Applying to Stanford GSB this year? Some great tips from their Dean’s Corner.
My favorite bit: “Differentiation is a byproduct, rather than a goal, of the essay (and the entire admission process).”
Ivy Eyes Editing
We rarely are asked to think deeply about what is most important to us. Stanford professor Bill Damon’s book The Moral Advantage: How to Succeed in Business by Doing the Right Thing contained the following passages that might help you as you write your essays.
“We are not always aware of the forces that ultimately move us. While focusing on the “how” questions—how to survive, how to get ahead, how to make a name for ourselves—often we forget the “why” questions that are more essential for finding and staying on the best course: Why pursue this objective? Why behave in this manner? Why aspire to this kind of life? Why become this type of person?
These “why” questions help us realize our highest aspirations and our truest interests. To answer these questions well, we must decide what matters most to us, what we will be able to contribute to in our careers, what are the right (as opposed to the wrong) ways of behaving as we aim toward this end, and, ultimately, what kind of persons we want to become.
Because everyone, everywhere, wants to live an admirable life, a life of consequence, the “why” questions cannot be ignored for long without great peril to one’s personal stability and enduring success. It is like ignoring the rudder on a ship—no matter how much you look after all the boat’s other moving parts, you may end up lost at sea.”
The Stanford MBA Program essays provide you an opportunity to reflect on your own “truest interests” and “highest aspirations.” While the letters of reference provided by your recommenders are stories about you told by others, the essays are stories told by you. Please think of the Stanford essays as conversations on paper. When we read your file we want to get a genuine sense of you, which means that you need to tell us your story in an authentic and natural way.
Our goal in reading your essays is to understand what motivates you and how you have become the person you are. We’re also interested in what kind of person the Stanford experience can help you become.
Reflective, insightful essays help us envision the individual behind all of the experiences and accomplishments that we read about elsewhere in your application—the who behind the what. The self-awareness that enables you to write your essays also will allow you to succeed and grow at Stanford, so that you may serve organizations that change the world.
Essay 1: What matters most to you, and why?
In the first essay, tell a story that only you can tell. Most essays address the what through descriptions of people, events, and situations in your life. The best essays emphasize the why, showing how and why these whats have influenced you. It is not solely an experience, but also your reaction to it, that defines you. While many candidates base your stories on a similar what, the why allows each of you to tell a story that only you can tell.
The most common mistake applicants make is spending too much time describing the what and not enough time describing how and why these guiding forces have shaped your behavior, choices, attitudes, and objectives. What matters most to you and why? is a personal topic that requires a personal response. As such, please be assured that we appreciate and reward thoughtful self-assessment and appropriate levels of self-disclosure.
Essay 2: What are your career aspirations? What do you need to learn at Stanford to achieve them?
Please note that this question comprises two separate but related questions. Answer both.
First, we ask you to describe your career aspirations. What are your ideas for your best self after Stanford? What kind of impact do you hope to make in your professional life after Stanford? We consciously moved away from asking you about your short-term and long-term goals because we really do not believe you know (or even need to know) that level of detail to succeed in the admission process. Though we give you broad license to envisage your future, you may find it difficult to explain why you need an MBA to achieve your aspirations if the aspirations themselves are undefined. Be honest, with yourself and with us, in addressing those questions. You do not need to fabricate a path if you don’t have one, but a certain level of focused interests will enable you to make the most of the Stanford experience.
Then, we ask what you need to learn at Stanford to achieve these aspirations. How do you plan to take advantage of the opportunities at Stanford? How do you see yourself contributing, growing, and learning here at the GSB? And how will the Stanford experience help you become the person you described in the first part of Essay 2?
You should have objectives for your Stanford experience, whether personal, intellectual, or professional. The implication is that there is a gap between who you are today and the aspirations you’ve set—otherwise, you would just go out and fulfill your dreams today. So you need to tell us how the Stanford experience will help you bridge that gap. There are a number of truly amazing business schools, and we humbly count ourselves among them, but Stanford may not be the right school for every candidate. So ask yourself how Stanford can help you—through knowledge, experiences, insights, relationships, skills, or anything else you imagine.
From both parts of Essay 2, we learn about your dreams, what has shaped them, and how Stanford can help you bring them into fruition.
Essay 3: Short Answers
Unlike the two essay topics, these questions require you to reflect on recent experiences. You must share insights on an experience that occurred within the last three years.
The best answers will transport us to that moment in time by painting a vivid picture not only of what you did, but also of how you did it. Include details about what you did, felt, said, and thought during that time, along with your perceptions about how others responded. From these short-answer responses, we get a sense of you in action.
Moving beyond the essay and short-answer questions, I’d like to offer some guidance.
Tip #1: Answer the question.
My best advice for writing effective essays is the simplest advice: answer the question asked. This may sound like superfluous advice. How can a thoughtful applicant spend hours writing essays but not answer the question? It happens frequently.
I suspect it happens like this: you believe that, for Stanford to admit you, we must know about a particular experience (or a certain set of accomplishments). As you write, your primary goal shifts to finding a way to highlight that experience…whether or not it is the best answer to the question asked. In short, you have just lost track of answering the question. When this happens, it’s clear to the reader, and it rarely strengthens an application.
Tip #2: Don’t try to stand out.
Yes, each of you is unique. Yes, differentiation is essential in the admission process. But no, you should not aim to stand out. Bear with me on this…
Differentiation is a byproduct, rather than a goal, of the essay (and the entire admission process). This is a distinction that I often make when I’m talking with applicants at admission events, so you’ve likely heard this from me if you’ve attended a recent information session. Think of it this way: if you focus on standing out, you often have the opposite effect. How does this happen?
Well, when you focus on standing out, you may believe that you need to have accomplishments or feats that are unusual or different from your peers (e.g., traveling to an exotic place or talking about a tragic situation in your life). But how are you to know which of your experiences is unique when you know neither the backgrounds of the other applicants nor the topics they have chosen? What makes you unique is not that you have had these experiences, but rather how and why your perspective has changed or been reinforced as a result of those and other everyday experiences.
That is a story that only you can tell. If you concentrate your efforts on telling us who you are, differentiation will occur naturally; if your goal is to appear “unique,” you actually may appear more like other people who also are trying to stand out.
Truly, the most impressive essays that we read each year do not begin with the goal of impressing us. I often say that most Stanford MBAs have excelled by doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. I think this applies to essays, as well.
Advice #3: Focus on substance, not style.
When we read great novels, we depend on the author’s storytelling skills to engage our imagination. We parse the carefully crafted sentences and delight in the choice of words, tone, and cadence.
When we read your essays, however, we read for content. That means you need not worry about every single word choice, as if your reader is Michiko Kakutani: after all, you are applying to a school of management, not creative writing. We expect a carefully crafted composition. We expect correct grammar and clear reasoning. You do not need to worry about a dramatic opening scene or about a sentence that serves as transition between your essay topics. Worry about your argument. Worry about authenticity.
The essays are important. But they are neither our only avenue of understanding you, nor are they disproportionately influential in the admission process. Please be assured that we will admit you despite your essays if we feel we’ve gotten a good sense of you overall from other aspects of the application.
Tip #4: Accounting Versus Marketing
Alumnus Leo Linbeck, MBA ’94 told me something on an alumni panel in Houston a few years ago that I have since appropriated.
Leo said that, in management terms, the Stanford essays are not a marketing exercise; they are an accounting exercise.
This is not an undertaking in which you look at an audience/customer (i.e., the Committee on Admissions) and then write what you believe we want to hear. It is quite the opposite. This is a process in which you look inside yourself and try to express clearly what is there. We are trying to get a good sense of your perspectives, your thoughts on management and leadership, and how Stanford can help you realize your goals.
Once you have completed the business school application process, I am confident that you will feel that you benefitted from an opportunity for structured reflection—regardless of the outcome of the admission process. I hope that you will approach the application process as a way to learn about yourself—that’s the goal—with the byproduct being the application that you submit to us.
As Professor Damon would say, we are helping you ensure that your rudder steers you to the right port. (That sentence would not be necessary in your essays. ☺)
Derrick Bolton, MBA 1998
Assistant Dean for MBA Admissions