Why Stanford’s Iconic MBA Essay Still Matters

Stanford University Graduate School of Business – Ethan Baron photo

When Stanford GSB’s former Dean of Admissions Derrick Bolton first introduced the ‘What Matters To You and Why’ admissions essay in the MBA application over thirteen years ago, did he have any idea that it would become such an enduring and iconic question? Even if you don’t include Stanford among your short list of target schools, this prompt is well worth reflecting upon before you start writing your applications.

With the arrival of a new director of MBA admissions, Kirsten Moss, who officially assumes her duties on June 1st, the school has been the first to announce application deadlines for the 2017/18 admissions cycle, and confirmed that there are no major changes to the essay questions. “What matters most to you, and why?” is with us for at least another year.

Kirsten will be speaking on an Admissions Director panel at the CentreCourt MBA Festival in San Francisco on June 24th, and I look forward to hearing her take on this question, and how best to approach it.


This question seems straightforward, although coming up with an answer can be a lot more difficult than one might think. At Fortuna Admissions we have seen how this question has tied some applicants in knots as they try to come up with an approach that they hope is clever, striking, or even profound.

Whether you’re actually applying to the MBA program at Stanford, or wondering about the career path that is right for you, taking the time to answer this question can provide invaluable insight about your life purpose, values, and true self. When you understand what matters most to you, it’ll help solidify your self-awareness and give you a strong foundation not only for success at business school but also success with relationships and career. It’s a question that is worth considering in spite of the pain and anguish!

So why does Stanford ask this question, and why have they have stuck with it for so long? For my colleague at Fortuna Admissions, Heidi Hillis, a Stanford GSB alumnus and former MBA admissions interviewer for the school, the question really gets to the heart of what Stanford is about, and links strongly to the school’s tagline, ‘Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world’.


“Stanford is looking not just for extremely bright and successful professionals, but also young people who have strong values, and who want to have a positive impact in the world.” She goes on to explain: “The school genuinely wants to get to know you and to understand your values. Stanford MBAs are driven by a desire not just to excel in their careers but also to help others and to have a positive impact. The Stanford GSB admissions office works very hard to bring together a group of students who are open, humble and have strong integrity, which leads to the incredible level of camaraderie and trust that you find at the school. This is really core to Stanford’s brand and the identity of its community.”

So what matters most to you, and why? Start off with your intuitive or first response. Write it down. We’ll return to it later.

Stanford allows no more than 1,150 words to cover this essay and a second essay question, “Why Stanford?” Maybe you feel that you can answer the first part of the question in one word, with things like family, love, or chocolate. But the heart of the question, the part that reveals your true calling in life, requires deeper reflection. Why does that one thing matter to you more than something else?


If you’re staring at a blank page, perhaps we can start with some of the advice that Stanford GSB itself offers. They propose that you think in terms of who you are, lessons and insights that have shaped your perspectives, and events that have influenced you. And they encourage you to write from the heart.

Derrick Bolton was quoted as saying ,‘please think of the Stanford essays as conversations on paper ‒ when we read files, we feel that we meet people, also known as our “flat friends” ‒ and tell us your story in a natural, genuine way.” If you look up ‘story’ in the dictionary, you’ll find a definition along the lines of ‘an account of imaginary or real people and events told in an entertaining way.” The best essays are told in a captivating ‘story-like’ way that may involve emotion, inspiration, humor, insight, honesty, wit, and simply – being yourself.

A Stanford GSB admissions officer may be reading 20 applications today, 30 tomorrow, and hundreds more in the following weeks. So how can you make an impact, sound intelligent, be original, and engage your reader? This is no easy task. Take the time to put on your thinking cap and reach within to tell the story that you are the best qualified to write.


At Fortuna Admissions, we’d like to help and offer you some guidance on how to best tackle the structure of this type of essay, while telling your ‘story’:

1. Start with identifying a person, event, or experience that greatly impacted you. What morals, values, and lessons did you gain from this experience?

2. How do you presently use these morals, values, and lessons, and how do they impact your drive, motivation, and vision of the world? (Remember, Stanford’s mission statement is ‘Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world’.)

3. How has the above impacted your career decisions?

4. Conclude by showing the link between your values and your career vision, and why these objectives are important to you.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.