June 21, 2019

Stanford GSB MBA Essay A

Stanford GSB

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

Note: Your answers for both essay questions [A & B] combined may not exceed 1,150 words (1,200 words if you are applying to both the MBA and MSx programs). Each of you has your own story to tell, so please allocate these words between your essays in the way that is most effective for you.


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 what you’re focusing on, 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, walk around an experience, assess different points of view, offer new points of view, and reveal deeply personal tales that offer key insights into what they’re MADE of. It’s not the story itself.

Some key words from Stanford’s description: insights, experiences, people. Written from the heart. Shaped your perspective.

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

Especially that phrase “shaped your perspective.” What has shaped you? Who are you today, and what process has made you that way? If you were describing the Grand Canyon this way, don’t tell us the measurements of how big it is, instead focus on the way WATER and WIND eroded and molded it (or you!). It’s the shaping, the influencing, the MOLDING we want to know about. This is more revealing than “the result.” “The thing.” “That you are awesome.” It’s all in how you got there.

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, and 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 competing influences 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—an entirely 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.

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