What Happens When You Apply to Stanford B-School

Stanford’s Graduate School of Business

What happens when you submit an application to the most selective business school in the U.S.?

Stanford’s admission department is headed by Derek Bolton, who got his Stanford MBA in 1998 (Bolton, by the way, applied in round three and actually got through the screen.) He heads up a group of about 15 full-time staffers and a handful of additional readers who come on when applications hit their peak level in the fall and early winter. Bolton’s staff handled a record number of applications for the Class of 2011: 7,536 applications for just 385 spots, a fairly dramatic rise from the 4,868 who applied for admission three years earlier. The end result was that only 6.5% of those who applied received an offer of admission.

Given that level of selectivity, it’s easy for someone to think it’s pretty much close to impossible to get into Stanford. Lisa Giannangeli, now an admissions staffer and a Stanford alum, recalls attending a Stanford admissions session at Deloitte where she worked years ago. It is customary for the best schools, including Harvard and Stanford, to put on special admission meetings at prestigious firms that tend to hire a lot of MBAs. At one point during the presentation, she recalls, a colleague stood up and made what was at the time a bewildering statement.

“I have a confession to make,” he said. Everyone in the room thought the person was about to commit a huge blunder, dooming forever his opportunity to get into Stanford.

“I haven’t done a $15 million deal,” he continued. “I haven’t cured cancer or recovered from it. I’m not Mother Teresa. And I had a happy and wonderful childhood. I love my parents. How can I ever get it?”

The admissions staffer’s response was simple and direct. “The majority of people who go to GSB do extraordinary things in ordinary jobs.”

That is generally true. There are many people who apply to Stanford with unique, if not exceptional, backgrounds, but there are also many who have merely done “extraordinary things in ordinary jobs.”

When applications arrive online, a computer system effectively distributes them to readers in the admissions department based on expertise and experience. Admissions staffer Giannangeli, for example, focuses on applications from Europe. So the computer will automatically assign her applicants from the European countries. Every admissions staffer has his or her own way to going through the materials, but in Giannangeli’s case, she’ll often do a deep dive on applicants from a single country for a few days to get a sense of how the competition might line up from the United Kingdom or France. Some slice and dice the applicants based on their industry background, taking consultants in a pile or investment bankers.

Every application is read by one person. After the initial read, a staffer writes a statement on the application and provides a recommendation to Bolton. Sometimes, an application might be turned over to another staffer with expertise in a specific area such as private equity so that the applicant could be compared to others with similar experience. Bolton, whose job it is to shape a highly diverse incoming class, ultimately makes the final decision on who gets an offer.

Stanford offers three application rounds for applicants. The deadline for the first round is Oct. 6, 2010, which will get you a decision from Stanford before Christmas. Applicants begin to send in their completed applications for this round in early September. Admissions strongly encourages applicants to submit their documentation as early as possible in each round. The most obvious reason is that the most spots are available early on. It also just gives you more time to get things settled, from financial aid to housing. If you’re a non-U.S. resident, it will give you a little more room to apply and receive a visa. The deadline for round two is January 6, 2011, while the final deadline for round three–which typically attracts the fewest applicants–is April 6, 2011. All applications are due by 5 p.m., Pacific Time.

Admission officials say that if you are considering applying during the first two rounds, you should strongly go for round one. “Over the past few years, we’ve noticed more applicants applying to Round 2 and, as a result, this round has become bigger and a bit more competitive,” according to admissions. “You should never rush your application. But, on the margin, earlier is better.”

Common mistakes applicants make? “If you have a question, come to us,” says Giannangeli. “There is a lot of bad information out there. At one point, someone said that every single essay question had to address why you wanted to go to Stanford. So we’d get these wonderful replies about their faith and then the last paragraph would be why they want to go to Stanford. That is a trap and a mistake. Don’t over-manufacture the application. Know what it is about the GSB program that really is appealing to you and inspires you. What do you want to get out of the experience?” Another mistake that some applicants make is that their recommenders don’t address the questions Stanford wants answered. So it’s important to make sure that your recommenders specifically address the question Stanford is asking.

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