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 14 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.
In what is now her second year as the director of MBA admissions, Kirsten Moss, has again confirmed that there are no major changes to the essay questions. The second essay question is one posed by many schools: Why Stanford? The school tells applicants to “enlighten us on how earning your MBA at Stanford will enable you to realize your ambitions” and provides a bit more guidance here:
- Explain your decision to pursue graduate education in management
- Explain the distinctive opportunities you will pursue at Stanford.
- If you are applying to both the MBA and MSx programs, use Essay B to address your interest in both programs.
But how best to approach the more difficult question, “What matters most to you, and why?”
THE QUESTION CAN PROVIDE INVALUABLE INSIGHT ON YOUR LIFE PURPOSE, VALUES AND TRUE SELF
This question seems straightforward, although coming up with an answer can be a lot more difficult than one might think. 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’.
WRITE DOWN YOUR FIRST RESPONSE
“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?
STANFORD’S OWN ADVICE ON HOW TO ANSWER THE ESSAY QUESTION
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.
TELLING YOUR STORY
Here’s 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.
If you’re still coming up short as to what really matters to you, start by noting down all of your experiences to date, and exploring themes such as:
- What was your upbringing like? How did key figures and your surroundings shape you? Were you a happy child? What were you regularly involved in (by force or by choice)?
- What was school like? Were you focused? What were your friends like and how did they influence you? How did you feel, emotionally as a teenager?
- What has your career been like? Are you proud of your choices? Any regrets? What do you like/dislike about your job and why?
- What extra-curricular activities and hobbies did you/do you engage in and what’s the reason behind them?
- What do you love or hate about life? What makes you happy, sad, or angry?
- What makes you want to get up (or not get up) in the morning? What motivates you and what do you really care about?
IT’S ALL DEEP WITHIN YOU
Now review your answers – including what you initially wrote down as your gut response. Can you identify an underlying theme (or themes) throughout your life? I bet you can. It might amaze you that you have a method to the madness in your life. You could even talk to family and friends as they may have some anecdotes about you that you’ve forgotten about. Now, through telling a compelling story, highlight the key themes and connect them to the general ideas expressed in your essays.
Even though you might have to spend hours on this essay through brainstorming, research, talking with others, writing a draft, then another (and then another), just remember that it’s all deep within you… it’s your story, and you just have to dig deep, find it, and pull it out.
Shouldn’t we all really think about what matters most to us, whether we’re applying to business school or not? This essay is, in fact, a very valuable exercise to help with self-awareness, to understand why we do certain things, and why we make certain choices in life. Take this on as a personal challenge, not as an MBA essay question. Stanford wants to know what matters most to you, and so should you.
Matt Symonds is a founding partner of Fortuna Admissions and also the co-founder of QS World MBA Tour in 1995, and launched the Kaplan Test Prep franchise in continental Europe. His MBA admissions workshops have been attended by more than 80,000 business school hopefuls around the world.