Stanford GSB Essay Analysis

Many candidates will welcome the new Stanford questions or, more particularly, the new page limits, which reduce the page-count by about half. Some found it challenging to write truly exploratory and reflective personal statements as opposed to experiential statements, (What matters most to you vs. Discuss a leadership experience) and Stanford probably recognized that in past years quantity of pages did not correlate or maybe even had an inverse correlation to quality of thought. Whatever the reason, Stanford has changed the page count and added some additional options to explore specific experience – an applicant friendly decision that will likely result in more applications to the program.

* Essay A: What matters most to you, and why? (Recommended length is 3-4 pages, double-spaced)

This question is intensely personal so before you start writing you should definitely give your topic some serious thought. You should absolutely not attempt to string together a bunch of unrelated experiences highlighted in your HBS and Wharton essays; if you are truly committed to creating a distinct application, you will find it difficult to manufacture a theme about what is most important to you. Thus, it is essential that you determine what it is that is truly important to you, so that it comes out clearly and compellingly in your essays. We always brainstorm in depth with our candidates, pushing them to think about their psychological and philosophical motivations behind certain goals, before helping to determine Stanford themes. We can’t emphasize this enough — you should not make a snap decision. Even after we have identified themes, we encourage candidates to speak with those whom they are closest to in order to discuss the ideas we have generated; this step will help validate deeply personal and authentic themes and lead to a distinct essay.

Once you have challenged yourself and identified your main theme you should not just write a bunch of anecdotes supporting your idea. The best Stanford essays are explorations, where there is analysis of decisions, motives and successes/failures. In other words, your anecdotes are a means to personal exploration and not an end in and of themselves. If you are just telling a bunch of stories and trying to tie in the conclusions, you are probably not analyzing your experiences, but are forcing a theme upon the reader – a decision that will be transparent.

* Essay B: What are your career aspirations? How will your education at Stanford help you achieve these?

Stanford’s career essay was more open-ended in the past; this essay is now more conventional and follows the pattern of most other schools. Still, you will notice that Stanford does not ask for short and long term goals, but for career aspirations, allowing you to be more philosophical. Short and long term goals can be somewhat confining; Stanford’s “aspirations” essay is similar to HBS’s “vision” essay – “aspirations” allows for flexibility and enables you to give a more broad and reasoned sketch of your goals. Once you have provided this sketch, you will need to explain precisely how Stanford will help you achieve your goals. Again, this is not an opportunity to sing the school’s praises; you want to connect the school’s resources with your professional goals and learning objectives. You must explain how Stanford has the resources to bridge your dreams/goals and reality.

Because these questions most often cover very similar ground, I have created a document on personal statements that should help regardless of application. Please feel free to contact – – for a copy.

(Recommended length is 2-3 pages, double-spaced)

* Essay C: Short Essays—Options 1-4

Please answer two of the questions below. In answering each question, please tell us not only what you did, but also how you did it. Describe what you felt, said, and thought during these experiences. Tell us the outcome, and describe how people responded. Your responses should describe experiences that have occurred within the last three years.

Option 1: Tell us about a time when you did something that was not established, expected, or popular. (Recommended length is 1-2 pages, double-spaced)

In this essay, you will have an opportunity to show that you are an independent thinker, capable of finding your own “true” path or adhering to morals and principals that you hold dear — particularly when those who exercise influence are advising you otherwise. By setting up a clear picture of what was expected and then contrasting your choice, not only by showing your actions, but offering your reasoning and thoughts, you have the opportunity to create a compelling picture of yourself as a strong-minded “hero”. (See: The type of fellow who would never end up on the cover of the Wall Street Journal bringing shame to Stanford).

Option 2: Tell us about a time when you felt effective or successful. (Recommended length is 1-2 pages, double-spaced)

The key is to this essay is to offer not just any example of success, but one of your most compelling and then transition into an in depth analysis of your emotions and feelings. Beware of clichés about pushing yourself to new limits or going beyond expectations. Again, the Stanford application is one where they truly want to get to know your thoughts, not just your achievements, so we recommend exploring your thoughts beyond the surface level and challenging yourself to differentiate through self-awareness.

Option 3: Tell us about a time when you had a significant effect on a group or individual. (Recommended length is 1-2 pages, double-spaced)

In this essay, you will need to show a clear cause and effect relationship, between your actions and the resulting implication for others. A successful essay will show how you took specific steps to produce the desired results, focus on the results themselves and then, most importantly, add a reflective element, explaining the personal significance or learning, via the experience. This is a leadership essay and while it does not demand that you exemplify rousing “Churchillian” leadership, the goal is to show how you exercise your influence and bring about a new and better reality.

Option 4: Tell us about a time when you tried to reach a goal or complete a task that was challenging, difficult, or frustrating. (Recommended length is 1-2 pages, double-spaced)

In answering this question, you have the opportunity to show resilience and determination, but these are the most obvious traits that you can offer – a successful essay will offer more. It is vitally important that you not delve into cliché here – the reader needs to understand that you took creative actions in a distinct manner. The simple act of overcoming is not enough – the reader needs to understand your thought process and how you used your personality to affect change.

Note: It is possible to write a successful essay using an example in which you did not achieve your goals; the end result is not as important as the creative actions you took to succeed.

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