The “Why MBA” essay is a requirement that every school demands of its applicants, although not everyone asks for it in the same way. However it is posited, it’s clear that the way a candidate responds pretty much determines his or her fate.
I recall gently rejecting one candidate as a client, a doctor who had fantastic potential as a B-school candidate. However, there was one tiny problem. He was unable to explain to me exactly why he wanted an MBA. All he could tell me was that he was fed up working as a doctor in socialized medicine. While I understood his trials and tribulations, I had to explain that he couldn’t possibly mention that as a reason to go through the MBA. I told him to come back when he figured out what he would like to do in life. A career change is welcome; but you really do have to know what career you have in mind.
The above is an extreme example of not being able to explain what it is you expect to do once you graduate, or why you want to attend B-school at all. I’m sure some of you are smirking right now, thinking that this sort of thing could never happen to you. But, with many variations, it does happen to numerous applicants. They don’t know exactly what they want to do or how they are going to get there. Not everyone has a clear cut path to follow, but you still need to lay it out as reasonably as possible.
And one thing leads to another. In the “Why MBA” essay, you are usually asked to briefly cover your work history, and how that ties into your current short- and long-term goals. You are also expected to explain why a particular school is the right fit for you, as you demonstrate accurate and up-to-date knowledge of what the program provides. How can you do any of this if you don’t know why you want or need an MBA?
The “why MBA” essay also has ramifications for the B-school’s reputation. After all, summer internship recruiting starts three months into the first year and applicants will not have time to figure out what they want to do during the program. If a student ends up without an internship or unhappy with his job it’s harmful to the school’s statistics and reputation.
For some of you “Why MBA” comes easily. Perhaps you are a computer engineer who has worked on software for a medical device company, and wish to acquire the business skills to move up the management ladder. That makes it easy to explain why you need an MBA and what it can do for you going forward. A more nebulous example is when you are interested in making a career change. You have no experience in the field you would like to enter, but hopefully you have tangential experience that makes such a career change viable. That’s reasonable as well. I worked with one candidate who had vast experience in quality control of a food product, but wished to make the switch to healthcare. She successfully explained her interest in the field and noted that many of the skills she had developed in quality control would be useful in healthcare as well. Coupled with her ability to tell a good story (always of utmost importance) and a strong GMAT she made the case for a career transition that would require a specific business education. Naturally, she learned about the schools she wanted to apply to in depth, so that eventually she was able to convince the admin that she would do well in transitioning to the world of healthcare. In short, she knew exactly how to respond to the sometimes difficult question: Why MBA?
So, to sum up. Make sure you know what you are looking for in your graduate education and why you are applying to a specific school. If you can utilize the skills you have, explain the skills you need, and forcefully present your case you can satisfy the demands of this critical question. Essays tend to have a tone, not something quantifiable or especially measureable, but evident nonetheless. If you show uncertainty or hesitancy about why you need an MBA a good, experienced reader will pick up on it and eliminate you from contention. It may be helpful to realize that gaining acceptance to any club, school, or organization is a game that has its own set of rules. Your job is to play the game and make a convincing case. In real life, you may well go on to do something very different from what you presented in your essays, but schools require you demonstrate the confidence that you know where you are heading. In a perfect world a candidate could say “I don’t know why I want an MBA. I’ll let you know when I finish.” In our world, that simply won’t work.