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Stanford Graduate School of Business Essay Analysis, 2015–2016

*Please note: You are viewing an essay analysis from the 2015-2016 admissions cycle. Click here to view our collection of essay analyses for the current admissions season. 

We hate to read too much into minutiae, but the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) has expanded its maximum word count allowance by 50 words this year, so that applicants now have 1,150 words with which to work. The school suggests that candidates use those additional words for their second essay, though applicants in fact have the leeway to allocate them however they please. We have to wonder whether Stanford did not see the depth of knowledge it had hoped or expected for its “Why Stanford?” essay last year, when fewer words were available. Perhaps the school wanted to give applicants a little more room in which to show that they really know what the GSB is all about. Aside from the slight change in total word count, the school’s essay questions have not changed at all. Here we go…

Stanford Graduate School of Business Essay Analysis, 2015–2016Stanford Graduate School of Business Essay 1: What matters most to you, and why? (School-suggested word count of 750)

For this essay, we would like you to:

  • Focus on the “why” rather than the “what.”
  • Do some deep self-examination, so you can genuinely illustrate who you are and how you came to be the person you are.
  • Share the insights, experiences, and lessons that shaped your perspectives, rather than focusing merely on what you’ve done or accomplished.
  • Write from the heart, and illustrate how a person, situation, or event has influenced you.

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.

We therefore 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.

Stanford encourages you to given special attention to why the subject you have chosen to write about is the most important to you. This should be clear in your essay—it should be implied by what you are exploring. If you need to explicitly declare, “And what matters most to me is…,” your essay is most likely not making a strong enough point. A well-constructed essay that is infused with your values and motivation and that clearly conveys why you made certain decisions should effectively and implicitly reveal the “why” behind your chosen topic—and will almost always make a stronger point.

One final note is that you can write about a popular theme as long as you truly own the experience. However, the odds of you writing about a theme that the Stanford GSB’s admissions committee has never read about before are not very high. You can discuss whatever you truly care about in your essay, but you absolutely must support your topic with a wealth of experience that shows how you have uniquely lived it. Therefore, for example, you cannot successfully write about “making a difference” if you have volunteered only occasionally, but if you have truly made a significant difference in someone’s life, then the topic is no longer a cliché—it is true to who you are. So, focus less on trying to choose the “right” subject for your essay and more on identifying one that is personal and authentic to you. If you write powerfully about your topic and connect it directly to your experiences and values, then your essay should be a winner.

Essay 2: Why Stanford? (School-suggested word count of 400)

Enlighten us on how earning your MBA at Stanford will enable you to realize your ambitions.

  • Explain your decision to pursue graduate education in management.
  • Explain the distinctive opportunities you will pursue at Stanford.

One of our favorite admissions quotes is from Stanford’s assistant dean for MBA admissions, Derrick Bolton, who declared, “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.

The Next Step—Mastering Your Stanford GSB Interview: Many MBA candidates find admissions interviews stressful and intimidating, but mastering this important element of the application process is definitely possible—the key is informed preparation. And, on your way to this high level of preparation, we offer our free Interview Primers to spur you along! Download your free copy of the Stanford GSB Interview Primer today.




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