When someone asks you what really matters most to you – for what or whom you would gleefully walk over hot coals – they are more or less putting a gun to your head and saying, \u0022Tell us the truth\u0022. It\u0027s baked into the very question. Sincerity, honesty, authenticity, genuineness – these are the unspoken synonyms behind Stanford GSB\u0027s now iconic MBA essay question: \u0022What matters most to you, and why?\u0022 There\u0027s only one small problem with responding as expected to that gun at your head: banality often ensues.When I ask clients, \u0022What matters most to you?\u0022 (instead of cocking a revolver I usually add that it’s off the record, so they know I wanted the non-scripted, non-positioned answer), I usually get things like family, success, self-improvement, pushing my personal envelope, yadda, yadda. So much for differentiating yourself from other applicants. Yes, you can definitely get admitted to Stanford GSB by uttering such banalities, but if you do it\u0027s likely because, aside from your 770 GMAT score, you buried your banal answer within an otherwise absorbing tale of personal growth or discovery (or because, although you thoroughly botched your Stanford MBA essay, your résumé shows that you have founded an organization that has \u0022changed the world\u0022 in some fashion).Life experiences are key to answering Stanford GSB’s MBA essay questionMy point is not to make you self-conscious or insincere when responding to Stanford GSB\u0027s excellent MBA essay question prompt. It\u0027s to get you past the idea of starting this critical Stanford MBA essay by answering their question. Leave that for last. Instead, start by identifying the life experiences that have meant the most to you in your life and/or have forced you to change or grow the most, regardless of whether you think they connect to something that matters most to you.Stanford GSB hints at the value of this approach in its five ‘strong response’ guidelines: \u0022illustrate how you came to be the person you are, \u0022illustrate how a person, situation, or event has influenced you.\u0022 The key to this Stanford MBA essay question, in other words, is change, process – envisioning your self and life as a verb, not a noun. Kudos if you see an echo between this advice and the content I recommended for Harvard\u0027s non-optional optional MBA essay question. The two MBA essay questionss are similar in many ways. It\u0027s often said that admissions departments mimic Harvard, but Stanford GSB may be the true pied piper.Once you have narrated and linked together these key life experiences (usually though not necessarily in chronological order), you can then ask yourself what these key moments in your life tell you about what matters most to you? The answer may not be the one you thought it would be. And,I in any case, this MBA essay\u0027s success will not hinge on your assertion of what matters most; it will depend on the life experiences that you\u0027ve described to support that statement.What matters most pitfallsDo be careful how closely you follow Stanford GSB\u0027s strong response guidelines, however. They can mislead; for example:If you focus on ‘the why’ to avoid focusing merely on what you’ve done or accomplished you will surely bore them with thoroughly canned or generic sounding ‘life lesson’ language that (even if you do it well) they will have read dozens of times before. Do yourself a favor and keep the high-level self-reflective ‘insights’, ‘lessons’, and ‘perspectives’ as concise as possible.Likewise, watch how you illustrate how a person, situation, or event has influenced you. You need to be present and accounted for in the unfolding of the MBA essay\u0027s action or the MBA essay will wind up being about your Uncle Louie, not you.Genuinely writing from the heart is all well and good, but Stanford GSB doesn\u0027t spell out what it assumes you know (but may not); some authentic life experiences and insights do not belong anywhere near an application MBA essay for business school. By all means write from the heart but do it prudently, maturely, and, yes, strategically.Finally, Stanford GSB\u0027s guidelines don\u0027t mention an ingredient that can make all the difference between a weak MBA essay and the real deal: personality. You\u0027ve got problems if your insights and lessons seem strangely soulless or if in describing the experiences that shaped your perspectives you come across like an anvil crashing through drywall. In contrast, you\u0027d be surprised how far a small brushstroke of humor or the self-revealing grace note of a personal foible can take you. Trying to identify anecdotes and language that communicate your personality – the personal style you bring to the things you do – can often show who you are much more authentically than a steaming load of stale lessons and perspectives.Paul Bodine is the founder and president of Paul Bodine Admissions Consulting and the author of Great Applications for Business School. A graduate of University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins, he has been helping applicants gain admission to elite business, medical and graduate schools since 1997.