Stanford University (GSB) Essay Analysis, 2008-2009

Stanford continues to tweak its essay questions, moving from an almost “write what you want” approach two years ago to a much more narrow approach this year. Gone are the four- to seven-page limits of past years and even the three-page limits seen last year. Instead, Stanford is now embracing hard word limits, making “stretching” their essay questions difficult. While many of the questions remain the same, the first two options in Essay C have been “refreshed,” although their spirit remains unchanged.

Essay A: What matters most to you, and why? (750 Words)

Clearly, because of the very personal nature of this essay, you must thoroughly contemplate your response. We always brainstorm in depth with our candidates, pushing them to explore the psychological and philosophical motivations behind their goals and achievements, to best help them determine their Stanford themes. We cannot emphasize this enough—you should not make a snap decision about the content of this essay. Even after candidates have identified their themes, we encourage them to discuss the ideas we have generated with those with whom they are closest; this step helps to validate deeply personal and authentic themes and thereby results in an essay that truly stands out.

Once you have challenged yourself and identified your main themes, you should not simply provide a handful of anecdotes that support your idea—or worse, recycle the ideas you used in your HBS three accomplishments essay. The best Stanford essays are true explorations of the concept or issue posed by the essay question, involving a thorough analysis of decisions, motives and successes/failures. In other words, your anecdotes constitute a recounting of moments of personal exploration and so are not ends in and of themselves. If you are merely telling stories and trying to tie in your preconceived conclusions, you are most likely not analyzing your experiences, but rather forcing a theme on the reader—a decision that will be transparent to the experienced eyes of Admissions Committee members. In short, be sure to fully consider and develop your most sincere answers, outline your essays accordingly and then infuse your responses with your personality, thoughts and feelings. These are the first steps to crafting a compelling essay.

Essay B: What are your career aspirations? How will your education at Stanford help you achieve them? (450 Words)

You will notice that Stanford does not explicitly ask about your short- and long-term career goals, but instead about your “career aspirations.” Short- and long-term goals can be somewhat confining; Stanford’s “aspirations” provide a level of flexibility and allows you to provide a broader and more reasoned compendium of your objectives and the path you hope to take to reach them. Once you have provided this sketch, you will need to explain precisely how Stanford will help you achieve your goals. Essay B is not an opportunity to simply sing the school’s praises, but rather to profoundly connect with Stanford’s pedagogy and resources. You must convincingly explain how Stanford has the resources necessary for you to make your dreams and goals a reality.
Because Personal Statements are similar from one application to the next, we have produced the “MBA Mission Personal Statement Guide.” We offer this guide to candidates free of charge, via our online store.  Please feel free to download your copy today. 

For additional information on the Stanford GSB experience, please consult the MBA Mission Insider’s Guide series.

Essay C: Short Essays—Options 1-4 (300 Words Each)

Answer two of the questions below. Tell us not only what you did but also how you did it. What was the outcome? How did people respond? Only describe experiences that have occurred during the last three years.

Option 1: Tell us about a time when you built or developed a team.

While this question is somewhat straightforward, you should absolutely go beyond the basic query itself and show that you not only assembled a team with a sense of purpose but also that the team ultimately performed. Clearly illustrating a cause-and-effect relationship between your actions and the subsequent effectiveness of your team is incredibly important. You must be sure that your essay conveys not merely that you were part of a high-performing team, but rather that you played a direct and integral role in the make-up, character and performance of that team. 

Option 2: Tell us about a time when you felt most effective as a leader.

As with the previous question, clearly outlining the causative effect your actions had on the actions and reactions of others is of primary importance. Following the GSB’s instructions provided above, you should convey not just your results, but the route you took to success as well (“Tell us not only what you did but also how you did it”). With respect to leadership, the “how you did it” becomes crucial. Candidates often become caught up in detailing their results and focus only on them in their writing, leaving the reader entirely confused as to how these results were achieved.  Far too often, candidates also feel that they must offer examples of rousing leadership to write a compelling essay. If you are not a master orator and led “most effectively” via subtle persuasion or example, that is not only completely acceptable, but also an interesting point of differentiation. Again, if you focus on the means, and not simply on the ends, your essay’s power will naturally shine through.

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

This question offers you the opportunity to convey your resilience and determination, but these are obvious traits that any candidate could claim in such a situation—a successful essay will include more. You must not fall back on cliché here; that the reader understands that you took creative action in a distinct manner is vitally important. Simply overcoming is not enough—you need to effectively explain to the reader your thought processes and how you used your personality to effect change. Note: Writing a successful essay using an example in which you did not achieve your goals is certainly possible; the end result is not as important as the actions you took to succeed.
Option 4: Tell us about a time when you went beyond what was defined, established, or expected.

In this essay, you can show yourself to be an independent thinker, capable of finding your own “true” path and/or adhering to morals and principles that you hold dear, particularly when those with influence are advising you otherwise. By creating a clear picture of what was expected of you and then contrasting your choice—by both describing your actions and outlining your reasoning and thoughts—you can present a compelling picture of yourself as a strong-minded and adventurous “hero.”

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