The question has been asked for what seems like forever.
“What matters most to you, and why?”
And for 21 years the essay prompt has been asked of MBA applicants to Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, it has bemused, bothered, and bewildered anxious candidates. This 650-word essay is the centerpiece of Stanford’s MBA application, an invitation for prospective students to be candid and vulnerable, smart and profound.
It “should be so personal that if you were working on it at 2 a.m. 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,” advised Derrick Bolton, the former admissions chief at the school.
MOST CHALLENGING MBA APPLICATIONS? STANFORD, HARVARD, INSEAD, MIT & BERKELEY
No wonder that MBA admission consultants, in a new survey by Poets&Quants, deemed Stanford’s MBA application the most challenging for MBA hopefuls in 2020-2021. Some 42 different consultants and firms completed the survey for a response rate of 35.3%. Among other things, consultants were asked to name the most and least challenging MBA applications for this year as well as their favorite essay questions.
Several consultants noted that Stanford’s decision to recommend that its first required essay be answered in 100 fewer words than last year makes it even more difficult. “Maybe you feel that you can answer the first part of the question in one word, with things like love, family or chocolate,” says Matt Symonds of Fortuna Admissions. “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?”
Heidi Hillis, a Stanford GSB alum & former MBA admissions interviewer who is now an admissions consultant with Fortuna, notes that it’s not merely Stanford’s notorious essay prompt that makes applying to the school so challenging. It’s everything. “With the two main essays and word count reduced from 750 to 650 for ‘what means the most to you and why’, and then four additional essays, it is a huge amount of content,” she says. “While it gives the candidate the chance to talk about many different aspects of their background and experience, it can also be quite overwhelming.”
‘I DON’T KNOW ANYONE WHO DOESN’T NEED A FEW DEEP BREATHS OR A YOGA SESSION BEFORE STARTING ON ONE OF THOSE APPLICATIONS’
The fact that Stanford’s question has been a fixture of its application for just over two decades speaks to its value to the GSB admissions staff in assessing candidates. The essay first appeared in the fall of 1999 under Stanford admissions chief Marie Mookini, who was director of admissions for nearly ten years until May of 2001. “I do recall doing information sessions and being asked about how to approach our essay questions to which I often replied that we simply want to know what makes you tick,” says Mookini, a co-founder and advisor at The Admission Advisory Group. “More formally that morphed into – what matters most to you, and why. And that’s how the prompt came to be, to simplify things, to get at what we really cared about: the applicant’s personal values and lens through which they view and interact with the world.” The first class to have grappled with the question entered the GSB in the fall of 2000.
While Stanford topped the most challenging list, with 66% of the consultants naming the school, not far behind was its East Coast rival Harvard Business School for its single open-ended essay without any limits on word count. Harvard’s required essay asks applicants to answer the question: ‘As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?’
Stanford and HBS positions at the top of the most challenging list is no surprise to Betsy Massar, a Harvard MBA and founder of Master Admissions, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm. “HBS and Stanford are definitely the most challenging applications,” says Massar. “The first because most students are the most nervous about those applications. I have yet to work with a candidate where one of those schools is not their dream – and that makes them quake in their boots at the thought of being evaluated by those admissions committees. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t need a few deep breaths and maybe a yoga session before starting on one of those applications.”
INSEAD: ‘IT IS THE BLUE RIBBON WINNER FOR MOST CHALLENGING, YEAR OVER YEAR’
Both prompts also require meaningful introspection. “Stanford’s classic ‘what matters most’ question usually requires some existential reflection, an intimidating thought,” adds Massar. “Harvard’s open-ended question is also an existential challenge because there are no guidelines and most top students who are applying to business school really really like guidelines. And if I can get a dig in here about ‘essays that worked’ many HBS applicants want to follow the template for the ‘right’ answer, and that always sends them down the wrong path.”
Adds Maria Wich-Vila, founder of ApplicantLab and a co-host of Poets&Quants‘ weekly Business Casual podcast, “I have always loved HBS and Stanford. No other schools, in my humble opinion, give ‘diamonds in the rough’ so many opportunities to shine. I love that HBS does not constrain you, and yet also gives you plenty of rope with which to hang yourself! Their question has been my favorite for years.”
Also making the list of the most challenging are INSEAD, MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, though each of those schools received far fewer votes than Stanford or Harvard. While INSEAD may not serve up a question as confounding as Stanford’s, the application is something of a marathon, requiring answers to seven different questions with a word limit of 2,000 words. Sighed one consultant: “If this has said ‘magnificent pain in everyone’s ass,’ you’d hear a resounding chorus of ‘INNSSSEEEEAAAD.’ It is the Blue Ribbon winner, year over year.”