• Jun 3, 2013
  • School: Stanford University (GSB)
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Stanford GSB MBA Essay Analysis, Your 2014 Application

Are you ready to dig into your essays? Application essays are specifically and cleverly designed to get into your head. We like to turn the tables on the admissions committees and get inside their heads. Why are they asking these questions? What are they looking for? Read on as our experts break down application essay questions to help YOU plan the attack.

Sometimes, you just gotta stick with a formula that works. For the Stanford GSB MBA essays, their formula appears to be working—swimmingly. Meaning, they’ve been asking more or less the same questions for years without much tinkering, and for now, anyway, they’re able to pick the cream of the crop based on the stuff they’re getting.

In recent years, they trimmed the total word allotment from 1800 to 1600, and excised one of the mini-essays. So we’re back to where we were last year, with three essays at 1600 words total. They suggest guideline lengths for each essay, although they do give you an out to tighten one while expanding another.

Before we dig into each piece, let’s talk about space allocation. Should yours be 750 + 450 +400? Maybe. But maybe your career essay warrants a little more fleshing out. Or, the greatest asset in your arsenal has a home in Essay 3. How then to start? Figure out what your greatest hits are. If you have ONE bullet—only one—to impress Stanford with, what’s it gonna be? Imagine your message is intercepted after ONE essay. Which essay MUST they read to get a sense that you’re Stanford material? This where you’ll wanna make sure the length is appropriate. Neither Essays 2 or 3 need to be more than 500 words, but if you need an extra 100 or so for Essay 3, yes, it’s okay to shave some off the famous “What matters most to you and why” essay.

Okay, now let’s examine each of these suckers:

Aight, I’m pumped! Where to next?

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Essay 1: What matters most to you, and why?

Essay 1: What matters most to you, and why?

This may be the hardest of all b-school essays to write, and to write well. Why? Because it’s so open-ended. They haven’t just given you a hunk of clay and asked you to mold it. They’ve given you canvas, paint, wood, sheet metal, circuit boards, copper wire, and a hundred other elements and have asked you to “generate something awe-inspiring.” While you’re painting a blue sky on your canvas paper, the guy in the station next to you is creating a computer that can communicate with aliens. Intimidating. What are others writing about!? What are the guys who are GETTING IN writing about?

Well, let’s start there—if that’s plaguing you, you’re asking the wrong question. It has absolutely nothing to with WHAT others are writing about, but HOW they’re writing. Don’t misunderstand us here; this isn’t about writing skill. B-school essays are never about mastery of prose. The “how” here refers to the manner in which the successful candidates are able to introspect, and walk around an experience, and assess and interpret different points of view, and offer new and intriguing points of view, and reveal deeply personal tales that offer key insights into what they’re MADE of—it’s any number of those things. It’s not the story itself.

Gonna lift some words from Stanford’s bullet points. Values, experiences, lessons. Written from the heart. Influence.

We’ve talked about this Stanford essay a bunch before, so this time around, we wanna focus on these concepts above.

Especially that word influence. What has shaped you? Who are you today, and what process has brought that forward? If you’re the grand canyon, don’t tell us the specs of how big you are, and how deep your canyons are. Instead, focus on the way WATER and WIND eroded and molded you. It’s the shaping, the influencing, the MOLDING we wanna know about. This is more revealing than “the result.” “The thing.” It’s all in the shaping.

Consider the following statement. “I just landed a commercial jet containing 300 passengers.” Impressive? Maybe. Let’s consider two authors of that statement. Author 1—a 58-year-old veteran pilot with military experience, and 20 years of experience as a professional pilot. Author 1 has flown hundreds of flights every year for the past 20 years. Let’s consider the same statement, but introduce a new author, Author 2. Author 2 is 13 years old, scared of heights, and has a crippling fear of flying. He needs to be sedated every time he flies, in fact. One day, he wakes up mid-flight, due to his sedation unintentionally wearing off. He notices all of the passengers beside him unconscious, the captains of the plane incapacitated, and he turns out to be the only person on board who can communicate with air traffic control. The kid puts on the headset, now fueled by a will to survive that trumps all of his phobias, is guided by folks on the ground, and successfully lands the plane, saving the lives of hundreds on board.

Now ask yourself, which “landing of the commercial jet” feels cooler, more revealing about THE PERSON WHO PERFORMED THE FEAT? The answer is obvious, and the example was purposely absurd to demonstrate a point. The stuff Stanford wants to know about isn’t the “landing of the aircraft.” They wanna know about the phobia. The decision to walk into the cockpit in spite of the phobia. They wanna know how someone with these fears, with zero experience, etc. etc., could pull this thing off. They wanna know about the WATER and WIND folks… that shaped the grand canyon. Not the canyon itself.

So, let’s bring this back down to Earth. When you’re figuring out what matters most to you, think about polarities in your development. The strongest stories are the ones that have the most intense and compelling “arcs” where your starting point is here at point A and then somehow, things, people, circumstances, experiences, etc. SHAPED you… MOLDED YOU (like water and air) to travel to point B where you ended up—essentially—a different person. We need to understand all that CONTEXT. If you’re talking about an experience that “changed” you, or that “made you who you are,” it’s only as effective as our understanding of who you were BEFORE that experience so we can contextualize the change. If a person affected you significantly, same deal—we need to know who you were BEFORE that person affected you.

“Before & After” is an incredibly powerful tool for MOST b-school essays, and never more powerful than here for Stanford’s famous essay.

Grand Canyon, ladies and gentlemen. But not the canyon itself—water and air. Water. And air.

Ready to Start your MBA?


Essay 2: What do you want to do—REALLY—and why Stanford?

Essay 2: What do you want to do—REALLY—and why Stanford?

Same deal, gonna borrow some KEY words from Stanford. Future, not repeating accomplishments from past. Career aspirations. Why Stanford.

  1. This is what I want to do—and here is why YOU should be excited about it. (This doesn’t require a ton of backstory or setup—some setup, yes—you need our buy-in. If your idea is uninspired, guess what, so too are “you.” Sell it. Give us just enough background and then in simple terms, walk us through your aspirations. With surgical efficiency.)
  2. I’m confident I’m gonna succeed because I’m good at it, I know what it takes to succeed, and I frickin LOVE the thing to death. Lemme show you what I mean, this is how it’s all gonna look, step by step. Notice how each step as I’ve laid it out SNAPS into place perfectly. I understand the logic behind all of it because I “get” it, I “get” my vision, only people who get it so keenly are likely to succeed.
  3. This confidence comes from careful consideration of how it’s all gonna go down, which has led me to recognize the importance of not just why an MBA is key, but why Stanford in particular supports my vision the BEST—I am, in effect, turning down Harvard, Wharton, Booth, etc., you name it, because none of these places can do XX YY and ZZ to catapult me toward my vision like Stanford can.

That’s the essay. In a nutshell. That’s what we call “the subtext.” Underneath the actual stuff you write, this should be communicated.

In order to NAIL this essay, you must understand Stanford and what they’re all about. This may take some research on your end, and this is what Stanford is hoping—that after a TON of research, you have determined that THIS place, unlike any other, is your best fit. Articulate THAT not just when you address the “why Stanford” piece, but even as you articulate your goal. The folks who get into Stanford demonstrate a synergy with the school in every fiber of their application. It’s gotta come through everywhere. Evvvvverywhere.

But so, after you’ve walked us through points 1 and 2 above, let’s dig in a bit to point 3.

How to understand Stanford well enough to approach this? Spend time on the website. Read about the school elsewhere—articles, anything written by current or former students. Talk to former students. Talk to current students. Visit the campus. Los of ways to engage—where there’s a will, there’s a way. Read stuff by current or former professors. Notice the trends of what kinds of professors came from Stanford. Notice what kinds of companies were started at Stanford. Get a sense.

Now, whatever you do, please don’t think that there is a magical phrase or a set of classes you can name drop that will trigger a successful outcome. The demonstration of “fit” here is a wildly organic one. It’s in between the lines, never the lines themselves. Stanford’s assets have to match YOU in a way that won’t necessarily apply to the guy sitting next to you. This is the whole point about “individuality” and “uniqueness.” Stanford is curious to see how aspects of its program and culture uniquely affect your appetite for an MBA, or for your career goals. It’s not “mentioning a class,” folks. Or “a club.” Or “a professor’s name.” It’s much much much more than that.

It’s an argument.

An argument that PROVES connectivity. Proves that there is something about Stanford that not even a place like Harvard or LBS or Wharton or Top School X can quite satisfy in the same way. That’s a great conceit to adopt here. You have a free ride to HBS. Why would you PAY to go to Stanford instead? Convince me, as though I’m your spouse, why this is not an insane decision. A great essay here can be between 400-500 words, no need for it to live outside that range.

Ready to Start your MBA?


Essay 3: Answer one of the three 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.

Essay 3: Answer one of the three 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.

Option A: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.

Since we’ve tackled all these many times before this year we’re gonna focus on “sub-text” outlines to show you what you need to say between the lines.

  1. So in order to accomplish task/objective X… I was gonna need to either DEVELOP an existing team, or BUILD ONE from scratch. This was the goal, here were the challenges, and this is what was at stake.
  2. This was my expectation for how my team was gonna perform—for this this and this reason.
  3. But THIS is what ended up happening. As you can see, they exceeded my expectations.
  4. This is why that happened: X Y Z. This is what I learned, and this is why this lesson is relevant for my future.

Why did the results exceed your expectations? That’s the piece you’re gonna want to unravel and pick apart. Part “4” above. If you leave that to “the last sentence” of your 1600 words, you’re scrood. This is where the MEAT lives. This is where we get to see a future INNOVATOR, LEADER, etc. Getting INSIDE a situation, walking around it, so-to-speak. So, let the first three pieces be purely functional, just enough to give us context.

Option B: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you identified and pursued an opportunity to improve an organization.

“Improve.” It implies that thing we always talk about—change. Something went from A → B. In order for this essay to hum, we need to understand you as a CATALYST that inspired an organization to have gone from Bad to Good, or Good to Great, or Great to HOLY CRAP. Whatever the change, we need to understand HOW you:

  1. “detected” the opportunity—when did it occur to you?
  2. what you DID after you detected it—what was your plan? what did you actually DO at that point? anyone can lean back in their chair and pick apart a system and talk about why it’s “sub-optimal” but few actually take action, and then… live to tell about it
  3. what improved? what does it all mean? why should we care about any of this?

Option C: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you went beyond what was defined or established.

Even though this isn’t a progression-based A → B, it is a change-based A → B. There has been a Status Quo (let’s call that “A”). This status quo could refer to a situation, a way of executing a task, and anything in between. First you identified an opportunity. Something could have been done better. Or something was utterly broken and no one had the SAND to do anything about it. Could be lots of things, the point is, you detected an opportunity. Then, you decided to DO something about it. If it was easy to do, probably it isn’t that cool a story. The coolest stories involve some serious deliberation. Going AGAINST the grain must give you splinters, and be generally uncomfortable—again, if not, it’s probably not a great fit for this prompt. We need to sink into this deliberation. We need to understand the dilemma, the weighing of pros and cons, we need to watch you figuring our your course of action as though it were happening right now. Then we need to see what happened. So it could look like this:

  1. This was the status quo, and this is why that status quo needed… altering, fixing, improvement, something.
  2. Doing something about this meant going against the grain somehow—this is what was at stake, this is why this wasn’t an easy decision/thing to do.
  3. But, this is what I decided to do anyway, and this was my plan. This is how it all went down.
  4. And this is what ended up happening. This is why it was significant, and why you should care that I’m telling you this.

Remember, as we always say in all our classes, in all our Roundtable Discussions, in every opportunity we have to touch on this point… know your “greatest hits” BEFORE you approach these essays. Don’t let the prompts freeze you. Figure out your GREATEST stories and then figure out which prompts are gonna let those breathe the most effectively.

Ready to Start your MBA?


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