Stanford Graduate School of Business Essay Topic Analysis 2016–2017
Since the Stanford Graduate School of Business just released its essay questions for the 2016–2017 admissions season, we are following up with some advice for GSB applicants on how to approach Stanford’s essays. Stanford has asked applicants to respond to the same two questions it has asked the past few years, maintaining the 1,150 word limit from last year, with the allowance of 50 more words for those applying to both the MBA and MBx programs.
Let’s take a closer look at each of Stanford’s required essays:
Essay A: What matters most to you, and why? (Suggested Word Count: 750 words)
Stanford’s “What Matters Most” essay is one of the most challenging prompts from a top business school. An answer to this essay has the potential to be profound and reveal a side of an applicant that the admissions committee cannot find anywhere else in the application, which is why Stanford has asked this question for more than 11 years. However, the question can be quite intimidating in the context of a strategic application.
Part of the reason that so many applicants struggle with this topic is because they opt to begin their brainstorming by searching for a direct answer to the question of “what matters most” — rifling through common themes like ‘helping others’, ‘the pursuit of knowledge’, ‘revolutionizing an industry’, and any number of textbook replies. With each passing idea, candidates find themselves losing steam and fearful of getting lost in the shuffle of applicants who espouse similar views. While starting with an answer to “what matters most” and working into the body of the essay does seem tempting (and even quite logical), our years of experience advising Stanford GSB candidates tell us that this is often a dead-end. The good news is that we have another approach that has been wildly successful for more than 10 years.
The advice we are about to offer here may seem counterintuitive, but we actually encourage applicants to ‘work backwards’ when crafting this essay via a simple exercise (outlined below). In short, since the purpose of this question is to let the admissions team get to know you better, you should start with who you are and all that you have experienced and accomplished, and then work backwards to find the overarching theme of “what matters most.” Keep in mind that your direct ‘answer’ to the question here is NOT what is going to make you stand out (it may even be somewhat pedestrian), rather it is the series of anecdotes and supporting evidence you provide around that theme that will help you convey your unique candidacy to the admissions team.
So in short, if you find yourself struggling with how to answer this question, try this simple exercise:
- Write down the 15 to 20 most important events, accomplishments, interests, or experiences in your life. Include the good, the bad, the astounding, the ugly, etc. Also, remember that no time frame is off limits–think of events from your early childhood to the present day.
- Look at the list you have generated and try to determine the themes that unify the important events, interests, and ideas in your life.
- Select a small number of diverse items from the list that best support a given theme and use them to define your approach and kick off the drafting process for the essay.
This exercise of working backwards allows you to not only arrive at a “what matters most” theme that really resonates with you, but also helps you find specific examples and anecdotes to help you show how you have explored what matters most to you in your life.
On their website, Stanford provides the following criteria for a strong response to this question:
- Focus on the “why” rather than the “what.”
- Do some deep self-examination, so you can genuinely illustrate who you are and how you came to be the person you are.
- Share the insights, experiences, and lessons that shaped your perspectives, rather than focusing merely on what you’ve done or accomplished.
- Write from the heart, and illustrate how a person, situation, or event has influenced you.
Essay B: Why Stanford? (Suggested Word Count: 400 words; 450 for applicants to both the MBA and MBx programs)
Stanford’s second essay steps away from the philosophical to focus on the candidate’s career goals and reasons for going to Stanford. Although this essay is more specific than Essay A, the “Why Stanford?” prompt is far less specific than the career goals questions of other top business schools. Instead of mapping out a specific career path in this essay, applicants should focus on defining the broad impact they hope to make on a service, a sector, or society at large through their chosen career. Essay B is strongest when it connects with Essay A. Essay A is your opportunity to lay out a philosophical explanation of what matters most to you, while Essay B gives you the opportunity to show how you would use your time at Stanford and your career to further what matters most to you.
In Stanford’s additional prompting for this question, the admissions committee asks you to “explain the distinctive opportunities you will pursue at Stanford.” The key word in that sentence is distinctive. In this essay, you need to show the admissions committee that Stanford offers you benefits you can’t find at any other schools. Talk about specific classes, programs, collaborations with other parts of the school, dual degree offerings, clubs, conferences, or other offerings that set Stanford apart from other top business schools. Learning about the school’s curriculum, special programs and extracurricular activities–whether through a visit to campus, conversation with alumni or reading the Clear Admit School Guide to Stanford–will help you craft a response to Essay B that really stands out.
On their website, Stanford provides the following criteria for a strong response to Essay B:
- Explain your decision to pursue graduate education in management.
- Explain the distinctive opportunities you will pursue at Stanford.
Clear Admit Resources
Thanks for reading our analysis of this year’s GSB MBA essay topics. As you work on your GSB MBA essays and application, we encourage you to consider all of Clear Admit’s Stanford offerings:
- Stanford GSB Profile on the Clear Admit website: up-to-date advice and admissions information
- Clear Admit GSB School Snapshot: overview of key curricular details and application information
- Clear Admit GSB School Guide: in-depth program and campus information and side-by-side school comparisons; everything you need to know for a successful application!
- Clear Admit LiveWire: admissions updates submitted in real time by applicants to Stanford GSB
- Clear Admit DecisionWire: school selections in real-time by admits to Stanford GSB