Let’s talk about Career Goals for a minute. This is always a good topic, honestly, because whatever time of year it is and whatever stage of the application process, we are all encountering, the narrative of a candidate’s career goals will always be paramount. Therefore, in order to create something we can one day send to our own clients with a simple link, as well as something that will help those of you who do not become our clients, we want to present a crystal clear five-step process for how to handle the Career Goals aspect of your MBA pursuit.
STEP 1 – HAVE GOALS
Who knew? Call us naive, but we assumed that everyone applying to a top 10 business school would actually have, you know, goals for the process. Apparently not. The sheer number of people who have come to us this year with no idea what they want to do post-MBA has been staggering. Remember, this is not a degree designed for 22-year old applicants, nor does it punt away the responsibility of asking the question (yes, Law School, we are talking to you).
The MBA is a career-focused degree and in almost every instance, the schools ask you what your goals are. To embark on such a life-altering process (to say nothing of expensive and time-consuming) without possessing goals is bizarre. Now, maybe your goals need some refining – particularly in presentation – but if you can’t at least decide for yourself what you want to do with your life and why you want to spend $150,000 and two years to get there, you should not be applying to top 10 MBA programs.
STEP 2 – REFINE YOUR SHORT-TERM GOAL TO MAKE SURE IT CAN BE ACHIEVED
Here we are talking to 95% of you who at least know you need to have goals to start the process. We know that just as important as setting goals is the idea of setting realistic goals. If you want to get in shape and you set a goal of running a marathon, great, you are on your way. However, if you set the goal of winning Olympic gold in the marathon, you are probably setting yourself up for failure. Therefore, it’s not a good goal. This is especially true when someone else shares in the responsibility for whether you achieve it.
Schools share the responsibility for helping you achieve your short-term goal. Nobody bears any responsibility for the achievement of a long-term goal. Nobody is tracking, measuring, or even checking. Too much life is going to happen between now and 10-20 years from now. So when you hear about making goals realistic or having them “make sense,” it’s almost always about the short-term goal, because that is what shows up on an employment report, what impacts career services, and generally has enough immediacy that everyone feels responsible for outcomes.
Some ways to check your short-term goal:
- Look at the employment reports of the school to see if they place people into the role and firm of your choice.
- Consider whether your previous experiences put you in position – with an added MBA – to impress recruiters for this job
- Contact someone in career services (usually at your alma mater) to quickly check your path
- Ask your admissions consulting to give you a reality check on your goals (important point: don’t try to “brainstorm” your goals and certainly never ask your consultant to “give you” goals – you should have goals in place that this person can look at and either approve or poke holes in)
The main thing is you want to be sure that the following equation checks out:
YOU (and what you have done so far) + MBA (at this school) = ST GOAL.
If it does not, you will get dinged basically every time.
STEP 3 – SELL YOUR ABILITY TO ACHIEVE THE SHORT-TERM GOAL.
Normally we talk next about long-term goals, but we are going to stick with short-term goals for a minute. Just because you figure out a short-term goal that can work does not mean your job is done.
Here is a quick case study of a client who received an interview at a top 10 school despite aiming for a difficult transition. He was a task-oriented professional with little outside experience and little by way of management responsibilities (this describes a lot of people, so we are not worried about “outing” this person). This presents a limited platform from which to work, but that doesn’t mean his only short-term goal had to be something connected to his trade. Indeed, if he were to pick a short-term goal in that area, he might fail the “why do you even need an MBA?” part of this whole test.
Remember, it’s not just whether the MBA is enough to get you to your goal, it’s also whether the goal is enough to warrant investing in an MBA (rather than just walking down the street for an interview).
For this individual, his long-term goals were entrepreneurial, so in the short term, he needed more exposure to business practices and frameworks. He needed to take his upcoming MBA experience and expand on it, in order to continue broadening out and to see what works and what does not in new situations.
To gain those 360 degree skills that would enable him to be a successful large-scale entrepreneur down the road, two paths made the most sense: management consulting and brand management. The former would expose him to lots and lots of scenarios in different industries, different geographies, and on different scales. The latter would give him experience with all aspects of bringing something to market. Either would allow him to broaden out the MBA experience of expanding frameworks, widening knowledge basis, and building up his network and pedigree.
All good things, to quote the old Martha Stewart Saturday Night Live sketches. So, his work was done, right? Of course not! Just because he thought this was a good idea (or that we think it’s a good idea), does not mean a recruiter or – by proxy – an admissions officer will see it the same way.
He had to:
- First, explain the connection. He had to say everything we just wrote above, about continuing to acquire experiences and skills so that he will be in the best position to achieve his eventual goals.
- Second, highlight the transferable skills that make him a desirable candidate. One of the most common mistakes we see among applicants is that they don’t fill in the missing link and explain the skill set that will allow them to 1) get the job, and 2) thrive once they get it. You can’t assume the reader will know what someone in your exact job does and see the connection between projects within your trade and being a consultant or a brand manager.
You have to identify the skills critical to the ST job and then show that you have them. It’s very simple, yet we would wager to guess that 75% of applicants don’t do this. They never say “here is what I will need to be a good brand manager and here is how and when I developed those skills in my current job, through examples A, B, and C.” One MUST do this, whether you are young or old, American or International, a banker or a beekeeper. You can’t assume that the reader will do this extracting and matching for you.
STEP 4 – PUT “YOU” INTO YOUR LONG-TERM GOALS
Unlike with short-term goals, the challenge with long-term goals is not to map out a perfect plan that everyone can achieve collectively. Here, you want to dream big and put as much of you – your passion, inspirations, and what you care about – into the answer as possible.
Think about goals the way Stanford GSB used to ask applicants to think about them: “What do you REALLY want to do?”
If you say that your short-term goal is consulting, you are creating the foundation for just about any long-term goal. You might think it wise to say “I want to then climb the ranks to become a managing partner” and feel like that is a smart, safe play. Well, it’s boring. Worse, it is impersonal. Literally anyone on earth could write that. What do you want to do? Really? If the real answer is to rise through the ranks and become a managing partner, well, why is that? There must be some greater good you want to serve or some burning desire that drives that aim, right? If it is just financial security, is there something in your past that makes that paramount, above all else?
There is always a way to make your long-term goals about you and that is what you have to do. You do not have to make your long-term goals 100% achievable. You do not have to make your long-term goals about connecting back to previous areas of expertise. One just has to pick goals that are personal and that require this MBA path you are on, at least on some level. There is an incredible amount of freedom in shaping your long-term goals, so be yourself, be interesting, and pick a path that you can truly own.
STEP 5 – OWN THE GOALS
This is the part where perhaps we have come to assume too much over the years and where our case study client seemed to run into trouble. Once he had a path that made sense, ensured that he had achievable short-term goals (complete with highlighted transferable skill sets), had a long-term goal that was interesting and personal, and all of that was wrapped up with a bow in his essays, the mission had been accomplished. When he received an interview invite at a top 10 school, we prepped him for the interview and showed him how to bring that goal narrative through to the interview setting.
However, here is where it fell apart. How and why? As best we can tell, he got unlucky with his alumni interviewer. Instead of hosting a friendly interview, this person demeaned the applicant and tried to poke holes in his resume and aspirations. This is a tough break, for sure, but something that future applicants can deal with.
First, if this happens, call the school and ask for another interview.
The schools know that there is some risk inherent with a heavy reliance on alumni interviewers, so they won’t be surprised nor will they likely refuse your request.
Second though, you have to ditch that experience and approach the new opportunity with the same level of confidence you had before.
This is where our case study client failed. He got rattled by the first interview and lost confidence in his whole narrative. Now, this is partly because he had bad luck but in equal part because he never truly owned his own goals. He was too reliant on his consultant to formulate a plan and he was never strong in what he wanted from an MBA and his life. When you don’t own your story (the first piece of advice we give for interview prep, by the way), you can too easily be bowled over by the first raised eyebrow or harsh word. And if you start scrambling to explain yourself or start getting wishy-washy with your goals, it is game over. After all, if you can’t sit there proud and strong and say “this is what I want” with conviction, what can you stand strong for?
So this is Step 5 and one we never realized we needed to hammer home: own your goals. It’s your story, not the interviewer’s. It’s your life, not anyone else’s. If you can’t get comfortable with the goals in the essay, rethink your goals until you do.
If you follow the above five steps, you will never fall victim to the pitfalls that have taken down thousands before you.
You won’t be rejected for asking too much (or not enough) of the school in the short term, you won’t lose the reader’s interest with impersonal long-term goals, and you won’t blow your interview by losing conviction in your own path. Remember that if everything makes sense and follows these steps, nobody can tell you what to think about your life and path.