I sat alone one Saturday night in a boardroom in Eastern Oregon, miles from home, my laptop lighting the room. I was painstakingly reviewing a complex spreadsheet of household energy consumption data, cell by cell. ‘Why am I doing this to myself? For remote transmission lines?’…I felt dejected. I’d felt that way before, during my summer at JP Morgan, standing alone in the printing room at 3 a.m., binding decks for a paper mill merger that wouldn’t affect my life in the least.
That’s how an analyst at an MBB firm started his MBA application essay to Stanford Graduate School of Business. His point: In a well-crafted essay, he confronts the challenge of finding meaning in his work and a place where he can make a meaningful difference. That is what really matters most to him, and his answer to Stanford’s iconic MBA application essay helped get him defy the formidable odds of acceptance and gain an admit to the school.
Getting into the prestigious MBA programs at either Stanford Graduate School of Business or Harvard Business School are among the most difficult journeys any young professional can make.
NEARLY 17,000 CANDIDATES APPLIED TO HARVARD & STANFORD LAST YEAR. 1,500 GOT IN
They are two of the most selective schools, routinely rejecting nine or more out of every ten applicants. Last year alone, 16,628 candidates applied to both schools; just 1,520 gained an acceptance, a mere 9.1% admit rate.
Business school admissions are holistic, meaning that while standardized test scores and undergraduate transcripts are a critical part of the admissions process, they aren’t the whole story. In fact, the stories that applicants tell the schools in the form of essays can be a critical component of a successful application.
So what kinds of stories are successful applicants to Harvard and Stanford telling their admission officers? For the first time ever, a newly published collection of 50 of these essays from current MBA students at these two schools has been published. In ten cases, applicants share the essays they wrote in applying to both schools so you can see whether they merely did a cut-and-paste job or approached the task anew. The 188-page book, What Matters? and What More?, gains its title from the two iconic essay prompts at Harvard and Stanford.
THOUGHTFUL CRITIQUES OF THE ESSAYS
Stanford can easily boast having the most difficult question posed to MBA applicants in any given year: In 650 words or less, candidates must tell the school what matters most to them and why. Harvard gives applicants ample room to hang themselves, providing no word limit at all, “What more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?”
One makes this unusual collection of essays powerful are the thoughtful critiques by the founders of two MBA admissions consulting firms, Jeremy Shinewald of mbaMission and Liza Weale of Gatehouse Admissions. They write overviews of each essay in the book and then tear apart portions by paragraphs to either underline a point or address a weakness. The book became available to download for $60 a pop.
As I note in a foreword to the collection, published in partnership with Poets&Quants, the essay portion of an application is where a person can give voice to who they are, what they have achieved so far, and what they imagine their future to be. Yet crafting a powerful and introspective essay can be incredibly daunting as you stare at a blank computer screen.
APPLICANTS OPEN UP WITH INTIMATE STORIES THAT SHOW VULNERABILITY
One successful applicant to Harvard Business School begins his essay by conveying a deeply personal story: The time his father was told that he had three months to live, with his only hope being a double lung transplant. had to undergo a lung transplant. His opening line: “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?’”
For this candidate to Stanford Graduate School of Business, the essay provided a chance to creatively engage admission readers about what matters most to him–equality-by cleverly using zip codes as a hook.
60605, 60606, 60607.
These zip codes are just one digit apart, but the difference that digit makes in someone’s life is unfathomable. I realized this on my first day as a high school senior. Leafing through my out-of- date, stained, calculus textbook, I kept picturing the new books that my friend from a neighboring (more affluent) district had. As college acceptances came in, I saw educational inequality’s more lasting effects—my friends from affluent districts that better funded education were headed to prestigious universities, while most of my classmates were only accepted by the local junior college. I was unsettled that this divergence wasn’t the students’ doing, but rather institutionalized by the state’s education system. Since this experience, I realized that the fight for education equality will be won through equal opportunity. Overcoming inequality, to ensure that everyone has a fair shake at success, is what matters most to me.
HOW AN APPLICANT TO BOTH SCHOOLS ALTERED HIS ESSAYS
Yet another candidate, who applied to both Harvard and Stanford, writes about being at but not fully present at his friend’s wedding.
The morning after serving as my friend’s best man, I was waiting for my Uber to the airport and—as usual—scrolling through my phone,” he wrote. “I had taken seemingly hundreds of photos of the event, posting in real time to social media, but had not really looked through them. With growing unease, I noticed people and things that had not registered with me the night before and realized I had been so preoccupied with capturing the occasion on my phone that I had essentially missed the whole thing. I never learned the name of the woman beside me at the reception. I could not recall the wedding cake flavor. I never introduced myself to my friend’s grandfather from Edmonton. I was so mortified that before checking into my flight, I turned my phone off and stuffed it into my carry-on.
The Stanford version of his essay is more compact. In truth, it’s more succinctly written and more satisfying because it is to the point. By stripping away all but the most critical pieces of his narrative, the candidate focuses his essay entirely on his central point: the battle of man versus technology.
Even if you’re not applying to business school, the essays are entertaining and fun to read. Sure, precious few are New Yorkerworthy. In fact, many are fairly straightforward tales, simply told. What the successful essays clearly show is that there is no cookie-cutter formula or paint-by-the-numbers approach. Some start bluntly and straightforwardly, without a compelling or even interesting opening. Some meander through different themes. Some betray real personality and passion. Others are frankly boring. If a pattern of any kind could be discerned, it is how genuine the essays read.
The greatest benefit of reading them? For obsessive applicants to two of the very best business schools, they’ll take a lot of pressure off of you because they are quite imperfect.