The Verdict On This Year’s Business School MBA Essays


“What matters most to you and why?”

“Share with us your list of 25 random things about you.”

“Introduce yourself to the class.”

“Tell us about an experience where you were significantly impacted by cultural diversity, in a positive or negative way.”

To anyone working on an MBA application to a leading business school this year, those questions will sound awfully familiar. They are the core essay questions prospective students must answer if they want to apply to Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, Harvard Business School, or INSEAD.

But those MBA application questions are also thought to be the most insightful asked by business schools in the 2015-2016 application season, according to a new survey of leading MBA admission consultants by Poets&Quants.

Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business’s now perennial essay question-—“What matters most to you and why?”—-was deemed the most insightful application question, with nearly 73% of the responding consultants naming it. The question has clearly stood the test of time. At a time when many business schools regularly update and revise questions, Stanford has been asking applicants to answer its question for more than a dozen years.


And the most difficult? According to the consultants, Stanford’s essay also is thought to be the hardest to answer well, followed by Harvard, Chicago Booth, UC-Berkeley Haas, Kellogg’s video questions, and INSEAD.

Stanford’s No. 1 status as the most insightful is not surprising. “Stanford reveals its insightful approach even before applicants read the actual questions,” believes Dan Bauer, founder of The MBA Exchange, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm. “The essay instructions set very clear – and very high – expectations by stating that GSB wants to ‘learn about who you are rather than solely what you have done.’ Applicants are urged to ‘think carefully about your values, passions, aims, and dreams prior to writing them.’ So, there’s truly nowhere to run, nowhere to hide given the unequalled level of scrutiny and intensity at Stanford.

That is also why consultants felt Stanford’s prompt is also the most difficult to answer. “This is because of the very intimate nature of this question,” says Chioma Isiadinso, co-founder of EXPARTUS and a former admissions official at Harvard Business School. “This isn’t an essay you can answer easily from the head. You have to write from the heart. And to write this essay effectively you have to have done enough introspection to be able to point to what truly matters most to you.”

Agrees Linda Abraham, founder of “It’s a question that does an excellent job of differentiating among applicants. Superficial thinkers reveal themselves immediately and don’t do well. Applicant who are thoughtful and reflective show awareness and maturity while also successfully highlighting the qualities and individual perspective that Stanford values.”


The findings come from a Poets&Quants survey sent to 50 of the largest and most prominent MBA admissions consulting firms in early July and received a response rate of 46%. Among other things, consultants were asked to name the application essays they considered to be the most insightful and the most difficult. The consultants and firms who completed the surveys have represented tens of thousands of MBA applicants to the world’s top business schools over the past ten years.

Another perennial favorite, Duke’s ’25 Things’ question, also scored highly among the MBA admission consultants polled. Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions, calls the essay “a crowd pleaser.” “It’s also got a sneaky way of showing how thoughtful and introspective a candidate can be,” she says. “I know you see some examples that are truly random and don’t add much value, like ‘M&Ms are my favorite food,’ but the really good ones offer a surprise and glimpse into the character of the applicant. When doing multiple schools, I encourage candidates to start with the 25 Things It’s a great way for me to get to know candidates, and a useful way to get them do some reflection on who they are and how they want to present themselves.”

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