Define Your MBA Goals Before Applying to Grad School

Be realistic and consider your passions before you start filling out applications.

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The career goals essay is perhaps the most common of all topics posed in the MBA application, so it may surprise you to learn that many prospective students don't have clearly defined career goals. If that sounds like you, the first step to remedying this situation is taking a long look at what you think an MBA degree will do for you.

B-school offers clear skill-building in teamwork and leadership, as well as practical skills like accounting, marketing and finance. For many, the strong professional network you'll build with classmates and alumni is the most alluring aspect of the experience. If you want to advance in a career where an MBA is valued, it may be an important next step.

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However, if you're simply feeling bored in your current position or hoping to earn a higher salary, make sure that an MBA is the right professional degree for you. Applying to business school is an expensive and time-consuming proposition. Without real dedication for the path upon which you're embarking, your journey will likely stall before getting out of the gate. 

Show me the passion: Remember, a goal is something you want to achieve. Therefore, simply stating, "I want to work in investment banking," is not a goal. But how do you go about defining your career goals? Like most of the important decisions in life, it begins with a bit of soul searching. Think about your history of extracurricular activities. Is there a recurring theme or interest area that you would like to incorporate into a career?

Then take a closer look at the best and least-favored moments of your work trajectory thus far. What functions seem most appealing to you? What aspects do you dislike? Consider your personal goals as well. Are you driven to be a leader within an industry or company? Are you interested in work/life balance? Keep in mind, some flexibility with your goals is fine, as long as there's a common thread linking what you've done so far with what you plan to do post-MBA.

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One thing I tell people to tap into when they're thinking of their career goals is envy—in the best possible sense. When you think about envy, it probably means you're thinking about people doing things that you wish you were doing. Ask yourself, "Who is this person? What about them would I like to emulate?" That can help you define your goals in many ways. Passion for your career choice will come across as you tell your story through essays, discussions with recommenders, and interviews, so it's worth articulating your own dreams in advance.

And keep it real: Along with passion, realism is an important aspect of your MBA career goals. Consider the application process from the school's perspective: MBA programs want to launch productive, successful graduates who will contribute to the community.

When evaluating career goals, ask yourself: Does my career goal require an MBA? Even within nontraditional industries, an MBA may be valuable in certain functions. While a film director probably won't benefit from the degree, the finance director at a studio would certainly benefit from formal business training.

Is this an industry that typically hires MBAs? Certain industries are clear feeders for MBA programs, while other industries may require more research. Finance, banking, and consulting are the obvious industries, and there's growing demand for MBAs in the fields of IT and technology, manufacturing, healthcare, and at nonprofits. Many MBA programs have a list of typical companies that recruit at the school, and it's worth investigating the industries that value an MBA degree.

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Is the level I am seeking in my short-term goal realistic? Investigate the typical post-MBA title for your chosen industry and function to make sure you understand the usual career path. If you have significantly more work experience than your classmates, you may be qualified for a step up. However, typically companies recruit for standard new-MBA positions.

Once you've come up with a clear, cohesive vision of your career goals, tying it all together with your background and accomplishments is a great first step in a successful application strategy.