Nowhere is the mandate to be yourself more emphasized than with the Stanford application essays. As stated on the website: “We want to hear your genuine voice throughout the essays that you write and this is the time to think carefully about your values, your passions, your hopes and dreams.”
While manufactured answers meant to impress will not achieve the desired result, focus is important with this set of essays. Take the time to do a bit of soul searching and brainstorming to delve deep into your own dreams, achievements and personal attributes.
* Essay 1: What matters most to you, and why?
This is the keystone of the Stanford application and your chance to demonstrate who you are and what motivates you. Topics can range from personal history to grand visions of the future. While this topic does not need to be explicitly career related (and the strongest essays may not be career oriented at all) a truly cohesive life path will likely bring some of the aspects of what matters most into the topic of Essay 2.
Though the essay question may seem open-ended, answering the question with vivid and specific examples will provide solid evidence that you have demonstrated or experienced “what matters most” throughout your life.
* Essay 2: What are your career aspirations? How will your education at Stanford help you achieve them?
Unlike many career goals essays, Stanford does not ask for specific short- and long-term goals. Aspirational goals are likely a bit further into the future, so think about where you want your career to ultimately be, in the best possible scenario. What do you need to get there? How will Stanford contribute to achieving this aspiration?
Researching Stanford’s academic program, community and students will be essential to demonstrating your knowledge and fit with the program.
• Essay 3: Answer two of the four questions below. Tell us not only what you did but also how you did it. What was the outcome? How did people respond? Only describe experiences that have occurred during the last three years.
Choose strategically here. What aspects of your background or career progress have not be highlighted in the previous two essays? Is there a community service involvement you would like to demonstrate? All examples must be from the past three years, and it is important to clearly describe your process and results.
o Option A: Tell us about a time when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.
While last year’s question focused on your team building skills, this question ups the ante a bit by requesting a time that you built or developed a high performing team. This example can be from work or other leadership experiences outside of work. In addition to clear description, explain what the expectations were for the team and how your team exceeded them.
o Option B: Tell us about a time when you made a lasting impact on your organization.
Making a lasting impact through a discrete project or achievement is possible, yet less likely than creating impact through your relationships with others and the overall operations of the organization. Did you create a new initiative that involves many others? Have you impacted the culture or operations of your organization through an idea or by developing your team? Think about actions you have taken that may have lead to a fundamental shift in the way things are done or perceived.
o Option C: Tell us about a time when you motivated others to support your vision or initiative.
This question seeks to understand your leadership skills and ability to build support. When answering the question it is far more important to describe your specific actions and results than to have an impressive vision or initiative. Explain clearly how you (uniquely) were able to motivate your team or build support.
o Option D: Tell us about a time when you went beyond what was defined, established, or expected.
The topic of this essay can be from almost any area of your life. Defining what was established and expected is important to clearly demonstrate how you went beyond. Why and how did you achieve results beyond expectations? This topic could be similar to Option A in scope, yet is focused on your individual achievement rather than directing a team’s actions.
As you put together your Stanford application it will be helpful to read all of the essays together (and have others read them) to see the overall impression. It should be clear what your underlying motivations are, what you hope do you with your career, and how you operate as an individual and in a team within an organization. As Stanford clearly requests, the best essays will illuminate your individual voice clear and strong.