Stanford’s Mind-Boggling Essay

TIP #2 Your answer must have integrity and authenticity, which means that it must be supported by evidence from your life story.

An authentic statement of your life’s purpose isn’t simply plucked from the ether. Philosopher Joseph Campbell suggested that to discover your life’s purpose you should “follow your bliss.” According to Campbell, this isn’t merely a matter of doing whatever you like and certainly not doing simply as you are told. It is a matter of identifying that pursuit which you are truly passionate about and attempting to give yourself absolutely to it. In so doing, you will find your fullest potential and serve your community to the greatest possible extent.

Now that you understand what you are looking for, where should you look? We believe you should begin by looking backward. Look back at the defining moments in your life, consider the values and principles that have guided your actions – most of all look at your decisions and actions and search for the connection and pattern among them – a theme. In our opinion, although what matters to you will provide future direction, this is not a question about aspirations (essay question #2 is). Rather, this is a question about the decisions, passions, attitudes, and philosophies that lie behind your past decisions and in turn fuel your future aspirations.

Your response to this question should be borne out of first-hand experience, and you should have already translated your purpose into action, at least on some scale. For example, if you believe and want others to believe that what matters most to you is “to enable others to achieve their dreams,” then there should be evidence in your past that you have done so. We don’t think it’s possible to fake it. An authentic answer requires integrity – past, present, and future – in order to convince your reader of its validity.

TIP #3 Statements of purpose that reflect active “doing” rather than passive “being” are oftentimes the most effective.

From our experience working with clients on this essay, we find the most effective responses to the what matters part of the question encompass who you are, what you have done, and what you plan to do. Abstract statements such as “what matters most to me is integrity” are very challenging to write about. In contrast, an essay that begins with “what matters most to me is accepting things as they are, not as I would like them to be” immediately suggests stories about times you have lived up to this credo. The first statement is about achieving a state of being – the second is about actively doing. This

is not a hard-and-fast rule. You could certainly write a brilliant essay about why integrity matters most to you, but we believe you will have an easier time if you can craft a statement of purpose that is active in nature because active statements connect past actions and provide direction for your future endeavors.

Tip #4 You must tell the admissions committee why this matters most to you.

Some applicants overlook the fact that the What Matters essay is actually a two-part question. The second part of the question asks you to explain the reasons why you chose your particular answer about what matters most to you.  The theme of a collection of stories is the unifying idea. This essay requires you to look at your own stories – the people, situations, and events of your life – and to discover the thematic or overarching connection in your story.

This essay question requires you to keep going. To answer a “why” question you must provide reasons – and therefore, you must go beyond emotion for the moment and apply reason. You must be able to fill in the blank in the next sentence with multiple reasons: “This matters most to me because __________________.”

TIP #5 The tone of the essay must be emotionally moving and inspiring, and the form should be creative.

The best essays are emotionally moving, poignant, sentimental, human, funny, or all of the above. Your essay should be inspiring, engaging, and, if possible, entertaining. When the admissions officer reads your essay, he or she should have an emotional response, not because you are trying to pluck heartstrings, but because your own excitement and passion come through in what you’ve written.

This tip, though it comes last, also provides some direction for where you must search for the answer to what matters most to you – in your heart, not just in your mind. Let your emotions guide you as well as your intellect.

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