“What matters most to you, and why?”
This is a huge question and one that requires a great deal of thought before answering. How do you approach this essay prompt that the (GSB) poses in its application? To help you, we have recorded a video offering guidance on this topic! Be sure to subscribe to mbaMission’s YouTube channel for the most up-to-date content. Today, we are going to take you through an actual successful GSB essay and discuss its strengths.
The essay we will review in this post is showcased in the book “What Matters?” and “What More?”: 50 Successful Essays for the Stanford GSB and HBS (and Why They Worked), co-authored by mbaMission Founder Jeremy Shinewald. To read more of our analysis of this essay, and that of 49 other examples, be sure to download your copy today. Note that this essay is not meant to be a template—it is one applicant’s personal answer. At mbaMission, we encourage you to reflect on and write about what is meaningful to you! The first paragraph of our highlighted GSB example follows;
In Lithuania, one of the most Catholic countries in the world, it is almost inconceivable for anyone to leave the church. Yet, as I grew older, I increasingly felt that as a person of science, I couldn’t reconcile being committed to an organization founded broadly on beliefs. Despite a rich tradition and the good guidance the church provides, I still felt that to be true to myself I should file for apostasy—a challenging process! Several of my friends refused to be my witnesses and vouch for my sanity—in our society one is “insane” to leave the church—because they feared I would be ostracized. Finally, finding two people who confirmed the thoughtfulness of my choice, I met with the priest only to hear him reject my deed of will. I had to find his superior to finally get my act stamped and my name removed from the baptismal book. Although I would no longer gain entry to sacred grounds and could not be married in my country, making my life marginally more difficult socially, I was nonetheless at peace with myself because I know that there is no price for living by the truth.
This is an aggressive opening. Three sentences in, and the reader learns that the applicant filed for apostasy. Note that our writer is not trying to tell us about the church. Rather, he is sharing a lot about himself. In fact, he is even deferential to the church to ensure that the admissions committee understands that can be diplomatic. Nonetheless, he very forcefully asserts that he is an independent thinker, taking a symbolic step that will disadvantage him, just to be true to himself and his conscience. That said, the next paragraph is really critical:
To me, this is emblematic of my approach to work and life: I have always had strong opinions, unwavering whether they are aligned with the majority or not.From a young age, my teachers joked that one day I would start a revolution setting Lithuania straight. By the end of high school, my educator asked me if he could resign from applying for highest distinction on my behalf, rather than start a storm by presenting my candidacy, as not all teachers appreciated my independence as he did. (I actually agreed to his request because grades and titles were confirmations rather than goals.) Later, while at Vilnius University, I made my approach of a thesis advisor very carefully, seeking an individual who would strenuously challenge me, because truths must withstand scrutiny. I found that advisor in Professor Sarkinas, our former chairman of the central bank. He was known to intimidate, but I just accepted that he pushed students to reconsider their thoughts and reveled in his constant challenges. Over my four years with him as an advisor, he expanded my view of economics and my perspective on learning. His most important lesson was not a theorem, but was about debate and seeking truth: to oppose, one must understand his opponent, at times, better than one understands himself.
The reader understands that the applicant’s theme is independent thought, but what is important to a business school is that an independent thinker is still productive and does not yield to dogma or consider themselves an expert on everything. In this paragraph, our author talks about how he specifically chose an advisor who would challenge his opinions. In doing so, the writer shows that he seeks understanding before asserting himself. Again, this is a strong theme, but he thoughtfully balances it out.
Equipped with my professor’s wisdom, I have embarked on my career in investment management by building my brand on independence and truth. When the biggest mobile telecom provider in the Baltics was going public, I gave an interview about its prospects, wherein I stated that the IPO was a “smoke screen” to force a higher bid in a parallel private process with a competitor (as synergies in a unified company were far more compelling). Furious, the company excluded me from the IPO, canceled its road show for me and even resigned on group insurance offered by our parent company.In the end, after its IPO, news surfaced that it in fact was in negotiations with its competitor throughout the IPO process, which was intended to inflate its price. Later, in an offering by eight brokerages, an overhyped, fast-growing, Lithuanian financial institution launched its IPO. Listening attentively, I understood that its CEO had admitted to two minor fraudulent practices during its road show and found its business model simply did not add up. I was certain the firm was a deceit that the market did not want to see. At the time, I was on a road show and was repetitively asked about that IPO. I answered honestly that the company was a swindle and that management would end up in jail—not a popular thing to say! As I write this essay, the company is being liquidated and management is in custody, in one of the biggest financial scandals in my country’s history.
In this paragraph, the reader sees the payoff—all the author’s independent thought comes in service of others. The applicant is recognizing frauds that others cannot spot. He is not blinded by a good story. He digs deeper and sees that something is fishy. Something does not add up, and this is to the benefit of his firm, investors, and society at large. His independence is a superpower, not a crutch or a problem. Further, throughout this essay, we are not just learning about a character trait but are also gaining a picture of an individual who has had distinct experiences and will add a unique voice to his class, through his background, knowledge of the capital markets in an emerging region, and other aspects of his character. His message is complete—the applicant has an authentic voice and has led an interesting life. He concludes his essay with the following paragraph:
Recently, I visited one of the distributors who asked me for another market presentation. When I was about to start my talk, the regional director stood up and said to his colleagues, “Quiet, let’s now listen to the truth.” Maybe just a brief utterance, but also the most rewarding moment of my career, when it became clear to me that truth is not a liability, but a way to help and shape reality.
This is a nice closing to a well-constructed essay. Of course, writing somewhat aggressively can be risky, but readers clearly understand what this applicant stands for, and his principles certainly manifest in this essay, as they no doubt did when he was on the GSB campus!
If you found this post helpful, consider downloading the, “What Matters?” and “What More?”: 50 Successful Essays for the Stanford GSB and HBS (and Why They Worked). Also, sign up for a and speak with an mbaMission consultant about any questions you might have about your GSB application—or really about anything related to MBA applications. mbaMission is here to give you our expert opinion and help you on your journey.
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