How to Lead with and Contextualize Your Goals in MBA Application Essays

When business school candidates read an essay prompt, they often interpret it quite literally. For example, when a school asks applicants a multipart question such as “What will you contribute to our school’s community, and how will being part of it help you extend your professional vision?,” many applicants assume they must answer the subquestions in the exact order in which they are asked. However, this is not true. Such questions are actually quite flexible, and sometimes, you can better engage your reader by pursuing your own structure.

We have found that for overrepresented candidates with unique professional goals, one strategy that can be quite helpful is leading with goals instead of professional history. After all, “typical” experience is not as captivating as unusual (but realistic!) ambitions. So, the technologist who plans to open a boutique hotel or the investment banker who aspires to start a competitive windsurfing circuit can use these bold goals to stand out from the start.

We must emphasize, however, that such candidates need to have and portray a compelling connection to their goals, and we do not suggest that overrepresented candidates strive to imagine or create “wild” goals just to catch an admissions committee’s attention. However, if you have a profound connection to an uncommon aspiration, then responding to a school’s questions in a different order and ensuring that your goals are front and center could make a difference.

Another trend we have noticed is that when tailoring their essays to specific schools, many candidates do not go far enough to demonstrate a clear and understandable connection between themselves and their target programs. Offering school-specific information is good, but you must go beyond merely mentioning the particular resource(s) that appeal to you—you must add context for your claims.

What is the difference between a mere mention and providing context?


“With a focus on entrepreneurship, I will participate in Columbia’s Entrepreneurial Sounding Board process. Further, I am attracted to classes such as ‘Small Business Finance,’ ‘Real Estate Marketing,’ and ‘Introduction to Mergers.’ I also plan to join the…”


“With clear plans to launch my start-up immediately after graduating from Columbia Business School, I look forward to testing my ideas through the Entrepreneurial Sounding Board; I find this opportunity to meet with faculty and gain critical feedback and mentoring invaluable as I strive to refine my business plan and learn more about how to source investments…”

In the first example, the candidate shows an awareness of the Entrepreneurial Sounding Board but does not provide the context necessary for the reader to fully understand how they will use this resource; therefore, the mention is entirely superficial. As a result, it is unconvincing, impersonal, and easily forgettable. The applicant has seemingly not taken the time to reflect on this resource and how they would use it to progress toward their stated goals. The candidate then goes on to list the classes they plan to take and essentially succeeds in little more than cataloging resources rather than offering a reasoned consideration of how the school’s offerings are necessary.

The second example better explains exactly how the candidate will use the resource mentioned; the applicant has clearly done the necessary research on the school and truly grasps how Columbia Business School will satisfy his/her academic and professional needs. Because the latter example is more informed and serious minded, the admissions reader can be certain that the candidate has a set path and a clear plan to achieve specific goals.

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