Stanford University (GSB) Essay Analysis

Note: The following essay questions pertain to the previous academic year. This section will be updated when the new question are released in early to mid-July of 2008. 

After using the identical essay questions year after year, Stanford finally made some changes last year. This year, the GSB has only tweaked its essays ever so slightly. Essay B is far more personal and probing this year, and the options in Essay C have changed, with a new first option available. All in all, the spirit of the essays remains the same – deliberate questions that seek to provoke intensely personal responses, where your actions, reasoning and emotions come to the fore.

Essay A: What matters most to you, and why?

Clearly, because of the personal nature of this essay, you need to thoroughly contemplate your response. We always brainstorm in depth with our candidates, pushing them to think about their psychological and philosophical motivations behind certain goals and achievements, 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 themes, you should not just write a bunch of anecdotes supporting your idea–or worse, string together a bunch of ideas from your HBS three accomplishments essay. 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 on the reader – a decision that will be transparent. In short, contemplate your most sincere answers, outline your essays and infuse them with your personality, thoughts and feelings. These are the first steps toward a compelling essay.

Essay B: What are your career aspirations? How will your education at Stanford help you achieve them? As a Stanford MBA student, you will be assigned a team of advisors who will guide both your academic experience and your personal development. Your team will include a faculty advisor, a career counselor, and a leadership coach. Use Essay B to help you prepare for your first conversations with these mentors.

You will notice that, much like HBS, Stanford does not ask for short- and long-term goals, but for career aspirations. Short- and long-term goals can be somewhat confining; Stanford’s “aspirations” allow for flexibility and enable you to give a more broad and reasoned sketch of your goals and the path you hope to take. Once you have provided this sketch, you will need to explain precisely how Stanford will help you achieve your goals. Carefully consider Stanford’s statement: “Use Essay B to help you prepare for your first conversation with these mentors.” Essay A is not an opportunity to sing the school’s praises, but instead an opportunity for you to profoundly connect with the school’s pedagogy and resources. You must explain how Stanford has the resources to bridge your dreams/goals and reality.

Because Personal Statements have similarities from one application to the next, we have produced the “MBA Mission Personal Statement Guide.” We offer our guide to candidates free of charge, via our online store.  Please feel free to download your copy today.

Essay C: Answer 2 of the questions listed below. In answering both questions in Essay C, tell us not only what you did, but also how you did it. Tell us the outcome and describe how people responded. Describe only experiences that have occurred during the last three years.

1: Tell us about a time when you empowered others.

2: Tell us about a time when you had a significant impact on a person, group or organization.

In both options 1 and 2, you will need to show a clear cause and effect relationship between your actions and the resulting implication for others. The difference between the two is that in the first essay, your actions will set off another event that results in others’ progress. In the second essay, your actions will yield the desired result and essentially “solve” the problem or seize the opportunity at hand. Successful essays 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. These are both leadership essays, and while they do 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.

3: Tell us about a time when you tried to reach a goal or complete a task that was challenging, difficult, or frustrating.

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 effect 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 actions you took to succeed.

4: Tell us about a time when you went beyond what was defined, established, or expected.

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 principles 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 also by offering your reasoning and thoughts, you have the opportunity to create a compelling picture of yourself as a strong-minded and adventurous “hero.”

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