Stanford Graduate School of Business Essay Analysis, 2013–2014

The Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) is apparently content with its essay questions, because it has made no changes to them or to the allowed word count this season. Having made slight tweaks to its prompts in recent years, the GSB’s MBA admissions committee seems to have found an approach that elicits the information it wants.

With respect to word count, Stanford is unique in that it asks you to limit yourself to 1,600 words total but allows you to determine how you would like to distribute them among the various questions. Stanford does offer some guidance—recommending 750 words for Essay 1, 450 words for Essay 2 and 400 words for Essay 3—but you can take the school at its word (small pun intended!) and use a different distribution if you feel that you can better reveal yourself through, for example, a 650-word Essay 1 and 500-word Essay 3.

Stanford’s admissions committee offers some great advice on how to write its application essays here: We feel that the committee’s most important guidance is the following:

Stanford Graduate School of Business

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.

In truth, this is good advice not just for Stanford’s essays, but for all business schools’ essays. Rather than trying to portray yourself as something in particular (which you may or may not in fact be), focus on showcasing who you actually are and give the admissions committee the information and picture of you it needs to make its decision. Stanford is not interested in classifying its applicants as certain types but in discovering individuals and what they have to offer.  And now, on to the essays…

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

When candidates ask us, “What should I write for what matters most to me?,” we offer a pretty simple tip—start brainstorming for this essay by asking yourself that very question: “What matters most to me?” This might seem like obvious advice, of course, but many applicants get flustered by the question, often believing that an actual “right” answer exists that they must identify, and never pause to actually consider their sincere responses, which are typically the most compelling.

So, we advise that you brainstorm in depth and push yourself to explore the psychological and philosophical motivations behind your goals and achievements—behind who you are today. 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 you 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 simply provide a handful of supporting anecdotes—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 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 forcing a theme on your reader rather than analyzing your experiences, and this will be transparent to any experienced admissions 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, feelings and experiences.

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

Remember what we noted as the admissions committee’s most important advice: “Resist the urge to ‘package’ yourself in order to come across in a way you think Stanford wants” (emphasis added). What the admissions committee “REALLY” wants is to know what and/or who you want to be. The school does not have a preferred job or industry in mind and expects to hear that you plan to fill that space—the admissions committee wants to understand your true vision and hear why you feel Stanford is necessary in facilitating this vision. If you try 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. 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.

For the following essay questions, you will need to tell a story, featuring yourself as the main character. You should not just “tell” the reader what you achieved, but “show” the reader how you achieved. You will need to take the reader on a journey, allowing him/her to clearly visualize how you conduct yourself. By doing so, you will leave a distinct and lasting impression of who you are.

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 how 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 new opportunities and then going for them. You will notice that the admissions committee does not even specify that you must focus on a successful instance—what is important is showing your ambition and pursuit, and the motives behind them, rather than detailing the ultimate outcome of the opportunity. If you were in fact successful, this success can of course be revealed and may be important to your story, but discussing an ambitious failure and expounding on what you learned from the experience is also a valid option. The key here is that you demonstrate to the admissions committee that you see possibilities and pursue them—you 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.

To effectively reveal how you went “beyond” in this essay, you will need to clearly describe what was “defined or established” about the scenario you are discussing. Then, you must show how you reacted to the barrier you encountered or the goal that was set too low for you. You may reveal, for example, that you exhibited resilience or possessed a vision that others may not have shared. The key in this essay is not to simply outline an accomplishment, but to illustrate one in which you surpassed expectations and changed the way people perceived you.

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