Articulating Goals In Your Business School Applications

What do you want to do after you graduate from business school?

Surprisingly, many applicants are initially stumped by this question. I help North Star clients figure out and articulate what they really want to do by guiding them through an introspective process. Ultimately, their goal essays and interview responses are crystal clear, genuine and persuasive – which is critical to their success.

Here are some tips about articulating goals in your business school applications:

Break it down into short and long term goals.

Part of the reason that people freeze when asked about their goals is that they find the question to be overwhelming. How are you supposed to know what you want to do in 20 years? It’s hard enough to decide whether to have sushi or pizza for dinner! The goal question can also trigger feelings of commitment phobia.

To overcome panic, start by thinking about aspirational jobs that you would love to have right after you graduate. (Princess, hedge fund associate.) Then, think about a few things that you would like to be doing in 10 years. (Retired, running an international non-profit that saves sea turtles.) Ideally, your goals are connected, but it’s ok to brainstorm alternate paths. Remember, you aren’t committing to actually doing these things! Or even to writing them in your applications. At this point, the idea is to identify jobs that you find exciting.

Do research.

What if you don’t even know what’s out there for recent MBA’s? Maybe you are applying to business school because you don’t like your job, or because you are unemployed or underemployed. It’s possible that you don’t have a clear path in mind, but want to go back to school to figure it out and create options. That’s ok – but you still need to get specific in your applications. In order to check out interesting post-MBA jobs start with the career page at schools of interest. SloanTuckWharton and Stanford have good ones.

The school career pages often have narrative examples as well as employment reports, and you can read about Bob who worked in retail before business school and then went on to a global rotational program at Nissan. It’s totally fine if you didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a global rotational program – that’s a big part of the point of doing research! Keep an open mind, and write down anything that catches your eye. It’s also helpful to talk to colleagues and friends who have post-MBA perspective.

Dream big.

During my first conversation with prospective clients I often ask them what they REALLY want to do. (This is a common theme for me – I push my clients for the actual answer to tough questions, not what they think of as a safe answer.) I might even bring out the “magic wand” analogy (I have kids!), and ask them to tell me about their dream job, even if it seems unrealistic. If we could wave a magic wand and get you any job, what would it be?

The dream job (or a version of it) is most often what we go with. Work with someone who can help you figure out how to translate that dream into a tangible goal and help you get where you truly want to go. It’s worth taking the time to identify what will make you happy, and schools love to admit people who can leverage the MBA to transform their lives. 

Think about strengths, weaknesses and values.

Part of identifying that dream goal is being really honest. If you want to leave finance because you hate the long hours it doesn’t make sense to go into consulting. If you truly detest meetings and hierarchy it’s not a good idea to look for a traditional role at a big firm.

Is it really important to you to have a job that enables you to help people, or is this what you think that you are supposed to say? It’s also ok to go to business school because you want to make money. This isn’t an answer to the goal question by itself, but it can help us identify roles that are congruent with your strengths and preferences.

What do you like to do for fun?

Seriously, what do you like to do outside of work? Do you play the violin, garden, travel? Compete in triathlons? Watch Bravo? Do you like to decompress alone or in large groups? Do you love cooking/drinking/painting? All 3 at once?!

Whatever the case may be, look to your downtime for clues about your ideal future. I am less interested in things that you do because they will look good on your applications, or out of another type of obligation, and much more curious about your actual passions. Wouldn’t it be great to find a rewarding job that leverages your true skills and interests?

It’s Worth It to Get the Goals Right.

Although this can be a painful part of the process, it’s also exciting – and totally worth the time it takes to refine your goals. The schools really judge you on your ability to sell your goals in your business school applications, even if you wind up doing something else entirely. They want to know that you have a realistic plan.

Finally, some schools are just better than others at preparing you for and placing you in certain fields, firms, and geographic areas. The closer you can get to identifying your true aspirations the better you will do at identifying your optimal target schools, and convincing them that they should admit you, since their program is ideally suited to help you excel.


Karen Marks has more than 12 years of experience evaluating candidates for admission to Dartmouth College and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Since founding North Star Admissions Consulting in 2012, she has helped applicants gain admission to the nation’s top schools, including Stanford, Harvard, Wharton, Yale, Cornell, Dartmouth, Columbia, MIT, Duke, Georgetown, Northwestern, Booth, NYU, Ross, UVA and more. Clients have been awarded more than $10.2 million in scholarships, and more than 95% have gotten into at least one of their top-choice schools.