Are you ready to dig into your essays? Application essays are specifically and cleverly designed to get into your head. We like to turn the tables on the admissions committees and get inside their heads. Why are they asking these questions? What are they looking for? Read on as our experts break down application essay questions to help YOU plan the attack.
Stanford GSB has been asking pretty much the same questions for years without much tinkering, which means one important thing… they KNOW what they’re looking for.
This year, for the Stanford GSB MBA Essay, they cut the total word allotment from 1600 to 1100 words for two personal essays. They suggest 750 words for the first essay and 350 for the second, but remember, these are just suggestions. These numbers tell you about how much they’re expecting for each essay, but their directions give you some leeway.
Okay, now let’s examine each of these suckers:
Aight, I’m pumped! Where to next?
Essay 1: What matters most to you, and why?
Essay 1: What matters most to you, and why?
This may be the hardest of all b-school essays to write, and to write well. Why? Because it’s so open-ended. They haven’t just given you a hunk of clay and asked you to mold it. They’ve given you canvas, paint, wood, sheet metal, circuit boards, copper wire, and a hundred other elements and have asked you to “generate something awe-inspiring.” While you’re painting a blue sky on your canvas paper, the guy in the station next to you is creating a computer that can communicate with aliens. Intimidating. What are others writing about!? What are the guys who are GETTING IN writing about?
Well, let’s start there—if that’s plaguing you, you’re asking the wrong question. It has absolutely nothing to with WHAT others are writing about, but HOW they’re writing. Don’t misunderstand us here; this isn’t about writing skill. B-school essays are never about mastery of prose. The “how” here refers to the manner in which the successful candidates are able to introspect, and walk around an experience, and assess and interpret different points of view, and offer new and intriguing points of view, and reveal deeply personal tales that offer key insights into what they’re MADE of—it’s any number of those things. It’s not the story itself.
Gonna lift some words from Stanford’s bullet points. Values, experiences, lessons. Written from the heart. Influence.
We’ve talked about this Stanford essay a bunch before, so this time around, we wanna focus on these concepts above.
Especially that word influence. What has shaped you? Who are you today, and what process has brought that forward? If you’re the grand canyon, don’t tell us the specs of how big you are, and how deep your canyons are. Instead, focus on the way WATER and WIND eroded and molded you. It’s the shaping, the influencing, the MOLDING we wanna know about. This is more revealing than “the result.” “The thing.” It’s all in the shaping.
Consider the following statement. “I just landed a commercial jet containing 300 passengers.” Impressive? Maybe. Let’s consider two authors of that statement. Author 1—a 58-year-old veteran pilot with military experience, and 20 years of experience as a professional pilot. Author 1 has flown hundreds of flights every year for the past 20 years. Let’s consider the same statement, but introduce a new author, Author 2. Author 2 is 13 years old, scared of heights, and has a crippling fear of flying. He needs to be sedated every time he flies, in fact. One day, he wakes up mid-flight, due to his sedation unintentionally wearing off. He notices all of the passengers beside him unconscious, the captains of the plane incapacitated, and he turns out to be the only person on board who can communicate with air traffic control. The kid puts on the headset, now fueled by a will to survive that trumps all of his phobias, is guided by folks on the ground, and successfully lands the plane, saving the lives of hundreds on board.
Now ask yourself, which “landing of the commercial jet” feels cooler, more revealing about THE PERSON WHO PERFORMED THE FEAT? The answer is obvious, and the example was purposely absurd to demonstrate a point. The stuff Stanford wants to know about isn’t the “landing of the aircraft.” They wanna know about the phobia. The decision to walk into the cockpit in spite of the phobia. They wanna know how someone with these fears, with zero experience, etc. etc., could pull this thing off. They wanna know about the WATER and WIND folks… that shaped the grand canyon. Not the canyon itself.
So, let’s bring this back down to Earth. When you’re figuring out what matters most to you, think about polarities in your development. The strongest stories are the ones that have the most intense and compelling “arcs” where your starting point is here at point A and then somehow, things, people, circumstances, experiences, etc. SHAPED you… MOLDED YOU (like water and air) to travel to point B where you ended up—essentially—a different person. We need to understand all that CONTEXT. If you’re talking about an experience that “changed” you, or that “made you who you are,” it’s only as effective as our understanding of who you were BEFORE that experience so we can contextualize the change. If a person affected you significantly, same deal—we need to know who you were BEFORE that person affected you.
“Before & After” is an incredibly powerful tool for MOST b-school essays, and never more powerful than here for Stanford’s famous essay.
Grand Canyon, ladies and gentlemen. But not the canyon itself—water and air. Water. And air.
Essay 2: Enlighten us on how earning your MBA at Stanford will enable you to realize your ambitions.
Essay 2: Enlighten us on how earning your MBA at Stanford will enable you to realize your ambitions.A strong response to this essay question will:
- Explain your decision to pursue graduate education in management.
- Explain the distinctive opportunities you will pursue at Stanford.
Same deal, gonna borrow some KEY words from Stanford. Your decision. Distinctive opportunities. Stanford.
- This is what I want to do—and here is why YOU should be excited about it. (This doesn’t require a ton of backstory or setup—some setup, yes—you need our buy-in. If your idea is uninspired, guess what, so too are “you.” Sell it. Give us just enough background and then in simple terms, walk us through your aspirations. With surgical efficiency.)
- I’m confident I’m gonna succeed because I’m good at it, I know what it takes to succeed, and I frickin LOVE the thing to death. Lemme show you what I mean, this is how it’s all gonna look, step by step. Notice how each step as I’ve laid it out SNAPS into place perfectly. I understand the logic behind all of it because I “get” it, I “get” my vision, only people who get it so keenly are likely to succeed.
- This confidence comes from careful consideration of how it’s all gonna go down, which has led me to recognize the importance of not just why an MBA is key, but why Stanford in particular supports my vision the BEST—I am, in effect, turning down Harvard, Wharton, Booth, etc., you name it, because none of these places can do XX YY and ZZ to catapult me toward my vision like Stanford can.
That’s the essay. In a nutshell. That’s what we call “the subtext.” Underneath the actual stuff you write, this should be communicated.
In order to NAIL this essay, you must understand Stanford and what they’re all about. This may take some research on your end, and this is what Stanford is hoping—that after a TON of research, you have determined that THIS place, unlike any other, is your best fit. Articulate THAT not just when you address the “why Stanford” piece, but even as you articulate your goal. The folks who get into Stanford demonstrate a synergy with the school in every fiber of their application. It’s gotta come through everywhere. Evvvvverywhere.
But so, after you’ve walked us through points 1 and 2 above, let’s dig in a bit to point 3.
How to understand Stanford well enough to approach this? Spend time on the website. Read about the school elsewhere—articles, anything written by current or former students. Talk to former students. Talk to current students. Visit the campus. Los of ways to engage—where there’s a will, there’s a way. Read stuff by current or former professors. Notice the trends of what kinds of professors came from Stanford. Notice what kinds of companies were started at Stanford. Get a sense.
Now, whatever you do, please don’t think that there is a magical phrase or a set of classes you can name drop that will trigger a successful outcome. The demonstration of “fit” here is a wildly organic one. It’s in between the lines, never the lines themselves. Stanford’s assets have to match YOU in a way that won’t necessarily apply to the guy sitting next to you. This is the whole point about “individuality” and “uniqueness.” Stanford is curious to see how aspects of its program and culture uniquely affect your appetite for an MBA, or for your career goals. It’s not “mentioning a class,” folks. Or “a club.” Or “a professor’s name.” It’s much much much more than that.
It’s an argument.
An argument that PROVES connectivity. Proves that there is something about Stanford that not even a place like Harvard or LBS or Wharton or Top School X can quite satisfy in the same way. That’s a great conceit to adopt here. You have a free ride to HBS. Why would you PAY to go to Stanford instead? Convince me, as though I’m your spouse, why this is not an insane decision. A great essay here can be between 400-500 words, no need for it to live outside that range.