“The river raged. The rapids could not be stopped. We were drifting in our rafting boat toward a huge and immovable rock, whose main part was under the water surface. Our boat collided with the massive rock, turning our boat over on its face. All I could see in the water was the boat over my head, when I was drawn powerfully toward the ground under water. The strong rapids dragged me backwards in the direction of the rock’s footing. I tried to swim against the rapids. I tried for a time that seemed like hours. I struggled with no success. I felt powerless and helpless. After running out of breath and realizing the river’s force, I gave up. I relaxed my muscles, and let myself be drawn toward the ground to the unknown. I remember that the only thought I had in mind at that moment had been: “Is that it? Is that how my life ends?”
That’s how Gili Elkin started her “What Matters Most” essay to get into the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2006. And now, four years after earning her MBA from Stanford, she is the founding CEO of a company, Wordprom, which is selling that essay among more than 200 others from admitted MBA students at such top schools as Harvard, Wharton, Chicago, and Columbia. Elkin, who gets the essays from successful applicants in return for a revenue share, says the compositions are merely for “inspiration”–not plagiarism.
Are they each worth the price of admission? Will they really inspire an applicant to write a more compelling essay?
In the spirit of bringing some Consumer Reports cred to our pages, we decided to buy Wordprom’s entire set of Stanford’s daunting “What Matters Most To You And Why” essays–all six available on Wordprom’s site–and turn them over to Sandy Kreisberg, the founder of hbsguru.com, a leading consulting firm. We asked him for his take on how valuable they would be as a purchase for an applicant applying to Stanford or any other highly ranked business school, for that matter.
As reported earlier, each essay cost $25, a half-price introductory offer from Wordprom, which launched last month on the Internet. So for a total of $150, we got back six essays, three of them conforming to Stanford’s current word prompt of 750 words and three written in the old days, when there was no word limit on this essay, and the typical answer went to 2,500-3000 words (including Elkin’s own What Matters Most essay available under the pseudonym Rotem Kohn).
Here is Sandy’s analysis of the shorter essays, which are what you, dear writer, will have to create when applying to Stanford this year.
So Sandy, what is your conclusion after reading these essays?
Well, it confirms my view that the best advice in thinking about writing a Stanford essay is what I have said in the past, ‘be a vicitm, or help victims’ since two of these essays deal specifically with 1) A father who was in jail, and 2) Parents who spent their career working on health issues in Africa for the U.N. Africa is where the writer is headed as well, after B-School and medical school. The third essay is about a McKinsey consultant who takes a leave of absence to go to work for TechnoServe (a/k/a “Business Solutions to Poverty”) in Kenya, to find herself.
What else did you find out from reading these essays?
It confirmed my two-tier way of thinking about Stanford applicants. If you have a knock-out story to tell, like you are an African-American finance guy whose dad is in jail (or was) and you have an inspiring stepfather and mother, well, basically, name-checking that experience will get you very far. You don’t need to do all that jive that Stanford’s Admissions Director Derrick Bolton tells you, like, ahem, “structured reflection” and figuring out how key points in your life led to growth and wisdom.
That’s for folks who don’t have any show-stopping experiences, like, the TechnoServe volunteer/McKinsey woman (if you are willing to accept that as someone who is nothing special, which apparently is the case at Stanford) who, as you will see in my analysis (below), does a great job in turning some mundane experiences, e.g. being a teaching assistant in a course at Dartmouth and working at McKinsey, into some classic Stanford essay material.
Bottom line, is it worth $50 a pop for someone to buy these essays?
Could be. It won’t help you write your own essay, per se, but it might liberate you into a space where you can just tell your own story, if you have one, or convince you, willy-nilly, not to bother applying.
What do you mean, not to bother?
In each case, whether the essays are technically good or not, you can see behind the essays and size up the person’s life story. If you don’t have a powerful life story, like two of these writers (not to mention Stanford stats) and you are not able to massage your uneventful McKinsey life into the kinds of wonderful jive that writer cooks up, well, you are not likely to get in. Also note, the McKinsey woman with volunteer work in Kenya is the boring person in this batch.
Sandy, you have said that if Stanford ever published the entire set of its “What Matters Most Essays” for any one year, Derrick Bolton would not be able to appear in public without having rotten tomatoes thrown at him. You still believe that?
Ha, ha. No. I’m going to walk that back a bit. I think if Stanford published the whole set–and by the way, they should think about publishing ten or so because it would liberate their applicants in ways that I mention above–people would realize that there are just a lot of highly unusual and wonderful people in the class, although not all of those people are good essay writers. Bolton speaks in two channels: on the one hand, he has, in interviews and on the Stanford webpage, outlined some very exacting standards about what that essay should contain–structured reflections, moral growth, yadda, yadda.
On the other hand, when pressed, he often says that Stanford accepts kids ‘despite’ the essays. I think if Stanford ever published the whole set of those essays from one class, that ‘accepted despite the essays’ category would be really clear, and larger than you think. And many of those people would just be really, really impressive, as are the two applicants below. The great “essay” below from the McKinsey person is world-class BS in terms of execution and takeaways. But what are you going to do? Her parents are not in jail nor are they fleeing genocide in Africa. If God gives you rich grapes, well, you make Champagne.
So Sandy, let’s go through each of the three shorter essays.
THE BASICS: Word count,:688; African-American male, Class of 2011, investment banker/brokerage, father was in jail, inspiring stepfather, what matters most is leaving a positive and lasting legacy on his family and community. His lead sentence makes you snap to attention: “My father never finished college, has been incarcerated and has done little to improve his family or his community.”
ANALYSIS: A basic, but moving essay covering the outline of his bio, does a nice job in capturing the big themes of his life: fear of becoming his father, admiration for his stepdad, a generic desire to be successful, raise a family, give back to the community.
MONEY QUOTE: “I vividly remember trips to and from the city to play basketball when my stepfather created what could be considered a designed lecture series. Each trip would be another topic, one weekend teen pregnancy, the next the importance of academics, all while driving through various neighborhoods pointing out young women with strollers and young men being idle on the street corners.”
The rest of the essay is not that specific, powerful, or reflective but it does not have to be. This guy has a deeply embedded and powerful story to tell, and it comes across in an innocent and thankful way. A better writer could have milked this raw material for more specifics and more personalized reflections, but this writer just says, in some completely honest and credible way, “These journeys were instrumental in building my character and created a clear goal and lifestyle for which to reach.”
SHOULD YOU BUY THIS ESSAY? Probably not. It won’t help tell a less powerful story, and technically, this is a case where the facts speak for themselves. The kind of “structured reflection” that Bolton talks about is not really present throughout. A good deal of this essay spills out in some honest and heartfelt way based on the powerful armature of its facts. The one quote above is interesting in how much it is superior to almost anything else in the essay, viz, “Thus far in my life I have given back to the community through multiple mentoring programs and coaching youth athletics. As a business leader and community activist I will use the brand of my organization to spur wide spread positive change through various media outlets.”
That works for this writer and his story but it probably will not work for you. If you don’t have a dad in jail, and an inspiring stepdad, you may need to talk in more detail about those mentoring programs and who you mentored, and how you were effective and what the obstacles and takeaways were, and how those experiences also led to your own growth and goals.
BASICS: Word count: 776; female McKinsey consultant, Class of 2012, Dartmouth grad, was a teaching assistant in Dartmouth’s introductory religion class, where “”thinking weekly about what other people valued helped me define what mattered most to me: using my intellectual curiosity and creativity to create change, whether in the classroom, the boardroom or the developing world.” The lead sentence is catchy: ”My favorite college class was the one I taught.”
ANALYSIS: An element this writer may have that you don’t, besides the gig at McKinsey and an Ivy education is after some spell at McKinsey the writer “opted to spend three months in Kenya working for TechnoServe to understand how my growing interest in non-profit work could fit my future goals.” There’s nothing super impressive about the writer’s report from Kenya, but in the last part, the essay then returns to the teaching theme, “The process of figuring out my next step after TechnoServe and McKinsey brings me back to my Dartmouth classroom. The difference is that the [story] I am trying to diagram is my own – what is the creation myth for the person I have become and what are the rituals of my world?”
SHOULD YOU BUY THIS ESSAY? Could be. The writer does a great job of optimizing her three stories: 1) Being a teaching assistant, 2) Working for McKinsey and Techno-Serve, and 3) Doing some spiel about how the two relate and pose issues for the future. The writer is real smart and winning and if not exactly reflective as to what has really shook her up, she has the right Stanford-y attitude about explaining her motivations: ‘My internship [at McKinsey] showed me that consulting, if done correctly, involved the same attention to underlying thought processes that characterized my religion major. The need to understand what motivated a company’s employees was similar to delving into what united followers of a particular system of beliefs.”
Folks, that is world class BS, and this writer is capable of applying takeaways like that to several situations: what she learned as a TA, why she studied religion, what she learned at McKinsey (“Watching the leaders of the innovation practice draw upon their experience also showed me that while I might feel that my world view was complete, I still had much to learn”), and why she wanted to work in Kenya, etc. Thus, this essay becomes a good model for someone who does not have an overwhelming story (well, aside from working at McKinsey and working in Africa) but is capable of stringing together several semi-ordinary experiences, to conclude, drum-roll please, “My creation myth is not complete, and my world view is still soft around the edges. A Stanford M.B.A. will help me complete the story and expand the boundaries of my world . . . .” And note to imitators: you don’t even need the Why Stanford stuff in this essay (especially since they give you another essay for that).
BASICS: Word Count: 844 WORDS, White U.S. guy (I am assuming), Class of 2013, from health care services, also in medical school (or applying for joint-degree) who grew up in Africa (ahem, just like so many of us) among other places, since both his parents were serious do-gooder professionals who met in The Peace Corps and then worked for UNICEF, the CDC and etc. To wit,
“Over the next decade or so, through a series of events ranging from genocide evacuations to inter-office politics, our family bounced between, XXXX, XXXX, back to XXXX, XXXX, XXX, and back to XXXX” (parts of the essay are disguised to protect the confidentiality of the applicant).
Stanford tip: If you have ever lived through a genocide, holocaust, or anything like that, well, what can I say. . .it also doesn’t hurt to grow up in five or six countries, one of them being Africa. If you cannot manage that, and where you grow up is something that indeed is hard to manage, take a page out of the book of Essay Two writer, and work in Africa.
And after all that, what matters most to the writer: “I was raised on two principle concepts. First, if you have a job, do it well. . . . [and ] Where my first principle is intra-personal in nature, the second dictates my inter-personal interactions: always seek to help others.” That quote gives you something of the level of prose at play here, which is liberating, if you yourself, gentle reader, cannot write, either.
Although let me add, and I am not kidding, this guy is perfectly capable, like the guy whose dad was in prison, of capturing the important parts of his extraordinary story.
ANALYSIS: This is a one-trick essay, but it’s a great trick. The writer grows up among serious do-gooders doing field projects in Africa, including both his parents and all their friends, and just assumes that things will keep getting better in Africa since all those hard working people are on the case, or as stated by the writer, “With the sum total of my perceived adult population working on these problems, I assumed that things were bound to change.”
Then he goes to the states for college, and in his senior year returns to Africa, and learns, “Nearly everything was still broken. Power was sporadic . . .and . . . adequate health care was still severely lacking. I worked mostly on health-care issues . ..managing a general health-care clinic for street children in XXXX. .. .. And during this time, I realized that the infallible adults of my childhood were not going to accomplish it all by themselves.”
So, he is now back in Business and Medical School, to fortify himself with knowledge before heading back to Africa and/or the developing world to make a difference.
Works for him.
SHOULD YOU BUY THIS ESSAY? Well, not as a model. It works for this guy, who comes off as sincere, well meaning, humble and dedicated to helping others via a business and medical degree. You might want to buy it, along with the first one, if you, too, have an extraordinary story to tell, and want permission to just tell it, in some artless way, without over-worrying about the usual things that writing guide books tell you to worry about: showing versus telling (this is all telling) or introducing lively characters or details or quotes, or as Derrick Bolton would say, ‘structured reflection.”
Oddly, the most powerful detail is this essay is about leaving Africa to go to high school in the USA,” . . . this was the beginning of my global perspective. I had been immersed in life overseas; I considered it normal. Contrast this with XXXXX High School, in affluent XXXX, XXXX where my best friend at 16 drove a 3-Series BMW convertible to school every day.”
We don’t meet any Africans, or any other doctors, or any kids at that street clinic he was running in this essay, nor are there any takeaways or insights or reflections about that experience, but we do get the brand and model of the Bimmer.
But so what? It’s not really a well-wrought essay, which is something Stanford does not seem to demand.
It is, like the first one, an identity politics inventory: the first essay was written by an African-American guy with a dad in jail, and this one was written by a white guy with parents who worked for NGOs in Africa. It’s a lovely symmetry of sorts. Those are two very powerful experiences and these essays capture those experiences in some very basic way, but not in any way that would help you tell your story.
The second essay was written by a “vanilla” McKinsey consultant woman with not a whole lot of powerful identity politics issues to lay out, certainly compared to essays one and three, but done with great skill and takeaways. Reading it might help you figure out what Stanford wants in terms of attitude, takeaways, etc. although be warned, as noted in our analysis, the writer of that essay, unlike the writers of essays one and two, is very skilled, both as a writer and as someone who channels Stanford’s values.
Thanks, Sandy, but a lot of our readers may want to know what happened to Ms. Gili, whom we last left drowning in a rampaging river. Should you buy her essay?
Spoiler Alert. She survives. Man, I would not buy that essay because it could actually be damaging. It is basically a brag sheet, which summarizes her life as a story told to her grandchildren (something you could do back then with unlimited space) with the narrative connected by clichés, AND I AM QUOTING:
- Take a full advantage of your potential.
- Always look on the bright side of life – explore the world
- Change something in the world- our time here is not eternal.
- Never give up your will – do not let anything stand in your way
Here’s a great quote from the part about exploring the world.
“I remember the week when we were sailing with five other people in a tiny canoe in the Ecuadorian jungle – with a Norwegian, a Chinese, an Indian, an American and the Indian tribesman instructor. I had dozens of mosquito bites from head to toe, ignoring another bite in my eye, when the Indian tribesman instructor told us we are going into the river (which we found later was full of piranha and alligators!) to catch an anaconda. Five minutes later I took a picture of your grandpa, holding one edge of a 20-foot anaconda with the American at the other edge. Every one was smiling. The Chinese cooked rice (again) for lunch, that was barely enough, but I didn’t complain, since I knew that the Indian would make us for dinner a gourmet meal of piranhas, that I would later fish with the Norwegian (disappointed of not catching a salmon…).”
As they say in journalism school, “these are facts too good to check.” She was, whatever else, a woman who had served in the Israeli military, and then done, or written about, a good many other things. She had been waitlisted one year and then accepted. Her admission was not based on this essay, although the shtick of telling her life story to her grandchildren may have just gotten a tired smile out of someone on the adcom. That, and similar gimmicks, is not something I would suggest today, unless somehow the gimmick is basic to your story. I would also not include raps like this, either:
“Pursuing my goal to study at Stanford for my MBA turned out to be worthwhile. Although I was admitted to other top schools, I decided to defer my studies for a year and reapply again to Stanford, where I was waitlisted the previous year. My experience at Stanford proved once again that I should always pursue my dreams.
“Remember grandchildren – the one who persists achieves her goals. No matter how talented and skilled you are – you will not achieve your goals unless you persist! Confront the obstacles as challenges and believe in yourself!”