The three primary criteria for admission to the Stanford MBA Program are intellectual vitality, demonstrated leadership potential, and personal qualities and contributions.
When we say intellectual vitality or demonstrated leadership potential, I think (I hope!) you are fairly clear on what we mean.
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 GSB community.
Thus, it is important that your individual thoughts, voice, and style remain intact throughout your application.
We live in a world that often emphasizes conformity. The Stanford GSB community, however, 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.
As such, I’ll explain 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 mistakenly think we define diversity solely in terms of things like gender, nationality, ethnicity, level of work 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 the way you think is much more important than the way you look.
Simplistic thinking about diversity can lead to incorrect assumptions. This kind of thinking is misguided and inaccurate. 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.
For example, someone might conclude that a “typical” U.S. male consultant cannot contribute to diversity at Stanford while a female Chinese farmer is a shoo-in.
Please believe me when I say that we value not simply a perspective itself, but also a 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 consultants 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:
“The atmosphere of speculation, experiment, and creation — so essential to the quality of higher education — is widely believed to be promoted by a diverse student body.”
Stanford University as a whole, and we here at Stanford 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 like this quote by William Bowen, president of Princeton University from 1972-1988:
“A great deal of learning occurs informally. It occurs through interactions among students of both sexes; of different races, religions, and backgrounds; who come from cities and rural areas, from various states and countries; who have a wide variety of interests, talents, and perspectives; and who are able, directly and indirectly, to learn from their differences and to stimulate one another to reexamine even their most deeply held assumptions about themselves and their world. As a wise graduate of ours once noted, ‘People do not learn very much when they are surrounded only by the likes of themselves.’”
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 is enabled by students being willing to share individual perspectives or listen to, and question, 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 application?
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.
Yes, that’s hard to do. I know. 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.
Available for purchase online are “successful” essays purportedly written by prior Stanford admits. It would be unfortunate if you were to follow blindly those examples. Some were not strong in the first place; we admitted candidates despite, not because, of their essays in those cases. In addition, 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 framework.
So, as you toil away on your application, what does all this high-level diversity philosophy mean for 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 as you craft an application that provides a sense of who you are.
Derrick Bolton, MBA/MA Education 1998
Former Assistant Dean for MBA Admissions