The Stanford Graduate School of Business application is the most comprehensive among top schools. And its famously fundamental essay question — “What matters to you most and why? — is so deep and probing it can cause temporary brain freeze.
In a Masterclass webinar in early 2023, Fortuna Coaches Heidi Hillis, Tatiana Nemo and Rachel Erickson Hee (all Stanford GSB MBA alumnae and former GSB admissions interviewers) and Fortuna Founder and Director Matt Symonds offered specific, actionable advice on how to master Stanford’s process and produce an application that stands out from the crowd.
- Be you, be genuine, be authentic!
Stanford really wants to get beyond the resume and learn what makes you you. That main iconic essay is an opportunity to let the school understand who you are as a person,” says Hillis. “Everybody has a story; the key is to make sure that yours is unique.”
“People come to me and say things like, ‘I read that the GSB really likes candidates who are X or Y.’ That’s a signal that you need to stop and rethink. Don’t second guess what the GSB wants to hear; what the GSB wants to hear is about you. What works for someone else is not necessarily going to work for you.”
- Go deep!
Stanford’s multiple essays and longer word count are an opportunity to dig down and do the self-reflection that most of us don’t have an opportunity to do in our day-to-day lives. “They are looking for is something that is really hard to find on a resume or a GMAT score. They want to know what’s driving you,” says Nemo. “They are looking for that texture that makes your ambition, your sense of self, come to the fore.”
Hillis notes, “Texture is a really good word for it; you need to get beyond the facts, go beyond the what and get to the why. At Fortuna, we work with our clients on showing, not telling — finding those stories and weaving them into a cohesive narrative.” It can be daunting and requires a deep dive, coaches agree. “Start to think about those stories,” Hillis says. “If it was something that stuck with you from childhood, what was it about that story that made you change or think in a different way? How did you feel, how did you change, why did you make a decision that might have been different?” Really drilling down to mine those nuggets of truth yields rich materials that can be used in other components — and for applications to other schools as well.
- Select recommenders who have seen your growth.
The admissions committee is not looking for fan letters, and they are not impressed by a recommender’s big name or shiny title. They are looking for evidence, anecdotes on how you have responded to challenges, how you work in teams, your leadership and ability to form partnerships and develop others and how you communicate, the coaches agree.
To be effective, this evidence must come from someone who has direct observation of you and has been involved in your growth, given you feedback and has seen how you translate that into action. Recommenders have far more impact when they can speak persuasively about your impact.
You want to give your recommenders clear guidance, with suggested areas they should cover — but definitely do not prepare a draft for them, even if the recommender asks for one. Prompt your recommenders to reinforce points you make elsewhere in your application, but avoid repetition. If you cover the same topic, make sure your recommender adds additional context or a different viewpoint. “Use the real estate of the application strategically, so you cover all your best points and strengths. Figure out what goes in the essay, what is on your resume and what you ask recommenders to speak to,” Nemo says.
- Maximize the interview to build rapport and a relationship.
The goal is to put all these pieces together well and score an invitation to interview. That may seem nerve-wracking because it’s the component you can’t review and revise. Rachel Erickson Hee offered some reassurance: “Most of the people who get an interview do a good job. It’s really about providing the interviews and school with more information about who you are.”
“A lot of times people prepare with talking points: these are the ideas I need to get across. This is so not the way to approach the Stanford interview. It’s a conversation,” she added. The interview will be a Stanford graduate who has not read your full application. “Their job is to be your advocate,” said Hillis; “Your job is to give them the stories and information they need to be your advocate.”
That said, it’s a behavioral interview, with questions taking the “tell me about a time when you did X” format.” Be prepared for interruptions and follow-up questions. Know your work, know your contributions, know your goals and be ready with stories of times when you showed leadership. “This is where you add color and depth to those stories: how you approached the problem, what your thought process was,” Hillis said. “Know your stories — then relax, listen and be in the moment.”
Erikson Hee adds, “Don’t worry too much about whether you said things just right, It’s really not about that. The interview is looking for the best of you. It’s about giving them evidence to demonstrate your best.”
- Connect with the school and the alums for your benefit.
You are investing a lot of money in your MBA experience, “but it’s also the time of your life,” Nemo says. It’s well worth taking the time to connect with and learn from alumni and students to confirm that your target school is a good fit for you.
You are making a decision about where you will be at your best, says Nemo. “You’ll perform best where you feel you belong, where you are comfortable and happy. So, when you are with alumni, do you feel comfortable? Do you appreciate their values and where that person is coming from? When you walk across campus, do you see yourself there? Do you feel the right vibe?”
All of these elements are key, and they are things you can’t learn from a website, Nemo points out. “Be demanding in finding the place that is the best fit, both from a cultural standpoint of how you experience the school, the personalities and individuals you will be spending two years with and the body of alums you will be interacting with.”
“It’s not about meeting 17 people; it’s about trying to understand what it is that’s unique about Stanford that is important to you,” says Erickson Hee.
Going into those conversations with sources in the Stanford community, “it’s important to have a really robust understanding of why you want to go to business school. Then you can talk about how Stanford is going to help you achieve those goals,” says Hillis.
For example, she finds that almost all of her clients aiming for Stanford mention the school’s reputation as a “touchy-feely” culture in the first draft of their application materials. “Everybody says it; you have to explain why you want to participate in that. For instance, if you want to be an ambassador, In that role you will need to interact with a lot of people from different backgrounds, so you need those people skills.”
For even more tips and specific examples coaches shared from their engagement with successful applicants, check out the recording of the webinar, “Seven Things You Need to Know About Getting into Stanford Graduate School of Business.”
Matt Symonds is Co-Founder of MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and Co-Host of the CentreCourt MBA Festival. 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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