“What are your goals, and why do you need an MBA from our school?” Virtually all MBA programs ask some version of this question. And you must answer this question thoughtfully and with detail—you need to show the admissions committee that you really fit with their program—or they just might give your place to someone else who is able to prove that fit! So, what should you write to achieve this?
I have helped countless applicants perfect their personal statement. In this post, I will dissect an actual successful essay from a past applicant so you can learn some of the “dos” and “don’ts” in revealing your fit with your target program. One quick note—this sample essay is not meant to be used as a template. I suggest that you use it as a resource, but do not copy it! Everyone has their own stories and nuances, and you need to focus on sharing yours in your own personal voice and style.
The essay I analyze here is in answer to the following question from Wharton’s 2022–2023 application, but the advice I give is applicable to any school’s required personal or goal statement:
How do you plan to use the Wharton MBA program to help you achieve your future professional goals? You might consider your past experience, short and long-term goals, and resources available at Wharton. (500 words)
There are three elements of this essay: past, present, and future. Let us unveil and examine each one.
The writer starts, logically, with the past, which is discussed in the first part of the paragraph.
Transitioning from banking to private equity, I initially found the faster pace and expanded scope startling, but ultimately, it was invigorating. Shifting from agent to principal, I joined the VP Product at a Japanese industrial firm in repricing one hundred, long-ignored products, and shepherded the acquisition of the rotational-molding division from a Korean chaebol. While I had neither pricing nor manufacturing experience, all that mattered was that I could learn, adapt, and contribute. At KJIP, I came to appreciate the “messiness” of investing and the opportunities to create value via ingenuity and collaboration.
No matter what the word limit is for the essay you are writing, you must give the admissions committee some indication of where you have been to provide context for where you want to go. The author here could not have just written, “I plan to accelerate my development at Wharton before returning to investing….” He needed to give the admissions reader a sense of his experiences and background before introducing his goals. While he will not be the only private equity (PE) associate to apply to Wharton, he offers a window into how his time in PE was his own—he invested in Asia, gained experience working with portfolio firms on a repricing project, completed an industrial acquisition, and so on. And beyond his discussion of his actual work, he gives an honest view into what he enjoys about the experience—the “messiness,” as he calls it. He discusses the challenge of adjusting and the rewards of creating opportunity. He demonstrates that he is authentic and capable and does so in just 90 or so words. He has not shared anything earth-shattering, but he has created an identity for himself and done enough to grab the reader’s attention and distinguish himself ever so slightly from other, similar candidates. He has also set the stage for the next section of his essay.
In the next roughly 90 words, the writer tells us that he plans to return to investing back home in America, sticking with industrials. He even names firms.
Now, I plan to accelerate my development at Wharton before returning to investing to drive change on a greater scale. While I had a tremendous experience in Asia, I am eager to return home and would seek to join a middle-market, PE firm, like BZPD or PowerStrat, which focus on industrial innovation to the benefit of all stakeholders. Longer term, as I develop my leadership skills and breadth of industrial experience, I aspire to become a partner at a PE firm or to a CEO position with a larger industrial firm, where I can truly lead change.
The author does not need to “save the whales” or shift into tech to excite the admissions committee. He just needs to show that he has clear goals and that those aspirations make sense for him—and that ultimately, his MBA will be the bridge to get him there.
He can go from PE pre-MBA to PE post-MBA, no problem, or he could suggest that he wants to transition into industry right away. He could probably find ways to shift into other careers as well. What is important is the logic behind the career goals, not the target industry. And in this case, this applicant’s path makes sense. In addition, his long-term goals naturally extend from his short-term goals. His logic continues, and his objectives, while unrevolutionary, are, importantly, significant, ambitious, and prestigious. In short, the admissions committee can see a credible path for him to be a successful alumnus. Of course, all this logic and “pathing” is critical. For the applicant to say that he wants to go from industrial PE into sports management or into leadership of a consumer marketing business would sound strange with the information we have, so again, the focus is on being logical, credible, and ambitious.
If I were to critique this portion of the essay, I would say that he might give another sentence of depth here. His goals are possibly a little thin. Maybe he could elaborate on the work he would seek at his post-MBA firm or offer an intermediary goal that would lend more credibility to his long-term aspiration of landing that C-suite position. Of course, if he did so, he would need to find space to do so elsewhere in his essay, because Wharton has a hard limit of 500 words. You literally cannot enter even one word more into the space allotted for this essay on the school’s application. Not a word! At some other programs, you do not need to worry so much about being a few words over, though we always recommend that applicants not exceed an MBA program’s stated word count by more than 5%, tops.
Finally, the bulk of his essay is on Wharton—approximately 60% of it. The admissions committee wants to know that you have done your homework on their school because they have thousands of applicants and do not need to accept anyone who lacks a complete understanding of what their program has to offer. To be a successful applicant, you really need to prove that you have done your homework.
Assessing areas for development, I recognize that I need to grow beyond the financial plain and will pursue Wharton’s Strategic Management major, both to expand my ability to advance my future firm’s strategic rationale and to quickly grasp the challenges faced by management at portfolio firms. After taking core courses like “Operations, Information, and Decisions” and “Foundations of Teamwork and Leadership” to deepen my managerial point of view, I would specialize via electives like “Managing Organizational Change,” “Corporate Diplomacy,” and “Advanced Global Strategy.” Of course, beyond Wharton’s course options, I find the opportunities to unify theory and practice to be incredibly compelling. In particular, I would pursue the Advanced Management Practicum, so that I could collaborate with classmates by providing actionable solutions for a specific management problem, while gaining the enduring benefit of a consultant’s perspective. And a Global Modular Course, like “Supply Chain Management in Mexico,” will introduce me to our most vexing global business issue, while expanding my network within industry and with classmates.
I feel fortunate to have already witnessed the role my diverse and dynamic Wharton classmates will play in my education; I recently visited my cousin, Tarek Masoud (W ’22) and observed his “Managerial Decision Making” class, also attending that week’s Pub. Both class and Pub revealed a community that comes together to share ideas— and even laughs together amid the intensity of the experience. Indeed, this reflective aspect is deeply appealing; by pursuing a Leadership Venture, I would work with peers to better understand myself and hone my leadership style. Meantime, through my Learning Team experience, I will be constantly adapting as I seek to contribute to a unit that Tarek described as his “lifeline.” I would come to Wharton ready to listen, absorb, and share, knowing that by bringing the entirety of my energy, I will confidently embark on the next phase of my career.
Has our applicant proven that he has done his research on the school? Unequivocally, yes! He has visited the program, sat in on a class, selected an appropriate major, reasoned through the courses he wants to take, noted experiential opportunities, and familiarized himself with the school’s Learning Team model. And he does not just present a list—he is able to show how these resources will help shape his experience.
I want to highlight a few specific details. The writer does not just say that he visited his cousin at Wharton and had a great time; he visited his cousin with a sense of purpose and absorbed the experience both academically and socially. He has takeaways about the Learning Team experience. If I were to critique this section, I would focus on the Leadership Venture element. Which one would he want to pursue? Why? Would any Leadership Venture work to help him gain what he needs? Small details like this add to the sincerity of the essay, thereby making it more convincing.
The brevity of this essay—at a mere 500 words—could always leave us second-guessing the writer. In this case, though, the applicant delivers a fairly straightforward story, identifies some nuances within his experience, offers clear and connected goals, and is able to identify with Wharton as his target. He does a very solid job and generally makes the most of his space. Again, do not just try to copy this sample essay. Use the tips in this post to make your essay truly your own. I hope this has helped you understand the depth that is necessary in your writing and the logical connections you need to make. This should launch you on your journey.
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