Nonie Mackie, expert coach at Fortuna Admissions. Prior to joining Fortuna, she was Assistant Director of Careers Services at INSEAD.
Developing and articulating a career vision is an essential element of your MBA application. It’s about conveying a clear picture of where you have come from, where you are going, and why an MBA is critical for getting there. B-schools want students who will get the utmost value from their program by achieving great things in the future.
First, big plans signal big things. Your ability to articulate a logical and inspiring career vision underscores your commitment to the journey, even if the destination changes along the way. And admissions officers are fully aware that your plans may change. After all, an MBA should be a transformative experience; it will open your mind to new possibilities and opportunities.
Think of this as a two-fold approach: A compelling career vision for an MBA speaks to what it will bring you, and also what you will bring to it. This means making a strong case that the MBA is imperative for you to achieve your dreams. It also includes demonstrating what your presence will contribute to the student body, the alumni community, and the world. It’s an opportunity to share the insights and connections you bring, as well as the ideas that you can contribute and share.
Making your career vision logical and persuasive is about the process as much as the product. Consider these top tips for developing and executing a powerful career vision, drawn from our team of former senior MBA admissions and careers staff at Fortuna Admissions:
DEVELOPING YOUR VISION: Setting the strategy with good process
Tip 1: Take time to be introspective.
- Why do you want an MBA? What do your long-term goals encompass on a personal and professional level? It’s this kind of introspection that not only helps make the story much clearer to the admissions team, but can also help you clarify in your own mind why this next part of your life is important. Take the time to reflect on your strengths, values, goals and career interests. In the end, your particular motivation and future ambitions become the lens and filter for clarifying a powerful vision for the future and the roadmap for achieving it. Many candidates remark that enhanced self-awareness and insight, gained from their deep engagement with the admissions process itself, is an invaluable and unexpected side benefit of working on their applications.
Tip 2: Forecast the future.
- Take time to do your research into the type of jobs that you’d like to undertake post-MBA. For example, in which functional areas do you want to work? In which sectors, and which companies appeal to you? Which are your dream companies? Create a list of your top 10 and be as specific as possible. Imagine yourself in one of these companies in the future. Why are you passionate about working at L’Oreal? What is it about the brand, the products, the company, the career opportunities that it may have on offer for you post-MBA? Through your research you may find that some companies value an MBA more than others, and some companies in certain sectors (e.g. hospitality, travel, consumer goods) may value more practical experience and working up through the company hierarchy. This part of the process allows you to be certain that an MBA is really going to add value to your career goals.
- If you are career changer, it’s really important to show that you’ve thought about some of the challenges you may face, for example, if you want to work in China but don’t yet speak Mandarin. Have you considered doing a language course to show your commitment to the geography and culture? If you are moving from investment banking to luxury goods, can you demonstrate that you’ve thoroughly researched the sector, along with influential companies and brands? Have you demonstrated this desire e.g. by working with a luxury goods start-up on a pro bono basis and helping with its finances in your spare time? Have you joined local business groups focused on the area that you wish to enter?
Tip 3: Weigh up your options.
- It’s fine to have a Plan A and a Plan B, in fact it can be advantageous. It shows that you have thought about your options and narrowed down your choices, that you are methodical and realistic in your approach as well as open to the opportunities that may shape you during your program. Very few people achieve their ideal job straight out of business school. Your career journey may be a series of steps that will lead you to your final goal. It’s good to be aware of this and factor it into your career strategy. Well thought-out steps in your career path are far better than radical and unplanned jumps that may end up costing you time and advancements in your career.
Tip 4: Do your homework.
- MBA programs may appear similar at a glance, but each one has a particular identity and culture, not to mention a distinct approach to management development. Conduct online research, talk to current students and alumni, and, if possible, visit the campus. A visit to your top schools, offers a direct sense of personality and cultural fit, as well as a feeling of the community vibe. Sitting in on a class at your target school will really give you an insight into the classroom setting, a feel for the pedagogical approach, the caliber of the professors, and a taster of all the new and exciting things that you will learn. First hand experience is invaluable; nothing else will give you a stronger sense of what the school is about or what you can get out of the program academically, personally and professionally. As you compare programs, ask yourself: Can I see myself thriving there? How can each school help me achieve my career goals?
- If you are in contact with alumni, ask them about their experiences of working with the school’s careers team. What opportunities did the school provide to help support their career strategy, information gathering and networking endeavors? What on-campus recruitment events were organized? Which companies regularly came on campus? Was there the opportunity to take part in career treks? It will be advantageous to have a good gauge on the career services offering at your chosen b-schools.
ARTICULATING YOUR VISION: Making the case with a great product
Tip 5: Craft a viable, inspiring vision.
- You need to show that there’s a logical flow to your plan—that the MBA will enhance your CV and enable you to take a next step. Create a path that makes sense to admissions committee members, given your academic and professional background, highlighting the transferable skills that you will bring with you to the next steps in your career. How can you best achieve your goals given what you will learn in business school, entering the job market, and progressing in your field? You need to demonstrate, either as a career enhancer or a career switcher, that this path is viable. And importantly, that now is the right time. Consider mapping out your internship plans. If you are a career changer then this could be an invaluable opportunity for you to get a head start on building your network and gaining a deeper understanding about a new sector or functional area.
Tip 6: Convey why this program is for you.
- Imagine the school’s perspective: They want to recruit candidates who love the school, who really understand what makes it special, and can explain why it’s an ideal fit for them. If you don’t know the school intimately, you won’t be able to speak to this well. Too many candidates offer vague generalities or insignificant comments because they have only superficial knowledge of the institution. This is where your research pays off. Demonstrate that you have taken the pulse of the school, understand its culture, and that it’s an environment in which you will thrive. If you are in contact with alumni, you can reference these discussions in your application. What is it about their MBA and b-school experience that really inspired you, or cemented your ambitions to take this step?
- You also need to show that you understand what the school cares about, and that this is aligned with your own values and plans. For example, you can talk about the clubs on offer, and speak about which ones appeal to you and why. If you’re keen to join e.g. the Haas Manbassadors club at Berkeley, what it is that you can contribute? Do you have a track record in advancing gender equity, and would you be willing to take on a leadership role?
Tip 7: Convey what you bring to this program.
- Now that you’re clear what the school will bring to you, describe what you will bring to it. Be clear about your contribution to the community. After all, admissions has the luxury of creating their own community each year, and they want to understand what you are bringing as a member of that environment that will enhance the overall experience—for others as well as for yourself. When a school emphasizes its culture of innovation, for example, it is offering you the chance to explain why the school is a great fit for you because of a shared passion. Commitment, engagement and passion are adjectives that you would want to bring to bear in this context; it’s how you will leave your mark on this particular institution that really matters.
Tip 8: Be authentic.
- Authenticity is essential. If you pretend to be something you are not, admissions officers will sense it and trust you less. Candidates who present an image of what they think a school is looking for can come across as phony. Don’t fake it—business schools want to understand what is special about you.
- Some essay questions give you the opportunity to convey what it is that makes you tick as an individual, what has influenced you, who has motivated and inspired you. Sharing your experiences, your past, challenging times in your life, and times when you have faced fear demonstrate that you are humble, honest, courageous, able to learn from mistakes and not afraid to fail. Prove to the adcom that you are self-aware, honest and have a great sense of what a stint at business school will mean for both you and the community you would enter.
Tip 9: Believe and defend it.
- The scope of the career planning you’re invited to share in writing will vary—with some schools it can be very brief indeed. Yet all schools will ask you to present and defend your career vision at the interview stage, and interviewers will quickly get a feel for whether yours is carefully thought through, or whether it seems to have been plucked out of thin air for the purposes of the admissions process. There is no point having a brilliant career plan on paper if you’re unable to bring it to life with passion and conviction in a conversation about your future. Be ready to share your career vision with positivity and confidence, showing that embarking on an MBA is instrumental to opening the door to career opportunities and leadership skills, which, in turn, will allow you achieve personal fulfillment and professional success.
Remember, schools aren’t measuring you against one particular profile or ideal candidate. Admissions committee members want to get to know you, and will be better poised to champion your candidacy in their discussions if you give them substance and depth to go on. Imagine someone representing you during a decision meeting; how they’ll talk about your candidacy depends on what you share. That means doing the groundwork for a career vision that allows your true self, and your potential, to shine through in your MBA application.
by Nonie Mackie, expert coach at Fortuna Admissions
Almost any top professional school, whether an MPP, MBA, MPH, M. Ed, or MSW, is going to ask you to describe your career vision—your professional plans and goals.
Why do they ask me about my professional goals?
Top professional schools ask about your career vision and your professional goals, because they want to make sure that you have a clear, confident, well thought out reason for attending their schools. Top schools want high-achieving graduates who do great things in the world, bring prestige to the school, and attract funding to the school in the form of donations (from you—and other proud alumni.
If they let in a bunch of people who don’t actually know why they are going to school, they end up with a bunch of wanderers who may or may not find their footing in their careers.
Admitting you would be a disservice to you, your peers, and the school’s brand as a whole. So the stakes are high to get this right!
What if I don’t really know what I want to do?
The beauty of applying to a top professional program is that you can gain further clarity about what you want to do through the process of writing, revising, and polishing your essays. Ideally, you will have worked for 3-5 years in a variety of roles and organizations so that you can better understand what kind of organizations and roles are best suited for you.
But this is real life, and things don’t always turn out that way. So if you’re applying with an unclear sense of what you want to do, the best thing you can do for yourself is give yourself plenty of time to write, research, revise, and polish your essays and convey a sense of confident and clear direction in your essays.
What if I change my mind?
Changing your mind about your professional goals is totally okay and completely expected of a portion of the class. Our interests evolve and shift as we learn more about various industries, problems, and opportunities—as well as the disparate income potential involved with various career paths.
Your essays are not a contract between you and the admissions committee; they are more like a cover letter for your job as incoming Ivy League student and community member. Just like you can’t know exactly what a job will be like before you’re there, it’s nearly impossible for you to know exactly how your professional career path will play out.
Your “career vision” essay is just that: your ideal vision for your career and the change you hope to make.
What’s an example of a “career vision” essay prompt?
The requirement to write about your career vision may come as part of a statement of purpose (as in the case of this year’s Columbia SIPA MIA/MPA Essay 1) or it may be an entirely separate essay on its own (as in the case for the HKS MPP Essay 1).
Here’s the HKS Essay 1, which is completely dedicated to writing about your career:
Harvard Kennedy School MPP Essay 1 (2014-2015):
Essay 1: The Harvard Kennedy School motto, echoing the President for whom the School is named, is “Ask what you can do.” Please share with the Admissions Committee your plans to create positive change through your leadership and service. (500 word limit).
Here’s the Columbia SIPA MIA/MPA Essay 1, which includes a portion during which they want you to write about your career:
Columbia SIPA MIA/MPA Essay 1 (2014-2015):
Question 1: (400 words maximum): Why are you interested in pursuing your MIA or MPA degree at SIPA? How will a degree (and intended concentration/specialization) from SIPA enable you to achieve your career goals? Describe your academic and research interests and career objectives. Be sure to include details regarding the features of SIPA that you believe are integral to helping you in your career pursuits.
What are some tips for writing career vision essays?
- Show us your career over time. What is your immediate post-graduation career plan? 3-7 years out? 7-10 years out? What is the ultimate dream position?
- What kinds of organizations do you want to work for? Give specific examples of leaders / companies / nonprofits / intergovernmental organizations that you’re interested in working for.
- What kinds of roles do you want to have and why? Give real job titles if possible and explain why particular roles appeal to you.
- What kind of impact do you want to make—and for whom? Be as specific as possible. Saying “China” is better than just saying “Asia,” and saying “rural China” is more specific and thus more helpful than just saying “China.” Even better: Rural villages in coastal China. No, Adcoms don’t have a preference for people interested in rural villages in coastal China; it’s just that this is much more specific and clear than simply “Asia” or “China.”
Help! I don’t know how to start.
If you can’t answer those questions above, it’s time to do some research. Make Google and LinkedIn your best friends. Ask people about their careers. Search through old articles in your favorite news sources. Listen for job titles that appeal to you and figure out the issues that you are most invested in.
Once you have the answers to the above questions, write it out without trying to make it sound nice or link together well.
Once you have something to work with, do your best to make it all flow well and connect to one another.
If you still can’t get it to flow well and be within the word limit, get some help!
As always, we here at The Art of Applying are here to help. You can purchase our essay editing service, send us your near-final drafts as a part of the Good to Great package, or go big and get comprehensive coaching.
Time to get to writing! (or Googling!)