All the posts in this series: Overall Strategy, Accomplishments, Mistake, Option 1, Option 2, Option 3, and Option 4. My post on HBS interviews can be found here. My post on HBS recommendation questions can be found here.
2. What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you? (400-word limit)
While I think it is important that the MBA Admissions Board understand what motivates you, I don't believe that you necessarily have to answer this essay topic to tell them that. While many applicants are likely to want to answer this question, if you want to set yourself apart from the pack, don't do it unless your answer is really very compelling.
An obvious reason for why HBS admissions made this question optional is because they don't want to read standard obligatory goals essays. This has been part of trend at HBS which began when they stopped asking about why applicants want to attend there. I think they decided that asking that particular "Why HBS?" question was not interesting and probably not sufficiently helpful in selecting who would necessarily succeed at HBS. As I have mentioned in my first post in this series, it is possible to express your future academic and professional objectives in another essay question.
An answer to this question that is not compelling is a poor use of your limited essay space. If you know your career goals are fairly generic and lack a strong visionary aspect to them, don't write on this topic. Instead, create an overall essay strategy that includes with in at least one of your four essays a clear explanation of why you want an HBS education and your potential to succeed at HBS and afterwords. While you will certainly have to explain your goals in an HBS interview, if you know your career vision is not one of the more interesting subjects you have to write about, don't write this essay.
At a strategic application level, all applicants should go through the process of analyzing their goals in detail. Chances are quite high that if your are interviewed by HBS, you will be asked about your goals. Hence, having essays that account for your goals even indirectly or in limited detail is an important part of having an overall application strategy.
Even if your career vision is absolutely clear to you, I suggest going through a formal process of MBA goals formulation. You can use my GAP, SWOT, AND ROI TABLE FOR FORMULATING GRADUATE DEGREE GOALS for this purpose (see below). I think Gap, SWOT, and ROI analysis are great ways for understanding what your goals are, why you want a degree, and how you will use it. (Click here for a GMAC report on MBA ROI.)
(To best view the following table, click on it. )
How to use this table:
Step 1. Begin by analyzing your "Present Situation." What job(s) have you held? What was/is your functional role(s)? What was/are your responsibilities?
Next, analyze your present strengths and weaknesses for succeeding in your present career. REMEMBER: WHEN YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT YOUR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESS DON'T ONLY THINK ABOUT WORK, THINK ABOUT OTHER ASPECTS OF YOUR LIFE. In particular, some of your greatest strengths may have been demonstrated outside of work, so make sure you are accounting for them.
Strengths: What are you good at? Where do you add value? What are you praised for? What are you proud of?
Weakness: What are you bad at? What are you criticized for? What do you try to avoid due to your own limitations? What do you fear?
Next, analyze the environment you work in right now. What opportunities exist for your growth and success? What threats could limit your career growth?
Step 2. Now, do the same thing in Step 1 for your "Post-Degree" future after you have earned your graduate degree. IF YOU CANNOT COMPLETE STEP 2, YOU HAVE NOT SUFFICIENTLY PLANNED FOR YOUR FUTURE and therefore you need to do more research and need to think more about it.
Step 3. If you could complete step 2, than you should see the "Gap" between your present and your future. What skills, knowledge, and other resources do you need to close the gap between your present and future responsibilities, strengths, and opportunities?
Step 4. After completing Step 3, you now need to determine how an MBA will add value to you. It is possible that an increased salary as a result of job change will be sufficient "ROI" for the degree to justify itself, but you should show how a degree will allow you to reach your career goals. How will the degree enhance your skills and opportunities and help you overcome your weaknesses and external threats? If you can complete Step 4, then you should be ready to explain what your goals are, why you want a degree, and the relationship between your past and future career, as well as your strengths and weaknesses. If you know about HBS, you are ready to write about your goals, whether in Question 3-4 or elsewhere in the essay set.
The above table will also help you answer such common interview questions as: Where do you want to work after you finish your degree? Why do you want an MBA (or other degree)? What are you strengths? What are your weaknesses? What are your goals?
Formulating goals is not enough to answer 3-4 effectively because HBS is especially focused on understanding the "why," not just the "what." Simply stating what your goals are and why HBS is the best place for you to accomplish them is not exactly what you need here. Instead, you need to articulate a vision related to your goals. You need to focus on your motivations as well as your idealized career outcomes.
Making your career goals sound exciting requires thinking about whether these goals are compelling. Admissions committees ask applicants to write about their goals after graduate school, but can applicants actually know what will be on the cutting-edge in two or three years? While many applicants will be able to successfully apply with relatively standard goals ("I want to be a consultant because..."), putting together a truly outstanding career vision is one way of differentiating your application. But how?
Be informed. HBS Admissions needs to believe you know what you are talking about. If you are changing careers, no one expects you to be an expert, but you should come across as having a clear plan based on real research into your future. If are planning on staying in your present industry, you should be well informed not only about the companies you have worked for, but the industry as a whole. If you are not already doing so, read industry related publications and network.
Those changing fields should most certainly read industry related publications in their intended field. Additionally, I suggest conducting informational interviews with at least one peer level and one senior level person in that field. Conduct a peer-level interview to get a good idea of what it would be like to actually work in that industry. Conduct a senior-level interview to get the perspective of someone who can see the big picture and all the little details as well.
Don't know anyone in your intended field? Network! One great way to start that is through LinkedIn. Another is by making use of your undergraduate alumni network and/or career center.
LEARN WHAT IS HOT. No matter whether you are changing fields or not, learn what is hot now and try to figure out what will be hot by the time you graduate. Now, of course, this is just a plan and chances are that what is hot in your industry or field now, may very well be cold in the future. The point is to come across to the Harvard Business School as someone who is not only well informed, but has CUTTING-EDGE knowledge. Some great general sources for learning what is hot:
HBS Sources: One of the best places to learn about what HBS perceives as cutting-edge is through HBS. You should most certainly visit Harvard Working Knowledge, Harvard Business Review, and Harvard Business School Publishing.
Beyond HBS: Additionally, other great business school sources include the University of Chicago GSB's Working Papers, The University of Chicago's Capital Ideas, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Knowledge @ Wharton, and MIT Sloan Management Review.
LinkedIn Answers: I would suggest that everyone join LinkedIn and make use of LinkedIn Answers. LinkedIn Answers is a great way to tap into cutting edge expertise (including my admissions advice!). Follow LinkedIn's rules and you will often be able to obtain excellent information.
Hoovers: For information about specific companies, Hoovers is just a great way to learn about key facts including competitors (a very useful way of knowing who else you might want to work for and to learn about an industry). While primarily focused on the US, Hoovers does have listings for companies worldwide.
Vault: For scope of coverage, this site is a must. Vault includes both career and admissions information. It includes both company specific and industry-wide information.
Other sources: Read magazines, websites, and books that relate to your intended field.
The writing process: After going through a process of reflection and analysis, prepare a version of this essay that includes everything you want to say. If you have previously prepared a goals essay for another school this may serve as a foundation, but modify it to tell admissions everything you would want them to know about your career vision. Next begin the process of revision. Here are a few key things to consider when revising:
1. Think about the most important thing you need admissions to know about your career vision. Begin your essay with that. Chances are good that on your initial draft the most important thing is somewhere in the middle or end of your essay.
2. Prioritize the rest of your content: What do they really need to know? You probably have lots of details that can be cut.
3. Make a formal argument: Your essay should be neither a set of disembodied points or a summary. Instead, it should be a formal statement about your career vision. It may very well partially take the form of a memo or it may be rather creative. The important point is that the reader should be able to understand it clearly and be convinced by it.
Next, once you have put together your career vision, consider how the rest of your application supports what you say in it. Without over-marketing yourself, or even necessarily writing it directly in the essays, make sure that your past accomplishments and other aspects of your application show how your potential will contribute to your future career vision.
My final point is that HBS is looking for people who want to be leaders, not mere managers. They are looking for people who will use their "one precious and wild life" to achieve great things, not those who will be satisfied at being back office mediocrities. If you can't articulate an exciting vision of your future now, when will you?
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