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Stanford GSB MBA Essay Topic Analysis

Stanford GSB essay topics

The following essay topic analysis examines Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (Stanford GSB) MBA admissions essays for the 2019-2020 admissions season. You can also review essay topic analyses for all of the other leading MBA programs as well as general Essay Tips to further aid you in developing your admissions essays.

Stanford has asked applicants to respond to the same two questions it has asked the past several years, maintaining the 1,150 word limit from last year, with the recommendation of using 750 words for Essay A and 400 for Essay B.  An optional essay regarding candidate’s impact is also included in the application and Clear Admit encourages applicants to address it.

Stanford GSB MBA Essay Analysis 2019-2020

Let’s take a closer look at each of Stanford’s essays.

Essay A

What matters most to you, and why? (Suggested Word Count: 750 words)

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?
Stanford’s “What Matters Most” essay is one of the most challenging prompts from a top business school. An answer to this essay has the potential to be profound and reveal a side of an applicant that the admissions committee cannot find anywhere else in the application, which is why Stanford has asked this question for more than a dozen years. However, the question can be quite intimidating in the context of a strategic application.

Part of the reason that so many applicants struggle with this topic is because they opt to begin their brainstorming by searching for a direct answer to the question of “what matters most”–rifling through common themes like ‘helping others’, ‘the pursuit of knowledge’, ‘revolutionizing an industry’, and any number of textbook replies.  With each passing idea, candidates find themselves losing steam and fearful of getting lost in the shuffle of applicants who espouse similar views.  While starting with an answer to “what matters most” and working into the body of the essay does seem tempting (and even quite logical), our years of experience advising Stanford GSB candidates tell us that this is often a dead-end.  The good news is that we have another approach that has been wildly successful for more than 10 years.

The advice we are about to offer here may seem counterintuitive, but we actually encourage applicants to ‘work backwards’ when crafting this essay via a simple exercise (outlined below).  In short, since the purpose of this question is to let the admissions team get to know you better, you should start with who you are and all that you have experienced and accomplished, and then work backwards to find the overarching theme of “what matters most.”  Keep in mind that your direct ‘answer’ to the question here is NOT what is going to make you stand out (it may even be somewhat pedestrian), rather it is the series of anecdotes and supporting evidence you provide around that theme that will help you convey your unique candidacy to the admissions team.

So in short, if you find yourself struggling with how to answer this question, try this simple exercise:

  1. Write down the 15 to 20 most important events, accomplishments, interests, or experiences in your life. Include the good, the bad, the astounding, the ugly, etc.  Also, remember that no time frame is off limits–think of events from your early childhood to the present day.
  2. Look at the list you have generated and try to determine the themes that unify the important events, interests, and ideas in your life.
  3. Select a small number of diverse items from the list that best support a given theme and use them to define your approach and kick off the drafting process for the essay.

This exercise of working backwards allows you to not only arrive at a “what matters most” theme that really resonates with you, but also helps you find specific examples and anecdotes to help you show how you have explored what matters most to you in your life.

Essay B

Why Stanford? (Suggested Word Count: 400 words)

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.
Stanford’s second essay steps away from the philosophical to focus on the candidate’s career goals and reasons for going to Stanford. Although this essay is more specific than Essay A, the “Why Stanford?” prompt is far less specific than the career goals questions of other top business schools. Instead of mapping out a specific career path in this essay, applicants should focus on defining the broad impact they hope to make on a service, a sector, or society at large through their chosen career. Essay B is strongest when it connects with Essay A. Essay A is your opportunity to lay out a philosophical explanation of what matters most to you, while Essay B gives you the opportunity to show how you would use your time at Stanford and your career to further what matters most to you.

In Stanford’s additional prompting for this question, the admissions committee asks you to “explain the distinctive opportunities you will pursue at Stanford.” The key word in that sentence is distinctive. In this essay, you need to show the admissions committee that Stanford offers you benefits you can’t find at any other schools. Talk about specific classes, programs, collaboration with other parts of the school, dual degree offerings, clubs, conferences, or other offerings that set Stanford apart from other top business schools. Learning about the school’s curriculum, special programs and extracurricular activities–whether through a visit to campus or conversation with alumni–will help you craft a response to Essay B that really stands out.

Optional Short-Answer Question

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 1500 characters, approximately 250 words, for each example)
Unlike other optional essays, this one is clearly an opportunity to showcase your impact, and therefore should be completed. This question is a classic in terms of MBA essays; adcoms are interested in people who make an impact, whether at work, or in other avenues of their lives. They want to know you’ll make an impact while on campus at Stanford and as an alumni, as you pursue your career and life goals.  That said, this is also an optional exercise.  Stanford notes, “The two required essays shed light on who you are and how you imagine Stanford will help you achieve your aspirations. We are also interested in learning about the things you have done that are most meaningful to you. In this section, we provide an optional opportunity to go beyond your resume to discuss some of your contributions more fully.”  So, you will want to be selective and ensure that you are adding meaningful content beyond that in your resume.

Whether you choose an example (or examples) from your professional or personal life, it’s important to share all the background a reader will need to appreciate the story before clearly outlining the actions you took and the results you achieved.  The more detail you’re able to provide about your role in achieving a positive outcome, the easier it will be for you to accurately demonstrate your leadership skills. It would also be worth commenting on why the impact was meaningful to you or others, as this could help you show how you value Stanford’s mission statement of “Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.”  Perhaps you are lucky enough to have a strong example for each—live, organizations and world—but it would make sense to keep this mission statement in mind as you reflect on your impact.

Clear Admit Resources
Thanks for reading our analysis of this year’s GSB MBA essay topics. As you work on your GSB MBA essays and application, we encourage you to consider all of Clear Admit’s Stanford offerings:

Need help with your essay?

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Posted in: Essay Topic Analysis, Essays

Schools: Stanford GSB

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