MBA Application Essay Strategy: Career Vision

Without a doubt, the career vision essay is one of the hardest questions in any MBA application. Indeed, it’s a difficult question for any young professional to answer, but it’s especially so for military veterans. As military veterans, you have little-to-no experience in the private sector, and therefore seemingly little context with which to frame your vision. You’ve just begun to dip your toe into these waters, so how could you possibly know where you want to go and what you want to do? Perhaps a quick look at what veterans go on to do after business school will point you in the right direction. But I think you’ll find this exercise fruitless. Veterans go on to become consultants, bankers, private equity investors, entrepreneurs, and general managers...just like most other newly-minted MBAs. And telling the admissions board in your essay that you can’t wait to be a consultant isn’t going to earn you any extra points. So, is it even possible for veterans to provide believable answers to this question? In my opinion – YES, absolutely, but you need to approach it wisely. While HBS has dropped this traditional question from its required essays this year, the question is still implied in it's new essay (Why do you need an MBA?). Furthermore, most other top business schools are asking it in one form or another as well. And even if you don’t write about it in an essay, the question is bound to come up in an interview, so developing a well-laid strategy for tackling it will be well-worth your time. In this article, I’ll offer a few pieces of advice that will help you craft a winning answer to this vexing question.

The first mistake that many veterans make when answering this question is that they’re too specific in their answers. They essentially come up with a career roadmap. This is understandable since this is how we’ve been trained to think. If you were planning on making a career of the military, you could pretty clearly map out your next 25 years to include promotions, geographic moves, top-level schools, etc. But that’s not what these business schools are looking for. There are three problems with this approach. First, it’s just not believable – it’s very unlikely that as a veteran, you’ve got a firm enough grasp on all the career opportunities out there to know exactly what you’re going to do. Second, it reveals a lack of understanding of reality. In reality, a career roadmap is quickly rendered useless. No plan ever survives first-contact with the enemy, right? The same holds true for career paths following business school. And third, it’s just not very interesting. The admissions committee is reading thousands of essays and wants to be wowed. A too-specific career vision essay risks reading more like a snooze-inducing career manual than an attention-grabbing story.

The next common mistake that veterans make is that their answers can be far too vague. If the clearest takeaways the reader is able to draw out of your essay are along the lines of “this candidate wants to lead people,” or “this candidate wants to have an impact,” then your essay falls into this category of unconvincing ambiguity. These takeaways, in and of themselves, are not bad, but they only begin to scratch the surface of what’s needed. 99% of the applicants with whom you’ll be competing also want to be leaders who have impact. So if that’s all your essay communicates, then you haven’t done anything to separate yourself from the pack. Beyond that, a vague answer to this essay could indicate to the admissions committee that a few things could be true of you: you have no idea what your career vision is, you haven’t invested the time reflecting on the question, or you’ve just taken a stab in the dark at something that might be interesting to a reader but that you really have no interest in. Clearly, you don’t want to give the admissions committee, or anybody else, a reason to think these things of you, so do yourself a favor and don’t be vague.

So far, all of I’ve done is tell you what not to do. Don’t be too specific, and don’t be too vague. And you’re thinking that it sounds like there’s a very fine line to walk somewhere in the middle. You’re absolutely right, and that’s partly why it’s so hard to get into top business schools, regardless of who you are. But, now I’d like to offer a way to find that fine line.

The approach I’m proposing incorporates just three simple rules:

1. Be authentic: For this essay to be both believable and interesting, your answer must be authentic. It has to be sincere. Don’t fret over picking an industry to write about. Many veterans think they need to put their stake in the ground somewhere so they just choose something…like consumer package goods or renewable energy. In most cases, unless you can really make your case that you were made for these industries, picking an industry like this just won’t seem authentic. So start by reflecting on what you’re passionate about. What are you great at? What do you love doing? What activities really energize you? And when answering these questions, think about function before industry. The next step involves orienting your passions toward your career aspirations. Maybe you love working with a blank slate and creating something completely new, and thus you can’t wait to be an entrepreneur. Perhaps you relish the opportunity to develop and mentor people one-on-one, and therefore look forward to further honing your leadership abilities and investing in individuals as a general manager. And perhaps you do have an industry, say real estate, that you’re truly passionate about, and you’re clamoring to learn the art of the deal and develop your first property. These would all be a great start to developing your career vision. Whatever it is you end up deciding to write about, if you make sure it’s a real passion, and not some manufactured answer, then your essay will meet this first critical requirement of being authentic.

2. Talk about results: While it shows great ambition and confidence that you aspire to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, the admissions committee is much more interested in learning about what you’ll do as that CEO. What impact will you have? Other than the fulfillment of personal ambition, what will be the result of you reaching the pinnacle of corporate success? Think about the mission of the schools to which you’re applying. Take the mission of Harvard Business School as an example: “We educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” Focus on the last part of that statement. It doesn’t say “we educate leaders who rise to the top of their respective organizations.” So as you craft your response to this question, think about the difference that you’ll make. Translate your career vision into tangible results that the world and other people will feel, and you’ll be on the right track.

3. Connect the dots: Remember that this essay is but one piece of your candidacy and that it needs to make sense in the context of the rest of your story. While most of your application, including your other essays, will be a reflection of your past, who you are, and where you’ve been, this essay affords you a rare chance to talk about who you want to become, where you want to go, and what you aspire to accomplish with your life. The last thing you want is for this beautifully written essay to be floating out there on its own, so make sure that you’ve taken the time to link your vision with the rest of your story, both past and present. As the admissions committee reads your essay, they should think to themselves that the essay could only belong to you, because yours is the only puzzle into which this piece fits.

So, clearly, this is a tough essay to get right. In fact, according to conversations MilitaryToBusiness has had with admissions committees from several top schools, it’s the most common weakness with military members’ applications. But this doesn’t mean you should avoid the question and choose another that’s easier to answer. Try to view this question as an opportunity to shine and standout from the group. Just make sure you understand what it takes to nail this essay before you begin to attack it.

One final suggestion: before you begin brainstorming potential answers to this question, read a few of these HBS Portrait Project essays to get your creative juices flowing.

-Dave C., Guest Blogger and Senior Consultant with MilitaryToBusiness (bio)