Below you’ll find two examples of Stanford’s essay for the 2018-2019 full-time MBA admissions season. You’ll find additional essay examples and essay topic analyses for leading MBA programs at the preceding link.
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 eight years of work experience. If you’re applying in round one or two, you have the option of submitting a single application to both the MBA and MSx programs.
Whereas HBS relies equally on the written application and interview in making admission decisions, Stanford uses alumni interviewers and therefore places more weight on the 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.
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 (below).
- 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 option B, 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…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.
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. 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.
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).
Analysis. Stanford MBA & MSx Essay A.
Essay A, What matters most to you, and why?
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 the adcom would quickly grow bored if every essay ended 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).
Consequence is a slightly more objective term. Something consequential is likely something that has had a noticeable impact.
Instead of asking yourself what has been most important to you, look back on your life and try to identify the three most consequential turning points or influences – the ones which have shaped your life’s trajectory? I bet that if we discussed the question, we would agree on the biggest two or three inflection points from your life’s story.
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 how to narrate their story. Here’s an 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 summarized some Stanford essays I’ve written for past clients.
- 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 to Essay A are not unique. What set these essays apart are the details and personal reflections. Stanford’s former Dead of Admissions published a great advice column on its essays in 2012. It’s since been removed from the Stanford website but I’ve reproduced it here (toggle the link below to view it).
Originally published at: https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/programs/mba/admission/admissions-dean/effective-essays
Regardless of the outcome of the admission process, I believe strongly that you will benefit from the opportunity for structured reflection that the business school application provides.
I hope that you will approach the application process as a way to learn about yourself — that’s the goal — with the byproduct being the application that you submit to us.
Rarely during our lives are we asked to think deeply about what is most important to us. Stanford Professor Bill Damon’s book, The Moral Advantage: How to Succeed in Business by Doing the Right Thing, contains the following passages that might help you maintain the larger context as you delve into the essay writing process.
“We are not always aware of the forces that ultimately move us. While focusing on the ‘how’ questions — how to survive, how to get ahead, how to make a name for ourselves — often we forget the ‘why’ questions that are more essential for finding and staying on the best course: Why pursue this objective? Why behave in this manner? Why aspire to this kind of life? Why become this type of person?
“These ‘why’ questions help us realize our highest aspirations and our truest interests. To answer these questions well, we must decide what matters most to us, what we will be able to contribute to in our careers, what are the right (as opposed to the wrong) ways of behaving as we aim toward this end, and, ultimately, what kind of persons we want to become. Because everyone, everywhere, wants to live an admirable life, a life of consequence, the ‘why’ questions cannot be ignored for long without great peril to one’s personal stability and enduring success. It is like ignoring the rudder on a ship — no matter how much you look after all the boat’s other moving parts, you may end up lost at sea.”
Your Stanford MBA Program essays provide you an opportunity to reflect on your own “truest interests” and “highest aspirations.”
While the letters of reference are stories about you told by others, these essays enable you to tell your own story.
Please think of your Stanford essays as conversations — when we read files, we feel that we meet people, also known as our “flat friends” — and tell us your story in a natural, genuine way.
Our goal is to understand what motivates you and how you have become the person you are today. In addition, we’re interested in how the Stanford MBA Program can help you better yourself.
Reflective, insightful essays help us envision the individual behind all of the experiences and accomplishments that we read about elsewhere in your application.
The most important piece of advice on these essays is extremely simple: answer the questions — each component of each question.
An additional suggestion for writing essays is equally straightforward: think a lot before you write. We want a holistic view of you as a person: your values, passions, ideas, experiences, and aspirations.
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.
In the application form, we ask you what you aspire to do after your MBA. In this essay, we ask you “Why Stanford?” Given what you hope to achieve, how will your education and experiences at Stanford help you turn your dreams into reality? We give you broad license to envision your future; take advantage of it. The key here is that you should have ideas for your best self after Stanford, and related objectives for your Stanford education. How do you plan to take advantage of the incredible opportunities at Stanford? How do you envision yourself growing and learning here at Stanford GSB? And how will the Stanford experience help you become the person you aspire to be? You do not need to make up a path if you are uncertain, but a level of focused interests will enable you to make the most of your Stanford experience. Be honest with us, and especially with yourself, in addressing this question.
Good People Can Give Bad Advice
Moving beyond the specific essay questions, I’d like to address a couple of myths.
Myth #1: Tell the Committee on Admissions “what makes you unique” in your essays.
This often leads applicants to believe that you need to have accomplishments or feats that are unusual or different from your peers (e.g., traveling to an exotic place or talking about a tragic situation in your life).
But how are you to know which of your experiences is unique when you know neither the backgrounds of the other applicants nor the topics they have chosen to share? What matters is not merely that you have had these experiences, but rather how and why your perspective has changed or been reinforced as a result of those and other everyday experiences.
That is a story that only you can tell. If you concentrate your efforts on telling us who you are, differentiation will occur naturally; if your goal is to appear unique, you actually may achieve the opposite effect.
Truly, the most impressive essays that we read each year are those that do not begin with the goal of impressing us.
Myth #2: If you don’t have amazing essays, you won’t be admitted even if you are a compelling applicant.
We constantly remind ourselves to focus on the applicant rather than the application. This means that we will admit you despite your application essays if we feel we’ve gotten a good sense of you overall. Yes, the essays are important. But they are neither our only avenue of understanding you nor are they disproportionately influential in the admission process.>
Accounting Versus Marketing
Alumnus Leo Linbeck, MBA ‘94 told me something on an alumni panel in Houston a few years ago that I have since appropriated.
Leo said that, in management terms, the Stanford essays are not a marketing exercise but an accounting exercise.
This is not an undertaking in which you look at an audience/customer (i.e., the Committee on Admissions) and then write what you believe we want to hear. It is quite the opposite. This is a process in which you look inside yourself and try to express most clearly what is there. We are trying to get a good sense of your perspectives, your thoughts on management and leadership, and how Stanford can help you realize your goals.
As Professor Damon would say, we are helping you ensure that your rudder steers you to the right port.
Derrick Bolton, MBA/MA Education 1998
Assistant Dean for MBA Admissions
Last Updated 30 Oct 2015
Example 1. Stanford MBA & MSx Essay A.
Essay A, What matters most to you, and why?
The X-axis was for your GPA and the Y-axis was for your SAT score. My high school guidance counselor pointed to the scatter plot’s successful dots – those, like me, in the upper right quadrant – destined for happy lives and great careers after graduating from the best colleges. I stared at my dot. What should have been my crowning moment felt like a hollow victory. The success my parents and teachers wanted from me had to do with what they wanted for me – and they’d had the best of intentions at heart.I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted or who I was but I needed to find out.
Sixty percent of my classmates attended just twelve colleges. I decided to leave CITY for Los Angeles where I enrolled at X University, a small Jesuit college that attracted me with its emphasis on ‘educating the whole person.’ Leaving everyone I knew and loved seemed so definitive. Maybe that’s the way it has to be though, when you’re eighteen and grappling with big questions and grasping at answers – when you need the space to discover your own truth. I didn’t know anybody in California, which was perfect. I was free to start over and start for the first time.
My professor, Y, and I shared a love of writing and through our conversations he introduced me to Vipassana Meditation. My first silent retreat in the desert outside Joshua Tree lasted for ten days. I meditated for sixteen hours at a stretch with nothing to distract me from myself. I came to appreciate the value in acting both in and on my life from a place of clarity and intention.I made a conscious decision to surround myself with people who were living authentically. I also began to seek out situations that challenged me and forced me to be vulnerable, helping me connect with myself and others more deeply.
Annie Dillard, one of my favorite authors, writes, ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives’. For me a good day is one lived consciously. That means acting on conviction and values rather than reacting out of uncertainty and fear. What I refer to jokingly as ‘my inner actuary’ sometimes worries that if I don’t, years from now I’ll look back with regret and wonder what happened. But I try to remind myself that even life’s foibles can be formative experiences.
In fact, the reason I began doing improv was to cultivate more spontaneity. Improv has taught me to trust my inner voice. There’s no time to acquiesce in an improvised scene. You do and say what comes honestly and naturally. Things rarely go as planned but your team is there to support you and keeps you afloat. All I can do is trust in the process, own my character and play him honestly.
The time I’ve spent with terminally ill patients as a Companion at Z Hospital has been intimate, honest and thought-provoking. More often than not patients talk to me about what did matter versus what does matter most in life. Many express regret for having focused more on money, fame and power than family, friendship and ‘being real.’ I get emotional even now thinking about all the patients who have left an indelible mark on me – but then I laugh out loud remembering one gentleman who suggested I ‘kiss as many pretty girls as possible.’ I’ll second that motion!
There’s comfort in the status quo but leadership belongs to those who reject it. In life there are hard stops and for me that means not compartmentalizing what I value in my personal life from what I’m willing to do in my professional one. The Stanford experience is a powerful tool that, in conjunction with a student’s inherent strengths and effort, can provide an individual with the skills to lead change in others lives, in organizations and in the world. But who can lead others before he leads himself? I think that every person has a desire deep down to be in touch with his or her real truth – sometimes getting there isn’t evident. It wasn’t for me although my story comes neatly packaged here.
What really brings me joy isn’t down to being authentic, but being authentic in the service of others. In other words, what matters most to me isn’t who I am but what I can do with that knowledge/but how that knowledge has empowered me to impact people’s lives whether that be at Current Company, Organization A or Z Hospital. I plan to carry on in the same vein at Stanford and in my future endeavors.
Example 2. Stanford MBA & MSx Essay A.
I was overweight for many of my teenage years, which in turn left me feeling unhappy and self-conscious about my body. I see now that low self-esteem caused me to lack any real desire to push the boundaries of my comfort zone either physically or emotionally. At the age of 18, my unhappiness finally spurred in me the desire and motivation to transform my physical well-being and, by extension, my life. Hard work marked the beginning of a physical transformation but it was not until I crossed the finish line of the London marathon, at the age of 23, that I realized my mind-set had also fundamentally changed.
When Amnesty International offered me a place in the marathon – a feat that as an overweight teenager I’d considered almost insurmountable – I saw it as an opportunity to consolidate my new habits and also give back to the community through fundraising. I had no doubt that the transition from novice jogger to marathon runner would mean enduring a great deal of physical and mental pain, but I was determined to prove to my younger self that I could do it. The experience marks a period of my life that I am immensely proud of. In total it took over four hours of blood, sweat, pain and relentless optimism on race day, not to mention five months of commitment and sacrifice, to reach my goal. Although the marathon may seem like just another long-distance run for some, to me it represents the pinnacle of a personal struggle with self-image. As an overweight teenager, I would never have believed I’d have the strength to commit myself to this mental challenge, let alone complete it.
The experience made me realize that, as people, we use our inner experiences to form mental models, which in turn shape our subjective experience in the wider world. The mental construct we have of ourselves informs our interactions with others. In short, our perception of the world starts with the way we see ourselves. Each of us has unique set of circumstances in life, yet we are defined not by the circumstances per se but instead by how we choose to approach them. Doing so with a positive attitude is what matters most to me.
In proving to myself that I could surmount what I saw as the hard limits of possibility, I’ve gained the confidence to tackle other obstacles and challenges. Self-confidence has overflowed into my personal and professional life by giving me the courage to pursue my passions, launch my own nonprofit, and take on my next race: an Olympic triathlon. I now look boldly to my future endeavors in the knowledge that I have the tools to apply my ‘mind over matter’ mentality to all aspects of my life.
The transition from a management consulting role at Bain to founding my own non-profit, has meant adapting from a highly matrixed environment to one of autonomy and total accountability. Succeeding in this endeavour has been my most significant professional accomplishment.
At Bain, a hierarchical and process-driven environment, I thrived as part of a team of twenty colleagues. The emphasis on collaboration fostered a deep sense of belonging and enabled me to build strong communication skills. Open door policies allowed me to freely access guidance from superiors. When I left Bain to focus on my start-up, that safety net vanished and I found myself accelerated into a leadership position. As I built NONPROFIT’s team of four people, I became acutely aware that I was no longer on the receiving end of management validation and mentorship. The onus and accountability of decision-making is now entirely on me as I make dozens of judgments every day in an autonomous environment.
Although it was initially a culture shock, I’ve learnt to deal with my newfound responsibility and leadership role by becoming more resourceful and introspective, and by building my own support network. I’ve realized the value of self-reflection and how it empowers me to be a smarter leader; being self-aware has helped me understand what I have yet to learn and what to prioritize to run the business more successfully. I’ve learnt to tackle unfamiliar problems by breaking them down into approachable goals, engaging in training and consulting mentors – thereby equipping myself with the knowledge and confidence to make better decisions. Realizing that many entrepreneurs experience a sense of isolation when starting a business, I’ve established a network of ten female entrepreneurs as a forum through which to share experiences of ubiquitous challenges.
Analysis. Stanford MBA & MSx Essay B.
Essay B, Why Stanford?
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? Like every other admissions committee, Stanford’s adcom is focused on 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 more direction.
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).
- 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?
Here’s an example of how a past applicant to Stanford’s MBA program formulated his short-term career goal.
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).
Example. Stanford MBA & MSx Essay B.
Essay B, Why Stanford?
To address the looming environmental and healthcare crises we need to become custodians of two precious bodies of resources: our planet and ourselves. First as a Digital Strategist and later as an Entrepreneur, I’d like to play a part in shaping a future I envisage, one where technology connects local food producers with consumers. In it people receive sustainable-sourced groceries at their door just hours after placing an order on their phones. What draws me to business models in the online space is how quickly they can be vetted, iterated and improved.
Today’s businesses require a digital strategy that integrates their online presence and organizational behavior. Post-MBA, I’d leverage what I’ve learned as Head of eCommerce & Digital Marketing at CURRENT EMPLOYER to pursue a Digital Strategy role at a food systems innovator like Amazon Fresh or Good Eggs. To do that I’ll need a deeper understanding of how corporate finance, operations and business intelligence map onto a holistic digital strategy.
When I think about the Stanford GSB, what really excites me is the prospect of spending two years interacting with peers and professors who are as fiercely passionate about improving the world as I am. I’m keen to collaborate with the d.school’s FEED Collaborative which unites design thinking and food system innovation. Stanford’s Responsible Business Labs would help me glean insight from companies and thought leaders that are creating broadly shared value by aligning business interests with social needs. Coming from a big Italian family, there’s nothing I love more than good food and lively conversation. If admitted to Stanford I’d soon become a regular at Small Group Dinners where first and second year students can meet and mingle.
Drawing on my network in the water conservation and sustainability industries to I’d give back to the Stanford community by bringing in speakers and organizing off-campus visits. I hope to share my passion for personal well being and the environment with the Stanford GSB community where everyone is extraordinarily accomplished and brings their own unique perspective to bear. I look forward to forging new and lasting friendships with all.