2009-10 MBA Application Trends: Unique Essays & Broader Goals

As a former journalist, I'm big on "trend stories," especially ones that are important to your overall MBA application strategy. I've been watching two develop. The first is easy to explain, as are the strategy implications. MBA adcoms are issuing fewer typical essay questions and more personal and creative topics. Among top programs, you can now be expected to develop a Powerpoint presentation (Chicago Booth), provide an audio recording of yourself (UCLA Anderson), or write your life story in the form of a table of contents (Cornell Johnson). Even Wharton, which used to be an ideal "first school" for its basic, long questions has switched up their traditional mix. This means you will have to generate more original material for each school, which means you might have to start your essays earlier to make the same deadlines, especially since several top schools have moved up their first round deadlines.

Another trend I've seen is a de-emphasis on rock-solid, crystal-clear career goals. Don't get me wrong. I push all of my clients to develop a detailed "personal business plan" because you can't craft a powerful application profile without it. However, among top schools that have released their questions already, the standard "short-term, long-term" focus seems to be blurring.

For the past few years, HBS and MIT have made your goals optional, although they do provide clear places to include them. And starting this year, Wharton has joined Kellogg and Stanford in asking just for your "goals" (Stanford - "career aspirations", Kellogg - "career plans"), doing away with its long-standing "short-term, long-term" formulation. There may be two reasons for this shift.

First, MBA programs are supposed to be transformational, and there is a good chance that your pre-MBA plans will differ sharply from your post-MBA choices. Schools are well aware of this fact, and some of their essay sets now reflect that reality. In fact, many top schools like Wharton seem to be taking more interest in your personal motivations for your goals, i.e., your self-awareness, possibly as a way to distinguish among candidates with similar goals. (This is also consistent with the move towards more personal and original topics.)

Does this mean your goals are no longer important? Of course not. Your goals often serve as the hub for all other aspects of your application, and the "engine" driving your candidacy. In more practical terms, even if some schools don't require your goals in writing or broken down into short- and long-terms, others will. And you can be certain that you'll have to explain your goals at some point in an interview.

The second possible reason for this change is that current economic conditions make forecasting the job market difficult. When providing your goals then, you should consider describing several paths for reaching the same destination.

Depending on the school then, you may have to describe a specific set of goals (short-term and long-term), a broader "goals area," or you may not be required to explain your goals at all. For schools offering more flexibility, your approach will necessarily depend on more variables than I can account for here. However, knowing the different possibilities is an important starting point.