The three primary criteria for admission to the Stanford MBA Program are intellectual vitality, demonstrated leadership potential, and personal qualities and contributions.
I think (I hope!) you are fairly clear on what we mean by intellectual vitality and demonstrated leadership potential.
But personal qualities and contributions? What do we mean by that? Broadly, we mean that your individual perspectives and interests make a difference in the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) community.
Thus, it is important that your personal thoughts, individual voice, and unique style remain intact throughout your application.
I recognize that we live in a world that often emphasizes conformity. However, the GSB community thrives only with diverse viewpoints. The word diversity may conjure up dramatically different reactions depending on who you are, where you live, and what you believe.
I'd like to discuss how we think about diversity at Stanford; why we think it's important; and why and how it matters in the admission process.
What We Mean By Diversity At Stanford: 'Breadth of Perspective'
When we refer to diversity at Stanford, we're talking in the broadest possible terms. "Breadth of perspective" among students is the most accurate way to express what we mean.
Often people think we define diversity solely in terms of things like gender, nationality, ethnicity, industry experience, etc. Surely that's part of the picture—but only a part.
There are so many other factors that can shape an individual's outlook, and we really heed all those possible aspects of each applicant's viewpoint.
In short, at Stanford we believe the way you think is much more important than the way you look.
Simplistic thinking about diversity can lead to incorrect assumptions. For example, someone might conclude that a "typical" U.S. male investment banker cannot contribute to diversity at Stanford while a female Australian farmer is a shoo in.
It also leads uninformed outsiders to speculate freely on what the "Stanford type" is—in experience, essays, etc.—when in fact there is no such model.
This kind of thinking is misguided and inaccurate.
Please believe me when I say that we value not simply the perspective itself but also the variety of perspectives, meaning (for example) that both of these "types" of students would be able to contribute to diversity at Stanford (as could two U.S. male investment bankers who bring varied perspectives to the community!).
In fact, it's necessary that you have both perspectives because it is precisely their different views that enable them to teach and learn from each other. If you have only one of these perspectives, you may have the sound created by half of a duet.
Why Diversity Is Important: 'Speculation, Experiment, and Creation'
In 1978, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote
Stanford University as a whole, and we here at the GSB, wholeheartedly believe the wisdom of Justice Powell's words. Just imagine how weak an academic program would be if it didn't foster an environment of speculation, experiment, and creation.
I also rather like this quote by William Bowen, president of Princeton University from 1972-1988:
I infer from these two scholars that diversity is important not as an end in itself, but as a means to shaping the kind of learning environment that best develops students.
It also means that diversity matters because students are willing to share their individual perspectives and because other students are willing to listen to and question their peers.
To me, this is why diversity is especially effective in management education—and it leads me to the role diversity plays in the admission process.
Diversity In the Admission Process: 'Believe In Yourself'
So what does all this actually mean for your applications?
Foremost, it means that Stanford has no ideal background, aspiration, format, etc.—regardless of what you may hear from individuals claiming to have "inside knowledge" of admission processes.
We understand that excellence takes many forms, and we must be flexible enough to recognize it when we see it.
We do our part by employing broad criteria, providing a flexible application structure, and evaluating applicants holistically and carefully.
Your responsibility is to believe in yourself—not to express what you think we want to hear, what you think "worked" for someone else, or what someone else tells you to say.
Resist the urge to "package" yourself to come across in a way that you think Stanford wants; such attempts simply blur our understanding of who you are and what you can accomplish.
I know that's tough, and I recognize that it may seem risky from your perspective. But you do yourself a disservice if you're unwilling to share yourself—your experiences, accomplishments, insights, views, and aspirations—through your application.
Your application is strongest when your genuine voice remains intact. Let me provide a specific example on essays:
Over the past couple of years, I've noticed that an increasing number of applicants seem to be following rote formulae for essays, even down to (puzzling and completely unnecessary) transition paragraphs from Essay A to Essay B. We've learned that some essays of supposed prior Stanford admits (a "tortilla" essay, among others) have made their way onto some websites that applicants frequent.
It's unfortunate that many applicants seemed to have blindly followed those examples, some of which were not strong in the first place. But anyone who's read my columns knows that we admit applicants rather than applications—and this means we'll give you the benefit of the doubt even if you've written weaker but sincere essays when we think we have a genuine sense of you from the rest of your application.
What "worked" for one applicant may not "work" for you—and you actually can do yourself a disservice when you try to force your own experiences and insights into someone else's format.
So, as you toil away on your application, what does all this high-level diversity philosophy mean to you?
It means the best applications we see each year are those that do not begin with the goal of impressing us. It means we truly want to see YOU in the application. It means we are excited to learn about the varied experiences and characteristics that, together, create the unique individual that is you.
There may be no formula for success in the admission process, but there is a general recipe: take time to think and space to share your full self with us, and craft an application that provides a window into who you are.
Derrick Bolton, MBA 1998