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A Conversation with Kirsten Moss of Stanford GSB

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Clear Admit recently sat down with Kirsten Moss, who leads MBA admissions at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Our conversation was both insightful and incredibly wide-ranging–covering topics like leadership, application essays, admissions interviews, and financial aid.

What follows is the transcript of our conversation. Moss starts by covering the importance of assessing leadership and by extension, leadership’s importance for candidates applying to the Stanford MBA Program. In the subsequent pages, Moss tackles essays, interviews, and financial aid.

Kirsten Moss
Kirsten Moss, Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid; Photo Credit: Toni Bird Photography

Leadership at Stanford GSB

When I joined Stanford in my role leading MBA Admissions, the first question I asked was, “What is most important to this institution?”

Our mission is to develop innovative, principled, and insightful leaders who will change the world.  That’s a tall order, and I hope candidates will take this mission to heart if they’re interested in Stanford. We’re looking for candidates who have the courage to challenge the status quo, who have the curiosity to generate new ideas, and who demonstrate integrity in the way they move through life.

I know from my research that the best indicator of future potential is past behavior. When I evaluate applications, I’m laser-focused on how you as an individual have shaped the organizations and communities of which you are a part.

What does that really mean? When I sit down and begin reading an application, I immediately get curious about how you choose to spend your time. And I consider carefully what you care about and how these interests and values have guided your behavior. For example, let’s say the person who  recommended you describes you as a mentor. I will look for specific examples of how you helped others to develop. Did you spend time working one-on-one with others? Or maybe you helped lead the training program? Or maybe you’re the one who organizes weekly dinners that bring your peers together. I’m looking for the details to understand how your specific actions have impacted those around you.

As far as examples are concerned, each person is going to show us leadership in a different way. We are looking for impact, and impact doesn’t just show up in professional roles. We’re interested in learning about what you have done in whatever arena you care most about. So that could be the time you spend at your church or mosque, your sports team or music ensemble, or volunteering. Last night I was reading about a candidate who was an avid hiker, and he has been spending his weekends at a national park leading trail hikes for park guests. So that’s a great example of sharing his passion for the natural world to engage others.

In preparing your application, start thinking about the stories that you’re most proud of. Likely, those stories are going to be about the things that you’ve dedicated significant effort to and likely had an outcome that was important to you. Whether you’re a runner and were able to do a half marathon for the first time or whether you faced a challenging project at work, start reflecting on what you personally think is important – not what you think our team, or any admissions team for that matter, will think is important.

Some applicants may have the misconception that we are looking for students who come from a particular industry or school or even a specific company. But nothing could be further from the truth. While where you have worked or what you have studied provides a context for your stories, what is far more important is how you’ve taken initiative to improve the communities and organizations in which you were a member, no matter the context.

Evaluating applications is as much art as it is science. Although frameworks and scoring rubrics are helpful in providing a baseline guide, we consider the individual holistically and value his or her individual strengths. Some leaders are successful because they discover new ideas. Some are successful because they can sell these ideas. And some are successful because they can translate these ideas into practical applications. My first question in reading an application is, “Which kind of leader are you?” So if you’re thinking about applying, spend some time reflecting on the ways you’ve had impact on those around you and convey that in your application. That’s really at the heart of it.

Studying psychology has helped me identify the richness and variety of leadership behaviors. When I read an application, I can see these behaviors at work. My coaching work, on the other hand, has helped me see how individuals can grow over time. I believe we can all develop the ability to be a change agent with the right support. Given that belief, I am looking for an applicant’s strengths rather than weaknesses, since we are all a work in progress.

Lauren Wakal
Lauren Wakal has been covering the MBA admissions space for more than a decade, from in-depth business school profiles to weekly breaking news and more.