Stanford Business School Experience Essay

Stanford Graduate School of Business Essay Analysis, 2017-2018

by mbaMission

How can you write essays that grab the attention of MBA admissions committees? With this thorough analysis, our friends atmbaMission help you conceptualize your essay ideas and understand how to execute, so that your experiences truly stand out.


Like several of the other top MBA programs that have released their essay questions for this year, the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) has remained faithful to the prompts it presented last season. But with a total maximum word count allowance of 1,150, the school gives its applicants a little more room in which to express themselves. Although the Stanford GSB is an institution well known for generating and encouraging  innovators, the school uses its application essays not to ask candidates to share their imaginative new ideas but rather to look inward and examine their motivations and values. These are your opportunities to demonstrate the parts of your personality and profile that are not readily conveyed through transcripts, scores, and lists of professional accomplishments. In our Stanford Graduate School of Business essay analysis that follows, we present advice on how you might do so effectively…

Essay A: What matters most to you, and why?(School-suggested word count of 750)

For this essay, we would like you to:

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

When candidates ask us, “What should I write for what matters most to me?,” we offer some pretty simple guidance: start brainstorming for this essay by asking yourself that very question. What does matter most to you? This might seem like obvious advice, of course, but many applicants get flustered by the question, believing that an actual “right” answer exists that they must provide to satisfy the admissions committee. As a result, they never pause to actually consider their sincere responses, which are typically the most compelling.

We therefore encourage you to contemplate this question in depth and push yourself to explore the psychological and philosophical motivations behind your goals and achievements—behind who you are today. We cannot emphasize this enough: do not make a snap decision about the content of this essay. Once you have identified what you believe is an appropriate theme, discuss your idea(s) with those with whom you are closest and whose input you respect. Doing so can help validate deeply personal and authentic themes, leading to an essay that truly stands out.

Once you have fully examined your options and identified your main themes, do not simply provide a handful of supporting anecdotes—or worse, recycle the stories you used in a similar essay for another school. A strong essay response to this question will involve a true exploration of the themes you have chosen and reveal a thorough analysis of decisions, motives, and successes/failures, with a constant emphasis on how you conduct yourself. If you are merely telling stories and trying to tie in your preconceived conclusions, you are probably forcing a theme on your reader rather than genuinely analyzing your experiences, and any experienced admissions reader will see right through this. In short, be sure to fully consider and identify your most authentic answer(s), outline your essay accordingly, and then infuse your writing with your personality, thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Stanford encourages you to give special attention to why the subject you have chosen to write about is the most important to you. This “why” element should be clear in your essay—it should be implied by what you are discussing and sharing. If you need to explicitly declare, “And what matters most to me is…,” your essay is not making a strong enough point on its own. A well-constructed essay that is infused with your values and motivation and that clearly conveys why you made certain decisions should effectively and implicitly reveal the “why” behind your chosen topic—and will almost always make a stronger point.

One final note is that you can write about a popular theme as long as you truly own the experience. However, the odds are very low that you could write on a theme that the Stanford GSB’s admissions committee has never read about before. You can discuss whatever you truly care about in your essay, but you absolutely must support your topic with a wealth of experience that shows how you have uniquely lived it. Therefore, for example, you cannot successfully write about “making a difference” if you have volunteered only occasionally, but if you have truly had a significant impact on someone’s life, then the topic is no longer a cliché—it is true to who you genuinely are. So, focus less on trying to choose the “right” subject for your essay and more on identifying one that is personal and authentic to you. If you write powerfully about your topic and connect it directly to your experiences and values, your essay should be a winner.

Essay 2: Why Stanford? (School-suggested word count of 400)

Enlighten us on how earning your MBA at Stanford will enable you to realize your ambitions.

  • Explain your decision to pursue graduate education in management.
  • Explain the distinctive opportunities you will pursue at Stanford.

On the application essays page of the Stanford GSB Web site, the admissions committee states forthrightly, “Resist the urge to ‘package’ yourself into whatyou think Stanford wants to see” (emphasis added). What the school really wants is to understand what and/or who you want to be and what role its MBA program plays in bringing that to fruition. The admissions committee does not have a preferred job or industry in mind that it is waiting to hear you say you plan to enter—it truly wants to understand your personal vision and why you feel a Stanford MBA in particular is a necessary element to facilitate this vision. If you try to present yourself as someone or something you are not, you will ultimately undermine your candidacy. Trust the admissions committee (and us) on this one!

The “why our school?” topic is a common element of a typical personal statement, so we encourage you to download your free copy of the mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which helps applicants write this style of essay for any school. It explains ways of approaching this subject effectively and offers several sample essays as guides. Click here to access your complimentary copy today.

And for a thorough exploration of the Stanford GSB’s academic program, unique offerings, social life, and other key characteristics, check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, which is also available for free. 📝


mbaMission is the leader in MBA admissions consulting with a full-time and comprehensively trained staff of consultants, all with profound communications and MBA experience. mbaMission has helped thousands of candidates fulfill their dream of attending prominent MBA programs around the world. Take your first step toward a more successful MBA application experience with a free 30-minute consultation with one of mbaMission’s senior consultants. Sign up today at www.mbamission.com/manhattangmat.

My business school graduation from the Stanford Graduate School of Business (Stanford GSB) in June 2017. Wearing: LIKELY Carolyn Dress

My past two years getting my MBA at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (Stanford GSB) have been the most transformative of my life thus far. (I’m not being hyperbolic, I assure you.)

The educational experience expands far beyond the classroom. It’s all-encompassing. Some of my most important lessons were learned at 3am while traveling with classmates on the other side of the world. It’s nearly impossible to consolidate what I learned into a list of eight lessons, but here’s my best shot.

Lesson 1:  Devour Diversity Stanford GSB Lessons

I showed up at the Stanford GSB already enthralled with the power of diversity. In undergrad at UC Berkeley I wrote my thesis on “Making diversity in the workplace a strategic advantage.” I facilitated the “Unconscious Bias” class at Google as a side project. But truth be told, there wasn’t that much diversity at Google. Not like there was amongst by Stanford classmates. I still had a lot to learn.

When you show up to the first day of “Welcome Week” at the Stanford GSB, you’re divided into one of six “sections” with whom you take the bulk of your core classes the first year (shout out to Section 3). Rumor has it that these sections are meticulously curated starting the moment we’re admitted. As the legendary former Director of Admissions, Derrick Bolton, once told me, “each class is like an orchestra, and you don’t want to have too many tubas.”

I looked around on my first day of class and was in complete awe of my classmates. There were former Navy SEALs, professional athletes, Wall Street hot shots, even the guy that created Google Alerts. I was humbled to call myself part of this group.

I wondered if I should even be there. I was a former saleswoman at Google. Did my classmates think salespeople were stupid? I designed my own major in college. Would I be able to keep up in my accounting and finance classes? My Imposter Syndrome ran deep.

But Bolton told us that when it comes who Stanford admits into the business school program, “we don’t make mistakes.”

He was right. Every single person in our diverse section had a unique background, expertise, and experience that the rest of us could learn from. What I lacked, others had, and vice versa. By the end of the quarter, my section was like a fine-tuned orchestra, harmonizing and playing off one another. We each took turns being conductor.

My classmates helped me grow immensely as a person and expanded my worldview. My hope is I was able to do the same for them.

Lesson 2:  Feedback is a Gift Stanford GSB Lessons

I’ve gotten more feedback in the past two years than I have in my entire life. Giving personal and professional feedback is deeply ingrained in the Stanford GSB culture. It’s part of every group project, every presentation, and every night out at The Patio, our local dive bar. We’ve grown so accustomed to giving and receiving feedback that we worry our candor will ruffle some feathers in the “real world.”

We played it safe at first. During my first quarter, “constructive” feedback typically took the form of a disguised compliment. As we built up trust with our classmates, we learned to take more and greater risks. We gave feedback that was immensely uncomfortable to give.

Giving constructive feedback is risky. There are possible repercussions – you could hurt the other person or worse, ruin your relationship. That’s why people often conclude that it’s easier to not give the feedback at all.

How could Joe not know everyone thinks his tone is abrasive? Well, because no one’s ever told him. Taking the personal risk of giving constructive feedback is a gift for the other person because it helps them see their blind spot.

We learned to be immensely grateful receivers of feedback, and to take the personal risk of giving it whenever possible in order to help our fellow classmates.

Lesson 3:  There’s Strength in Vulnerability Stanford GSB Lessons

We’re taught to avoid making ourselves vulnerable from a young age. Turns out most people don’t like feeling emotionally exposed, uncertain, or at risk. We abhor asking for help or admitting weakness. But there’s enormous power in vulnerability.

Our vulnerabilities are what make us beautiful, interesting, human, ourselves. Being vulnerable with someone is how you form a true bond. It makes you feel connected to other people. It’s a cornerstone to falling in love.

The people I most respect, the strongest people and leaders I know, admit that they’re imperfect. It makes me respect them even more. When leaders take a risk and share their vulnerabilities, it shows they trust us. It shows they’re human. They’re relatable; they remind us of us.

Taking risks and sharing your vulnerabilities is a prerequisite for being trusted, respected, and known (both personally and professionally).

Lesson 4:  Step Outside Your Comfort Zone Stanford GSB Lessons

The most personal growth happens when you feel a little uncomfortable.

At the Stanford GSB, we were encouraged to get out of our comfort zone every day. We role played firing our classmates. Engaging in conflict was celebrated. We gave public speeches we felt unprepared for. We filmed ourselves doing it. And rewatched it over, and over. While getting feedback from our peers.

We were taught to embrace a growth mindset. This is in contrast to a fixed mindset, which suggests that our competencies are innate. Instead, we believed our talents could be developed through hard work, practice, and feedback from others. We embody the growth mindset even in the way we talk to ourselves. Rather than saying “I can’t do financial analysis,” we would say, “I can’t do financial analysis yet.”

Challenge your assumptions about yourself, the world, how things work. Things that may have been true about you in the past might not be true now. Constantly checking in and challenging your beliefs is a crucial part of personal development. You’ll surprise yourself at what you learn and what you can do.

Lesson 5: Find Your Passion Stanford GSB Lessons

One of the reasons I was drawn (re: obsessed) with the Stanford GSB over other top business schools was the emphasis on pursuing your passion.

A lot of pressure is put on this word “passion,” so it’s important to note that your passions can evolve over time, and discovering your own is a process.

I wrote my infamous “What matters most to you and why?” Stanford GSB admissions essay on having an open heart. I came to Stanford knowing I was passionate about making a positive impact on the quality of people’s lives. Before Stanford, I had worked as the Lead Google Wellness Champion as a side project. I organized fitness challenges and health testing, and fell in love with helping people grow and feel better about themselves physically and mentally. I assumed I would start a company in the health and wellness space after graduating.

Leaving the workforce, investing in myself, and reflecting while at the GSB, allowed me to see that, yes, I was immensely passionate about having a positive impact on people’s lives. More specifically though, I felt I had a calling to inspire and empower fellow women. Once I discovered my passion, it was so strong that nothing could stop me from pursuing it. I frequently pulled all nighters working on my lifestyle business, Brains over Blonde, and it didn’t feel like work. I took a massive career leap and gave up steady, sizable corporate salaries to pursue my dream.

The Stanford GSB’s motto, “Change lives. Change Organizations. Change the world.” truly is a cornerstone of the community and culture. Discovering my passion helped me see that this is how I was going to change the world, and that nothing was going to stop me.

If you already know what your passion is, go with it. You’re one of the lucky ones. Not everyone figures out their passion in business school. Many people learn more about what they don’t want to do than what they do, and that’s just as important. Discovering your passion is a process.

You spend so much of your life working; it pays to be purposeful with what you do with your life. Do something that is meaningful to you. Stand for something. Know your values. Figure out what makes you happy. It will help you discover your passion, which will give you more energy and life than ever before.

Lesson 6: Discover Your Authentic Leadership Style Stanford GSB Lessons

In two years of classes at Stanford, we had the privilege of some of the top leaders in the world speak to us and answer our questions. Sheryl Sandberg, Tyra Banks, James Mattis, John Donahoe, Joel Peterson, Reese Witherspoon, Eric Schmidt, you name it.

There were plenty of similarities between them. But what stood out was that they each had their own unique leadership style.

In business school, you learn the qualities of what can make you a good leader. You read about them in cases. You role play, film yourself, practice over and over again. All of the leadership skills you learn are great tools to have in your toolbelt, but some will feel more authentic to who you are as a person than others.

I learned you can’t imitate someone else’s unique leadership style. You can identify what you don’t like and avoid it. You can admire what you do like, emulate it and make it your own. But that’s the key, you have to make it your own.

To find your own leadership style, you really have to know yourself. Truly looking at yourself, flaws and all, is a difficult thing to do. But doing so allows you to identify your weaknesses, improve upon them, and find others with those strengths to support you. It also allows you to identify your strengths, practice them, and make them stronger.

Lesson 7: What Really Matters Stanford GSB Lessons

Not a single corporate leader stepped foot in my classroom and said, “I wish I’d spent less time with my family.”

The idea of “work/life balance” is elusive and may not even exist. But it’s imperative that you find a way to harmonize the two in a way that works for you. At any given time, something may be out of whack. Maybe it’s quality time with your spouse, not taking time to travel, or skipping out on workouts or sleep. That’s why it’s essential to continually check in with yourself and your loved ones, and constantly be willing to adapt and adjust to what your current situation calls for. A supportive spouse is essential, and I learned one of the most important career decisions you make is who you marry.

I also learned how important professional freedom is to me. I realize that not everyone has this luxury and it’s easier in some careers than others, but it was something I wanted to optimize for.

There are always going to be a million different demands on you. Learn to work smarter, not harder. How you allocate your time is entirely up to you. You have to set boundaries. Prioritize. No one is going to be looking out for your work/life harmony like you are. Know what your priorities and your non-negotiables are.

Lesson 8: Be Kind Stanford GSB Lessons

There’s no doubt that hard work and grit pay off. But the type of person you are really matters.

Regardless of who you want to be, I suggest you be a kind one. There’s never a good reason not be respectful and responsible with other people. To give back. To take the high road. To share. To listen.

What type of person do I want to be? What type of leader? I want to be someone who leads with warmth. Someone that learns from everyone, at every level. I want to be someone who empowers and trusts my team. I want to be true to myself. I want to be optimistic (that’s core to who I am), but challenging and discerning. I want to ask a lot of questions. I want to change the world.

Part of changing the world, part of being successful, includes service. I’m so fortunate to have had the career and education I’ve had this far. I didn’t do it on my own. A countless number of people helped me along the way. I want to be someone who pays it forward. I want to share the success I’ve had.

In the words of Stanford GSB Professor Irv Grousbeck, “don’t look back on life and see a failure of kindness.”

Endings and New Beginnings Stanford GSB Lessons

My two years at the Stanford Graduate School of Business came to an end in June, and there’s an undeniable sadness and feeling of loss that comes with that. Will my friendships remain in tact? Will I remember what I learned? Will I achieve what I set out to? I’ve never been good at goodbyes. In my past, I may have avoided or refused to acknowledge the end of this experience for as long as possible.

One of my favorite professors at the Stanford GSB, the infamous Carole Robin, emphasized the importance of marking beginnings and ends. Only once you mark an ending and have full closure can you reach a neutral zone, where you’re ready to start a new beginning.

She also taught me to mine every experience for all the learning there is to be had from it. Whatever happens, good or bad, take your time to take it all in. So here I sit, marking the end of my Stanford GSB experience by writing my lessons and mining all the learnings I can.

Our final week of school, Professor Robin remarked how the word “commencement,” which signified the end of our days as Stanford MBA students, actually meant “beginning.” I don’t have it all figured out. I know much of what I will learn from my Stanford MBA is still to come. But I’m throwing myself into this new beginning.

My Stanford GSB friends are gonna change the world

Want help applying to business school? I got you covered. Just reach out about my Coaching services.

Stanford MBA Graduation Outfit Details:

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