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Stanford GSB Essay Topic Analysis 2011-2012

Following up on last week’s announcement of Stanford’s 2011-2012 essay topics, we wanted to weigh in with some guidance on how applicants might approach their work on this particular application.  Stanford GSB has retained the format we’ve seen for several years running, posing two required and rather open-ended questions, followed by two shorter situational prompts.  While the adcom provides a recommended breakdown for each response, candidates have some flexibility around word count, requiring only that applicants limit their four responses to a total of 1,800 words.  This means that in addition to choices about subject matter and structure, there’s also leeway for strategic decision-making around length across Stanford’s four-essay set.

That said, let’s take a look at each prompt in more detail:

Essay 1: What matters most to you, and why? (Recommended 750 words)
The open-ended and somewhat philosophical nature of this question can make it a challenging starting point for the Stanford application. If a topic doesn’t immediately spring to mind, a constructive approach might be to think about your experiences to date (growing up, attending school, working, pursuing outside activities and general interests) and look for some unifying theme among some or all of them. Because it’s always a good idea to introduce specific details and anecdotes to really tie the general ideas expressed in your essays to the key elements of your candidacy, it would be wise to select a topic that not only gives the adcom a sense of your values and priorities, but also allows to you discuss some of the ways you have translated these into action.  Needless to say, this is one of the more challenging essays in the business school world, so feel free to reach out to Clear Admit if you seek tailored guidance vis-a-vis your candidacy.

In addition, keep in mind that the Stanford admissions team also offers the following clues for this essay:

  • The best examples of Essay 1 reflect the process of self-examination that you have undertaken to write them.
  • They give us a vivid and genuine image of who you are—and they also convey how you became the person you are.
  • They do not focus merely on what you’ve done or accomplished. Instead, they share with us the values, experiences, and lessons that have shaped your perspectives.
  • They are written from the heart and address not only a person, situation, or event, but also how that person, situation, or event has influenced your life.

Essay 2: What do you want to do—REALLY—and why Stanford? (Recommended 450 words)
The wording of Stanford’s second question has changed somewhat significantly for this admissions season, though at heart it remains focused on the candidate’s career goals and the reasons for his or her particular interest in Stanford.  The all-caps qualifier “REALLY” may represent an extra encouragement of authenticity on the part of the admissions committee, or signal a willingness to entertain career goals that may not flow naturally or obviously from an applicant’s work experiences to date.  Stanford leaves the question somewhat open, and applicants may want to consider keeping their comments fairly high-level rather than sketching out specific short- and long-term goals, focusing instead on the broad impact they hope to make on a group, service, or sector through their career plans.  Of course, it will also be important to provide a detailed discussion of the ways an MBA, and specifically an MBA from Stanford, is necessary to achieve these aims, as well as the potential contribution he or she could make to the program.

As is the case with most schools, demonstrating an understanding of the unique merits of Stanford’s program is crucial to an effective response to this question.  Taking the time to learn about the school’s curriculum, special programs and extracurricular activities – whether through a visit to campus, conversation with alumni or reading the Clear Admit School Guide to Stanford – will pay dividends here.

In addition, as with Essay 1, Stanford offers their own guidance for Essay 2, which applicants will want to keep in mind when responding to the prompt:

  • Use this essay to explain your view of your future, not to repeat accomplishments from your past.
  • You should address three distinct topics:
    • your career aspirations
    • the role of an MBA education in achieving those aspirations
    • and your rationale for earning that MBA at Stanford, in particular.
  • The best examples of Essay 2 express your passions or focused interests; explain why you have decided to pursue graduate education in management; and demonstrate your desire to take advantage of the opportunities that are distinctive to the Stanford MBA Program.

Essay 3: Answer two of the four questions below. Tell us not only what you did but also how you did it. What was the outcome? How did people respond? Only describe experiences that have occurred during the last three years. (Recommended 300 words each)

Option A: Tell us about a time when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.
Option B: Tell us about a time when you made a lasting impact on your organization.
Option C: Tell us about a time when you generated support from others for an idea or initiative.
Option D: Tell us about a time when you went beyond what was defined or established.

Following the broader, more philosophical duo of essays 1 and 2, these situational prompts lend themselves to crisp, concise anecdotes from the recent past.

Looking at the first item in the set, Stanford has retained previous season’s essay about building or developing a team that exceeded expectations.  Here, the Stanford adcom signals a pointed interest in the candidate’s capacity for going above and beyond,  while also shining the spotlight on one’s abilities to foster the growth of others while working together toward a goal.  Meanwhile, the words “built” and “developed” allow applicants to include instances in which they have built a team from scratch or recruited key players to work on a project.  To summarize, applicants should aim to discuss how they established a cohesive and effective team that achieved X, Y, and Z.

Option B, with its focus on lasting impact, encourages applicants to discuss a positive change they’ve brought about that represents an enduring improvement.  To illustrate this lasting transformation, applicants might establish a “before” and “after” picture in their essay to highlight the importance of their actions in the particular situation.  Effective responses will also provide a clear picture of the process by which one brought the change about, as these are the skills and instincts that will be transferable to future situations.

Option C prompts applicants to discuss their ability to be persuasive and effective while working with a team.  In answering the question, applicants should highlight their ability to come up with an idea or initiative, as well as to be persuasive in selling it to stakeholders.  Some applicants may choose a story in which their idea encountered resistance, in which case showcasing one’s ability to be diplomatic in garnering support for the idea will be key.  Overall, you should ensure that in explaining how you were able to generate support for your initiative, you demonstrate your ability to inspire others to adopt your ideas.

Finally, Option D looks for an anecdote in which applicants set themselves apart from the pack.  The adcom is looking for someone with the confidence to deviate from the norm, explore new channels, or see a situation or problem in a different light.  Fitting topics might include developing an innovative solution through nontraditional pathways or challenging the norm with an eye for how operations could be enhanced.  Ideally, the end result would be one in which you reached new insight or perspective, created a new process, or took a stand in a professional or extracurricular setting.

While these action-oriented essays serve as a contrast to the preceding broad questions about the candidate’s motivations and objectives, truly effective applications will find a way to make these responses work in conjunction with Essays 1 and 2, reinforcing themes, complementing the ideas already presented, and completing the picture of who you are.

In addressing any of these questions, it will be important to provide a clear description of the initial situation at the outset of the essay, as this will help the reader to understand the reasons for your thoughts, feelings, words and actions. Providing a detailed “before picture” will also allow the adcom to fully appreciate the difference you made. To decide which two of the four options to select, it would be wise to consider all of the situations you could discuss in response to each question, and select those that will provide a balanced picture of your activities and interests (one story from work and another from a key extracurricular might be a nice balance) while supporting the message set forth in response to Essays 1 and 2.

To watch a video explanation of these essay topics see below:

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Posted in: Essay Topic Analysis

Schools: Stanford GSB


  1. If your answer to question 3 truly answers all four of the sub questions (A-D) can you write one 600 word essay (instead of say one 400 word answer and another 200 word answer)?

  2. if your answer to question three truly answers all four sub questions (A-D) is it ok to write one 600 word essay (rather than say one 400 word essay and one 200 word essay)?

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