Nowhere is the mandate to be authentic more emphasized than with the Stanford GSB application essays. The Stanford GSB admissions website provides clear guidance and advice for what to do, and what not to do that all applicants should read and follow. As you approach topics for this set of essays think about the events of your life that have shaped your values and your future plans. Your accomplishments and achievements are part of why you have developed into the person you are today, however it’s far more important to explain your influences, lessons learned and motivations. Stanford GSB asks for candid self-examination in the first essay, and that theme of introspection should persist through the entire set of essays.
Stanford GSB Essay 1: What matters most to you, and why?
This is the keystone of the Stanford GSB essays 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 should not 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.
If the open ended prompt is intimidating you can try brainstorming over a period of a few days. Ask friends and family what values they see you demonstrating in your life and choices. Keep a notebook by your bed so you can record your first thoughts upon waking up, or dreams that might help you understand your motivations.
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. Keep in mind as you select examples that Stanford GSB specifically advises focusing on people and experiences that have influenced you, rather than accomplishments or achievements.
Stanford GSB Essay 2: What do you want to do—REALLY—and why Stanford?
The emphasis in the question on authenticity (what do you REALLY want to do?) is new this year. We’ve observed that in these economic times plenty of candidates are content to be conservative about their dreams. For Stanford that approach may backfire. Stanford likes to see applicants who dream big, and have the credibility to achieve their goals.
So think hard about what you REALLY want to do. Not what your parents or partner want you to do. Not what your boss wants you to do. Not what you think an MBA program wants to hear. What do you, with your own unique background and values, want for your life?
If the question seems too vast, take a few minutes to close your eyes and reflect. Envision your life in twenty years. Where do you live? How do you spend your days? What is your favorite activity? How does this vision fit into your career aspirations? Dream big about what two years at Stanford can bring into your life. Once you have identified your dream career, you also need to make sure an MBA is an important part of achieving your plans. Stanford wants candidates whose MBA will make an impact on the career they REALLY want, not candidates who are looking for a prestigious piece of paper.
One thing that is crucial “not to do” is be less than specific about why Stanford. You should know everything about the program that overlaps with your interests and aspirations. Have you met current students and alumni? Who are the professors you are excited about? What are the unique programs? Stanford GSB wants to know what you specifically need that will be uniquely satisfied by the program at Stanford GSB, and research will help you determine the specifics of the academic program, community and students will be essential to demonstrating your knowledge and fit with the program.
Stanford GSB 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. HOW is the key word for this set of questions. By asking specifically about your behavior, the admissions committee hopes to understand your motivations by clearly “seeing” your actions.
o Option A: Tell us about a time when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.
Many candidates for Stanford have not led teams formally at work. If you have done so, this is an ideal essay to highlight your management experience. If you have no formal management experience think about the times you have served informally as a leader. Perhaps you led a team as part of a project, or led part of a project for your boss. If work did not provide an opportunity for you to lead a team, consider an example in your volunteer or extracurricular activities.
Whatever the situation, describe what happened and your role in the performance of the team. 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 within your company or organization.
o Option C: Tell us about a time when you generated support from others for an idea or initiative
This is a behavioral question focused on your ability to understand and motivate others. This question seeks to understand your leadership skills and ability to build support whether through action or persuasion. When answering the question it is important to demonstrate your own leadership skills through specific examples. Explain clearly how you (uniquely) were able to motivate your team or build support for the idea or initiative and what results you saw for the idea or initiative.
o Option D: Tell us about a time when you went beyond what was defined or established
The topic of this essay can be from almost any area of your life. It will be helpful to give the context around what was defined or established 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 GSB 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 GSB clearly requests, the best essays will illuminate your individual voice clear and strong.
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