Monday, July 28, 2014 at 6pm

What Matters Most to You: Stanford MBA Essay Tips

Stanford MBA

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, "Tell us the truth". It's baked into the very question. Sincerity, honesty, authenticity, genuineness – these are the unspoken synonyms behind Stanford GSB's now iconic MBA essay question: "What matters most to you, and why?" There's only one small problem with responding as expected to that gun at your head: banality often ensues.

When I ask clients, "What matters most to you?" (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's 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 "changed the world" in some fashion).

Life experiences are key to answering Stanford GSB’s MBA essay question

My point is not to make you self-conscious or insincere when responding to Stanford GSB's excellent MBA essay question prompt. It's 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: "illustrate how you came to be the person you are, "illustrate how a person, situation, or event has influenced you." 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's non-optional optional MBA essay question. The two MBA essay questionss are similar in many ways. It's 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's success will not hinge on your assertion of what matters most; it will depend on the life experiences that you've described to support that statement.

What matters most pitfalls

Do be careful how closely you follow Stanford GSB's strong response guidelines, however. They can mislead; for example:

  • 1. 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.
  • 2. 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's action or the MBA essay will wind up being about your Uncle Louie, not you.
  • 3. And genuinely writing from the heart is all well and good, but Stanford GSB doesn't 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's guidelines don't mention an ingredient that can make all the difference between a weak MBA essay and the real deal: personality. You've 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'd 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.

About Paul Bodine

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.

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