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How to Respond to the Stanford MBA Essay Prompts

The Stanford Graduate School of Business challenges those applying to be unique in their essays and responses while recognizing the importance of being yourself as you reflect upon and discuss your future goals.

The acceptance rate for Stanford in 2015 was 6.1%, making it the most selective graduate business school on the planet.This makes it challenging for applicants to differentiate themselves as well as for the admissions team to select the very best candidates when decisions are based on limited information.

Recognizing the difficulties of building a diverse and exceptional class, Stanford — more than most other schools—makes an effort to be clear about what it seeks from applicants.  Take the time to read through the Stanford GSB’s website—you’ll find detailed guidance.  

Stanford asks applicants to reveal who they are in personal, authentic and insightful essays that will provide a holistic view of applicants. So, do give yourself time to reflect on who you are, your goals, your core strengths and values. Don’t assume that the questions are meant to be deceptive, or be so intent on what you want to ask that you forget what it is that’s been asked.

The admission team aims to shape a diverse and dynamic class that can fulfill the GSB’s mission to: “Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.” This is not just marketing hype. It’s important for you to stand out as an individual and to demonstrate that you can and will succeed in making an impact. Don’t assume that any one aspect of your profile is so outstanding and unique as to make you an essential addition to the class.

Stanford’s website clearly identifies evaluation criteria: intellectual vitality, demonstrated leadership potential and personal qualities and contributions. Assistant Dean for Admissions Derrick Bolton explains, “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.”

We recommend that you reflect on what makes YOU uniquely YOU.  Show, don’t tell who you are by providing examples/stories that demonstrate who you are in terms of intellectual ability, leadership, personal strengths, qualities and values and your ability to contribute.

As the GSB admissions office explains, “Essays help us learn about who you are rather than solely what you have done. Other parts of the application give insight to your academic and professional accomplishments; the essays reveal the person behind those achievements. When writing your essays, our best advice is simple: answer the question. Resist the urge to “package” yourself into what you think Stanford wants to see. Doing so will only prevent us from understanding who you really are and what you hope to accomplish. The most impressive essays are the most authentic.

Applicants sometimes wonder about how they can best impress the admissions committee.  A Stratus Prep advisor who is a Stanford alum advises, “From the experience of my classmates and those who have been admitted to Stanford over the past few years, each applicant to Stanford is highly introspective and each essay is reflective of this.  The essays are usually about common themes like family, father, mother, etc. but they describe this in their own words which makes it unique. They do not talk about accomplishments but about how they see the world from their lens.”

Essay Questions

Stanford requests that you write two personal essays and they provide this guidance: “The personal essays give us glimpses of your character and hopes. In each essay, we want to hear your genuine voice. Think carefully about your values, passions, aims, and dreams prior to writing them.”

Length: The word count for both essays may not exceed 1,150 words (or 1,200 words if applying to both the MBA and MSx programs). You can allocate those words however you would like but they suggest that most applicants allocate 750 words to Essay A and 400 to Essay B (or 450 to Essay B if applying to both MBA and MSx programs)

Formatting: Stanford asks that you double-space your essays, indicated the question you are answering at the beginning of each essay (which does not count in the word limit), number all pages and upload one document that includes both essays.

Essay A: What matters most to you, and why?

Stanford provides the following advice:

We would like you to:

  • Share the insights, experiences, and lessons that shaped your perspectives, rather than focusing merely on what you’ve done or accomplished.
  • Do some deep self-examination, so you can genuinely illustrate who you are and how you came to be the person you are.
  • Write from the heart, and illustrate how a person, situation, or event has influenced you.
  • Focus on the “why” rather than the “what.”

Taking stock of who you are requires introspection and self-awareness. This is an essential first step to deciding on how to approach this essay.  When have you felt most alive and inspired? What do you care about most deeply at your core?  And how has what matters shaped who you are, the decisions you’ve made, the challenges you’ve overcome? The “Why” is important – you’re being asked to provide insights into what’s behind your achievements and goals and dreams.

Essay B: Why Stanford?

For this essay, Stanford provides the following advice:

  • Explain your decision to pursue graduate education in management.
  • Explain the distinctive opportunities you will pursue at Stanford.
  • If you are applying to both the MBA and MSx programs, use Essay B to address your interest in both programs. 

You can break this two-word question into three components.  Why is an MBA essential to you? Why specifically is Stanford where you can develop/learn/achieve most? And how will you contribute to the GSB community?

It will be helpful to explain specific professional challenges and achievements, as well as your career goals. Provide specific examples of how an MBA from Stanford will add to your ability to overcome these obstacles and achieve your goals.  In addition, how will you be involved – this includes participation inside and outside of the classroom.  

As one of the most selective business schools today, Stanford makes an effort to be clear about how it evaluates applicants, and what they will want to communicate in the essays, which are an important aspect of the application.

Do not underestimate their importance in providing a holistic view of who you are, how you’ll benefit from the program, and how you’ll contribute.

Do your research, take the time to reflect, and customize your essays.

About Stratus

Stratus Admissions Counseling is a full service admissions counseling firm distinguished by its team based, multi-step process ensuring each application is crafted for optimum impact. Our MBA counseling team has a representative from virtually every top 20 MBA program, enabling us to provide school-specific guidance.


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