Make no mistake. Of all the essays you’ll write for your business school application, the goals essay is the most important.
It’s the one essay in which schools most explicitly ask you to answer the central question that underlies your entire application—why exactly do you need an MBA? Not surprisingly, it’s also the essay that schools give applicants the most space to answer (up to 1,000 words for some schools).
Yet despite its importance, when admissions officials are asked, “What’s the most common mistake applicants make?” failure to describe MBA-justifying goals is frequently the answer. In fact, poor execution on the goals essay has been said to account for more than half of all dings.
The goals essay is key because—surprise—adcoms want to know what motivates you to go to all the trouble, expense, and opportunity cost of earning an MBA. No matter how staggering your qualiﬁcations, if you don’t provide a clear reason for needing an MBA, your application stands an excellent chance of losing out to those that do. Business schools use the goals essay to do a reality check on your maturity and career savvy. Do you really have a career plan that extends beyond your next promotion?
If you do, is the MBA really an essential tool for advancing toward that goal (maybe you just need more work experience or perhaps a master’s in a specialized functional skill)? Schools know all too well that many applicants seek MBAs for the “wrong” reasons—as a desperate measure to escape a lousy job or looming pink slip or to gain a promotion or bigger salary—not because the MBA really prepares them to do something they could not do without it. A goals essay that implies you need the MBA for purely instrumental reasons or that has the aura of credential-collecting will be viewed dimly. Demanding well-deﬁned goals is business schools’ way of policing the focus and legitimacy of their applicants’ aspirations.
But there are other, less obvious reasons for exerting extra effort on your goals essays. First, the goals essay is almost always the ﬁrst essay question in each school’s essay set, and ﬁrst impressions do matter. Anything less than a compelling initial essay will put you in a hole that your subsequent essays, no matter how brilliantly executed, may never dig you out of. Start strong.
Second, admissions officers have a weakness for applicants who are, in the well-traveled term, “passionate”—burning with the right Promethean fire to pursue their dreams. It’s only human to respond to enthusiasm. And projecting a well-defined reason for the MBA makes your enthusiasm much more credible and personal. “I need an MBA to advance my career and deepen my skills” won’t generate much excitement, but a detailed, elaborated paragraph in place of this sentence could. If you can’t define your goals well, you will also be unable to define why a particular school is the best fit for you. The crucial link between your goals and the school resources that support them will be missing.
LOOKING FOR A READ ON YOUR MIND AND THOUGHT PROCESSES.
Third, schools use goals essays to make an indirect read on the quality of your mind and thought processes. Do you think seriously about the problems in your company or industry? Are you a realistic person or a vague or ﬂaky dreamer? Can you craft a compelling case in prose that links your past, your goals, and the school you’re applying to? Finally, the goals essay gives you the least freedom of any business school essay for “creative” responses. This is because (1) you usually need to cover so much ground (career progress, short-and long-term goals, why an MBA, why our school) and (2) your goals themselves need to be grounded and savvy.
For all that, a secondary purpose of the goals essay is to learn about you as a person—that is, the distinctive experiences, values, and traits that make you unique. In other words, it’s quite possible to submit a goals essay that is too factual, impersonal, or boring—that succeeds in answering all the school’s goals questions but fails to introduce you as a person the reader would want to know better.
PUT YOURSELF ON THE COUCH.
Use the following questions to interrogate explore the goals that now motivate you to earn an MBA. If they survive intact, congratulate yourself—you’ve done your homework:
1. Is your post-MBA career the same thing you would do if you were independently wealthy? Is it the same thing you currently do as a hobby?
2. Recall the evolution of your interest in your post-MBA industry. How did you learn about it? Imagine that the person or experience that made you aware of this career were radically somehow different—would that change affect your interest in this goal?
3. Are the aspects of your current job that you enjoy more likely to be found in your post-MBA career? Are the aspects of your current job that you’re best at more likely to be found in your post-MBA career? Think about the most unpleasant task in your current position. How likely is your post-MBA position to regularly present you with this or similar tasks?
4. To what extent will your post-MBA career make it easier or more difﬁcult for you to enjoy the things you consider essential to your happiness outside of work?
5. To what extent are your post-MBA goals associated with a speciﬁc lifestyle or geographical location? If your post-MBA career were not associated with that lifestyle or location would you still be attracted to it?
6. Have you conﬁrmed that your short-term goals are logical stepping-stones to your long-term goals? How many of the informational interviews or due diligence conversations you’ve had about your post-MBA career conﬁrmed your plan for transitioning from your short- to your long-term goals?
7. How satisﬁed are you that you have sufﬁciently done due diligence on your post-MBA goal? If you drew up a list of the impressions and responsibilities of this ﬁeld as described by your informational interviewers, would a consistent picture emerge?
8. If everyone you respected told you that your post-MBA goals were ludicrous or unworthy, would you still want to pursue them?
9. If anyone you trust has questioned your post-MBA goals, have you systematically addressed each of their concerns to their or your own satisfaction?
10. What is your Plan B if your post-MBA goals are not, for whatever reason, achievable? What is your Plan B for achieving your post-MBA goals if your primary path toward them becomes blocked or unavailable?
Paul Bodine is the author of “Great Applications for Business School“ and an MBA admissions consultant based in San Diego. This is the third in a series of excerpts from Paul’s newly revised edition of ”Great Applications,” which is on our bookshelf as essential reading for all MBA applicants. The first three articles: “MBA Essays: 10 Crucial Things You Should Never Do,” “MBA Essays: Making a Lasting Impression” and “MBA Essays: Data Mining Your Life” The fifth excerpt will appear next week. You also can follow Paul on Twitter and Facebook.