I have worked with many clients throughout my years as a consultant and time and time again I would run into MBA hopefuls with stellar credentials, but who were unable to articulate a clear vision of what they wanted to do after they graduate. This is one of the greatest impediments to getting admitted into a competitive MBA program. After all, if you are vague about your future goals, how will business school even factor into that equation?
The secret sauce is articulating a vision that not only takes advantage of your past strengths but also effortlessly melds it with your passion and an unflinching belief in how you can change the world for the better. Clearly, this is easier said than done. There have been numerous occasions when the bulk of my initial sessions with a client is spent nailing down that vision. So what does it take?
It all boils down to an honest, clear-eyed self-reflection, done in concert with an experienced consultant. Some of my clients never get there, because of the pull-and-push of competing wants and needs. Oftentimes, the head says one thing and the heart says another. If this conflict is not properly resolved, then you may end up with an application that falls into one of the THREE things that you should never do …
An MBA Applicant’s Future Goal is Too Generic
This is self-evident, but it happens more often than you would expect, simply because of the conflict mentioned above. One of my clients, Paul (not his real name), was a management consultant and wanted to switch to venture capital post-MBA. But what area of venture capital, and to what end? Paul was interested in a few high-growth sectors but could not decide. So he left it open – he wrote:
I see myself joining a top venture capital firm to help start-ups achieve critical mass by building win-win ecosystems. I will gain experience working with a wide spectrum of companies as I hone my technological expertise in specific verticals.
Paul believed that by leaving his goal fairly general, he was not hemming himself into something too narrow. To him, technological advances happen so quickly that whatever he would otherwise have written would be obsolete in just a few months. While that might have been true, Paul’s statement was nothing more than a definition of what a venture capitalist did. It was unclear how Paul would make his mark in that industry, and more importantly, it didn’t tell us anything about Paul’s interests and passions.
Even when I pointed this out, Paul resisted changing his statement. He felt that his grades and work experiences spoke for themselves. He was unable to see that he had not provided sufficient information to adcom members to distinguish him from many other applicants. Sadly, Paul didn’t get many offers, and certainly not from top business schools. The silver lining to the story is that Paul worked with me again the next year, using the lesson learned to create a much better statement of his future goal. He was successful the second time.
Another client, Meredith (not her real name), suffered from the opposite problem as Paul. Meredith was very clear about what she wanted to do after business school. She was clearly passionate about it and didn’t hesitate to articulate it in her writing. However, she didn’t realize that she was falling into another trap of something an applicant should never do …
An MBA Applicant’s Future Goal is Too Specific
Meredith’s mother, Anna, was a nurse. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Anna spent up to two hours commuting each way to work. Her plight influenced Meredith’s goals post-MBA. Meredith wrote:
I would like to transform the real estate industry by forging public-private partnerships to build affordable housing to benefit front-line workers who often face hours-long commutes into city centers.
So what was wrong with it? While this goal underscored a critical issue many urban areas have been grappling with, the addition of “public-private partnerships” and “front-line workers” narrowed Meredith’s goal considerably. I was far from suggesting jettisoning those elements; however, I believed the statement could have been reworked to convey the same sentiment without being so specific.
It is critical to understand that business schools evaluate whether future-goal statements can become reality through their programs. They ask themselves: Is our curriculum geared towards teaching what Meredith needs to learn? Can the career office help place her into a position (whether an internship or permanent) to initiate her stated career trajectory? Are there companies out there where Meredith can gain experience before setting off on her own?
The reality was that Meredith’s statement made it tough for business schools to see what they could do for her. If Meredith were applying to a joint MBA/MPA program, it would make more sense. In fact, Meredith would probably be better off if she said she wanted to run for public office in the future, to affect policy changes. Business school could still factor in, as she wanted to pick up business skills along the way, but her future-goal statement would be radically different.
Meredith’s case also illustrates another pitfall that besets many prospective applicants, which is …
The MBA Applicant Didn’t Explain Why an MBA is Necessary for that Goal
The key word here is “necessary.” Just because you are applying to business school does not mean it is self-evident you need the training it provides. Take my client Rafael (not his real name) for example.
Rafael’s family operated a very successful business in manufacturing. He had been working there since graduating from college and would return after getting his MBA. Eventually, Rafael was expected to take over as CEO when his father retired. His future career goal was very clear and easy to understand. What he failed to articulate, at least initially, was why he needed an advanced business degree in the first place. Rafael could easily have continued doing what he was doing and reached his end goal without going to business school.
So, what gives? When I pointed this out to him, Rafael understood the problem immediately. To him, and many other applicants, an MBA was a nice thing to have, but not critical. Yet many applicants, including Rafael, fail to holistically see what a business school education provides. After all, it doesn’t just equip graduates with world-class training in business know-how, it also furnishes them with experiences (e.g. team projects, study trips, internship and immersion opportunities, etc.) that are hard to come by. An MBA would offer Rafael two years, enough time for him to take a step back to think more deeply about his family business. It would also provide him with an extensive (and international) network of classmates and potential business partners with which to grow his company.
Ultimately, this was what clinched the deal. Rafael had a bold vision of how he wanted to expand his company, and a business school’s network would likely prove invaluable.
Biggest Mistake of MBA Applicants: Forgetting to Tell Their Story
Ultimately, stating your future goal is an opportunity to tell your own story, in a cogent and illuminating way. Unless you are a Hollywood scribe, most applicants do not have the wherewithal to convey this narrative in a compelling manner, or at least, not in a way that also makes sense given all the pitfalls outlined above. This is where consultants come in. You need someone to bounce ideas off of. You will be glad to have someone to challenge you to think deeper, and perhaps differently, about your career path, and you may even see yourself in a whole new light.
I always tell my clients: Be yourself when you are formulating your future goal, but at the same time, make sure the story leaves enough room for this stepping stone called business school. To be able to map out this trajectory successfully is to ace your application, and many do.