Writing Effective Essays
Regardless of the outcome of the admission process, I believe strongly that you will benefit from the opportunity for structured reflection that the business school application provides. I hope that you will approach the application process as a way to learn about yourself—that's the goal—with the byproduct being the application that you submit to us.
Rarely during our lives are we asked to think deeply about what is most important to us. Stanford professor Bill Damon’s book, The Moral Advantage: How to Succeed in Business by Doing the Right Thing, contained the following passages that might help you maintain the larger context as you delve into the essay writing process.
"We are not always aware of the forces that ultimately move us. While focusing on the "how" questions—how to survive, how to get ahead, how to make a name for ourselves—often we forget the "why" questions that are more essential for finding and staying on the best course: Why pursue this objective? Why behave in this manner? Why aspire to this kind of life? Why become this type of person?
These "why" questions help us realize our highest aspirations and our truest interests. To answer these questions well, we must decide what matters most to us, what we will be able to contribute to in our careers, what are the right (as opposed to the wrong) ways of behaving as we aim toward this end, and, ultimately, what kind of persons we want to become. Because everyone, everywhere, wants to live an admirable life, a life of consequence, the "why" questions cannot be ignored for long without great peril to one’s personal stability and enduring success. It is like ignoring the rudder on a ship—no matter how much you look after all the boat’s other moving parts, you may end up lost at sea."
The Stanford MBA Program essays provide you an opportunity to reflect on your own "truest interests" and "highest aspirations."
While the letters of reference are stories about you told by others, these essays enable you to tell your own story, what matters most to you and why, as well as how you have decided you can best contribute to society.
Please think of the Stanford essays as conversations on paper—when we read files, we feel that we meet people, also known as our "flat friends"—and tell us your story in a natural, genuine way.
Our goal is to understand what motivates you and how you have become the person you are today. In addition, we’re interested in what kind of person you need the Stanford MBA Program to help you become.
Reflective, insightful essays help us envision the individual behind all of the experiences and accomplishments that we read about elsewhere in your application.
The most important piece of advice on these essays is extremely simple: answer the questions—each component of each question.
An additional suggestion for writing essays is equally straightforward: think a lot before you write. We want a holistic view of you as a person: your values, passions, ideas, experiences, and aspirations.
In the first essay, tell a story—and tell a story that only you can tell.
Tell this essay in a straightforward and sincere way. This probably sounds strange, since these are essays for business school, but we really don’t expect to hear about your business experience in this essay (though, of course, you are free to write about whatever you would like).
Remember that we have your entire application—work history, letters of reference, short-answer responses, etc.—to learn what you have accomplished and the type of impact you have made. Your task in this first essay is to connect the people, situations, and events in your life with the values you adhere to and the choices you have made. This essay gives you a terrific opportunity to learn about yourself!
Many good essays describe the "what," but great essays move to the next order and describe how and why these "whats" have influenced your life. The most common mistake applicants make is spending too much time describing the "what" and not enough time describing how and why these guiding forces have shaped your behavior, attitudes, and objectives in your personal and professional lives. Please be assured that we do appreciate and reward thoughtful self-assessment and appropriate levels of self-disclosure.
In the second essay, please note that there are two separate but related questions. Answer both! First, we ask you what you want to do - REALLY. Tell us what you aspire to do. You don’t need to come up with a "safe" answer because you’re worried that your true aim is not what we want to see. REALLY. What are your ideas for your best self after Stanford? What, and how, do you hope to contribute in your professional life after earning your MBA?
Tell us what, in your heart, you would like to achieve. What is the dream that brings meaning to your life? How do you plan to make an impact? We give you broad license to envision your future. Take advantage of it. You may, however, find it difficult to explain why you need an MBA to reach your aims if those aims are completely undefined. Be honest, with yourself and with us, in addressing those questions. You certainly do not need to make up a path, but a level of focused interests will enable you to make the most of the Stanford experience.
Second, we ask why Stanford. How will the MBA Program at Stanford help you turn your dreams into reality? The key here is that you should have objectives for your Stanford education. How do you plan to take advantage of the incredible opportunities at Stanford? How do you envision yourself contributing, growing, and learning here at the Graduate School of Business? And how will the Stanford experience help you become the person you described in the first part of Essay 2?
From both parts of Essay 2, we learn about your dreams, what has shaped them, and how Stanford can help you bring them into fruition.
Tell us about a time in the last three years when you…
A. Built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.
Unlike the two previous essays, in which you are asked to write about your life from a more holistic perspective, these questions ask you to reflect on a specific recent experience (within the last three years) that has made a difference to you and/or the people around you.
The best answers will transport us to that moment in time by painting a vivid picture not only of what you did, but also of how you did it. Include supporting details. What led to the situation? What did you say? How did they respond? What were you thinking at the time? What were you feeling at the time? Include details about what you thought and felt during that time and your perceptions about how others responded. From this response, we visualize you "in action."
Good People Can Give Bad Advice
Moving beyond the specific essay and short-answer questions, I'd like to address a couple of myths.
Myth #1: Tell the Committee on Admissions what makes you unique in your essays. This often leads applicants to believe that you need to have accomplishments or feats that are unusual or different from your peers (e.g., traveling to an exotic place or talking about a tragic situation in your life).
But how are you to know which of your experiences are unique when you know neither the backgrounds of the other applicants nor the topics they have chosen? What makes you unique is not that you have had these experiences, but rather how and why your perspective has changed or been reinforced as a result of those and other everyday experiences.
That is a story that only you can tell. If you concentrate your efforts on telling us who you are, differentiation will occur naturally; if your goal is to appear unique, you actually may achieve the opposite effect.
Truly, the most impressive essays that we read each year are those that do not begin with the goal of impressing us.
Myth #2: There is a widespread perception that if you don't have amazing essays, you won't be admitted even if you are a compelling applicant.
Please remember that no single element of your application is dispositive. And since we recognize that our application has limits, we constantly remind ourselves to focus on the applicant rather than the application.
This means that we will admit someone despite the application essays if we feel we’ve gotten a good sense of the person overall. Yes, the essays are important. But they are neither our only avenue of understanding you, nor are they disproportionately influential in the admission process.
Accounting Versus Marketing
Alumnus Leo Linbeck, MBA '94 told me something on an alumni panel in Houston a few years ago that I have since appropriated.
Leo said that, in management terms, the Stanford essays are not a marketing exercise but an accounting exercise.
This is not an undertaking in which you look at an audience/customer (i.e., the Committee on Admissions) and then write what you believe we want to hear. It is quite the opposite. This is a process in which you look inside yourself and try to express most clearly what is there. We are trying to get a good sense of your perspectives, your thoughts on management and leadership, and how Stanford can help you realize your goals.
As Professor Damon would say, we are helping you ensure that your rudder steers you to the right port.
Derrick Bolton, MBA 1998
updated 21 June 2012