Benjamin Franklin very famously said “There are three kinds of people: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those who move.” He may as well have been talking about early or mid-stage professionals thinking of getting a business degree. There are those who are unhappy in their current roles but will not move, those who think about progressing from their current roles and then those who take concrete steps to progress.
Almost all applicants we interact with fall in the third category. They all want to change something about their current professional standing and have chosen to make a move in that direction via an MBA.
But it’s when they actually start working on their business school applications that they confront a more important question around what they want to do with rest of their lives. Our experience has been that almost everyone has firm conviction that they need to change their current circumstances so much so that some verbalize it as “anything but this”.
But convictions are only really tested when they are asked to list their short term and long term goals as a part of their application essays. Confucius was reputed to have said “You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.” Try convincing the admissions committee at top business schools about merits of that quote. You will fail in all likelihood because schools need to hear your goals and they rightly use articulation of your goals as a major factor in deciding the merits of your candidacy. Your goals do actually build your reputation with the Adcom.
In our experience we meet applicants across a wide spectrum of 1) how aligned their goals are to their past experience and 2) how convinced and clear they are about their future goals.
Based on this spectrum we can classify applicants into the following four cohorts.
1) “Accelerators” – are candidates whose goals are highly aligned to their past experiences and who have a firm conviction in their future goals. Examples include analysts or associates at Consulting or Private Equity firms with strong backgrounds and intentions to advance within the same industry following graduation. They also include professionals who have thrived in start-ups and want to be entrepreneurs themselves one day. Accelerators” find describing their post-MBA goals relatively easy since they have relevant skills, rigorous backgrounds and a clear sense of their path going forward.
2) “Pivoters” – are candidates who have high conviction with regards to post-MBA goals but lack relevant pre-MBA experience as a bridge to this future. They are pivoting in their professional path to achieve a career to which they aspire. Examples include technology consultants seeking to move into strategy consulting and sell-side financial services professionals wanting to move to the buy side. When describing their goals, “Pivoters” can sound overly ambitious as they provide Adcoms with a sense of “what’s possible” without the foundation that makes it appear probable. Most schools welcome them as schools take pride in the proportion of graduates who can be labelled as “career changers”.
3) “Settlers”- are candidates whose career goals align with their past experience but lack conviction with respect to a specific objective. Viewing Adcoms as being highly risk averse, these applicants think it’s “safer” to present a practical goal linked to the past or present rather than focus on the future. “Settlers” struggle with describing the value and impact of the MBA education they’re seeking, relying on clichés and vagaries to describe their post-MBA plans. Settlers struggle with writing a compelling goals essay as they sound like other Settlers. They use clichés and popular opinions to justify their choice and are not able to paint a vivid picture of their future like the Accelerators can. If they do manage to get into a top school it’s usually because the Adcom gave them that elusive benefit of doubt based on their strengths in other parts of their application package.
4) “Drifters” – are candidates have no clear idea what they want to do in the future. They haven’t evaluated how their current skills and strengths align with demands of different industries. They hope that a stint at business school will give them future direction. When struggling to write the goals essay, they “crowdsource” conviction by seeking opinions from everyone around them. Sadly, this lack of introspection and authenticity becomes instantly apparent to the admissions staff. The best case scenario for them (if they have strengths in other areas of the application) is usually a waitlist followed by a reject. Often they hear feedback that they need some “seasoning” which is a euphemism for fact that Adcom found their goals half baked.
It may be beneficial for future applicants to think about where they fit on this matrix and therefore how easy or difficult will they find the goals essay. Of course, there are hybrids across these categories as some applicants have some attributes of two or even three profiles. However, for every candidate, taking a thoughtful, thorough and strategic approach to goal setting is an essential, but often postponed element of the MBA admissions campaign.
So, if you’re applying to business school and want to make sure your goals reflect an optimal combination of alignment and conviction, we would love to hear from you.