Stanford Graduate School of Business Essay Analysis, 2020–2021

Stanford Graduate School of Business

Like many of the top MBA programs appear to be doing this season, the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) has opted to make no changes to the wording of its application essay prompts—or to its short-answer questions—though it has minimized the space in which its candidates can respond to them. Applicants are now given a 1,050-word total allowance for its required essays (down from 1,150). Although how candidates wish to divide this total between the two is left to them to decide, the school does offer a recommendation of 650 words for the first and 400 for the second. The length allowance for the GSB’s first optional question has been cropped from 1,500 characters to 1,200, but applicants are still invited to share up to three of their most significant accomplishments and experiences. The admissions committee states on the GSB site, “We often find effective essays that are written in fewer words,” so we suspect these word-count cuts might be to ensure that candidates’ submissions are even more streamlined this year than in previous seasons. Our full analysis follows of the school’s two required MBA essay questions as well as its optional prompts. 

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 several annotated sample essays for inspiration—download your free copy of our 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 stated 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.” This means 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.

Optional Question 1: 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? (Up to 1,200 characters, or approximately 200 words, for each example) 

In the Essays section of the application, we ask you to tell us about who you are and how you think Stanford will help you achieve your aspirations. We are also interested in learning about the things you have done that are most meaningful to you. If you would like to go beyond your resume to discuss some of your contributions more fully, you are welcome to share up to three examples. 

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—and particularly those with strong quant backgrounds or mind-sets—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. 

Optional Question 2: Tell us about a time within the last three years when your background influenced your participation at work or school. (Up to 1,100 characters, or approximately 180 words)

We know that each person is more than a list of facts or pre-defined categories. We are interested in how your background may have influenced your life experiences. In answering this question, consider how your background, such as your work, education, skills, interests, culture, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, where/how you grew up, and/or other factors, had an impact on your recent actions and choices. How did one specific aspect of your background influence whether or how you participated in a situation, interaction, or project? 

Your background is, to a large extent, what makes you who you are—the “nurture” aspect of the “nature versus nurture” equation. The things you have seen, experienced, felt, done, and learned; the people you have encountered; and the values you have adopted along the way have helped create the frame through which you view the world around you and formed you into the unique individual you are. Literally no one else in the world has had exactly the same life as you. With this prompt, Stanford wants to better understand not only who you now are but also how who you are influences how you interact with others. This goes beyond just the form in which this interaction occurs to include what inspires or compels you to step up. How do your qualities, knowledge, and/or values motivate you to act, and how do you then apply them? For this question, you must offer the school an example that illustrates both.

The Stanford GSB, like all top MBA programs, values applicants who can contribute as students to its greater community and to everyone’s collective educational experience. This query gets at the heart of that by asking you to show your willingness and capacity to draw on either your past or your abilities, if not both, to contribute to a project or situation. Again, the school is not asking simply about a time when you applied your knowledge or offered input because it was asked of you but instead for a time when you were drawn to a situation because of some personal connection with it—“when your background influenced your participation.”

For example, perhaps you encountered a problem that was similar in many ways to one you had faced before, and the insight and proficiency you gained from that earlier experience inspired you to want to assist in addressing 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 to a personal interest or hobby that you especially enjoy—and your connection to that element compelled you to become involved.

Because the prompt stipulates that the example be drawn from the past three years, this cannot be an incident from high school or earlier, and a story from college would be an option only if you graduated somewhat recently. Note also that this time frame applies to the instance in which you acted, not to the part of your background that impelled you to act. That could be, depending on your situation, something that has been part of you from birth, even.

Most likely, then, you should discuss a workplace story, but we want to point out that “at work” does not necessarily mean “as a required part of your job responsibilities.” For example, perhaps you noticed that some new coworkers were struggling to integrate themselves into the social aspects of your department, maybe not showing up for the team’s monthly happy hour or joining in for Bagel Fridays in the conference room. You might have then drawn on the skills and experience you gained from years as a camp counselor or as the eldest sibling in a multichild family to find a way to help them comfortably assimilate.

Keep in mind that your response must not exceed 1,100 characters, which to our understanding includes spaces. This is basically the length of the previous two paragraphs (together).

Additional Information: If there is any information that is critical for us to know and is not captured elsewhere, include it in the “Additional Information” section of the application. Pertinent examples include:

  • Extenuating circumstances affecting academic or work performance
  • Academic experience (e.g., independent research) not noted elsewhere

We tend to believe that the best use of the optional essay is to explain confusing or problematic issues in your candidacy, and this prompt offers an opportunity to do just that. So, if you need to, this is your chance to address any questions an admissions officer might have about your profile—a poor grade or overall GPA, a low GMAT or GRE score, a gap in your work experience, etc. Or, as the prompt suggests, you can highlight an educational accomplishment that is not already captured in a different part of your application. In our mbaMission Optional Essays Guide, we offer detailed advice on how best to take advantage of the optional essay, with multiple examples.

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 Guides to spur you along! Download your free copy of the Stanford GSB Interview Guide today.

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2020–2021 MBA Essay Analysis

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