Stanford GSB Essay 1: What matters most to you, and why?
Jun, 15, 2010
This is the second of five posts analyzing the Stanford GSB MBA Essay Questions for Class of 2013 Admission. The first post provides an overall perspective on applying to Stanford GSB.The third post is on Essay 2. The forth post is on Essay 3.The fifth post is on additional information, resume, employment history, and activities. My analysis of Stanford GSB interviews can be found here.
A SIMPLE QUESTION
Essay 1: What matters most to you, and why?
From my experience, most successful applicants to Stanford write essays for at least one or two other schools first. While they are doing those other schools, they have already started THINKING about Essay 1. Which raises the following question:
WHERE DO SUCCESSFUL ANSWERS TO ESSAY 1 COME FROM?
In my experience answers to this question that result in acceptance, come from the HEART and the HEAD. The two combined will allow you to tell your story about what matters most. GSB’s Admission Director, Derrick Bolton, makes this very clear in his advice regarding the question:
In the first essay, tell a story—and tell a story that only you can tell.
This essay should be descriptive and told in a straightforward and sincere way. This probably sounds strange, since these are essays for business school, but we don’t expect to hear about your business experience in this essay (though, of course, you are free to write about whatever you would like).
Remember that we have your entire application—work history, letters of reference, short-answer responses, etc.—to learn what you have accomplished and the type of impact you have made. Your task in this first essay is to connect the people, situations, and events in your life with the values you adhere to and the choices you have made. This essay gives you a terrific opportunity to learn about yourself!
Many good essays describe the “what,” but great essays move to the next order and describe how and why these “whats” have influenced your life.
The most common mistake applicants make is spending too much time describing the “what” and not enough time describing how and why these guiding forces have shaped your behavior, attitudes, and objectives in your personal and professional lives.
While you will need to consider the leadership implications of what matters most to you, as I suggested in my first post in this series, I suggest beginning with no fixed assumptions about what Stanford wants here. One of the easiest ways to write a bad version of Essay 1 is to have a theme that does not directly relate to your actual experience: Round pegs do not fit into square holes.
HEART: The admits I worked with found what matters most to them by looking inside of themselves and finding something essential about who they are. No one is reducible to a core single concept, a single motivation, or any other sort of singularity, but certain things do make each of us tick. Beyond the most basic things of survival, what motivates you? What do you live for? What do you care about? How do you relate to other people? Are you driven by a particular idea or issue? Where do you find meaning?
HEAD: Once you think you have identified that essential thing that matters most to you, begin analyzing it. What is its source? WHY does it remain important to you? HOW?
The heart will tell what it is, but the head must explain it. From my perspective, great answers to this question combine a very strong analytical foundation-A FULL ANSWER TO WHY AND HOW IS MANDATORY- and specific examples. Avoid the common mistake that Derrick Bolton mentions above of ignoring the “Why?” and the “How?” by focusing too much on the “What?”
If you are having difficulty answering Essay 1 to your own satisfaction, I have few suggestions:
1. Write some other schools essays first. In the process of doing so, you may discover the answer. This has worked for a number of my clients.
2. Stanford admissions repeatedly emphasizes that there is no one right answer. Some applicants become paralyzed because they want THE RIGHT MESSAGE. You need to fully account for who you are and what you have done, but should not try to overly sell yourself to Stanford because that is simply at odds with the way in which the school selects candidates. Therefore don’t focus on finding THE RIGHT MESSAGE, instead be honest and give an answer that is real.
If you are having some more fundamental difficulties with this question, one book I suggest taking a look at is Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. This classic is worth a look for anyone who is thinking about what their life is about. Frankl makes us think about meaning from the most extreme of perspectives, inside a concentration camp, and in the process helps us to understand that meaning itself is deeply tied to our own survival. If you need to engage in some self-reflection, Frankl’s book is one place to start. I might also suggest reading Plato or doing some mediation, but in my experience those take more time and Frankl’s book has the advantage of being short, inexpensive, available at many libraries, and has been translated from the original German into twenty-two languages.
3. The answer may be real, but is it a good one? If you are not sure, look critically at Stanford GSB’s mission statement:
Our mission is to create ideas that deepen and advance our understanding of management and with those ideas to develop innovative, principled, and insightful leaders who change the world.
Does what matters most to you fit within this mission? Think about this statement in the widest possible way. Given the small class size and the highly collaborative nature of the program, admissions will only be doing its job right if they select students who fit into Stanford GSB’s mission. As I stated in thefirst post in this series, Stanford is looking for leaders, but leaders come in many forms and the values and ideals that inform them vary greatly. In my experience, Stanford highly values “Thought Leaders” as well as those who demonstrate more standard forms of leadership. If what matters most to you is something that admissions can clearly connect to informing your ideals as a leader than you are on the way to forming an effective answer to what is Stanford’s most unique essay question.
3. MAKE A CHOICE!
All successful versions of this essay that I have read involve making a choice. That is to say, you must actually clearly indicate something that matters most. As someone who is frequently contacted by those who have failed to obtain admission to Stanford and want to know why, I often find that they don’t make this choice. Their “what matters most” lacks clarity and unity. Make a clear choice and really explore it. This will best reveal your self-awareness and your passion.
Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to.If you are looking for a highly experienced admissions consultant who is passionate about helping his clients succeed, please feel free to contact me at email@example.com to arrange an initial consultation. To learn more about my services, see here. Initial consultations are conducted by Skype or telephone. For clients in Tokyo, a free face-to-face consultation is possible after an initial Skype or telephone consultation. I only work with a limited number of clients per year and believe that an initial consultation is the best way to determine whether there is a good fit. Whether you use my service or another, I suggest making certain that the fit feels right to you.
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Stanford Graduate School of Business pioneered the open-ended personal essay and has continued that tradition this year. “What matters most to you and why?” is a simple question that can lead you down many paths. There isn’t a specific best kind of story for this essay, rather the best essays tell a story about who you are as a person and leader.
You can use the same application for the Stanford MSx, accelerated Masters of Science in Management degree, which is a 12-month graduate program for experienced professionals. If you have more than 8 years of work experience and would like to gain all of the benefits of a Stanford GSB degree in only one year, the MSx program is an ideal choice. Unlike executive MBA programs the design is full-time and residential.
Whatever program is best for you, Stanford is a business school devoted to innovation and growth. When approaching these essays it will be useful to have spoken with Stanford students and alumni, or visited campus to understand what values the community holds.
Your answers for both essay questions combined may not exceed 1,150 words (1,200 words if you are applying to both the MBA and MSx programs). Each of you has your own story to tell, so please allocate these words between the essays in the way that is most effective for you.
ESSAY A: WHAT MATTERS MOST TO YOU, AND WHY?
For this essay, Stanford would like you to:
• Do some deep self-examination, so you can genuinely illustrate who you are and how you came to be the person you are.
• Share the insights, experiences, and lessons that shaped your perspectives, rather than focusing merely on what you’ve done or accomplished.
• Write from the heart, and illustrate how a person, situation, or event has influenced you.
• Focus on the “why” rather than the “what.”
This Stanford GSB MBA essay is your opportunity to demonstrate who you are, what motivates you, and why. Topics can range from personal history to grand visions of the future. While this topic should not be explicitly career related (and the strongest essays are likely not career oriented at all) it is possible that some of your themes will continue in the next essay, which will likely focus more on your career.
Your accomplishments and achievements are part of why you have developed into the person you are today, however it’s far more important to explain your influences, lessons learned and motivations. Introspection and honesty should persist through the entire set of essays.
To generate ideas, try brainstorming over a period of a few days. Ask friends and family what values they see you demonstrating in your life and choices. Keep a notebook by your bed so you can record your first thoughts upon waking up. Review your personal history for ideas. What keeps you awake at night? When you look back at your life what do you admire and regret about your choices? What moments in your life have led to a change in direction? Who has impacted your choices? These are the kind of questions to ask yourself as you approach topics for this essay.
Though the essay question may seem open-ended, answering the question with vivid and specific examples will provide the reader with images and stories to understand your perspective. After reading hundreds of essays, the ones that have vivid and descriptive stories in them stand out the most.
Keep in mind as you select examples that Stanford GSB specifically advises focusing on people and experiences that have influenced you, rather than accomplishments or achievements. Don’t be scared of the tough moments in life – often self-awareness emerges from challenges. Whatever experiences you choose it’s very important to talk about why they made an impact on your life and your values.
Along with vivid examples, talk about how you felt, thought and reacted both at the time and as you reflected later. The “why” will come out of your reactions to your life experience or people who have influenced you, and the resulting introspection.
ESSAY B: WHY STANFORD?
Enlighten us on how earning your MBA at Stanford will enable you to realize your ambitions.
• Explain your decision to pursue graduate education in management.
• Explain the distinctive opportunities you will pursue at Stanford.
• If you are applying to both the MBA and MSx programs, use Essay B to address your interest in both programs.
After you have explained what is most important to you in life you need to explain why your next step is a Stanford MBA. If you are applying to both the MBA and MSx, make sure you can highlight the advantages of both programs for your specific situation. Perhaps you have significant work experience but are also interested in a two-year program and therefore would be interested in either option.
The sub questions for this essay cover both why you are interested in pursuing an MBA at all, and why you specifically want to attend Stanford GSB. Stanford GSB wants to know your aspirations will be uniquely satisfied by the program at Stanford GSB, and school research will help you determine what aspects of the academic program, community and students are crucial to your aspirations.
Be as specific as possible in your response to provide evidence that you have done your research. You should know everything about the aspects of the program that most appeal to you. Have you met current students and alumni? Who are the professors you are excited about? What are the unique programs? What appeals to you about Stanford’s culture? Perhaps you are impressed with the career path of a specific alumna and can highlight that knowledge.
When you discuss how Stanford will help you achieve your ambitions consider that Stanford likes to see applicants who dream big, and have the credibility to achieve their goals. Be bold with your aspirations. Don’t focus on what your parents or partner want you to do. Don’t think about the next job on the corporate ladder. What do you, with your own unique background and values, want for your life?
If the question seems too vast, take a few minutes to close your eyes and reflect. Envision your life in twenty years. Where do you live? How do you spend your days? What is your favorite activity? How does this vision fit into your career aspirations? Don’t be shy about your ambitions. Once you have identified your dream career, you also need to make sure an MBA is an important part of achieving your plans and explain that part in your essay.
Though you should think big, don’t make the mistake of acting as if you are already perfect with no development needed. Remember that MBA programs want to help promising candidates reach their goals and be a step on an ambitious career trajectory.
Finding the Stanford essays challenging? Contact Stacy Blackman Consulting for personalized guidance through the application process.
This entry was posted in General, Stanford Advice and tagged application, application tips, career goals, Essay Tips, Fall 2018 MBA Essay Tips, MBA application, MBA Essays, Stanford, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Stanford GSB.
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