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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, contains 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.”

Essay Philosophy

Your 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.

Please think of your Stanford essays as conversations — 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 how the Stanford MBA Program can help you better yourself.

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.

Essay A

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 — resume, work history, activities and interests, letters of reference, 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 essays describe the “what,” but good essays move beyond this 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” at the expense of how and why these guiding forces have shaped your behavior, attitudes, and objectives. Please be assured that we do appreciate and reward thoughtful self-assessment and appropriate levels of self-disclosure.

Essay B

In the application form, we ask you what you aspire to do after your MBA. In this essay, we ask you “Why Stanford?” Given what you hope to achieve, how will your education and experiences at Stanford help you turn your dreams into reality? We give you broad license to envision your future; take advantage of it. The key here is that you should have ideas for your best self after Stanford, and related objectives for your Stanford education. How do you plan to take advantage of the incredible opportunities at Stanford? How do you envision yourself growing and learning here at Stanford GSB? And how will the Stanford experience help you become the person you aspire to be? You do not  need to make up a path if you are uncertain, but a level of focused interests will enable you to make the most of your Stanford experience. Be honest with us, and especially with yourself, in addressing this question.  

Good People Can Give Bad Advice

Moving beyond the specific essay 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 is unique when you know neither the backgrounds of the other applicants nor the topics they have chosen to share? What matters is not merely 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: If you don’t have amazing essays, you won’t be admitted even if you are a compelling applicant.

We constantly remind ourselves to focus on the applicant rather than the application. This means that we will admit you despite your application essays if we feel we’ve gotten a good sense of you 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/MA Education 1998
Assistant Dean for MBA Admissions

Last Updated 13 Jun 2014