Tips for Effective Essays From Stanford GSB’s Dean Bolton

The essays are one of the most time-consuming portions of any MBA application, precisely because they force you to focus inward, analyze your strengths, weaknesses, and accomplishments, and then present them to a group of strangers within a prescribed word count.

Derrick Bolton, Assistant Dean for MBA admissions at Stanford Graduate School of Business, offers insight to applicants struggling with how to best answer this year’s essay prompts. I’ve included excerpts from his recent posting on crafting effective essays below.

Stanford GSB Essay 1: What matters most to you, and why?

In the first essay, tell a story””and tell a story that only you can tell.

Tell this essay in a straightforward and sincere way. This probably sounds strange, since these are essays for business school, but we really don’t expect to hear about your business experience in this essay (though, of course, you are free to write about whatever you would like).

Remember that we have your entire application””work history, letters of reference, short-answer responses, etc.””to learn what you have accomplished and the type of impact you have made. Your task in this first essay is to connect the people, situations, and events in your life with the values you adhere to and the choices you have made. This essay gives you a terrific opportunity to learn about yourself!

Many good essays describe the “what,” but great essays move to the next order and describe how and why these “whats” have influenced your life. 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, attitudes, and objectives in your personal and professional lives. Please be assured that we do appreciate and reward thoughtful self-assessment and appropriate levels of self-disclosure.

Stanford GSB Essay 2: What do you want to do””REALLY””and why Stanford?

Tell us what you aspire to do. You don’t need to come up with a “safe” answer because you’re worried that your true aim is not what we want to see. REALLY. What are your ideas for your best self after Stanford? What, and how, do you hope to contribute in your professional life after earning your MBA?

Tell us what, in your heart, you would like to achieve. What is the dream that brings meaning to your life? How do you plan to make an impact? We give you broad license to envision your future. Take advantage of it. You may, however, find it difficult to explain why you need an MBA to reach your aims if those aims are completely undefined. Be honest, with yourself and with us, in addressing those questions. You certainly do not need to make up a path, but a level of focused interests will enable you to make the most of the Stanford experience.

Second, we ask why Stanford. How will the MBA Program at Stanford help you turn your dreams into reality? The key here is that you should have objectives for your Stanford education. How do you plan to take advantage of the incredible opportunities at Stanford? How do you envision yourself contributing, growing, and learning here at the Graduate School of Business? And how will the Stanford experience help you become the person you described in the first part of Essay 2?

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.

For the short answers of essay three, Bolton says “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 supporting details. What led to the situation? What did you say? How did they respond? What were you thinking at the time? What were you feeling at the time? Include details about what you thought and felt during that time and your perceptions about how others responded. From these short-answer responses, we visualize you ‘in action’.”

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the essays, and wondering how you can possibly wow the admissions committee sufficiently to gain a seat at this highly coveted MBA program, take these words from the dean to heart.

“We will admit someone despite the application essays if we feel we’ve gotten a good sense of the person overall. Yes, the essays are important,” Bolton concedes. “But they are neither our only avenue of understanding you, nor are they disproportionately influential in the admission process.”

For more guidance on the Stanford GSB essays, read my essay tips here.

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