2016 – 2017 Stanford MBA & MSx Essay Analysis & Deadlines

I Intro & Stanford Deadlines
II How have Stanford’s MBA & MSx essays changed this year?
III 2016 – 2017 Stanford MBA & MSx Essay Analysis

I Intro & Stanford Deadlines

Stanford GSB has two core programs: the traditional 2-year MBA and its MSx program. While I’m sure you’re familiar with the MBA, you may be interested in learning more about MSx and other full-time 1-year MBA programs for mid-career professionals and executives here. While MSx delivers a Master of Science degree, it’s basically Stanford’s equivalent of an EMBA program for candidates with at least 8 years of work experience. If you’re applying in round 1 or 2, you have the option of submitting a single application to both the MBA and MSx programs.

Stanford’s Graduate School of Business receives the largest number of applications per seat available of any MBA program in the U.S (and likely, the world).

Stanford MBA Students

With a 6% admit rate, the GSB gets 16 applications for every one of the 407 seats in its MBA program. By comparison, HBS with its 11% admit rate, receives 9 applications for every one of its 937 seats.

Competitive applicants to Stanford fall within the Excellent to Super-excellent category. Getting offered a place in Stanford’s MBA promo boils down to being able to distinguish yourself as belonging to the later rather than the former category.

Whereas HBS relies equally on the written application and interview in making admission decisions, Stanford places more weight on the written application. In other words, the Stanford admissions committee’s main reference in making a final decision on your candidacy is your written application. For that reason, I’d suggest putting as much effort as possible into Stanford’s written MBA application – making sure your resume, recommendations and essays work together to convey a memorable story about you. A great written application doesn’t merely focus on achievements, but leverages achievements to reveal the person behind them.

To understand why that is, we need to look at Stanford’s interview policy. You’re already aware that Stanford relies on alumni from across the globe to conduct its MBA applicant interviews. What candidates often don’t realize is that all a student or alumni-driven interview (at any school) can do is prevent you from getting in. A student or alumni-driven interview will never help you get in. At the other end of the spectrum are HBS interviews, which, because they’re conducted by the Adcom, can either help or put the kibosh on your candidacy.

Imagine you’re the Stanford Adcom. You’re dealing with 150+ different alumni conducting interviews each year. How would you distinguish between the many shades of qualitative feedback they send in? Alumnus A will say, ‘Tom is the best candidate I’ve seen this year’ (…and the Adcom wonders: What were the other candidates like?). Alumna B might tell you, ‘I found Tom to be a good candidate’ (…and the Adcom wonders: She works at Unilever….is that her frame of reference?). When you’re dealing with input from such a diverse group of people, positive feedback is difficult to sort through while negative feedback is easier to qualify. If an Alumnus says that a candidate ‘seemed socially awkward, failed to make eye contact, droned on and on, lacked executive presence etc.’ they’re making a pretty cut and dry statement. So positive feedback is taken with a grain of salt and doesn’t ‘make’ an application. Negative feedback is interpreted more literally and is more likely to ‘break’ an application.

Stanford Full-time MBA & MsX Application Deadlines 2016-2017

2016-2017Round 1Round 2Round 3
Stanford Full-time MBA & MsX Application DeadlineSeptember 21, 2016January 10, 2017April 5, 2017
Stanford Full-time MBA & MsX Interview Invitations releasedmid-October to late November 2016early February to mid-March 2017mid-April to early May 2017
Stanford Full-time MBA & MsX Admissions Decision Release Datemid-December 2016late March 2017mid-May 2017
If you are still deciding between the Stanford MSx and the Stanford MBA programs, Stanford GSB offers the option to apply to both programs for one application fee. The combined Stanford MSx and Stanford MBA application is only available to those that will have at least eight years of work experience by July 2017.
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II How have Stanford’s MBA & MSx essays changed this year?

Looking to start writing your 2017-18 MBA essays before Stanford’s official essay release date in the summer 2017? Based on fxMBAConsulting’s analysis there is a 99% PROBABILITY that Stanford’s MBA essays remain the unchanged from year to year.

Stanford’s two core MBA essay questions have remained virtually unchanged for years (What matters most to you and why? & Why Stanford?). The school eliminated a third, behavior-based essay during the 2014-15 application season. It’s interesting to look at essay prompts from past years because I think it gives you a sense of what the Adcom values and what they might be interested in hearing about from candidates.

Classes of 2012 – 2017: Basically all of these classes had the same first two questions although the wording varied slightly from year to year. Essay A) What matters most to you, and why? (Recommended 750 words); Essay B) What do you want to do—REALLY—and why Stanford? (Recommended 450 words)

Eliminated after the Class of 2016For years Stanford had a third essay (that no longer exists). For the sake of space I’ve agglomerated prompts from the various years together. Answer 1-2 (depending on year) of the questions below. Tell us not only what you did but also how you did it. What was the outcome? How did people respond? Only describe experiences that have occurred during the last three years. (Recommended 300 words each)

  • Option A: Tell us about a time when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.
  • Option B: Tell us about a time when you made a lasting impact on your organization.
  • Option C: Tell us about a time when you generated support from others for an idea or initiative.
  • Option D: Tell us about a time when you went beyond what was defined, established, or expected.

Class of 2017: Essay A) What matters most to you, and why? (suggested word count: 650-850 words); Essay B) Why Stanford? (suggested word count: 250-450 words)

Class of 2018 & 2019: Essay A) What matters most to you, and why? (suggested 750 words); Essay B) Why Stanford? (suggested 400 words for MBA & 450 words for MSx) Combined word limit not to exceed 1150 words for MBA and 1200 words for MSx

Common themes that emerge over the years include (no surprises here):

  • Core Values – What matters most to you
  • Why Stanford (Career Vision & Why an MBA? are an implicit part of this essay)
  • Behavioral questions – Going beyond and defying norms

I’m going to discuss the two essays Stanford is still asking students for in the 2016 – 2017 Stanford MBA & MSx Essay Analysis section but first (for those of you who are interested) I’d like to look at the essay three – which the adcom dropped in 2015. Dropping an essay doesn’t mean you’ve foregone the values that underlie it.

  • Option A: Tell us about a time when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.
  • Option B: Tell us about a time when you made a lasting impact on your organization.
  • Option C: Tell us about a time when you generated support from others for an idea or initiative.
  • Option D: Tell us about a time when you went beyond what was defined, established, or expected.

In essay three, the Stanford GSB wasn’t interested in just impact…they wanted to hear about lasting impact. They didn’t want to hear about a mere leadership or team building experience from applicants….they wanted a story that ended with expectations being exceeded. Generally speaking, Stanford is looking for MBA and MSx applicants who are capable of exceptional performance…the kind of performance that isn’t even on the scale because these individuals are so exceptional that they’re redefining and then going beyond what mere mortals have ‘defined’, ‘established’ or ‘expected. It’s clear that Stanford was leveraging the third essay to hear about concrete examples of applicants engaging in behavior that aligned with the school’s mission statement:

To develop innovative, principled, and insightful leaders who change the world. Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.
Stanford Graduate School of Business

The mission statement itself is very similar to MIT Sloan’s and like Sloan, Stanford is entrepreneurial, hands-on, down-to-earth sort of place. Stanford wanted to know what you did and how you did it. The prompt ‘Tell us not only what you did but also how you did it. What was the outcome? How did people respond?‘ is a reference to the STAR or SHARE method that Sloan still uses in its easy questions and interviews.

Going Beyond: One of my takeaways from essay three is that Stanford looks for MBA candidates who go beyond. Stanford is not looking for people who do their jobs. Nor are they looking for people who do their jobs exceedingly well (about 70% of applicants to Stanford fall into this category but only 7% are offered admission). Stanford is looking for people who demonstrate a natural inclination and talent for going above and beyond (in college, in their extra-curricular activities and in their professional lives).

Now look again at options A-D. Would you be able to fully answer at least one or two of those questions with a concrete example from your past? If not then you may want to reconsider applying to Stanford’s MBA or MSx program. Here’s why:

  • Stanford is very difficult to get into and for some candidates, your time and effort would be better spent on other M7 applications. How competitive is Stanford? So competitive that less than half the candidates admitted to HBS last year (1033) would have made the cut at Stanford which extend just 485 admissions offers. Personally I encourage a very small percentage of the people who request a Free Consultation to apply to either Stanford GSB’s MBA or MSx program.
  • Stanford’s application and essay questions are some of the most time consuming and challenging ones to deal with. This application will by its very nature draw energy away from your other applications. If you determine that Stanford is perhaps not the best fit, you can focus your efforts on other schools that are. It’s like the GMAT – you have to know when it’s worth working through a question vs’ just passing on it.

Still feeling certain you’d like to apply to Stanford’s MBA program? Good…because there’s a special place in my heart for people with moxy, gumption, cojones – call it what you will! Continue on to my essay analysis for the Stanford MBA Class of 2018 below.

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III 2016 – 2017 Stanford MBA Essay Analysis

Essay Length
Note: There is no word limit for MSx applicants unless they are applying to both the MsX and MBA program, then the combined word limit is 1200.

MBA Applicants: 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. Below is a suggested word count, based on what we typically see.

Essay Format
Remember, there are real people reading your essays. Please follow these guidelines: 1. Double-spaced; 2. Indicate the question you are answering at the beginning of each essay (does not count toward the word limit); 3. Number all pages; 4. Upload one document that includes both essays; 5. Be sure to save a copy of your essays, and preview the uploaded document to ensure that the formatting is preserved.

Your Stanford MBA Program essays provide you an opportunity to reflect on your own “truest interests” and “highest aspirations.” Reflective, insightful essays help us envision the individual behind all of the experiences and accomplishments that we read about elsewhere in your application. Tell us your story in a natural, genuine way. Think a lot before you write. We want a holistic view of you as a person: your values, passions, ideas, experiences, and aspirations.
Stanford GSB Adcom – Effective Essays (Overview)

1) Essay A: What matters most to you, and why? (750 words suggested)

It’s normal to feel overwhelmed by Stanford GSB’s Essay A. No matter how candidates start out, as they sift through their thoughts, most conclude that it’s their family and friends that matter most. That’s great, but in my experience most candidates don’t want to write an MSx or MBA Essay A that ends with ‘and that’s why my family matters more to me than anything else in the world’.

I’ve found that the definition a client associates with the term matter shapes their approach to Essay A.

Let’s analyze a common definition of ‘matter’ – something of importance; something of consequence

Importance is a relative term – one that’s rooted in opinion. What I deem important you might see as unimportant (and vice versa). If you interpret ‘What matters most to you’ to mean ‘What’s most important to you’ then your answer is already going to be orientated in a certain direction – akin to me asking you ‘What’s the one thing you couldn’t live without?‘.

Consequence is a slightly more objective term in that it might be easier to objectively measure something consequential than something important. Looking back on your life, try to identify the three most consequential turning points or influences – those which shaped your life’s trajectory? The answer might seem subjective but I bet that if we talked about it, you and I would actually agree on the biggest two or three turning points.

I’m going to restate the essay question using different interpretations of the term matter. As an exercise, jot down a few answers to both questions on a piece of paper.

  • Matter=Important | In your opinion, what is the one thing that is/has been the most important to you? Why is that thing important?
  • Matter=Consequential | Identify factors/people/events/traits most shaped my personal and professional course and/or worldview. Now think about any downstream implications in other areas of your life?

I think you might be surprised at how different your answers to those two questions are. That’s why how we frame a question is critical to answering it well. While the bulk of the essay writing I work I do with clients involves editing and revising copy, the most important part of the process centers around framing questions, listening, interpreting and being a sounding board for ideas.

Beyond framing the essay question, another hurdle candidates face centers on a) what perspective to adopt in conveying their story and b) how to relate their story to other aspects of the lives/worldview. I’d like to give you a generic example of how the same pivotal experience could come across depending on how the candidate presents it.

Let’s say a candidate wants to discuss living/volunteering/working abroad and how the experience transformed them. The issue is that 99% of candidates will simply make a superficial comparison between Country B with their own country or milieu of origin – Country A. They’ll point out that prior to living in Country B they had never been exposed to so many different sights, sounds or smells or they’ll say that they were shaken by the lack of resources/poverty in Country B. The problem is anybody and everybody could, would and will make similar observations. That’s because the baseline criteria in this case (Country A vs’ Country B) is external to you – it’s cultural (or socioeconomic).

Let’s try a different approach: Instead of using external criteria, use internal criteria: You need to make you the baseline criteria. Dig down and start with your deep-seeded ideas/feelings/thoughts about your own Country A and then juxtapose those ideas with what you perceived to be the deep-seeded ideas/feelings/thoughts held by people in Country B. Do you see how this might be a more interesting line of reasoning – one that reveals something about the way you frame the world and understand yourself and others?

Going further: While your experience abroad might have taken place in college, you’ll want to weave those early lessons into more recent events/milestones in your life as well. So take it a step further and write about how the observations you made through your experience in Country B impacted other aspects of your family/community/work life?

Below I’ve included a smattering of topics that candidates who were admitted to Stanford’s MBA program have used in the past.

  • What matters most to you and why? Being multi-lingual and building cross-cultural bridges. Candidate built cross-cultural bridges in his personal and professional life by learning a number of foreign languages (a process that began in his childhood and continued through adulthood). He then discusses the influence that being uprooted into a new culture/country had on his worldview and how it continues to impact him to this day.
  • What matters most to you and why? The plight of the poor. The integrity of the applicant’s father (who is a politician in a country renowned for corruption) and how that influenced the applicant’s own social advocacy work.
  • What matters most to you and why? Not resisting change but embracing it. How an attitude of openness towards new ideas and experiences led the applicant to discover a sport and develop a competitive spirit. The candidate learned to speak with conviction and carry herself with confidence. She discusses spontaneity in decision making and reflects on how resisting change can be both beneficial and detrimental depending on the situation.
  • What matters most to you and why? Embracing cultural roots. Growing up as a citizen of an African country in an affluent neighborhood in the U.S., the candidate felt like the odd man out. He took refuge in his African roots and identity and became active in mentoring youth from his community.
  • What matters most to you and why? How Budhist philosophy influenced mindset. Early Influences: How the candidate’s mindset and attitudes have been shaped by her immigrant parents and Buddhist philosophy. Later Life: How sports helped the candidate become a leader at university and in the wider community and how those skills spilled over into a challenging situation in her professional life.

The answers these MSx and MBA candidates gave to the Essay A prompt (What matters most to you?) are not unique. What set these essays apart were the personal details and reflections the applicants shared. Stanford’s Adcom published a great page of advice on its MBA essays in 2012. Here is the advice related specifically to Essay A:

In the first essay, tell a story — and tell a story that only you can tell.

Tell this essay in a straightforward and sincere way. This probably sounds strange, since these are essays for business school, but we really 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 — resume, work history, activities and interests, letters of reference, 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 essays describe the “what,” but good essays move beyond this 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” at the expense of how and why these guiding forces have shaped your behavior, attitudes, and objectives. Please be assured that we do appreciate and reward thoughtful self-assessment and appropriate levels of self-disclosure.
Stanford GSB Adcom – Effective Essays (Essay A)

2) Essay B: Why Stanford? (450 words suggested)

If you are applying to both the MBA and MSx programs, use Essay B to address your interest in both the MBA and MSx programs.

Essay B is an opportunity for you to demonstrate to the Adcom that you have a clear understanding of where you’ve been, where you’re going and the internal logic that unites your story’s point a with point b.  Why MBA? Why School X? Career Goals essays like this one always give the Adcom a filter through which your whole application will be read. Adcoms are always focused about their job placement rate post-MBA. Don’t approach this essay thinking that an MBA or MSx degree is an opportunity to ‘explore’ career options. People are allowed to do that when they’re 18 or 20 and in undergrad. By the time you’re 26, 28, 30+ the expectation is that you have your act together.

This is a very straightforward Career Goals/Why MBA/Why Stanford essay. Candidates often ask me if their career goals should be in Essay A and overflow into or be restated in Essay B – yes, it’s possible but not obligatory. On the other hand, many candidates make no mention of their career goals until essay B. It all depends on your Essay A theme and writing style. In Stanford’s Essay B, be sure to highlight the following topics:

  • What is your mission? (Not what you want to do as a job but the big picture thing you’d like to do or impact through your life’s work)
  • Short-term goal/Long-term goal (This is your job…don’t forget to give a concrete example or two. You don’t just want to be a consultant…you want to work at Bain.)
  • What resources at Stanford will help you achieve that goal? (Think academic/experiential/social resources)
  • How will you contribute at Stanford?

Your Past: Think about what factors have influenced/driven your decisions to date. Is there a common theme, interest, preference or passion that underlies any of the following: a) your decision to major in X at university? b) your decision to live in a particular area? c) the thought process behind choosing your first few professional roles or employers? d) personal qualities or interests that have been the driving force behind promotions or achievements at work?

Your Mission: How do you plan to leave an indelible mark on the world? Tell Stanford’s Adcom what you’d like to achieve or what issue you hope to tackle (not what you want to do from 9-5).

Why an MBA/MS? Have a good think about what might be keeping you from advancing to your short-term goal. You undoubtedly have a strong skill-set in certain areas…and perhaps a less developed skill-set in others.  Or you may have niche knowledge of a particular function/industry, but lack a more global exposure (within your industry/role or possibly across industries/roles).

Your Short-term Goal: What would you like to be doing professionally post-MBA or MSx? What about that role/industry genuinely excites you or appeals to you? What would make you a valuable asset to your future employer compared to other MBAs or MSx graduates? (hint: The answer is not ‘having earned an MBA from Stanford will make me a valuable asset’ because everyone else vying for that role will also have an MBA). Instead think about how your background or past experience set you apart and how you might bring those to bear on your new role. In other words – given your unique background right now – what will make you an asset to that employer following an MBA or the MSx program?

In your short-term role what are some of the areas where you hope to grow your expertise? Note: There’s nothing wrong with sharing a couple of short-term career options. I had a client who wanted to move into M&A at a bulge bracket IB but he was also open to working on the investment team of a large company. This reassured the Adcom and showed his awareness of how difficult it can be to land a M&A role at Goldman.

Here’s an example of how a past applicant to Stanford’s MBA program formulated his short-term career goal.

My next professional step post-MBA would be to return to Consulting Firm’s Healthcare Practice in the U.S. The firm has generously offered to fund my MBA and has extended an open offer for my return as a Senior Associate. Consulting Firm’s rotational program would allow me to work with healthcare companies at the forefront of healthcare innovation in emerging markets. These markets are creating proven solutions to health access problems, which could conceivably be applied within Country’s healthcare systems as well.
– Generic Why MBA/Career Goals Essay Example from past fxMBAConsulting Client

Your Long-term Goal: What do you see yourself doing in the long term? It’s best if your able to show an internal logic and continuity between your short and long-term goals in particular. You want to make this statement ambitious but not off-the-wall unrealistic. Stanford’s Adcom won’t put much weight in this statement since they realize that no matter what a person predicts he’ll be doing 10+ years down the line – the reality is almost always otherwise.

Why Stanford: Basically Stanford’s Adcom wants to know that you’re familiar with the GSB and what its MBA or MSx program and community can offer you. How will its resources help you achieve your professional goals and how will you contribute to building a more vibrant community or set of resources at the school (now and in the future). Since Stanford is in the heart of Silicon Valley, you might want to consider how the school’s location can offer you access to resources, companies and people outside campus.

3) Additional Information

Through all of the elements of your application, we believe that we get to know you well. Only complete this section if you have critical information you could not convey elsewhere on your application (e.g., extenuating circumstances affecting academic or work performance). Do not include essays, and please, be brief.

So many candidates send in the same information time after time about how a) their GMAT does not reflect their real potential or b) their undergraduate GPA does not reflect their real potential. Unfortunately if you didn’t get the GMAT or GPA you had hoped for, the best thing to do is accept it and put your best foot forward in every other way (with great essays, recommendations and short answers). Don’t use this space to talk about your GMAT or your GPA (unless there were extenuating circumstances) – you need to show the Adcom that you’re capable of assuming responsibility for your past. Stanford asks for a year by year breakdown of your college GPA in its application so this is not the place to talk about an upward trend in your GPA between your freshman and senior years.

Stanford specifies that they only want to hear about extenuating circumstances (in the briefest of ways). What constitutes an extenuating circumstance would be something out of the ordinary and serious (like being hospitalized or suffering a prolonged illness) – Grandpa or Grandma passing away, while sad, does not count.

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