How to Search Your Soul in Your Stanford GSB Essays

(Updated for 2019-2020)

The Stanford GSB has used the same two essay questions for years now, and they capture very well what the GSB is looking for in its applicants.

Since Kirsten Ross’ arrival as Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid in June 2017, GSB has reinforced its commitment to looking for students who are introspective and willing to show vulnerability. The GSB values students who will connect with each other ‘beyond the resume,’ have a vision for themselves as change agents and leaders, and believe that the GSB will enable them to realize that vision. Dig deep, and get ready for some soul searching!

Essay A: What matters most to you, and why? (750 words recommended)

If you mindfully follow the guidance that Stanford offers, you’ll be far ahead of most applicants here!

To go a little deeper on each of these guidelines:

  • Genuinely illustrate who you are and how you came to be the person you are: The key word here is ‘genuinely.’ One good litmus test for this is that if you left the essay in the printer at work, you might feel a little embarrassed or exposed if a colleague picked it up. Stanford has very good genuineness filters, so you’re much better off identifying a value that really has been core for you, rather than trying to see what might enable you to tell the stories you want to tell. The only wrong answer to this essay prompt is the one that’s not actually true for you.
  • Share experiences/lessons that shaped your perspective, rather than focusing merely on what you’ve accomplished: If you’re thinking of adapting an accomplishments essay (from another business school, say) for Stanford, think again! The evolution of what matters most to you and why is almost certainly littered with lessons learned the hard way, with influences from others, and with reflection in addition to action. Focus on formative experiences, not resume bullets.
  • Focus on the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’: If you put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer, you can imagine why this is so important. Adcom may understand a little bit about an applicant by learning that what matters most to them is ‘unlocking people’s potential’ or ‘advancing equity’ or ‘enabling adventures’ or ‘openness.’ They can learn much more about an applicant by reading about why those things matter to them, when they started mattering to them, how that value has evolved over time, what experiences have reinforced or refined that value, etc. These elements should be the meat of this essay.

Essay B: Why Stanford? (400 words recommended)

Most business schools ask some version of this question. The GSB is looking for two main things:

  • You’ve done your homework. You understand Stanford and how you might take advantage of the academic and nonacademic features of the GSB program.
  • You have an aspiration for your life (often for your career), and you believe a Stanford MBA is the best way for you realize that aspiration. It isn’t enough to describe why an MBA will help you. Why and how will a Stanford MBA help you?  For the A+ essay, be sure to share how you would like to contribute to the GSB during your two years and beyond.

Short Answer Question:  Tell us about a time within the last two years when your background or perspective influenced your participation at work or school. (1,200 character maximum)

The key here is to describe a situation in which you chose to involve yourself in something because of a personal connection to it. You drew on past experiences, or a hobby, or a lesson learned, or a deeply held value. What did you do, and why?

You’ll know you wrote great GSB essays if you look through them afterwards and think to yourself, “This is a good snapshot of who I am! It’s a little vulnerable to share with strangers, but it’s me.” Happy soul searching!