Stanford’s Mind-Boggling Essay

What are the most challenging essay questions business schools ask applicants? That’s a question we hope to answer in the second feature in this new six-part series. Stacy Blackman, founder of the MBA admissions consulting firm that bears her name, is picking out what she considers to be the most challenging and then providing advice for how to approach each essay.

What constitutes a highly challenging essay? It may force you to be incredibly introspective, surprisingly creative or perhaps highly succinct. Some essays are not as straightforward as they seem, others are very straightforward, but it is tempting to stray off topic. Whatever the reason, we are here to help, with some tips taken straight from the Stacy Blackman Consulting series of school specific essay guides.

Most Challenging MBA Essay Question #3:

Stanford Graduate School of Business:

What matters most to you, and why?


Stanford’s first question is unique among the business school application essay questions. In fact, you might expect to find it on an application for a master’s in philosophy program rather than an MBA program. This essay question is a clear indication that the Stanford Admissions Committee is interested in much more than your academic transcripts, resume, and record of achievements. Those matter to Stanford but what matters more is your ability to look inside yourself and “to express most clearly what is there.”

Many of our clients ask us what Stanford wants to hear in a response to this essay question. Any set of tips on the What Matters essay must include a stern warning that you cannot search solely outside yourself for an answer to a question that demands intense self-examination.

Unless you have already undergone an intensive period of deep reflection, it is unlikely that the answer to this essay question will be on the tip of your tongue. Rather, you should view this question as an opportunity to learn about yourself – to look up from the rat race and to decide what you truly value and what is important to you. If approached correctly, it can be a fun and enlightening experience.


TIP #1 The answer to the “what matters” question is essentially a statement of life purpose.

Once you have stopped looking outside yourself for the “right” answer and committed instead to the process of self examination and “accounting” demanded by this essay question, it is fair to ask, “When I search, what sort of thing should I be looking for?” To guide you here, we must venture into philosophical territory. We have found that the answer to the “what matters” question generally takes the form of a “statement of life purpose” – a kind of personal mission statement that expresses the essence of who you are and why you are alive. So all you have to do is decide “what is central to your being.” (Is that all?!)

So how do you go about creating a statement of life purpose? There are myriad approaches and thousands of books on the subject –mystical, religious, and secular. You’ll have to find an approach that works best for you, but it might help if you have an example of what a statement of life purpose looks like. A journalist who went to a seminar to develop her personal mission statement crafted this: “My mission statement is to embrace and communicate good news.” A screenwriter penned the statement: “My life’s purpose is to tell stories that exalt the mind and the spirit.” A more personal example unrelated to work is, “What matters most to me is for my friends and loved ones to know I will always be there when they need me.”

Creating a statement of life purpose is incredibly difficult. A quote by the author Viktor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, might help you: “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us…. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” Frankl believed that meaning was derived by confronting the challenges that life presented and that one’s purpose was found in serving others in some way.