Chicago Booth | Ms. Future CMO
GMAT Have Not Taken, GPA 2.99
Kellogg | Mr. CPA To MBA
GMAT Waived, GPA 3.2
Kenan-Flagler | Mr. Healthcare Provider
GMAT COVID19 Exemption, GPA 3.68
MIT Sloan | Ms. International Technologist
GMAT 740, GPA 3.5
UCLA Anderson | Ms. Art Historian
GRE 332, GPA 3.6
Georgetown McDonough | Mr. International Youngster
GMAT 720, GPA 3.55
Columbia | Mr. Chartered Accountant
GMAT 730, GPA 2.7
Harvard | Mr. Harvard Hopeful
GMAT 740, GPA 3.8
Yale | Mr. Philanthropy Chair
GMAT Awaiting Scores (expect 700-720), GPA 3.3
Kellogg | Ms. MBA For Social Impact
GMAT 720, GPA 3.9
N U Singapore | Mr. Just And Right
GMAT 700, GPA 4.0
Columbia | Mr. Startup Musician
GRE Applying Without a Score, GPA First Class
Chicago Booth | Ms. Entrepreneur
GMAT 690, GPA 3.5
Columbia | Mr. MGMT Consulting
GMAT 700, GPA 3.56
Harvard | Mr. Google Tech
GMAT 770, GPA 2.2
Harvard | Mr. Spanish Army Officer
GMAT 710, GPA 3
Harvard | Mr. Future Family Legacy
GMAT Not Yet Taken (Expected 700-750), GPA 3.0
Wharton | Mr. Big 4
GMAT 770, GPA 8/10
Rice Jones | Mr. ToastMasters Treasurer
GMAT 730, GPA 3.7
Harvard | Mr. Public Health
GRE 312, GPA 3.3
Kellogg | Mr. Hopeful Admit
GMAT Waived, GPA 4.0
London Business School | Mr. Indian Mad Man
GMAT Have not taken yet, GPA 2.8
Kellogg | Mr. Operations Analyst
GMAT Waived, GPA 3.3
UCLA Anderson | Mr. Microsoft India
GMAT 780, GPA 7.14
Harvard | Mr. Belgium 2+2
GMAT 760, GPA 3.8
Kellogg | Mr. IDF Commander
GRE Waved, GPA 3.0
Harvard | Mr. Community Impact
GMAT 690, GPA 3.0

How To Write Stanford’s ‘What Matters Most’

An aerial view of Stanford's new nine-building complex for its business school.

An aerial view of Stanford’s new nine-building complex for its business school.

Stanford’s Graduate School of Business’ celebrated (did I hear ‘dreaded’) What Matters Most essay (herein WMM) has both stumped and challenged applicants over the years. This question is (arguably) the furthest thing from a ‘traditional’ B-school question (though trends, including HBS’ question, are slowly following suit).

This essay requires deep levels of introspection and sincerity, often leading candidates to compare it to a psychology session. Applicants often ask: “What does the adcom want to hear?”

This unique question represents an opportunity for GSB to learn more about the values that guide a candidate’s life choices. In my experience, an effective WMM essay will reveal not only something intimate about the candidate but will also point to his/her potential as a future leader that will achieve impact.

TELL A STORY

So how do we achieve that effective WMM essay?

Let’s start from the beginning. Tell a story—and tell a story that only you can tell.

This essay should be descriptive and told in a straightforward and sincere way. This probably sounds strange, since this essay is for business school, but the adcom doesn’t expect to hear your business experience in this essay (though, of course, you are free to write about whatever you would like).

Your task in this first essay is to connect the people, situations, and events in your life with the values you adhere to and the choices you have made. This essay gives you a terrific opportunity to learn about yourself.

EXPLAIN HOW AND WHY THE WHAT HAS SHAPED YOUR LIFE

Many candidates make the mistake of not relating to both parts of this question; the ‘why’ here is instrumental. While the ‘good’ essays describe the “what,” the ‘great’ essays move to the next order and describe how and why this “what” has influenced your life.

So for your second task, be careful not to underestimate the value of describing how and why guiding forces have shaped your behavior, attitudes and objectives in your personal and professional life. Admittedly this is much harder, but it will also make for a stronger essay.

Consulting with GSB alumni, one once indicated to me that, “A great WMM essay will make me cry.” While I’ve helped candidates gain acceptance to GSB with essays that didn’t make me cry, I will agree that WMM necessitates a level of sensitivity and intimacy that is rare for most other B-schools applications.

CONSIDER THESE KEY ELEMENTS BEFORE YOU WRITE THE ESSAY

When you find yourself ready to answer this question, I have found the following approach to be very effective. First, identify a value or philosophy. Then, start with a sort of “personal story,” something from childhood, an anecdote, something that has guided you or helped sow the seed, or even solidify, WMM to you.

Next, develop two to three “stories” that serve to highlight the point you are trying to make. These “stories” should not be a grocery list of your achievements, they don’t even necessarily have to be something noted in your CV; in fact, in most cases, there will be no reference of this trait or story in your CV and this is okay.

Allow the following elements to guide your writing:

1) Sincerity – While it runs the risk of being too emotional or cliché-ridden, your essay needs to be personal, intimate, while at the same time logical. The story has to “fit” – fit your personality, fit your stories, fit your other essays. It has to “make sense” and be convincing. The flow from one “story” to another has to be smooth, with each story sliding nicely into the next. Another great way to show sincerity could be to talk about personal/private moments, or about moments of weakness.

2) Community – Stanford’s commitment to social activism and contributing to one’s community is unquestionable. If possible, try to have at least one community service story, or at least some kind of community angle.

3) People – At the end of the day, regardless of what you chose as “What Matters Most“, the most effective essays of this kind are often about people – interacting with people, caring about people, making an impact on others.

Whatever it is, your essay must have a clear “human touch” because, ultimately, achieving GSB’s motto, “Change Lives, Change Organizations, Change the World”, will depend on your ability to connect with, motivate, and empower others.

Danielle Marom of Aringo Consulting

Danielle Marom of Aringo Consulting

 

Danielle Marom is a senior application consultant with Aringo Consulting, an MBA admissions consulting firm founded by Wharton MBA Gil Levi. 

DON’T MISS: STANFORD’S FAMOUS TORTILLA ESSAY or WHY STANFORD IS BEATING HBS AMONG DUAL ADMITS

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.