Stanford University (Stanford Graduate School of Business) Essay Analysis, 2012–2013

The Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) has tweaked its essay questions and word limits this year, moving from an 1,800 word count across four essays to a 1,600 word count across three. Some quick math will reveal that you have more words per essay now—maybe the admissions committee felt it was not getting the true depth of candidate experiences previously? The most important broad advice we can give you is to be sure that you keep the reader learning. Keep your audience in mind—your admissions reader will be going through hundreds of essays this application season. If he/she gets to your essay three and has to read about the same theme yet again, he/she will be bored or frustrated or both. So as you write, be sure that you are introducing new experiences and dimensions of your profile. This will greatly improve the likelihood that you will be able to hold your reader’s attention throughout.

Essay 1: What matters most to you, and why?

Here is a pretty simple tip—start your brainstorming for this essay by simply asking yourself the very question that Stanford itself is posing: “What matters most to me?” This seems like fairly obvious advice, of course, but many candidates get wrapped up in the idea of “What do they want to hear?” rather than focusing on the much more important question of “What do I want to say?”

Because of the very personal nature of this essay, you should devote the time necessary to 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, 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 fully examined your options and identified your main themes, do not 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. A strong essay response to this question will involve a true exploration of the themes you have chosen to discuss and reveal a thorough analysis of decisions, motives and successes/failures, with a constant emphasis on how you conduct yourself. 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 your reader—and this will be transparent to an experienced admissions committee reader. In short, be sure to fully consider and develop your most sincere answer(s), outline your essay accordingly and then infuse your writing with your personality, thoughts and feelings.

Essay 2: What do you want to do—REALLY—and why Stanford?

At the beginning of his post about Stanford’s essay questions, Assistant Dean for MBA Admissions Derrick Bolton advises applicants, “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 believe this statement and the emphasis on the word “REALLY” in this essay question are particularly important. Stanford is not looking for a certain type of applicant—it is seeking people with interesting goals and backgrounds. If you try to present yourself as someone or something you are not because you believe the school is only looking for candidates with particular characteristics, 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.

And for a thorough exploration of the Stanford GSB’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.

Essay 3: Answer one of the three 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 in the last three years 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 in the last three years when you identified and pursued an opportunity to improve an organization.

Initiators take note! This essay provides an opportunity for you to reveal that you are not merely making the most of the opportunities before you, but that you are proactively identifying and defining those opportunities and then going for them. You will notice that the admissions committee does not even ask you to focus on a successful instance—they want to know more about the ambition and the pursuit, and the motives behind them, than about the ultimate outcome of the opportunity. If you were successful, this success can of course be revealed and may be important to your story, but you can also consider discussing an ambitious failure and expounding on what you learned from that experience. The key here is that you demonstrate to the admissions committee that you see possibilities and do not sit back and wait for them to come to you.

Option C: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you went beyond what was defined or established.

For this essay option, 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. 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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