The most infamous MBA admissions essay comes from the Stanford Graduate School of Business (with the Harvard MBA essay a close second!). It is simply–and perhaps maddeningly–“What matters most to you, and why?” Deceptively open-ended, the question manages to stump many applicants who agonize over what Stanford wants to hear and how to best write to it. This article will give you some tips on how to approach the question as well as some useful quotes from the Stanford GSB admissions committee on what they are looking for.
A Personal (and Occasionally Too-Personal) Essay
This most difficult of Stanford GSB essay questions is also famously invested in the personal struggles of the applicant. There is no subject matter too taboo or too intimate. Former Stanford GSB admissions director, Derrick Bolton, once said, “Essay A should be so personal that if you were working on it at 2 AM and accidentally printed a copy to your office printer, you would break out in a cold sweat, grab the keys, floor it and drive as fast as you could to the office to snatch the essay before anyone could read it.”
And he meant it. Successful application essays have been written on topics as diverse and potentially controversial as overcoming addiction, having an abortion, or coping with ethnic discrimination. On the other hand, topics like receiving advice from a mentor and using one’s career to make a social impact have also proved successful.
There is no single “perfect” topic. What matters most is how you construct your story, and our seven tips below will help you do just that.
1. Crafting a Good Story
The Stanford GSB admissions reader is looking for a well-crafted story in the MBA essay that has an easily identifiable core. In the video below, Expert Admissions Consultant at Menlo Coaching, Yaron Dahan, talks about working with a client who initially went 0-for-5 with his applications due to some big issues: he was convicted of a felony, had below a 3.0 GPA, and while he had a decent job, to get into a top MBA program, he would typically need to have a better one. But Dahan was clear that “what he thought were weaknesses were in fact his greatest strengths. Meaning the fact that he had come from a position where he was a convicted felon and a high school dropout to move into a big consultancy firm […] in and of itself was incredible.”
Dahan goes on to say that his strategy was to turn those perceived weaknesses into “a very motivational story.” That kind of pivot can make a huge difference in your application. Owning up to a flaw and rewriting it as a strength shows the kind of self-awareness and dedication to self-improvement that MBA programs find valuable in their applicants. Especially in the case of the Stanford GSB Essay A, you have a rare opportunity to be vulnerable in an essay by writing your story in a legible way that proves how far you’ve come and what you might accomplish in the future.
In the case of Dahan’s client, it made what might otherwise look like a mediocre set of achievements into a story of great achievements, given the adversity he had to overcome to get there.
The Importance of Storytelling in Your MBA Application
2. Keep it Simple
One important thing to keep in mind when you compose your essay is to not overwrite. Many people see an essay and feel like they must impress the admissions committee with superior creative writing skills that they may not possess. Menlo Coaching co-founder, Alice van Harten, suggests employing the “Classic” style as exemplified by Francis Noél-Thomas and Mark Turner’s Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose. The basic concept of classic style is to include distinctive and descriptive features that are aimed at effective understanding rather than impressive turns of phrase or superlatives.
Van Harten insists that employing classic prose is “about more than writing style. It’s about a mindset.” She proposes that the mindset is one where you are focused on your story rather than focused on the goal of admission. That will allow your story to be maximally communicable without worrying about impressing the admissions committee with your flowery prose or hitting the right buzzwords.
In addition to the points above, the classic style approach will also benefit you in the following ways:
- Because most applicants have a natural inclination to try and impress committees by “telling them what they want to hear,” your simple, clear essay will stand out. It will be a breath of fresh air to the committee.
- Using this technique projects confidence. You know your story and you have confidence that it will land with the admissions committee. You will be in the position of showing why your story is meaningful rather than trying to defend its meaningfulness.
- It is the most effective way to communicate your content. In an essay that asks “what is most important to you and why,” you will be communicating that very thing without any bells and whistles that might potentially dilute or confuse your audience.
3. “What Matters Most to You, and Why?” Is About Hard Choices
At its core, the Stanford MBA Essay A is about deep self-examination. This is a difficult concept to put into words. Saying that you will sit down and deeply examine yourself is not particularly actionable. One way to think about it, however, is to think about the hard choices you have had to make–the choices that have a real cost.
A useful way to look at this is through the lens of business. Although professor Robert Simons teaches at HBS, he has made a statement that’s highly relevant to Stanford’s essay: “Value statements that are lists of aspirational behaviors aren’t good enough. Real core values indicate whose interest comes first when faced with difficult trade-offs.” It’s all well and good to say that fairness or integrity is important to you, but without having to fight for it, those words are pretty empty.
Or, put another way, think about what you have given up in order to be where you are. For example:
- In choosing to live in a certain place, you have chosen not to live in others. Why did you make that choice?
- In accepting a certain job, you might have rejected others or not pursued them in the first place.
- What do you spend your money on (and what don’t you spend it on as a result)? What gets your time and attention? What goes ignored?
- If you had any of these choices to do over again, would you?
Those kinds of questions may help you focus on what matters most to you in a way that is demonstrably meaningful and not just a bunch of hot air.
4. Focus on the Why
If you have identified a good example of a tough choice that you’ve had to make, it’s important to then be clear about why you made that choice. What Stanford GSB hopes to learn in your response is what an accurate assessment of your value system is. Your motivations for tough choices will end up saying a lot about you.
- Maybe you live in a studio apartment so you can travel more often because your parents taught you that a worldly life is one well-lived.
- Maybe you lost touch with friends because you were so dedicated to learning to code and that is how you launched the website that got you your tech job.
Starting with the results (the hard choices) instead of the precepts (the values behind them) will lead to richer, stronger essays that are better rooted indemonstrable, lived experience. That kind of experience will let you support your claim in concrete ways instead of having to stretch to fit an example to the end goal. You will be showing the Stanford MBA admissions committee what matters most to you and why rather than merely telling them.
5. Make it Emotional
The writing in the Stanford MBA essay should be much more personal (and, to a certain extent, more casual) than what you write in a more traditional business school admissions essay. You need your personality to come through and that’s why it’s important to make your response emotional.
Now, when we say “emotional” we mean happy, sad, funny, or anything in between. The response to this essay prompt should give the reader an insight into who you are: your sense of humor, your passion, your sentimentality. Something along those lines should come through. This is not what the standard MBA essay asks of its applicants.
The good news is that, if you follow the above advice, it will be much easier for you to communicate that. Writing in a way that shows off who you are as a person is not something you can force. But if you are writing about something that is actually important to you, the built-in emotion will come through. A story you find funny will likely come across as such if you are invested in telling people about it. A particularly harrowing choice you had to make will be full of pathos if you felt strongly about it and try to communicate that sentiment in classic style.
6. Don’t Focus on Your Accomplishments
Many applicants mistakenly believe that they can write about their accomplishments or accolades they have received and tie those together as some sort of central value. Their achievements, they claim, are what is most important to them.
This is a big mistake. You have a resume and letters of recommendation to discuss your achievements and accomplishments. Talking yourself up will have the opposite effect as you intend in the Stanford MBA Essay A. This should be a chance to be vulnerable and thoughtful. It’s about the people, places, and events that have influenced and shaped you. It’s about what you prioritize and, if you list your accomplishments, you will end up seeming arrogant as a result.
7. Remember That This is Hard! Professionals Can Help.
Writing an essay–especially a personal essay–is one of the most difficult aspects of applying to an MBA program. Stanford GSB knows that in assigning it to you. They expect it to be difficult in order to help them sort out the best candidates.
One of the most essential things you can do, if it is in your budget and plan, is to hire an admissions consultant to help you make sense of your story.
You do have a story to tell. There are some values in your life that you have been living by. It helps to have an outside, objective person with training and experience in MBA admissions to bounce ideas off of and help you understand how to make the most out of your story. Our MBA admissions consultants at Menlo Coaching can provide that objectivity and expertise.
Why does Stanford GSB love this Question?
Great leaders are often people who are very self-aware or, at the very least, recognize what is important to them. They pursue their goals at all costs. Look at Steve Jobs–a leader who was so singularly focused on his goals that he sacrificed social acceptance and the confidence of friends and family to get to the top. The adoration and hagiography as a tech idol that followed was the result of his understanding of his desires and ignoring anything that wasn’t useful in achieving them.
While you may not gain the same ruthless reputation as Jobs, or be possessed of the same monomania, the Stanford MBA admissions committee wants to understand that you have a value system just as thoughtful. They want to ask you a highly personal question in order to get an understanding of how your life has been lived in accordance with your values. You’ll need to rely on friends, family, colleagues, and perhaps an admissions consultant for help as you work through your ideas.
David White has been recognized as a top reviewed MBA admissions consultant by Poets&Quants in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and is a founding partner at MBA admissions consulting firm Menlo Coaching. His 15-year tech career included executive roles at startups (Efficient Frontier, acquired by Adobe) and publicly traded companies (Yahoo, Travelzoo), during which time he hired, trained, and developed dozens of young professionals. He has been coaching MBA applicants since 2012 with a special focus on developing the right career goals.