Stanford GSB Essay Questions & Tips

Applying to Stanford GSB? If so, you’ve likely begun thinking about how to approach the Stanford GSB essay questions and, more specifically, pondering ‘what matters most to you and why’. Who knew you would be doing so much soul searching during the MBA application process, right? We’ve got you covered. Read on for the Stanford GSB essay questions and tips to ensure your responses are as strong as possible.

Stanford GSB Essay Questions

  1. Essay A: What matters most to you, and why? For this essay, we would like you to reflect deeply and write from the heart. Once you’ve identified what matters most to you, help us understand why. You might consider, for example, what makes this so important to you? What people, insights, or experiences have shaped your perspectives?
  2. Essay B: Why Stanford? Describe your aspirations and how your Stanford GSB experience will help you realize them. If you are applying to both the MBA and MSx programs, use Essay B to address your interest in both programs.

Both essays combined may not exceed 1,050 words. Stanford GSB admissions recommends up to 650 words for Essay A and up to 400 words for Essay B.

Note that Stanford’s application also includes two optional short answer questions – see our advice on these at the end of this article:

  1. We know that each person is more than a list of facts or pre-defined categories. Please feel free to elaborate on how your background or life experiences have helped shape your recent actions or choices- (up to 1,200 characters, or approximately 200 words).
  2. Think about times you’ve created a positive impact, whether in professional, extracurricular, academic, or other settings. What was your impact? What made it significant to you or to others? You are welcome to share up to three examples (up to 1,200 characters, or approximately 200 words, for each example).

Before you think about putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys, as the case may be), it’s critical to take the time to truly understand Stanford GSB and what it looks for in successful applicants. To us, the best encapsulation of this can be found in the GSB’s mission statement: “Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.”

While many business schools aspire to educate leaders that will make a difference in the world, there is a reason that ‘change lives’ comes first in this motto. The GSB embraces a strong belief that change originates from people. People with different perspectives interacting, challenging each other, and ultimately joining forces to push the limits of what seems possible. No man or woman can create change in a vacuum.

In practice, we find that successful applicants personify this mission statement by displaying the following characteristics:

  • A belief that EQ and people are just as important as IQ and profits – While demonstrating impact is critical, Stanford GSB seeks those who deliver it through collaboration with and/or for the benefit of others.
  • Strong self-awareness – The essay prompt says it all, Stanford GSB cares what matters to you and how it has influenced your choices in life. Scratching the surface of self-awareness is not enough; beyond articulating your emotions in a given situation, they want to see that you can connect situations to your core values and underlying motivations.
  • A willingness to take risks – Change is impossible without some level of risk and change is the crux of the GSB’s mission. They want to see that you don’t let fear stand in the way of progress – for yourself and for others.

How to Answer the Stanford GSB Essay Questions

How Do I Uncover ‘What Matters Most to Me’?

Attempting to crystallize what matters most to you is incredibly intimidating! If you’re digging deep enough, figuring this out is not something that can be done in a day or even a week. That’s why starting early is critical.

To begin, we love suggesting that clients read two great books, True North by Bill George and What You’re Really Meant to Do by Robert Kaplan.  Give thought to where you dream of taking your career (and life more broadly) and why.

From there, it can be helpful to think back to each major decision you’ve made in your life and reflect on why you made the choice you did. Are there any commonalities? Lastly, think about influential people or events in your life stretching back to childhood. What or who has made you who you are and why?

Once you’ve done all this reflection (and written it down!), look for points of intersection and interrelation. Sometimes another set of eyes from a trusted friend or family member can be helpful here. More times than not, there is a common passion, motivation, value, or trait that connects what you’ve done in the past and what you hope to do in the future. This common thread can serve as your overarching theme and answer to ‘what matters most to you’.

Turning Your Theme into a Strong Essay A

The essay itself should prove that this ‘thing’ is truly what matters most to you by laying out 2-3 stories and describing how they connect back to it. While the stories are typically told in chronological order, the essay should not read as your memoir. Be thoughtful and strategic, choosing only your most powerful examples.

Many times, successful essays begin with what we refer to as a ‘superhero origin story’. By this we mean the time in your life or experience that first brought your ‘thing’ (i.e., what matters most to you) into play for you. It is the defining moment that triggered a shift in your thinking or approach in a way that has stuck with you from then on out, influencing who you’ve become and who you hope to be in the future.

The balance of the essay should focus on one or two other situations from your life since the ‘superhero origin’ where the thing that matters most to you influenced your actions or choices. One of these (or a third topical area if you have space) can be devoted to your vision of the future. You have space to further spell out your plans in Essay B, but you should lay out, in broad strokes, how your ‘thing’ influences where you want to take your life in Essay A. 

Once you have the backbone of your essay in place, our advice is to go back and add stylistic nuances that demonstrate you possess the characteristics the GSB seeks. Describe interpersonal dynamics within each story and how you successfully navigated them. Layer in emotion and insights about yourself that demonstrate self-awareness.  Importantly, write so that the adcom feels your authentic passion for the topic you have chosen to discuss.

If this sounds difficult, that’s because it is. Writing a strong Stanford essay takes upfront investment in introspection and time to iterate (and then iterate again). It’s not uncommon for us to work through 10-20 drafts of this essay with clients because, even with professional help, that’s how long it takes to make it perfect.

Essay B is Straightforward but Not ‘Easy’

Once you’ve outlined generally where you want to take your life in Essay A, Essay B is your opportunity to get tactical. Share your specific post-MBA goals and describe why an MBA and the GSB’s program in particular are necessary to help you achieve them.

The keys here are specificity and personalization. If someone could blindly read your essay and think it applies to another MBA program, you are not being specific enough. If they could read it and think the ‘why Stanford’ you describe could help someone achieve different goals than those you are targeting, you are not personalizing your reasons sufficiently.

Writing a successful Essay B requires more than just perusing the GSB’s website for classes and its own description of why the program is unique. Talk to alums and current students, attend webinars, stroll campus if you can, and, critically, reflect on the specific skillsets (hard or soft) you need to build to achieve your most aspirational goals.

How to Answer Stanford’s Short Answer Questions

While these are truly optional, it seems like a missed opportunity not to highlight your unique perspective as well as a few of your best accomplishments. View these as a place to fill in any gaps – in other words, parts of your personal brand or ‘story portfolio’ that you haven’t covered in the main essays. It may help to write a list of all the stories you want to cover upfront and then move the puzzle pieces around, prioritizing the main essays.

A blend of personal and professional is best, both here and in the main essays – the adcom wants to understand the entirety of who you are as a person. Additionally, your short answers should be complementary but not repetitive with your main essays. Remember, you are trying to highlight personal qualities, experiences, and accomplishments that you haven’t been able to cover elsewhere.

Lastly, don’t grasp for straws here, so if you only have two accomplishments to share instead of three in short answer #2, that is ok. But do you best to answer both questions as thoroughly and thoughtfully as possible.

Overwhelmed? We get it – the Stanford GSB application is perhaps the most challenging MBA application out there. If you need assistance, feel free to reach out to schedule a free consultation. 

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