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Stanford Graduate School of Business Application Essay Tips and Examples

Stanford Graduate School of Business

The Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) requires only two essays of its candidates, though its long-standing first essay question—about “what matters most” to applicants—is one we have seen many people struggle with over the years. The largely open-ended nature of the prompt often stymies candidates, who understandably want to avoid making any wrong moves in their application. The GSB’s second essay question is comparatively straightforward, asking applicants to explain why they have chosen the school for their MBA, but crafting the best possible response will demand some thorough research into what the institution offers and an ability to clearly show a connection between certain resources and the candidate’s unique personality and needs. With a 1,000-word total allowance for the school’s two required essays, applicants need to be judicious in selecting their desired messages and succinct in conveying them. That said, the admissions committee does provide three other opportunities for candidates to share additional information (in 1,200-character increments) about themselves and their background, about instances of positive impact they have had, and about any confusing or potentially problematic elements of their candidacy. Read on for our full analysis of the GSB’s essay and optional question prompts. 

Stanford GSB 2024–2025 Essay Tips

We request that you write two personal essays. Both essays combined may not exceed 1,000 words. We recommend 650 words for Essay A and up to 350 words for Essay B. We often find effective essays that are written in fewer words.

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 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 figure out and 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 prompt 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 needs to be very 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 the reasons 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. 

mbaMission Publishes New Essay Guide for GSB and HBS Applicants

“What Matters?” and “What More?”: 50 Successful Essays for the Stanford GSB and HBS (and Why They Worked).

For even more targeted advice about how to approach this mainstay question for the Stanford GSB—and to see 50 annotated essays from successful past candidates for inspiration—check out our book “What Matters?” and “What More?”: 50 Successful Essays for the Stanford GSB and HBS (and Why They Worked) at https://shop.mbamission.com/products/what-matters-and-what-more.

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 GSB’s application essays page, the 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. 

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 Short-Answer Question: Think about a time in the last few years when 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) 

If you would like to discuss your contributions more fully, this section is the place to do so. Perhaps you would like to expand upon a bullet item from your resume and tell us more about the “how” or “why” behind the “what.” Or maybe you have had an impact in a way that doesn’t fit neatly in another part of the application. You are welcome to share up to three examples (up to 1,200 characters, or approximately 200 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—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 difficult 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. These optional mini essays provide an outlet for such applicants and their success stories. 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 truly needs to be able to evaluate 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. Please note that the admissions committee expects you to discuss each instance separately, rather than trying to cover two or three within a single 1,200-character text box. You have the option in the application to add/open up a second (and then third) text box for your additional responses, if you have more than one experience you wish to highlight. Your goal here is to convey up to three 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 on filling the space just because it is available.

Despite the limited character count, 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. 

Within the Stanford GSB application, the following two prompts also appear, though neither is presented as a traditional “essay.” Both are designated as optional. Still, we wanted to offer a little guidance for any candidates who feel inspired to take advantage of one or both of these opportunities.

Additional Information: We are deliberate in the questions we ask. We believe that we get to know you well through all of the elements of your application. Complete this section only if you have critical information you could not convey elsewhere on your application (e.g., extenuating circumstances affecting academic or work performance). This section should not be used as an additional essay. (1,200 characters)

This prompt starts out sounding like an open invitation to discuss anything you feel like sharing with the admissions committee but then clearly puts the spotlight on addressing “critical information” and potential problem areas. The additional directive about not viewing the space as an opportunity to share another essay further indicates that the school is interested in pertinent information only. If you feel you have something in your profile that truly needs to be addressed, keep your submission concise, and focus on imparting strictly key information, rather than offering a detailed and long-winded explanation of the issue in question. And absolutely do not use this space to pander to the admissions committee. In our mbaMission Optional Essays Guide, we offer detailed advice on when and how to take advantage of the optional essay, with multiple examples, to help you mitigate any problem areas in your profile.

Additional Context: We know that each person is more than a list of facts or pre-defined categories. With this question, we provide you with an optional opportunity to elaborate on how your background or life experiences have helped shape your recent actions or choices. (1,200 characters) 

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 what you do, the decisions you make, and, by extension, how you interact with others. This includes what inspires or compels you to act (or react). How do your qualities, knowledge, and/or values motivate you, and how do you then apply them? 

Like all top MBA programs, the Stanford GSB appreciates how applicants might contribute as students to its greater community and to everyone’s collective experience. This prompt gets at the heart of that by asking you to explain how you draw on and are inspired by your past when involved with a project, situation, or interaction. 

Keep in mind that your response must not exceed 1,200 characters, which to our understanding includes spaces. This is a little longer than the previous two paragraphs combined.

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. To help you achieve this high level of preparation, we offer our free Interview Guides. Download your complimentary copy of the Stanford GSB Interview Guide today.



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