Stanford GSB’s Iconic MBA Essay: Why It Still Matters

by on May 26th, 2017

What matters most to you, and why?

When Stanford GSB’s former Dean of Admissions Derrick Bolton first introduced this essay in the MBA application more than thirteen years ago, did he imagine it would become such an enduring and iconic question? Even if Stanford isn’t on your short list, this prompt is invaluable for your self-reflection process as you begin writing your applications.

With the arrival of Kirsten Moss, GSB’s new Assistant Dean and Director of MBA Admissions, who officially assumes her role on June 1st, the school was first to announce MBA application deadlines for the 2017/18 admissions cycle, confirming there are no major changes to the essay questions. ‘What matters to you, and why?’ endures at least another year.

Kirsten is joining an Admissions Director panel in San Francisco at the CentreCourt MBA Festival  on June 24th, and I look forward to hearing her perspective on how best to approach this question.

The question is an opportunity to reflect on your values, life purpose, and true self

It seems straightforward, but crafting a response to this question can be a lot more difficult than you think. At Fortuna Admissions, we’ve witnessed how this essay ties applicants in knots as they ponder an approach that will deliver something poignant, clever, even profound.

So whether you’re weighing the career path that is right for you or applying to GSB, making time to consider this question can offer invaluable insight about your values, identity and life purpose. When you can articulate what matters most to you, it’ll increase your self-awareness and give you a foundation for success—not just at business school but also with relationships and career. It’s a question worth contemplating in spite of the pain and anguish!

So why does Stanford GSB pose this question, and why has it continued to do so for so many years? For my Fortuna Admissions colleague, Heidi Hillis, a former MBA admissions interviewer for the school and Stanford GSB alumnus, the question gets to the heart of what Stanford is about, and connects strongly to the school’s tagline, “Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.”

Capture your gut response

“Stanford is looking not just for extremely bright and successful professionals, but also young people who have strong values, and who want to have a positive impact in the world,” says Heidi. “The school genuinely wants to get to know you and to understand your values. Stanford MBAs are driven by a desire not just to excel in their careers but also to help others and to have a positive impact. The Stanford GSB admissions office works very hard to bring together a group of students who are open, humble and have strong integrity, which leads to the incredible level of camaraderie and trust that you find at the school. This is really core to Stanford’s brand and the identity of its community.”

So, what matters most to you, and why? Begin with your intuitive or first response. Jot it down. We’ll come back to this later.

Stanford specifies a 1,150-word limit to cover this essay, along with a second essay question, “Why Stanford?” Maybe you think you can answer the first part of the question in one word, with things like family, love, or chocolate. But the core of the question, the part that reveals your true motivations and calling in life, requires introspection. Why does this one thing matter to you more than something else?

Stanford’s advice on answering its own essay question

If you’re still staring down a blank page, let’s turn to the advice that Stanford itself offers. The school proposes that you think in terms of who you are, events that have influenced you and lessons and insights that have shaped your perspectives. And they want you to write from the heart.

Derrick Bolton once said, “Please think of the Stanford essays as conversations on paper—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.” Look up ‘story’ in the dictionary and you’ll find a definition like ‘an account of imaginary or real people and events told in an entertaining way.’ The best essays are related in a compelling ‘story-like’ way that may involve humor, emotion, insight, inspiration, wit, honesty and, importantly, authenticity.

A Stanford GSB admissions officer may be reading 30 applications today, 20 tomorrow, and hundreds more in the weeks ahead. So how can you grab your reader’s attention, sound intelligent and be original? It’s no easy task. Make the time to dig deep and explore ways to tell the story that you’re the best qualified to write.

Telling your story

We’d like to help by offering some guidance from our team of b-school insiders at Fortuna Admissions on how to best structure of this type of essay, while telling your authentic story:

  1. Start with identifying an event, experience or a person that had a major impact on you or your life’s direction. What lessons, values or morals did you gain from this encounter?
  2. How are these values, morals and lessons at work in your life now, and might they influence your vision of the world, and your motivation and drive? (Remember, ‘Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world’ is Stanford’s mission statement.)
  3. How has the above influenced your career decisions?
  4. Conclude by demonstrating the link between your career vision and your values, and why these objectives are meaningful to you.

If you’re struggling to articulate what really matters to you, start by chronicling all of your experiences to date, and then probing themes such as:

  • What was my upbringing like? How did key figures and surroundings shape me? Was I a happy child? What was I regularly involved in (by force or by choice)?
  • What was school like? Was I focused? What were my friends like and how did they influence me? How did I feel emotionally as a teenager?
  • What has my career been like? Am I proud of my choices? Any regrets? What do I like/dislike about my job and why?
  • What extracurricular hobbies and activities did/do I engage in, and what’s the motivation behind them?
  • What do I love or hate about life? What makes me happy, angry or sad?
  • What makes me want to get up (or not get up) in the morning? What motivates me and what do I really care about?

It’s all deep inside you

Now review your responses—including your first gut response. Can you point to an underlying theme (or themes) in your life? My wager is yes. It might surprise you to uncover a method to the madness in your life. You might even talk to friends and family, as they can recount some anecdotes about you that you may have forgotten. Now, through a compelling narrative, highlight and connect the key themes to the general ideas articulated in your essays.

You might need to spend hours on this essay—from brainstorming and talking with others to drafting and redrafting (and redrafting again), but know that it’s all deep within you … it’s your story, and no one is more qualified than you to find it, put it into context and express it with conviction.

Shouldn’t all of us know what matters most to us, whether we’re applying to business school or not? This essay is, in fact, a very valuable reflection to enhance self-awareness, to understand our inner motivations and the ways they’re expressed through our actions—consciously or unconsciously. Take this on as a personal challenge, not merely as an MBA application question. Stanford wants to learn what matters most to you, and so should you.

A version of this piece was published in Poets&Quants by Fortuna Admission Director Matt Symonds.

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