Your Harvard Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business Essay Questions Answered

With Round 2 application deadlines around the corner, many of you are no doubt starting (or continuing) to rack your brains over the challenging Harvard Business School (HBS) and Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) essay questions of, respectively, “What more would you like us to know?” and “What matters most to you, and why?” These open-ended questions do not have any one “right” answer.

To help you tackle these two behemoth essays, we at mbaMission have identified the top questions asked by candidates applying to these business schools. We hope our ideas will provide food for thought and help you kick-start your HBS and Stanford GSB essays.

“Which one should I write first?”

If you are applying to both of these schools, you might be wondering whether writing the HBS essay first would be easier or whether starting with the GSB essay would be better. The answer is that neither will necessarily be easier than the other, so you can begin with either one. Try starting with the essay that you find more instinctive to write. Because the GSB essay question is more defined, many applicants find it easier to start with. That said, some candidates already have a topic in mind for their HBS essay and therefore might find that one easier to work on first. Whichever one you choose to begin with, the important thing is just to start writing!

“How long should the essays be?”

HBS has a limit of 900 words for its essay, which we applaud the school for, because it levels the playing field for everyone.

The GSB admissions committee suggests writing no more than 650 words for Essay A (“What matters most to you, and why?”) and no more than 400 words for Essay B (“Why Stanford?”). The total word count of both essays combined cannot be more than 1,050 words. Although you might be tempted to write more than 650 words for Essay A, doing so could be detrimental to your Essay B. In our experience, 400 words is sufficiently long to allow you to respond to the Essay B prompt, so we recommend sticking close to the suggested word count for each essay.

“Can I use the same topic for both the HBS essay and the GSB essay?”

Yes, you can, as long as you feel your topic appropriately answers both prompts. Just be sure to tailor each essay to its specific question—what matters most to you (and why) for the GSB and what more you want the admissions committee to know about you for HBS.

“Should the essays be personal, professional, or a mix of the two?”

Yes, yes, and yes. We have seen successful essays that use a mix of personal and professional stories, as well as successful essays that use only personal or only professional stories. The admissions committee is not looking for a specific mix. They are looking to learn more about you. So whatever stories you choose, just make sure that they are woven into your narrative coherently and compellingly.

“Are the GSB optional short-answer questions really optional?”

Generally speaking, you will not be penalized for skipping questions marked as “optional.” That said, optional questions provide an opportunity for you to share stories or additional context that you might not have been able to fit into your two required GSB essays. For example, we encourage you to answer one key optional short-answer question in particular: “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?” Seize this chance to share more of your achievements! 

Although these are some of the most common questions we receive about the HBS and GSB essays, applicants undoubtedly will have many more we have not addressed here. If you would like even more targeted guidance on approaching and writing your HBS or GSB essay, along with annotated essays from actual past applicants, check out our book “What Matters?” and “What More?”: 50 Successful Essays for the Stanford GSB and HBS (and Why They Worked).

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