“My Career Doesn’t Have a Clear Trajectory!”
It’s a question I hear all the time. Many of the people I’ve helped with business school applications over the years ask it almost in a whisper, like it’s a dirty little secret:
“I’m worried I don’t have a very clear story. You know, the kind business schools look for that neatly explains what I’ve done, where I’m heading and why I want to go to business school. The kind that everyone else has. How am I ever going to get in?”
The “career trajectory” question. If you’re applying to business school and a similar fear is keeping you up nights, take a deep breath and relax. Let me tell you a few things.
You’re not alone.
I’m serious. I can’t tell you how many applicants every year worry about the same thing. Anecdotally, in my experience, it’s close to at least half, if not more.
LIFE DOESN’T HAVE A CLEAR, PREDICTABLE TRAJECTORY
Do you know why? Well, put business school aside for a second. Life doesn’t have a clear, predictable trajectory. Not yours, and not most people’s. Especially in your 20s, life takes a meandering, unpredictable path. That means a lot of people out there are in the same boat as you. You’ll realize this when you get to business school and hear the real stories. For now, just take my word for it, and please stop freaking out.
Business schools are not full of people who have always known what they want to do.
If businesses schools only accepted people who knew from the age of five that they wanted to get an MBA, there’d probably be 20 people enrolled in the entire country. And you probably wouldn’t want to be there with them.
Business schools are aware of this too. They’re happy accepting people who have bounced around in their careers. One person I worked with a few years ago started her career at a waste management startup, switched a year later to a large event management firm, and ended up as a consultant by the time she applied. She got into Wharton. Another took the MCAT, was accepted into medical school, and then turned it down to move to Asia to start a clean-water non-profit. He got into Harvard.
CHANGING GEARS CAN BE A SIGN OF SOMEONE WHO’S TOO DRIVEN TO STAY IN THE SAME RUT
Business schools like people with varied backgrounds because it makes them interesting. In a counterintuitive way, it also shows drive. It’s easy to stick to a chosen path- momentum and inertia will continue to carry you that way. But changing gears can be a sign of someone who’s too driven to stay in the same rut.
You do have a unique story. It’ll just take some thinking to discover it.
So now what? It’s probably comforting to hear that lots of other people are like you and still get in. But then how do you weave your story to stand out from the crowd?
In my experience, what business schools want to see is that you’ve excelled in most of the experiences you’ve had, as varied as they might be, and that you’ve thought deeply about the next direction you want your career to go in. Let’s break that down into its two parts.
WORRY LESS ABOUT HOW TO CONNECT ALL THE DOTS
First, someone great is likely to be great no matter what situation they’re in. They just naturally go above and beyond the call of duty, do things their peers don’t, and have something to show for it at the end of the day. Worry less about how to connect all the dots in your background together, and more about how to make each dot brighter. Think deeply about experiences you’ve had, moments where you’ve excelled, and compelling stories that show your best side. Specific examples where you kicked butt are the building blocks of a truly personal, compelling application.
And second, even if your resume is a little more jumbled than you’d like, there’s a story running through it. How do I know? Two reasons. (1) Because everyone has a dream future version of themselves, even if it’s not consciously clear at first. And (2) because of all the things you haven’t done.
Process of elimination is your friend.
When I used to write stories as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, there were times when I had to explain something very complicated and nuanced in fewer words than this blog post (try south Asian geopolitics). In one of those hair-raising moments a night before a front-page story was due, an editor gave me some great advice that’s stuck with me: what’s this story not about? It helped me cut down on all the generic stuff and get down to a powerful, unique explanation of what the story means.
You can use this for applications too. When I’m working with people who struggle to explain what they want to do in their career, I ask them to list opportunities they’ve turned down. Everyone has some. Maybe you turned down that chance to start a company with college roommates in lieu of a finance job. Or maybe you decided not to become a doctor after all. Whatever it is for you, think of these as clues. The more you think about what doesn’t drive you, the closer you’ll get to what actually makes you unique.
Niraj Sheth is a former Wall Street Journal correspondent and writer turned MBA admissions consultant, who helps applicants uncover their story and tell it right. Check out his work at MBA Dreaming.