Writing essays for business school is a daunting task. Applicants usually find it difficult to decide what story they want to tell the committee and as a result they have a tough time bringing all the details of their essays together. That’s because some applicants are unhappy in their current jobs. These people invest a lot of time discussing the job they want after business school, but neglect talking about what they want to do in the long term. Another group of applicants is more idealistic. They are strongly compelled by their long term goals, but in the meantime don’t articulate actionable steps to achieve them. In my experience speaking with hundreds of applicants, many of them tend to fall into one of these categories. That was confirmed in a couple of recent phone conversations I had last week with applicants who will be applying to business school this fall.
Just last week I spoke with two business school applicants. One was like the first person I mentioned above. He didn’t like his current job and was focused on working in a very specific role after school. The other was just the opposite, focused on what he wanted to do ten years from now and willing to do anything he could to get there, no matter what industry or function.
In a sense, I could relate to both of them. On one hand, I’ve been in jobs I didn’t like and felt like I had to maintain a laser focus on making my next move, so at the time I didn’t spend as much time thinking about my long term my career path. On the other hand, I’ve also come to find the value in keeping the bigger picture in mind, especially when more opportunities become available. Today, I tend to spend most of time thinking about things from that perspective.
But specifically in terms of business school application, both the short and long term are important. Without a long term plan, you’ll miss trends, be more likely to follow the crowd, won’t adapt to changing economic circumstances like today’s economy, and may not head down the path that makes the most sense for you. On the other hand, without short-term goals, you may never even make it to the long term, because competition for post-MBA jobs is still and applications for business school are higher than ever. So being focused will give you an advantage.
Ultimately, both of my conversations ended on this idea of short-term goals. That’s because admissions committees, at times, tend to be more interested in seeing those stated clearly in applications. And that’s especially true today, where the job market is contracted, and the committee will want to ensure that students can get jobs immediately after school in the slumping economy. On the other hand, admissions committees are at times also more likely to give deference to an applicant’s long-term goals. That’s both because many young professionals can’t articulate what they’ll be doing tens years from now, and also because even when they can most still end up changing their minds anyhow.
During my discussions, I talked about a couple of things with the applicants, and specifically discussed how to address these short term career options in their essays. The list below isn’t exhaustive but it’s a short recap of what I recall discussing about in both of my calls. I hope the information is helpful.
1. Play to your strengths. Applicants should leverage things they have experience in and the things they do best, and then they should discuss how they will continue doing those things going forward. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a generalist at heart, and I always think it makes sense to try new things and get as broad experience as possible. On the other hand, focusing on your strengths will show you have a unique skill set to bring to the table and will differentiate you as a candidate. Keep in mind, part of playing to your strengths means being explicit with details and discussing how those strengths will allow you to add specific value. One, this will prove that your experience was one of substance, and second, organizations always want to add someone who will add value to their community.
2. Do (and discuss) things to reinforce your image. Applicants should also take part in activities that reinforce their image and make them a better fit for their short-term goals. This means taking part in activities that enhance their story and help you develop the image they want to convey. For example, if you want to be a project manager, then volunteering on community based projects would be useful. Similarly, if you want to enter the media space or be seen as a technology person, starting a website or helping an organization start one will demonstrate interest and experience. There’s not much science behind it, but people should consider getting involved in activities that are correlated to their short-term goals as a way to not only show interest but also to build skills. And during the interview, be sure to discuss it.
3. Understand the context of your surroundings. You should do the best you can to surround yourself with people that have common interests and similar values. These might be people you want to work with, or people who want to work you. If you can find people at your career stage and have similar career goals you can leverage each other’s resources and work together. For example, if you want to enter the consulting industry, working together to research firms and practice cases is key. Similarly, if you can find people that are older than you, then maybe they’ll eventually serve as a mentor, and if you can find younger people, then you can do the same. In the end, the more information you can obtain and the more people you can work with, the better off you will be and as a result the better off your applications and interviews will be.
4. Create an angle. In every circumstance, you want your resume/ application reviewer to walk away with a very clear picture of who you are. So do your best to convey not only why you’re a good fit for an organization but also the things that make you unique and suggest that you would have real impact right away (i.e in the short-term). And this idea of impact is especially true for people who are really good fits, because good fits tend to be the most common types of applicants to jobs and business schools – good fits in terms of grades, prescribed career path, and academic history. But often times, there’s only a baseline of intelligence needed to do well in a professional environments, depending on the nature of the job or the industry that you’re in, so those who stand out, often do so because they have unique experiences and bring different perspective to the table. But even if you can’t point to that any measurable impact, creating an angle will still usually tend to make you more memorable.
5. Give details. And last but not least, it’s important to provide details. That’s because details evince that you’ve done your research, prove that you have not only the relevant experiences to contribute, but also the substantive understanding of the job role at hand. So be sure to give details of your experiences, not your impressions, and when possible take that further by discussing insights that your experience has given you and how those insights will also be helpful. In the end, being explicit about how details played out in the past and how you will specifically contribute in the future will help you stand out from the crowd.