How To Tackle Stanford GSB’s New Short Answer Essay

Stanford Graduate School of Business

Stanford Graduate School of Business


Stanford GSB opened its 2019-2020 application season with one very noteworthy change – the addition of the Short-Answer essay. It’s a big deal, as there have been no major changes to Stanford’s admissions essays in some 15 years:

The Optional Short-Answer Essay Question:

Think about times you’ve created a positive impact, whether in professional, extracurricular, academic, or other settings. What was your impact? What made it significant to you or to others? You are welcome to share up to three examples. (The GSB gives you up to 1,500 characters, or about 250 words for each example.) 

In keeping with the spirit of its other essays, the new Short Answer question is intrinsically connected to the Stanford GSB’s motto: Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world. For quick context, essay #1 focuses on values and motivations and can be deeply personal. It is definitely NOT the place to talk about accomplishments. (For tips on how to tackle Stanford GSB’s iconic ‘What matters most’ essay, check out this recent article by my Fortuna Admissions colleague Matt Symonds.)

Essay #2 is about why an MBA, why now, why Stanford. This helps the admissions team understand what it is that drives you forward — not only in your career but in your life. 

As such, the Short-Answer question is a valuable invitation to reveal where you’ve been most impactful with both substance and specificity (you’ll do well not to consider it optional). Behind this question is Stanford GSB’s belief that past behavior is the best predictor of future potential. 

It’s very likely your examples will appear in other parts of the application: a bullet on the resume, a story used to support the recommendation – even on the application itself, which asks you to talk about your “most significant accomplishment” for each job. As such, this is your opportunity to GO DEEPER, not repeat something that may be found elsewhere. Your responses need to add value to your overall application. They should support the essays and the rest of the application, in highlighting WHY you find each circumstance to be impactful. 

Consider these three tips as you sit down to write, drawn from my experience as a Fortuna Admissions coach and former Stanford GSB Alumni Interviewer: 

1. Cast a wide net: When thinking about possible examples, good to think broadly. It’s an opportunity to “round out” the rest of your application highlighting meaningful moments, whether from community service or leadership roles or activities at undergrad. These typically wouldn’t get much more than a bullet on the resume or a mention in the application but may be critical pivot points that have shaped who you are and how you think.

2. Think strategically: Carefully consider what the examples say about you and how they fit into Stanford’s definition of leadership (strategic thinking, initiative, persistence, results orientation, engaging others and developing others). In doing so, you can highlight both the outcomes/results of the action while also helping the admissions committee understand how you define “positive impact” (which can tie into your values – and the GSB’s).

3. Make it personal.  Make sure the committee understand WHY you think it was significant, and how it impacted not only others but also yourself. Beyond the final outcome, consider what was going through your mind at the time and what it conveys about your decision-making.

My Fortuna colleague and Stanford GSB alum, Tatiana Nemo, sums it up elegantly. “It’s important to keep in mind throughout all three essays that the admissions office is genuinely interested in getting to know you in a deep and mindful way,” says Nemo. “Particularly for the optional essay, the experiences that you deem the most impactful and valuable to you and others offer a window into your thoughts, into your actions and into your perspective of life, offering a great opportunity to complete the truest representation of you.”

Fortuna Admissions coach Heidi Hillis is a Stanford GSB alum and former MBA Admissions Interviewer. 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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