Evan Forster on How to Get Real, Defy Expectations, and Have “The Vision Thing"

Our success at Forster-Thomas is predicated in large part on helping each of our candidates dig down deep to determine his or her long-term career vision . Goals are the central theme of your candidacy around which every other part hinges (this is even true for program like MIT Sloan and HBS, where goals are optional or not required, because the question will come up in an interview). Furthermore, until you know your long-term goal, you cannot possibly know why you and the school(s) you’re applying to are a “fit.”

And your long-term goal can’t just be an industry, like private equity. To get an admissions officer on board and excited about you and your goals, you need to be specific and passionate.

Jared, a recent candidate, simply didn’t care about private equity, despite the fact that he, and his friends and family, were certain that private equity was a perfect response to the latter part of the question “what are your long- and short-term professional goals?” Yawn.

Then I asked Jared to tell me what made him so passionate about private equity. He mumbled a response. Clearly, Jared simply did not care about private equity—at least, not specifically. When pressed—because he’s not the kind of guy who quits easily—he started throwing out jargon like “returns,” “growth,” “developing businesses,” “skill sets I need.” After I broke open the smelling salts, I was able to ask: “Tell me, why would Columbia’s Dean Hubbard—who’s all about the entrepreneurial mind-set and making a difference wherever you are—care that you want to go into private equity?” Jared sputtered a couple of “ums,” “becauses,” and “wells”—and, thank god, finally ran out of steam and threw his hands up.

By the time most people graduate from college, they tend to stop thinking they can do anything, and replace “sky’s the limit” goals (like inventing a new energy source or landing on Mars) with cautious, “sensible” goals that first and foremost include paying their rent, second doing something—anything—in a field of their choice, and then one day, when they have “enough,” that’s when they will pursue what they really want (and maybe even help out their fellow man with a check).

There’s nothing wrong with this guy; the problem is that he’s not who Dean Hubbard is looking for. He’s what none of the deans of the great MBA programs are looking for. He’s just what 95 percent of the world is. The top programs are looking for the top people—the most competitive, leadership-oriented and—yes—visionary in their ability to think they can make a big difference somewhere.

So I put Jared through the paces, and I suggest you do the same for yourself:

As you make your decision as to what to write about, the rule of thumb is as follows: come up with three ideas for your long-term goals.

  1. The first is the one where b-school will help you return to your current industry at a level via which you can make a difference in that industry.
  2. The second, and most common, is a career shift wherein b-school will be the lynchpin to the new industry in which you hope to make a difference.
  3. The third , and usually the most visionary, is what I like to call “The dream goal” or “I want to be a rock star.” You know, it’s the one you generally don’t tell people because you are afraid they’ll laugh at you. (Think about one well-known visionary: “Mom, Dad, I want to quit school and make a program that allows everyone to run a computer even without a computer science degree.” Or here’s an example I like a lot: “I want to create an amusement park place where everyone can experience the future.” Thank God Bill Gates and Walt Disney ignored the laughter, the confused stares, and the closed minds they surely received when they first had their ideas for Microsoft and Disneyland.)

Now, being in private equity in and of itself is not a “bad” long-term goal. It’s just so abstract and so overdone that no one’s getting on board without further refinement. It’s like trying to sell ice to an Inuit sitting in an igloo.