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Stanford Cuts Required Essays To Two

Graduate School of Business Knight Management Center

Graduate School of Business Knight Management Center

Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business today (May 15) cut the number of required essays and recommendations for applicants to two from three and set a round one deadline of Oct. 1, just a day earlier than last year.

The most highly selective B-school in the U.S. made its announcement on the same day that Harvard Business School said it would keep its essay and recommendation requirements the same as last year but moved up its round one deadline to Sept. 9, a week earlier than last year.

In reducing the Stanford application requirements for essays to just two for what would be the Class of 2017, Stanford also cut the word limit on the essay portion of its application to just 1,100 words from 1,600 words last year. Only two years ago, Stanford required prospective students to write four essays. Stanford, which last year accepted only 6.8% of its 7,108 applicants for the Class of 2015, said it will post its online application in early July.


The two remaining questions include what is perhaps the most famous MBA essay question in the world: “What matters most to you and why?” Stanford is again asking applicants to answer that question in no more than 750 words.

The second fairly standard question that is asked of most MBA applicants to any school: “Why Stanford?” The school is asking for 350 words from applicants to explain how the Stanford MBA program “will help you get where you’re trying to go. This question is designed to help you assess how you will contribute to this specific program and community and when/how it will, in turn, serve you well.”

Some admission consultants seemed unimpressed with the changes and how they were being positioned by Stanford’s Director of Admissions Derek Bolton.  “Once again, Dee Leopold at HBS is not only sooner, but better,” says Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com, a prominent MBA admissions consultant. “If you read her instructions about the HBS essays  on her blog,  and compare them to Stanford/Bolton’s garrulous, sanctimonious, patronizing and unhelpful sermonette about the Stanford essays   on the website, well, one of them is being honest, simple and clear, and one of them is just full of gas.”


The school also reduced the number of its recommendations for applicants to two from three, following a decision by Harvard Business School to do the same a year ago. “This year, we are asking for two references,” Stanford said in a notice on its website. “One reference must come from your direct supervisor (or next best alternative) at work. Your second reference may come from either someone senior to you (i.e., who has observed your performance as a peer. This recommender may be someone from your work, or not. For example, someone senior to you could be a client or previous work supervisor or board member. A peer could be a work teammate or a colleague in an extracurricular activity. You get to choose.”

Bolton then gave a bit of advice to applicants. “With choice,” he wrote, “comes responsibility. You’ll need to decide what works best in your situation. Do you have a former direct supervisor that knows your work exceptionally well? Then a second professional reference is probably in your best interest. Have you worked on a significant project with peers outside your workplace? You might want your second reference to come form a peer. The most important consideration is, choose recommenders who can best express your abilities and potential — people who know you and believe in you.”

Kreisberg, for one, thought the switch to fewer recommenders wasn’t all that consequential, though it follows reports that in many circumstances applicants are writing their own recommendation letters that are then approved by their recommenders. Many admission directors believe that requiring fewer letters lessens the burden on applicants and recommenders and may result in a more candid and honest response.


“As to Stanford going to two versus three essays and two versus three recs, nothing really has changed,” said Kreisberg, “although we can all get out our microscopes and tweezers (e.g. the wording of the Why Stanford essay has changed, a bit, unless they expand it on the formal application.) At Stanford, most applicants  will still  be confused about what they are looking for, despite Bolton’s endless instructions about how to write them.

“Effective Stanford essays (I’ve read tons of ’em over the past 20 years) actually DO NOT, contra Bolton’s instructions,  address questions of WHY, as Bolton tells you to,  but in fact HOW,” believes Kreisberg. “That is, how has growing up in adverse circumstances impacted my values and outlook, NOT WHY was I born gay, or black, or poor but given that, how has it impacted me and created my values.  Not why do I believe in forgiving my father for abusing me, but How has overcoming that  experience impacted the way I relate to others. Just to pick some rich Stanford themes (being poor or blaming dad).”

Stanford’s deadlines for its three rounds are:

  • Round One: Oct. 1, 2014
  • Round Two: Jan. 7, 2015
  • Round Three: April 1, 2015