Stanford University (Stanford Graduate School of Business) Essay Analysis, 2011–2012

Before we even begin our analysis of Stanford’s essay questions for this application season, we want to share a quote from Stanford Assistant Dean and Director of MBA Admissions Derrick Bolton that we feel bears repeating and is important to keep in mind with respect to your essays for Stanford or any other school: “Because we want to discover who you are, resist the urge to ‘package’ yourself in order to come across in a way you think Stanford wants. Such attempts simply blur our understanding of who you are and what you can accomplish. We want to hear your genuine voice throughout the essays that you write and this is the time to think carefully about your values, your passions, your hopes and dreams.”

At mbaMission, we constantly tell candidates to avoid attempting to portray themselves as something they are not—something they mistakenly believe the admissions committee wants them to be—in their essays. The schools want a class that is made up of diverse individuals, and by pandering to some perceived expectation, you are basically aspiring to create a generic application, rather than one that will separate you from the pack.

1. What matters most to you, and why?

Because of the very personal nature of this essay, you should thoroughly contemplate your response before you begin writing. You will need to truly brainstorm in depth and push yourself to explore the psychological and philosophical motivations behind your goals and achievements. We cannot emphasize this enough: do not make a snap decision about the content of this essay. Once you have identified what you believe is an appropriate theme for this essay, discuss your idea(s) with those with whom you are closest and whose input your respect. Doing so can help validate deeply personal and authentic themes, leading to 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 stories you used in a similar essay for another school. The best Stanford essays involve a true exploration of the concept or issue posed by the essay question and reveal a thorough analysis of decisions, motives and successes/failures. 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—and this will be transparent to an experienced admissions committee reader. 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 in crafting a compelling essay.

2. What do you want to do—REALLY—and why Stanford? You should address three distinct topics: your career aspirations, the role of an MBA education in achieving those aspirations, and your rationale for earning that MBA at Stanford, in particular.

Perhaps we should repeat Bolton’s quote from the beginning of this post: “Because we want to discover who you are, resist the urge to ‘package’ yourself in order to come across in a way you think Stanford wants.” We think the emphasis on “REALLY” in this question is particularly important. Stanford is not looking for a certain type of applicant—it is seeking people with interesting goals and backgrounds. Again, by trying to present yourself as someone or something you are not, you will ultimately undermine your candidacy. Trust the admissions committee on this one!

Because Personal Statements are similar from one application to the next, we have produced the mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which helps applicants write this style of essay for any school. We offer this guide to candidates free of charge, via our online store. Please feel free to download your copy today.

For a thorough exploration of Stanford’s academic program/merits, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, academic environment and more, please check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

3. Answer two of the four 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 A: Tell us about a time when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.

Although this question is somewhat straightforward, the difference between a strong and a weak essay will depend on your ability to clearly and thoroughly explain the cause-and-effect relationship between the actions you took to create/develop the team and the team’s subsequent effectiveness. For this essay, the team’s specific accomplishment is less important than your role in the group’s success. You must be sure that your essay reveals that you played a direct and integral part in the makeup, character and performance of your team and that your intent and actions had the desired effect.

Option B: Tell us about a time when you made a lasting impact on your organization.

For this essay, demonstrating the how element of the experience is every bit as important as sharing the results. Consider presenting a before-and-after scenario—one in which the distinction between the situation with which you began and the situation you subsequently created is clear—and establish yourself as the catalyst for the change. Further, you must demonstrate that your influence was not fleeting, but enduring. Your impact need not have been completely revolutionary—a change in process that brought efficiency, the establishment of a training initiative or the creation of a new product or service could all work—but it should be indelible.

Option C: Tell us about a time when you generated support from others for an idea or initiative.

This essay question was tweaked ever so slightly from its past incarnation as one about motivation, giving it a more distinct identity from the other short-essay questions. This option requires that you discuss a more diplomatic side of your personality and describe a situation in which you built support for an idea, rather than simply achieved a clear goal. As is often the case in application essays, the how element is crucial here, and you will need to clearly describe the steps you took to persuade others, offering the details of your actions. As we have discussed elsewhere in our blog and guides, literary conflict is an essential element of any strong essay, and in this short piece, you will need to show that others were originally resistant to your ideas to demonstrate that you were ultimately effective. After all, if you did no more than send one email to persuade everyone to wholeheartedly support you, you obviously did not have to exert much effort to be successful, and this would not make for a very compelling, informative or effective essay.

Option D: Tell us about a time when you went beyond what was defined or established.

In this essay, you could reveal 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. Or, you might describe a situation in which you had a bold vision and achieved your ambitious goals independently, rather than as part of a team (as in Option A). In either case, by creating a clear picture of what was expected of you and then contrasting your choice—by 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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