Stanford’s essay questions remain the same again this year. My advice for how to approach these essays essentially remain the same. However, Stanford has provided us with more more clarity on how we should approach these questions.
Essay Question 1: What matters most to you, and why?
Introspection is the foundation for Stanford’s first essay, which has become a hallmark classic. “What matters most and why,” forces the applicant to soul search and articulate at a granular level what matters most. If an applicant shares with me what matters most to them, I always push them to tell me “Why” it is important to them. If you can articulate the “why”, then rest assured you will be addressing the “what” and also writing from the heart. Solicit other people who can help you explore potential themes throughout your life (parents, colleagues, significant others, friends, etc).
Some common issues that candidates encounter are 1) discussing topics that are too high-level and don’t add any additional insight into their candidacy, 2) answering with cliché responses leaving your application undifferentiated (e.g. family, being challenged, making an impact on the world), or 3) answering the question by not being real or genuine. In other words, elaborating on a topic that you think the admissions committee wants to read.
My advice for applicants is to stop and think before your write this essay question. Do some serious soul searching and truly figure out what matters most to you, why, and then write an honest introspective analysis. Another strategy I like to employ is to ask my clients, “If you had one week left to live, what would you do?” I ask this question to push candidates to think beyond the cliché responses or diving into their career goals or forcing an answer. Instead, it can push candidates to figure out what matters most to them. Just a note of caution – the essay question is very different than ‘what would you do if you had one week left to live’ – but thinking about the question in that framework can get the creative juices flowing.
It may be difficult to avoid the cliché responses, because for many of us these types of responses are what matter most. However, if you can find a unique spin on the essay and personalize it, then you will avoid sounding cliché. For example, a client discussed that “karaoke was what mattered most” to her. While this might sound odd at first, she discussed her viewpoints on karaoke and tied in all the aspects that this activity enabled: expressing herself, creativity, bringing family and friends together, and laughter (note the heavy focus on why rather than describing karaoke). Those activities on their own could have come across as cliché, but when tied together with the theme of karaoke the essay was very unique, personal, interesting and memorable.
Once you have a theme, you need to develop your essay to support your theme. Don’t just recount story after story. Instead focus on the role this theme plays in your life and provide evidence of it in your past experiences and how you will support it with future endeavors. This question is highly valued by Stanford – give it ample thought, dig deep, find a unique angle, make it real, and be creative.
Essay Question 2: Why Stanford
As with many schools, the admissions committee wants to see that you truly understand the Stanford environment and what opportunities you will seek in your MBA studies. If it is logistically possible, we highly encourage applicants to visit the campus and see a classroom discussion in action. The difference in the richness of the “Why Stanford” answer is clear between those who have researched the school in depth and those who have not. It is highly advised to avoid writing about the generalities of the school such as location, reputation, or alumni network. Your answer needs to link your career aspirations to the specific offerings at Stanford. As a rule of thumb, if you can replace the word “Stanford” with another school’s name and the essay still makes sense, you have not answered it properly.