Should You Buy An MBA Essay?

by John A. Byrne on

“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?

Sandy Kreisberg, HBS Guru, in Harvard Square

Sandy Kreisberg, HBS Guru, in Harvard Square

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.

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  • Pedant

    “doesn’t hurt to grow up in five or six countries, one of them being Africa”

    Guys, Africa’s not a country… just saying!

  • hbsguru

    thanks for the catch, and glad you are reading so closely. Text meant to say
    ” . . . one of them being in Africa.”

  • Rich Houck

    What’s the obsession with Africa? It seems like candidates are just doing things to get admitted to b-school. Maybe I am missing their deep seated convictions..but seems so superficial to me. How can adcoms fall for this? Why not just admit good, hardworking, honest people who just want to work hard and hopefully made a difference in the world. Most of these folks who write about wanting to do microfinance in Uganda end up working for some hedge fund in London or New York. Most of these people who want to change the world by starting their own non-profit end up working for McKinsey’s Oil & Gas practice. Would love to hear your thoughts about this Sandy.

  • Keeping it real

    Rich, you seem to be a naive idealist. As far as MBA apps go, you spin and do what you have to do (i.e, say what needs to be said) in order to get admitted. The adcoms have a BS meter, but they also can feel a little better about themselves because they know they let someone in who..at a minimum at least said something they wanted to hear. You only need to look at our political system to see how much we *spin* everything. You know what a fraudulent and broken admission system we have when most of it has come down to an essay writing contest. My father’s advice is the best: go out there..work hard..understand what you want to do..work harder…don’t be afraid of failure…start your business and follow your dreams. Do it the old fashioned way..you don’t need fancy frameworks and silly diversity immersion programs and workshops to harness your inner emotional intelligence. All those things are used to justify a 200k educational experience.

  • bratz

    Giii’s essay sounds awful. The adcoms need to distinguish between an actual real connection to Africa (b/c someone or their poor parents came from there) and the daddys-little-princess got to do a $8000 4wk NGO trip to Kenya connection to Africa. If I had money to go do volunteer trips everywhere, I would. Back in the real world, where my parents didn’t pay for college or my current apartment, I need to work a real job so I can pay off student loans. I hate all these rich kids up on their high horses about how much money they save in their 401K and taking these do-gooder trips….which are purely a reflection of how much money their parents started them off with.

  • amir

    Agreed. These admission guys sit in some ivory tower with no connection to reality. Most of these academic types have never held a real job in their lives. That drowning essay is simply silly to say the least. i would have rather drowned than write that silly piece that makes me vomit. It’s a messed up world where the inmates have the key to the asylum.

  • Duriangris

    So in the end, essays of Stanford admits are mostly good. Is that news? No.

    Now the useful info is Sandy telling us that only 1 out of 4 shall hypothetically be useful for an applicant. So the plagiarist can burn 200bucks to take that risk or simply buy an +50 essay book for 10bucks at Barnes and Noble across the street.
    Now think about why an alumni would post his essay there:1/ for his ego: he wrote a nice piece of literature and wants to share it to the world… for a fee because it’s that good > won’t be helpful for me, I’ll spend 5 bucks for a full book of Proust2/ for a buck: you can really doubt the intention/values of a supposed golden-boy trying to make petty money > won’t be helpful for me3/ to help poor little applicants from the jungle: in this case it would be on his blog for free so go back to point #2.
    Can’t see the value of this especially since all those essays will sooner or later leak on Chasedream.

  • http://www.mbaover30.com/ MBA Over 30

    To be fair, most top b-schools cut the essays to decrease their influence. Most adcoms really don’t care about some sappy story about feeding hungry children in Kenya (when you ride by thousands of hungry people in your own city DAILY). They mainly just want to see if your goals make sense and if they can pick up one or two clues to separate those who they’d like to meet in person. I don’t see adcoms at top schools drooling over such stories; plus who’s to say that that person’s essay was what got them admitted anyway.

  • http://www.mbaover30.com/ MBA Over 30

    It’s FOOL’S GOLD. Just because someone who “got in” gives you their essay doesn’t mean that the essay was the reason for their acceptance. In fact, it could have very well been the WEAKEST point in their entire application. And the only people who can tell you one way or the other are the admissions professionals who were in the room when the accept/deny/WL decision was made; anyone else is just guessing. At least the admissions consultants have deep vaults of case studies from former clients who they can reference for common threads from which to derive best practices. Buyer beware. This product would only be worth something if the actual adcom who made the “yes” decision were to stamp their approval that it was definitely a positive factor in their final decision.

  • hbsguru

    hmmmmm, not so sure about that, the essays are worth knowing about (and maybe that is enough, you don’t have to buy them) because they let anyone tease out what types of life stories (vs. writing skills) appeal to Stanford adcom, and what values and accomplishments seem to work. What all the essays I read (and plenty more from my clients who got into Stanford over the past 20 years) had in common was “Stanfordy” themes–global awareness, volunteer organizations, travel, multi-cultural awareness, teamwork etc. liberal values, “identity politics,” victim-philia” (be a victim or help one) etc.
    If you have access to those themes in your own life, or can appear to, well, that’s better than saying that what matters most to you is “excellence,” or “never giving in,” or your “classic car collection,” or “improvement” or “adding value”etc. etc. The essays, read as one document, are like going into a Stanford sauna, where you just immerse yourself in the “helping/self-reflective/moral growth world view”–and that does work. You will also learn that most Stanford One Essays do not talk about work per se, although as the McKinsey essays shows, you can use work in some touchstone super/BS way to talk about your world view. It’s only ‘fool’s gold’ if you think those essays are going to give you a roadmap to writing your own, they won’t do that, but they will free you up to think about your own stories in the most Stanford-y way.

  • hbsguru

    Africa is just a proxy for everything Stanford likes: helping others, multi-culturalism, global awareness, NGO’s, and yes, kids who have the energy to go there. You ask, “Why not just admit good, hardworking, honest people who just want to work hard and hopefully made a difference in the world.” Well, 1. they basically do that, 2. they can only accept so many people, so from the cohort in 1, they pick the ones who were hard-working enough etc. to get jobs at McKinsey and then volunteer for some gig in Kenya.

  • Dreamer

    Most of the people who use Africa or other third world country as an essay 1) either truly care about helping others and have dedicated their entire life to it (probably 15% of the cohort) or 2) are very wealthy people from the given region (asia, latam or Africa) who came to the US (or stay in their home country) to study, went to work for the for-profit sector, never probably help anyone in their home country but now used it as a story to get into school. But as people point-out, you do what you need to get in.

  • Dreamer

    I had a friend from latin america whose family own the biggest brewery in his home country. He lived in a 30-room home, had a Bentley and spend 2000 a week partying in New York. Probably never gave a fine rat’s ass about poor people in his home country. He was brilliant, ivy league education, IB/PE/770GMAT. When it came time to write his essay he talk about how seeing the poverty around him, when he was driven to the American high school in his home country motivated him to help the poor in his country. he got into the top 3, now ain’t that a B.

  • http://www.mbaover30.com/ MBA Over 30

    A B indeed; though, it’s not like he wasn’t the quality of student they were looking for. I”m just annoyed by the disingenuous spin on caring for the poor. You should have to present your parent’s W-2 (or have them fill out FAFSA for int’l candidates) as data point to see if that story checks out. lol

  • http://www.mbaover30.com/ MBA Over 30

    It’s mostly the first one. If they cared that much they would be helping the poor people in their own communities more, not just showboating by name dropping the poorest continent on earth. Its like the African baby adoption trend in Hollywood–they treat those kids like fashionable hand bags.

  • http://www.mbaover30.com/ MBA Over 30

    It makes sense that would be the case more often than not, but HOW often not is the question. This reminds me of the “tortilla” essay, where a woman who got in to Stanford released her essay as a clue on what Stanford was looking for; later, D. Bolton said point blank that she was admitted in SPITE of that essay. What if hundreds of applicants had paid to review that essay as a reference?

  • hbsguru

    I don’t fully trust Bolton’s after-the-fact analysis: that essay was technically better than Essays 1 and 3 in article above, and involves a Latina woman from a conservative family opening up to new experiences in college. There is a sample below, and it is pure Stanford, Bolton was just scaring people not to trust any sample essays because, well, he would like everyone who applies to Stanford to be naive, virginal (in terms of preparation), and sui generis, it’s just part of his shtick that applying to Stanford is mystical: no amount of prep, etc. can help.
    SAMPLE:
    “By contrasting my experiences and values against those of others, I am better
    able to understand the values I grew up with and have opened my perspective to
    new ideas. Relationships with three people in particular have changed my
    perspective, shaped my values, and made me who I am today: an Admissions Officer
    who taught me about openness, a Professor who taught me leadership and
    self-confidence, and a student I mentor who taught me what courage and optimism
    really mean.

    I became friends with a Latino Admissions Officer at
    [deleted] College; [deleted] and I had a strong affinity with one another
    because we both grew up in [deleted]. Because of his ethnicity and place of
    birth, I assumed we were very similar and shared common views and lifestyles. A
    few weeks into our friendship, I attended a panel hosted by the Gay and Lesbian
    Students Association to learn more about issues impacting the gay community. I
    was surprised to see [deleted] describing the challenges he faced as a gay
    Latino. Until that point, it never occurred to me that he could have had a
    different background, which included being gay. I assumed that because of a few
    common factors, we were similar and I knew him well. I was wrong. As a result, I
    had inadvertently failed to recognize that [deleted] comprised a set of unique
    values and experiences that I could learn from.”

    FOLKS IF THAT AIN’T A STANFORD IDENTITY POLITICS ESSAY, I DUNNO WHAT IS. THAT GAL WAS NOT ADMITTED DESPITE THAT ESSAY, WHATEVER BOLTON SAYS, THAT GAL WAS ADMITTED BECAUSE SHE WAS LATINA, SMART, IN TOUCH WITH IDENTITY POLITICS ISSUES, AND WROTE A FLUENT CAPTURE OF HER EXPERIENCES.

  • Chris

    Nice post! Every school looks for something in terms of fit. I guess at Harvard it’s all about leadership and what impact one has made in the world. At Stanford it’s about these identity politics and coming of age type stories. Stanford also seems extremely liberal, for a business school. I agree with your analysis; the essays and the reputation of the school have made me realize that I would not be a good fit at Stanford. I’m a conservative and I cannot in good conscience write about things I don’t believe in. I have worked very closely with my church for more than 20 years, but I it’s a personal issue for me. I don’t feel comfortable exploiting my relationship with the Lord or the work I have done with my church because it will help me get into business school. I’m quite convinced that the likes of Mr. Bolton would not find my life or experiences exciting enough. I have led a simple life when compared to some of the exotic stories / experiences people have had. But I hope that I have given back as much as I have received. My post is not intended to rip a top school like GSB; it’s to say that there are other fish in the sea and plenty of schools would be a better fit for me.

  • hbsguru

    Thanks. If you are otherwise qualified for Stanford in terms of stats and jobs, don’t let this discussion turn you off of the place. Visit and talk to current students etc. If you have been active in your church for 20 yrs, and that matters to you, writing about it in some sincere way is not exploiting anyone. Just capture what you have done, learned, and who has inspired you.

  • Mike

    “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.”

    In addition to Africa, Stanford’s admissions officers must have a hard on for dangling modifiers…

  • http://www.mbaover30.com/ MBA Over 30

    Touche; definitely a possibility. Ultimately, though, only the adcoms who were on that committee at that time really know the truth. Not even students know why they were admitted.

  • Dmba

    Integrity and honesty is the only way……not cheating/lying to get into B school. I’d rather be truthful to myself and know I did it the right way. No regrets.

  • GirlWellTraveled

    Africa is not a country, Sandy. That is all.

  • hbsguru

    :-) they have a hard on for people who work at McKinsey who observe leaders in the innovation practice and then conclude that their world view is incomplete. How come? Shows growth, shows awareness of having a world view, shows an ability to take something neutral (McK innovation practice) and relate it to your own growth story in a BS-y/Stanford-y way (“I’m a lifelong learner”) –it’s the secret handshake, that is the way Stanford admits think.

  • TA

    I like what your dad has to say…..all this is tosh…none of this BS and no fancy degree can match strength and guts from within…and the ability to take the knocks …go to bed not wanting to wake up but yet wake up the next day and try again…until eventually you attract success towards you…..all this africa jazz is tosh…..and if adcoms wanna hear this shit then f*** em….and f*** stanford MBA…..Theres 100’s of 1000’s of people in this world who work in as many different professions….many are successful….with MBA’s from top unis…but many are succesful with MBA’s from even 2nd tier unis..you are not gonna wear your MBA certificate likea garland around youe neck and walk around…..and I cant believe even the top MBA programs like kellog and stanford do all this retarded immersion shit..i thought it was something the wannabe mba programs like Duke and johnson used to do….

  • Duriangris

    So people who get in Stanford usually have good essays. Is that news? No.

    The interesting point made by Sandy is that reading other’s essays is seldom useful for applicants. Here only 1 out of 4 may be useful for an applicant, and when you use wordprom, you have no idea what will be in the essay. Make your choice: spend at least $200 on that site to maybe get one useful model, or just go to Barnes and Nobles across the street and buy that 50 MBA essays book for 10 bucks.

    One thing though is keep in mind why someone would upload his essay there. 3 reasons IMO:
    1/ His story is so great that he wants to share it to the world: then why put it on a paid website? > not helpful for me
    2/ For the buck: then why a supposed goldenboy would try to make some petty money there?? > not helpful for me
    3/ Because he genuinely wants to help poor amazonian tribes kids to get in Stanford: then why make people pay for it?? > honestly I think the values of people who started this site and try to make small dough out of it is really questionable (luckily there is really few people who put their essays there).

    Concerning the debate on Africa and all, honestly I don’t think it makes sense to argue on “What matters the most to Stanford and why” solely based on 4 essays out of the 6000 successful ones of the past 4 years.

  • reality@gmail.com

    yes, sorry you so vanilla (in terms of life experiences, not race) that you wouldn’t get in.

  • Unreal

    @ reality@gmail.com Why do you have to demonize him? Zero Class.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=25503923 Bruce Vann

    Because he’s either a Christian or a Mormon. Mention the Lord and people start hating. What’s true of a Messiah is true of His disciples. They will be persecuted. But whatever… reality@gmail.com just has unresolved issues or he wouldnt be angry.

  • there right now

    A lot of students interested in making a difference have the reality of paying back loans. Not something you can do with the salary in development or non-profit. Some people decide to join the private sector until they pay back the loans. But to be fair a lot of them will probably be caught in the golden handcuffs and find it difficult to do what they originally wanted to do.

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