The New Altruism of The MBA Student

Why is the MBA such a popular graduate degree? While the career progression benefits are published in pretty much every ranking, I have observed a perceptible shift in the reasons why prospective students pursue an MBA over the course of 25+ years of research and recruitment in this space.

When I worked in MBA admissions around the start of the new millennium, I compared the motivations between domestic (UK) applicants and those who were applying from emerging markets. Throughout the hundreds of applications that I evaluated each cycle, there was a discernable difference. Those applying from developed countries were often pursuing the MBA for mostly individualistic reasons. They wanted to “move up” in their career, which was fine then and still okay today. By contrast, those applying from developing nations often mentioned how they wanted to “give back” to their communities.

Fast forward to now and you’d see that admissions essays, from across the world, are as inclusive as ever with altruistic motivations from the applicants. A primary desire to earn an MBA to do social good has become universal. However, some may say this finding is not all that surprising given the expansion of corporations which embrace “social responsibility” and “sustainability” in their values and branding. Perhaps, applicants are simply telling business schools what they want to hear. Not necessarily.

When I start engagements with clients, I send a questionnaire to get to know them better. The questions include:

  • Why do you want an MBA? 
  • What are you most passionate about?
  • What kind of person and professional do you aspire to be? 
  • What is your dream job?
  • What makes you happy?
  • How would you like to make a meaningful impact in the world? 

Many of the answers I receive to these questions go beyond seeking a career not only for personal benefit, but to make an impact in society, such as working in ESG at a Fortune 500 firm or starting a business in sustainable fashion. While several of my clients also speak to the desire to “head a company” or “grow a business”, I have not had anyone, as a client or any of the prospective students with whom I chat with nearly every day, express that they want to “make money” or “get that corner office.”

A possible reason for this shift could be the role the pandemic had in changing people’s priorities. But I also suspect that our current society–where we are so connected on social media and can consume news from around the world like never before–has brought us closer together.  Moreover, millennial and Gen Z applicants have brought their own ideological inclinations supporting societal improvements to business schools.

If anything, our world will become even more interconnected in the coming years. And that’s why I don’t think the desire to get an MBA to make a positive difference in the world is going away anytime soon. Business schools are adapting to this new shift through MBA curriculum changes, such as the Energy and Sustainability Pathway at the Kellogg School of Managment. As such, prospective applicants no longer need to limit themselves to a few business schools offering a focus on altruism. There are–and will continue to be–more choices than ever before.

About The Author:  Barbara Coward, Founder and Principal, MBA 360 Admissions

Barbara Coward is a B-School industry expert and internationally acclaimed consultant with demonstrated expertise in strategic and influential content development and storytelling. She supports clients through resume reviews, letter of recommendation feedback, mock interviews, essay strategy and business school selection. Barbara contributes to prominent media, including Business Insider, Fortune, Financial Times, Poets & Quants, Money, and U.S. News & World Report. 

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