How to Write a Career Vision Essay for MBA Applications
You can’t get through an MBA application without being asked about your career goals, but a lot of applicants struggle to answer the question convincingly. This post is dedicated to helping you do just that. I’ll not only be talking about the keys to writing a convincing career goals essay, but I’ll also be using my own career goals essay from my HBS application to illustrate my points.
Ultimately, a good career goals essay is five things: it’s clear, it’s specific, it’s genuine, it’s ambitious, and it’s congruous. Let’s take each of the five in turn.
Be Clear. State your goal unambiguously and immediately. No one ever got admitted to business school for a beautifully written and captivating introduction, but plenty have gotten dinged because admissions committees couldn’t understand what exactly the applicant’s career goal was. My advice to applicants is always the same: lead your essay with a clear statement of your career goal. Here’s the first sentence of my HBS career vision essay:
“My career will focus on launching and managing social ventures that can provide innovative private-sector solutions to public problems.”
It’s simple, straightforward, and most importantly, it isn’t hiding amidst paragraphs of cliche prose and wannabe poetry.
The one ding I’d give myself is that, by itself, it’s a little broad, which is why it’s also important to quickly get very specific…
Be Specific. Most MBA applicants are a few years out of college. Most are incredibly successful, they’re frequently promoted, and yet they’re starting to get bored. They know they want to move on to The Next Big Thing, but they’re not sure what that is yet. This creates a problem for business school admissions committees, which find themselves ingesting hundreds of applicants every year that aren’t entirely sure what they want to do next. They only know that they don’t want to fall behind their fast-ascending peers.
Admissions committees don’t want to admit applicants who are attending business school because it’s a safe way to figure out what to do next. They want to admit students with specific long-term career visions. So it’s important to convey this specificity and confidence in your career vision essay. There are four ways to do this:
- Function. You can talk about a specific function: brand manager, investment banker, operations manager.
- Industry. You can talk about a specific industry: renewable energy, government, commercial banking, management consulting.
- Geography. You can talk about a specific geography: emerging markets, urban communities, your home state.
- Quantification. You can talk about a quantifiable goal: create 25,000 jobs, raise a $25 million fund, reduce the poverty rate in a country by 1%.
Here’s how, immediately after my first sentence, I got specific in my HBS career vision essay:
“After graduating from business school, I plan to launch a social venture dedicated to providing inner-city schools with journalism programs. The goal would not be to train new journalists for careers in a rapidly evaporating field. Instead it would be to teach students the broadly applicable skills that comprise good journalism: analyzing real-life issues, asking significant questions, and composing precise writings. These skills, which have been so important to my academic and professional success, can enable students inhibited by a stagnating education system.
“After successfully growing this organization, I envision taking leadership roles in other established ventures and eventually managing a company, such as Google.org, that can offer new approaches to a variety of persistent economic and social problems.”
It’s worth noting that I’ve gone on to do exactly none of that, and that’s OK. Instead, I joined a startup in Chicago and launched MBA Admissions Advisors. The HBS admissions committee isn’t hunting me down trying to hold me to the vision I laid out in my application; they aren’t threatening to revoke my degree. Don’t get me wrong — I believed what I wrote at the time that I wrote it, and it fit with my background and priorities. But things change, and admissions committees are all right with that. What they aren’t OK with is applicants using business school to figure out what they want to do with their lives. So be specific in your career vision essay, but also, be genuine…
Be Genuine. After the financial crisis in 2008, business schools received a lot of criticism for the role they played propagating greed among its graduates — pushing them to high-paying jobs in investment banking and on Wall Street. Fair or unfair, MBA programs reacted by investing heavily in social enterprise classes, and admissions committees began admitting more students with non-profit and public sector backgrounds. Applicants quickly caught on, and many financial services and management consulting applicants began writing about career visions in social enterprise. A lot of them got dinged.
Past actions are one of the best predictors of future actions. So if your career choices to date don’t support the career vision you are professing in your essay, then you’re going to have problems. It won’t seem genuine, and business schools have a seriously oversensitive bullshit meter. So as you think through your career vision, take a hard look at the career and life choices to date, and make sure those choices support your long-term vision. And for the record — simply volunteering a few hours once a month does not support a career vision around a lifetime in social enterprise, and traveling a few times over the past few years does not support a career vision around a lifetime in emerging markets.
I had the background leading up to business school to support my career vision in social enterprise. I’d spent nearly 5 years working first in politics and then in the White House, and I argued that I’d learned “government alone cannot support society. The private sector must be an agent of change, too.” This helped me connect the dots between what I had been doing in government and why I wanted to go to business school.
Be Ambitious. Sometimes I think it helps to think about MBA admissions committees a little bit link venture capital firms. They’re not necessarily looking to invest in hundreds of students that will all perform well; they’re looking to invest in hundreds of students, only a handful of who will do exceptionally well, becoming the next Jaime Diamond (HBS ’82), Michael Bloomberg (HBS ’66), and Phil Knight (Stanford ’62). Big names breed big publicity, and that’s good for business schools.
So dream big, and be confident that you can achieve your vision. Business schools want you to sell them on your potential, since ultimately that’s the investment they are making in you.
Be Congruous. You’re applying to an MBA program, so be coherent in how that decision to attend business school fits in your larger career vision. It should be the bridge between the skills you have now, and the skills you need to achieve your goals.
“To achieve this vision, I need to expand on my success in the public sector. On the President campaign, I gained experience managing fundraising events, working with business leaders and high-dollar donors, and effecting change at a grassroots level. In the White House, I’ve gained experience developing and implementing large-scale public policies. Business school will help me achieve my career vision by exposing me to students and faculty with diverse private sector work experience. It will exercise my leadership abilities and provide me a business education that will prove critical to launching and managing successful social ventures.”
Looking back, I’m not sure this is the most compelling paragraph I wrote in my essays, but it does accomplish two things. One, it reminds them of the choices I have made (and therefore reinforces that my career vision is genuine). Two, it begin to fill in the gaps of why I still need business school. I continue on that line of thought (with a bit more specificity, thankfully!) in talking about why, in particular, I need Harvard:
“After conversations with current HBS students and faculty, it is clear that HBS promotes a culture that supports my career vision and will expose me to other students with diverse backgrounds but similar aspirations. In addition, HBS offers an academic and financial infrastructure to support social entrepreneurship for its students and its alumni, and programs like the Social Venture Track of the HBS Business Plan Contest will help develop my social venture idea.”
This paragraph added a little more specificity than the one above, which is always critical. Schools don’t want to be your second choice, and they want to know that you’ve taken the decision to attend seriously enough to have checked out a few programs, clubs, classes, and even visited campus and a few admissions events.
Get Support. Writing a good career vision essay takes a lot of introspection. It requires that you be each of the five key characteristics above (clear, specific, genuine, ambitious, and congruous). But it inevitably also requires that you get support from friends, family, and colleagues, who will be your best mentors in working through exactly what you want to do with you career.
Of course, it helps to have someone who doesn’t know you that well read your career vision, too, since they’ll be far more likely to spot gaps or inconsistencies that, while they make sense to someone who knows you well, stand out to someone who does not. If you’re interested in having one of us take a look, then reach out through our free consultation service. And of course, stay tuned to this blog for more posts on how to write effective MBA applications.