Why Everyone Should Answer Stanford GSB’s Iconic Essay

Stanford Graduate School of Business at dusk

Stanford Graduate School of Business at dusk

Stanford GSB has opened its application for 2019-2020 season, and in doing so, affirmed that it’s notorious (call it iconic) essay endures after some 15 years: What matters most to you, and why?

This elegant question epitomizes the sentiment ‘simple but not easy.’ It exacts the kind of profound self-awareness and fearless authenticity that can tie the most excellence-driven applicant into knots in the spirit of delivering something they hope is striking, clever and distinctive.

Whether Stanford GSB is on your shortlist or not, taking the time to answer this question is an exercise that in and of itself holds a lot of value, reflects Fortuna’s Tatiana Nemo, a Stanford GSB alum & former MBA admissions interviewer. “This kind of perspective-taking helps unearth a clarity of purpose that’s invaluable for anyone who’s ever wrestled with the expectations of others, peer pressure and unexamined momentum,” says Nemo. “If the question is tackled thoughtfully and bravely, with keen focus on the action of speaking from the heart rather than worrying on the effect that doing so will create, then it provides a substantial and valuable view into the applicant’s character, motivations, fears and beliefs.”

Fortuna’s Heidi Hillis, Stanford GSB grad and former GSB Alumni Interviewer, has pushed many a successful candidate to dig deeper in the spirit of getting to the heart of the question, which is intrinsically connected to the school’s tagline: Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.


“It is so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, to plow forward with life and career without really considering our values. It’s a vital thing for everyone to do periodically, but especially early in your career,” says Hillis. “It’s a golden time to pause, get introspective, and make sure you’re headed where you want to go – that you even know where you want to go and what success looks like for you. This essay question makes you stop and think about what it is that makes you who you are.”

So why does Stanford ask this question, and why have they have stuck with it for so long?

Stanford GSB Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions & Financial Aid, Kirsten Moss, spoke to what MBA Admissions really wants at the CentreCourt MBA Festival in San Francisco in 2017.

“One of the things that has been proven over and over in research is that highly inspirational leaders who get the highest level of performance from their organizations really know what drives them, and they are thinking beyond themselves to the problems they can make change and have an impact on. So in our application one of our key questions is ‘what matters most and why?’, and it has been an iconic question for a long time,” says Moss. “Taking the time to understand what matters to you will be your true north as a leader, no matter what school you go to, in the rest of your life… You will be one step ahead of the game in terms of being able to motivate others.”

So what matters most to you, and why? Start off with your gut or intuitive response. Jot this down – we’ll come back to it later.


Stanford suggests aiming for 750 words, allowing 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 love, family or chocolate. But the heart of the question, the part that reveals your life’s calling and uniquely personal journey for getting there, requires deeper introspection. Why does that one thing matter more than any other?

If you’re staring in terror at the blank page, Nemo advises: “Invest time building a timeline of the influences, instances, moments that have shaped you. Dig deep connecting the dots between what has shaped you and who you’ve become. Devote essay A to talk about past and present, and talk about the future in essay B. Both essays need to be coherent and could read as a single story.”

Our team at Fortuna Admissions offer advice on how to best tackle the structure of this essay, while telling your ‘story’:

1. Start with identifying a person, event, or experience that greatly impacted you.

2. What morals, values, and lessons did you gain from this experience?

3. How do you use these morals, value, and lessons today, and how do they impact your drive, your motivation, and your vision of the world? (Remember, Stanford’s aforementioned motto.)

4. How has the development of your career linked to the above?

5. Conclude by restating the link between your values and your career vision, and why these goals are important to you.


If you’re still drawing a blank as to what really matters to you, start by noting down all of your experiences to date, and exploring things like:

What was it like growing up? How did your parents/guardians 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? How did your friends influence you? What kind of people did you hang around with? How did you feel, emotionally as a teenager? What did you get involved with?

What has your career been like? Are you happy with your choices? Any regrets? What do you like/dislike about your job and why?

What extra-curricular activities and hobbies do you engage in and what’s the reason behind them?

What do you love or hate about life? What makes you happy or sad, frustrated or upset?

What gets you up (or not get up) in the morning? In this life, what do you really, care about?

Now look at all of your answers – including what you initially wrote down as your gut response. Can you identify an underlying theme (or themes) throughout your life? Probably. You may amaze yourself that there’s a method to the madness in your life! Consider soliciting family and friends for some anecdotes about you that may not be front of mind. Now, through telling a compelling story, highlight the key themes and connect them to the general ideas expressed in your essays.


Even though you may have to devote hours on this essay through brainstorming, research, talking with others, writing a draft, then another (and then another), just remember that it’s all inside you. As my Fortuna colleague Sharon Joyce emphasized in Writing a Powerful MBA Essay, “There is no right story other than your own. And the person best poised to tell that story is you.”

Dare to be vulnerable, honest and personal. “It is common to see answers like ‘never giving up’ or ‘always to push myself beyond my comfort zone’ – thematically that’s okay, but make sure to go beyond. Give examples and tell stories that only you can tell,” says Hillis. “Don’t tell a story that you think the admissions committee wants to hear – your essay is not a marketing tool. It’s ok – sometimes even better – to share a failure story. Tell the story that defines who you are and how you came to be that way. Use details – colors, smells, feelings. Let the reader go away knowing something that they only could have learned in the essay.”  

Shouldn’t we all really think about what matters most to us, whether we are applying to business school or not? Take this on as a personal challenge, not merely as an MBA essay question. Stanford wants to know what matters most to you, and so should you.

Matt Symonds is Co-Founder of MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and Co-Host of the CentreCourt MBA Festival. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.


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