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