Breaking Down Changes to Stanford GSB’s New Essays for 2014/2015
The essays are releasing in a fast and furious fashion this year, as GSB comes hot on the heels of Columbia releasing its own essays. With Stanford this year, we see further evidence of a school and admissions office that is completely dialed in to what it wants: the core essays remain, the fat has been trimmed, and the only tiny bit of confusion has been clarified. This may sound a bit odd, but if Stanford had asked for my opinion after last year's process, I would have told them "clarify what you want on Essay 2 and do away with the tack-on shorter Essay 3." Well, that's basically what they did. Let's dive in with a bit more detail.
Essay 1 - What matters most to you and why? (750 words)
The Stanford staple is back, as well it should be. This is probably the greatest admissions essay ever created and so there is simply no reason to change it. It's also not an essay that allows us to give expertise away for free. There are a few core, essential rules to follow on this essay to avoid stepping on land mines, but we owe our clients to keep that information proprietary. Needless to say, do not take this essay lightly. If you are a star applicant and you want to go to GSB, go out and get some guidance so you don't shoot yourself in the foot. A good consultant should not be telling you what to write on this (it's counterproductive; your internal compass should guide you), but that person can and should prevent you from making the mistakes that I see over and over and over again.
(Okay, okay, I can't resist giving up *some* intel here, just to keep this blog post from being too boring and self-serving, so here goes: 1)make sure there is a generosity to your essay. In other words, nobody just comes to arrive at what matters most to them completely on your own. If you just launch into the quality or thing or ideology that matters most to you, with no attribution to source, then you come across as arrogant and you miss a huge opportunity to share interesting, important biographical information. 2) make sure there is impact in your essay. If you don't take this "thing" and own it; if you don't pay it forward in your own life, then you are missing the whole point. 3) Don't ever state a goal (in Essay 2, in an interview, whenever) that is in contradiction or creates friction with what matters most to you. 4) focus on you and your life and not on abstract or esoteric ideas. It's amazing how many Stanford 1 essays I read that attempt to define a term or give meaning to a broad idea, with almost no examination of self. That's a waste of 750 words and of the reader's time.)
Essay 2 - Why Stanford? (350 words)
Here we have a departure from "What do you REALLY want to do and Why Stanford," which just tells me that people were missing the point of this essay. My clients from last year can attest that they heard over and over from me "put the weight of Essay 2 on Why GSB." What I would find (among first and second drafts from clients and from ding analysis essays) is that applicants had the instinct to wax poetic about what they REALLY wanted to do ... even though Essay 1 should explain that. So they would give details about how they would set up their X Company or Y Service and then they would go on and on about the macro and micro conditions in the Z region, and basically just burn up all the words for Essay 2 while barely paying lip service to Why GSB. That was obviously not the right way to do it, as we knew then and as Stanford has proven now. The change in question tells us everything. So ... what should be in this?
1. Statement of your overall objective. Just because they took out the "REALLY want to do" language doesn't mean you should avoid stating your goal. You will (hopefully) have just spent 750 words explaining what matters most to you, such that it will be easy to state in just a line or two what you want to do with your life. It's just too easy to cash that check to avoid doing so. Further, stating what you want to do with your life is most operative thesis for why you want to go to GSB.
2. Nuanced and detailed explanation of Why GSB will be the perfect school for you. This needs to resonate. A reader needs to feel like you understand Stanford GSB and why it is unlike any other business school. Ideally, they will read this - in conjunction with Essay 1 - and think "wow, this person is perfect for our school." So much of that hangs on "getting" GSB.
3. Statement of how you will impact Stanford. This is always a great way to finish any Why School X piece, because it pivots from what you will TAKE to what you will GIVE. Again, it needs to be nuanced and dialed in to the DNA of GSB, but it's a pivot from why this experience will be amazing for you and towards the idea that you have the ability, perspective, personality, and skill to help make it amazing for others. GSB is all about impact and changing lives and certainly that should start the minute you walk in the door.
(Cut) Essay 3 - Short answer from three choices.
I'm personally glad that GSB cut this "straggler" essay as it never felt like a strong finishing punch. The nature of the beast sort of pushed applicants towards a "ho-hum" behavioral story that wound up sucking some of the life from the essay set. I'm sure readers felt the same way and so they wisely ditched it. Sure, some will chalk this up to our modern times and the way applicants can only type 140 characters at a time, but I see this as more recognition of a detracting essay. Besides, behavioral traits (leadership, teamwork, conflict resolution, persuasive communication, etc.) are almost always better measured in an interview context.
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