Two of the most challenging questions asked of MBA applicants who aspire to the most highly selective business schools in the world are probably given more thought than a marriage proposal or the purchase of a house.
“What matters most to you and why?” is the intriguing query Stanford Graduate School of Business poses to candidates.
“What more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?” asks Harvard Business School of its applicants.
The former question must be answered with a 650-word limit, while Harvard imposes no limit on the size or scope of the answer to its essay prompt.
ACTUAL EXAMPLES OF HARVARD & STANFORD MBA ESSAYS FROM SUCCESSFUL APPLICANTS
Last year alone, some 18,391 candidates applying for admission to those two schools spent countless hours wondering how to answer one or both of those essay questions to get an edge in getting into Harvard or Stanford.
Now, for the first time ever, they will have a chance to see how successful candidates at both schools, including applicants who won dual admits to Harvard and Stanford, tackled those questions. What Matters? and What More? is a 188-page book filled with 50 different essays shared by successful applicants to those schools. (You can immediately download the entire book for $60 here instantly.) Everyone knows that each year a large number of people apply to both schools so among the 50 actual examples are ten “pairs” of essays for HBS and the GSB, showing how the same candidate approached the two schools’ differing essay prompts.
Written by Jeremy Shinewald, founder of mbaMission, and Liza Weale, founder of Gatehouse Admissions, and published in partnership with Poets&Quants, the book promises to be a must-read for all elite MBA applicants, whether they apply to Harvard, Stanford or any other highly selective business school.
More than a collection of the essays, however, the book features thoughtful critiques written by Shinewald and Weale on every aspect of each of the essays that explore what worked and what didn’t. They not only make general statements about each of the essays in the book; they literally tear apart paragraphs, commenting on the strengths and weaknesses of an applicant’s approach and offering savvy advice on how not to make a mistake. The guidance, samples, and critiques in What Matters? and What More? will help applicants determine the best approach for sharing their strongest stories with these programs—and help to swing the formidable odds in their favor for a cherished admit.
A FAVORITE ESSAY WRITTEN FOR HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL
As Shinewald notes in What Matters? and What More?, “Many applicants have preconceived notions about how a great HBS essay should read. A candidate could be forgiven for thinking something along the lines of ‘HBS wants to see ferocious, unyielding leaders who achieve the impossible,’ but the idea that most applicants would fit this mold is unrealistic. Reading this guide should prove that point!”
One of his favorite essays is the book is from an applicant to Harvard who uses 1,213 words in his essay, including a rather dramatic start:
Despite all we had been through in recent years, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I asked my mother one summer evening in Singapore, “What role did I play during those tough times?” In 2014, a pulmonologist in Singapore, where my parents live, told my father he had three months to live. The only solution was to undergo a complete double lung transplant in America—a precarious, logistically complex, and financially burdensome procedure. Despite the daunting news, I sprang into action and spent weeks researching options. I channeled my inner Product Manager and delegated aspects of the research and planning to different family members, creating dozens of spreadsheets detailing our to-dos. We then waited patiently for the call.
THE NIGHT THIS STANFORD CANDIDATE GOT AN UNUSUAL CALL FROM HER FATHER
The essay goes on from there. “In managing a complicated family dynamic,” adds Shinewald, “he realizes the importance of truly paying attention to what someone is saying, and he adroitly hones this skill through challenging community work, which itself equips him to solve personal and professional problems. Throughout, the applicant creates a narrative that is deeply thoughtful and calming. His voice in the essay gives the reader the sense that he is a fundamentally introspective person who draws power from reflection. But do not try to simply replicate his voice in your essay. What is critical is finding your own.”
Or, how about this compelling story written by Helena, a successful candidate to Stanford GSB. The opening is equally dramatic and gripping, too.
Six months into joining JP Morgan, I got a call from my dad close to midnight. The call itself wasn’t unusual—my parents liked to check in on me—but the discussion was. He needed me to keep this conversation between the two of us. He needed money.
“Helena’s story of financially helping her father—and subsequently her entire family—is a moving one,” notes Weale. “Taking on that responsibility as a recent college graduate must have filled Helena with both stress and concern. Yet the story of her father’s plight accounts for only a small portion of the essay, and a meaningful theme emerges: Helena is fueled to grow, learn, and achieve for herself, then apply her growth, learnings, and achievements to help others.”
Just how Helena navigates these themes into an essay of 751 words is something of a work of art. But she clearly pulled it off. The candidate draws from a number of stories and moments from her life to make her point. “As she moves from one time period to another, the consistent element (beyond her theme) is her use of specific details to make each story stand out,” adds Weale. “Yes, we say it time and time again—such precise particulars make your story one that only you can tell; moreover, they enable the reader to better envision your world. She also dots the essay with a few asides that give the reader more insight into who she is, even beyond her core thesis. Throughout, we see a strong, optimistic, and caring leader, one who is willing to contribute however she can to improve the circumstances of those around her.”