Stanford Graduate School of Business Essay Analysis, 2019–2020

Stanford Graduate School of Business

*Please note: You are viewing an essay analysis from the 2019-2020 admissions cycle. Click here to view our collection of essay analyses for the current admissions season.  

At the beginning of every MBA application season, we at mbaMission ask ourselves the same question for all the top programs: “Are they going to change their essay questions this year or not?” We now have our answer for the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB), and it is “yes and no.” Although the school has not altered the core prompts for its two central essays, it has revisited the accompanying text and made minor adjustments to its counsel—though we cannot say we see any momentous revisions in those messages. The big change this year is the addition of an Optional Short-Answer Question, which gives applicants the opportunity to share some of their most significant accomplishments and experiences. We suspect the school has provided this outlet for (likely quant-minded) candidates who might have otherwise felt compelled to shoehorn such information into their “what matters most?” essay, thereby freeing them to speak more from the heart in that submission, without fear that the admissions committee will somehow overlook what they believe are key “selling points” in their profile. In our full MBA essay analysis that follows, we provide more insight into the GSB’s two required questions as well as this added element and how it can complement the school’s other application essays this season.

Interested in learning how to tackle this year’s Stanford GSB application essays? Watch the short video below before you continue reading the full analysis! 

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

For this essay, we would like you to reflect deeply and write from the heart. Once you’ve identified what matters most to you, help us understand why. You might consider, for example, what makes this so important to you? What people, insights, or experiences have shaped your perspectives?

When candidates ask us, “What should I write for what matters most to me?,” we offer some pretty simple guidance: start brainstorming for this essay by asking yourself that very question. What does matter most to you? This might seem like obvious advice, of course, but many applicants get flustered by the question, believing that an actual “right” answer exists that they must provide to satisfy the admissions committee. As a result, they never pause to actually consider their sincere responses, which are typically the most compelling. The GSB itself notes on its essay page, “There is no ‘right answer’ to these questions—the best answer is the one that is truest for you.”

We therefore encourage you to contemplate this question 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 probably forcing a theme on your reader rather than genuinely analyzing your experiences, and any experienced admissions reader will see right through this. In short, be sure to fully consider and identify your most authentic answer(s), outline your essay accordingly, and then infuse your writing with your personality, thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Stanford encourages you to give special attention to why the subject you have chosen to write about is the most important to you. This “why” element should be clear in your essay—it should be implied by what you are discussing and sharing. If you need to explicitly declare, “And what matters most to me is…,” your essay is not making a strong enough point on its own. 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 are very low that you could write on a theme that the Stanford GSB’s admissions committee has never read about before. 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 had a significant impact on someone’s life, then the topic is no longer a cliché—it is true to who you genuinely 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, your essay should be a winner.

For even more targeted advice about how to approach this multidecade mainstay question for the Stanford GSB—and to see multiple sample essays for inspiration—download your free copy of our new guide, “What Matters?” and “What More?”: A Guide to the Stanford GSB and HBS Personal Essays.

Essay B: Why Stanford?

Describe your aspirations and how your Stanford GSB experience will help you realize them. If you are applying to both the MBA and MSx programs, use Essay B to address your interest in both programs.

As we noted earlier, on the school’s application essays page, the Stanford GSB admissions committee stresses that it has no “right” answer in mind for its essay questions and wants applicants to share their story in their “genuine voice.” It does not have a preferred job or industry in mind that it is waiting to hear you say you plan to enter. It really just wants to understand your personal vision and why you feel a Stanford MBA (or MSx) in particular is necessary to facilitate 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 (and us) on this one!

The “why our school?” topic is a common element of a typical personal statement, so we encourage you to download your free copy of the mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which helps applicants write this style of essay for any school. It explains ways of approaching this subject effectively and offers several sample essays as guides. Click here to access your complimentary copy today.

And for a thorough exploration of the Stanford GSB’s academic program, unique offerings, social life, and other key characteristics, check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, which is also available for free.

Required Short Answer Question:

Tell us about a time within the last two years when your background influenced your participation at work or school. (1,150 character maximum)

Although this is not technically posed as an essay prompt, candidates must essentially craft a mini essay in response to this required query. Like other top MBA programs, Stanford values applicants who can contribute to its greater community and educational experience. This prompt gets at the heart of that by asking you to show your willingness and capacity to draw on your past or your natural inclinations and abilities, if not both, to contribute to a project or situation. Note that the school is not asking about a time when you applied your knowledge or offered input because you were asked to but instead about one when you were drawn to a situation because of a personal connection with it—“when your background influenced your participation.”

For example, perhaps you encountered a problem that was similar to one you had faced before, and the insight and proficiency you gained from that earlier experience inspired you to want to assist with the more recent one. Or maybe an opportunity arose that involved an element close to your heart—as in, it related to a value you hold dear or a personal interest or hobby you especially enjoy—and your connection to that element compelled you to get involved.

Do not overlook that your response must not exceed 1,150 characters, which to our understanding includes spaces. This is just a little shorter than the length of the previous two paragraphs (together).

Optional Short-Answer Question:

Think about times you’ve created a positive impact, whether in professional, extracurricular, academic, or other settings. What was your impact? What made it significant to you or to others? You are welcome to share up to three examples. (Up to 1500 characters, approximately 250 words, for each example)

We know from experience that when asked to write an essay that is more personal than professional or that focuses on a “why” rather than a “what,” some applicants get extremely concerned that the admissions committee will not understand or recognize how successful they have been in their career or life to date. Perhaps they feel their greatest strengths are demonstrated by their accomplishments and therefore believe that not highlighting these for the admissions committee will mean certain rejection. This is simply not true, but we understand that this can be a difficult truth to accept. We suspect that many past Stanford GSB candidates simply could not resist talking more about their achievements in Essay A than about their values, personal interests, beliefs, and emotions—ultimately depriving the admissions committee of the information it truly wanted. The addition of these optional mini essays now provides an outlet for such applicants and their success stories, which will likely prove a win-win. Candidates can focus on the more personal aspects of their profile in their first essay, as the GSB wants, and can then highlight their standout skills and triumphs here (if they wish), providing still more data on which the admissions committee can base its final decision.   

First, keep in mind that this is an optional element of your application. We encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity only if you feel you have a story (or stories) that the admissions committee must have to consider your candidacy fully and fairly. Just because you can submit additional information here does not mean that you must (i.e., you will not be penalized for not doing so!), and if you are essentially asking the already overtaxed admissions readers to do additional work on your application, you need to make sure that extra effort is worthwhile. Similarly, although the school states that you may discuss three impact situations, sharing just one or two is absolutely acceptable. They key is to focus on conveying stories that are truly significant and revelatory of who you are, what you can do, and/or what kind of effect you have had on others, not just on filling every available space on the application.

Despite your limited word count here, do your best to “show,” or really spell out, how things unfolded—rather than just stating the accomplishment or flatly presenting the situation—to give the admissions reader some perspective on how you conduct yourself and achieve. And because the school wants to know about “your impact,” you will obviously have to convey the results of your actions. The GSB wants to understand that the decisions you made and steps you took clearly paid off and that a project, company, organization, individual, or product subsequently experienced a positive change. Finally, do not gloss over the “why” factor here, and be sure to delineate the reason the outcome was so meaningful.

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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