choose a winning path.

As I help my clients articulate their post-MBA goals, I ask them to consider what lies at the intersection of three broad questions:*

  • What am I passionate about?
  • What relevant skills and experience do I bring to the table?
  • Is there truly an opportunity in this space?

Let me go into each of these in more detail.

What am I passionate about? (Am I excited enough to make a difference in this field?)

This question is important for two reasons, one very important and one less so. First, we’re talking about your all-too-short life here, and I really want you to be happy about how you’re going to spend it. Second, admissions committees want to admit passionate, energetic people who have big, yet realistic, dreams. When applicants are truly excited about the goals they’re proposing in their essays, this is palpable for those reading them. When applicants write that they’re so passionate about such-and-such but are just going through the motions and not demonstrating their passion via their actions, these essays can sound wooden or robotic. Admissions-committee members will spot this a mile away and will promptly be turned off by their lack of aliveness, depth, and sincerity. For example, which of the following grabs you more?

I am very passionate about helping people and I would like to get an MBA so I can be a social entrepreneur.

While I had an investment banking offer in hand, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help Kenyan youth learn how to become entrepreneurs. Over the last two years, I put in the same 100-hour weeks I would have in banking, but it has been a labor of love. Watching these youth master basic business skills, stun us with their creativity and business savvy in our business-plan competition, and thrill us as they successfully launched their businesses has made every single minute worth it. There are thousands of budding entrepreneurs in developing countries just like the ones I was honored to assist, and I want to ready myself to better serve them and build the organizational capacity that enables us to scale and extend our reach. Getting an MBA is my next step.

Deborah Knox is founder and CEO of Insight Admissions. While she works extensively with traditional MBA applicants, she loves the challenge of assisting qualified nontraditional candidates. Devoted to the study of leadership excellence, Deborah has also served as a researcher and editor on numerous book projects for best-selling management author Jim Collins.

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