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The Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) became the second top MBA program to release its essay questions this year, and the school follows a trend in application essays—“less is more.” Stanford has dropped its third essay question this season and stuck with two standbys, which we can summarize as “What matters most to you?” and “Why us?” The GSB’s choice to maintain its “Why us?” question is an interesting one, considering how selective the program is (the Princeton Review ranks it number one for Toughest to Get Into). Maybe one reason the school is so strong is that it still focuses on fit and does not take its desirability for granted (?).
Another big change in the Stanford application this year is that the number of recommendations required has dropped from three to two, leaving the candidate to make the vexing choice between a professional recommender or a peer for that second recommendation. Our guess is that most people will choose the far more straightforward professional recommendation option, because candidates who do so can be more confident that they have made the “right” choice of recommenders.
Note: The Stanford admissions committee permits applicants to write 1,100 words total and to allocate those words as they feel appropriate across each essay. mbaMission recommends a split of approximately 750 words for the first essay and 350 words for the second, in line with guidance historically provided by the Stanford GSB Adcom, however, you should feel free to adjust those word counts per essay based on what space you feel you need to properly tell your story.
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:“Why Stanford?”
One of our favorite admissions quotes is from Stanford’s assistant dean for MBA admissions, Derrick Bolton: “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 expect to hear that you plan to fill that space—the admissions committee wants to understand your true vision and understand 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.