“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?
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.