Application Tips from Harvard, Stanford, and More!

Click here to read the intro to this blog series! Send your admissions questions to timeout[at]veritasprep[dot]com!

Dear Trav,
I want to run my family’s business once I finish school. Is this a good story for my future goals?

I have a couple of thoughts here, so the first part of my response will be relevant to ALL B-school applicants and the second is directed specifically to those seeking to return to family-owned businesses.

“Good” Goals and “Bad” Goals

We are constantly asked by applicants, “Is xxx a good story for my future goals?”  What this ultimately is asking is, “What do admissions committees want to hear? That way I can be sure to tell it to them.” This is one of the worst approaches you can take to an MBA application. Admissions officers don’t want you to try to transform yourself into something that you’re not, mysteriously developing passions just months before you apply. They want you to be yourself!

There is not a “good” goal and a “bad” goal for your post-MBA ambitions. Rather, there are realistic, achievable and thoughtful goals, and then there are unrealistic goals that seem entirely disconnected from an applicant’s current experience, with no due diligence or planning on how to bridge the gap to achieve their goal other than the magic of an MBA degree on their resume.

Expressing Your Goals in an MBA Application

Although there are not “good” or “bad” goals, there are certainly better and worse ways to express your goals in your application. I will use direct quotes from MBA admissions officers and websites to outline how you should approach your MBA application, and by extension, your short-term and long-term goals:

  1. B-schools are not looking for just one type of candidate: “Genuine business talent cannot be narrowly defined. Instead of looking for an ‘ideal’ candidate, HBS invites applicants who bring a variety of skills, accomplishments, and aspirations to form a very special community.” (HBS Admissions Website)
  2. Admissions officers hate it when you try to write things you think they want to hear: “This is not an undertaking in which you look at an audience/customer (i.e., the Committee on Admissions) and then write what you believe we want to hear. It is quite the opposite. This is a process in which you look inside yourself and try to express most clearly what is there.” (Derrick Bolton, Assistant Dean for MBA Admissions, Stanford GSB)
  3. If you feel your genuine career path and goals are “too traditional,” DO NOT try to come up with novel or “more interesting” goals to differentiate yourself: “The point of the essays is to tell your story, not someone else’s. Your best bet for differentiating yourself is to do just that — tell your story.” (Soojin Kwon, Director of Admissions, Ross School of Business)
  4. Take some significant time to really reflect on yourself, your passions and your REAL goals: “You’ve heard us say it a million times — self-reflection is the absolute best investment for strong essays.  Take the next couple of weeks to do some deeper thinking before sitting down to your keyboard.” (Kurt Alhm, Assistant Dean of Student Recruitment & Admissions, Chicago Booth)
  5. If your goals seem bland, be sure to show how they connect to your passions and vision and how you plan on shaping the world around you: “One of the things we want to know from you in the application is, ‘Are you ready to make an impact? Do you have an idea of the world outside yourself and what you’d like to make an impact on?’” (Sara Neher, Assistant Dean for MBA Admissions, Darden School of Business)
  6. Draw a personal connection between your goals and the offerings of your target school: “The strongest essays will be those that reflect a deeper level of knowledge about a particular program beyond simple course titles or generalities. So when writing your application, think about those things that excite you about our Berkeley program and be sure to discuss them.” (Stephanie Fujii, Executive Director of Admissions, Berkeley-Haas)

In short, admissions officers are much more interested in getting to know you, your real passions, and how you plan to use your career to make an impact.  Your immediate goals may seem really boring, such as moving up the ranks in Management Consulting or Investment Banking, but that doesn’t mean you can’t differentiate yourself by showing how those paths uniquely fit with your broader passions and interests.

Okay, So What About My Family Business?

Alright, it’s time for me to get off my soap box and talk specifically about family businesses.  The reason I went into this long, seemingly tangential speech about goals is to show that going into your family business is a perfectly fine goal, assuming that’s REALLY what you want to do!  I had many MBA colleagues at Kellogg whose goals were to return to their family businesses.  In fact, several MBA programs such as Kellogg, Columbia, LBS and many others offer specific resources around family businesses.  As I mentioned above, you’ll certainly want to connect your goals to the academic and extracurricular offerings of the school.

How Can I Differentiate Myself From Other Candidates With Family Business Aspirations?

One of the key ways to differentiate yourself regarding your family business is to say what you plan to do with the business upon graduating from your target MBA program.  What is your vision for the business and your role in it?  If it’s not likely that you’ll immediately take over as CEO, how will you make an impact on the business in your first role out of school?  What, specifically, do you need to learn in your MBA program to be able to grow the family business and achieve your goals?  Do you plan to eventually run the business?  What kinds of market factors will impact the business between now and then?  What are your competitors doing?

As Kurt Alhm recommends above, make sure that you spend some significant time reflecting about your goals and do your homework about what will impact the success of your family’s business in the future.  This will show that you’re really serious about making an impact and you’ve spent the time to understand the factors for success.

At Veritas Prep, we’ve worked with a number of candidates who are coming from or going to family businesses and there’s certainly an art to demonstrating that you truly have the skills to succeed and have not been coddled by nepotism. Feel free to reach out if you’re interested in learning more about working with our experienced Admissions Consultants in our unique team-based approach to MBA admissions.

Good luck in your applications!

If you’re thinking about applying to business school, call us at 1-800-925-7737 and speak with an MBA admissions expert today. And, as always, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

Travis Morgan is the Director of Admissions Consulting for Veritas Prep and earned his MBA with distinction from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He served in the Kellogg Student Admissions Office, Alumni Admissions Organization and Diversity & Inclusion Council, among several other posts. Travis joined Veritas Prep as an admissions consultant and GMAT instructor, and he was named Worldwide Instructor of the Year in 2011.