There’s a lot of noise around how to write the Stanford MBA essays. We're here to help you cut to the chase.
We’ve searched through all the best (and worst) advice out there on writing answers to “What matters most to you, and why?” and “Why Stanford?,” plus those optional short answers.
And we found that all the guidance you really need can be laid out below in the form of 11 essential tips.
In a nutshell, here’s how to ace your essays for Stanford GSB:
1. Tell stories
2. Include adversity
3. Be personal
4. Don’t brag
5. Demonstrate strongly held values
6. Focus on “why?” but don’t forget “what?”
7. Don’t fake “wokeness”
8. Use simple words
9. Connect the dots
10. Find your true north
11.Use the SPSIL framework
Ready to go into more detail? Let’s do it.
The experts are unanimous on this one: good storytelling is at the heart of the best Stanford MBA essays.
Why? Take successful brands, for example. They don’t just tell you what their product does and hope you’ll buy it; they tell you a story about it because they know that, as a human, you’re hard-wired to love stories.
Well, admissions officers are no exception. You need them to get a compelling sense of who you are and empathize with the journey you’re on, and the best way to do that is by telling them a story.
How do you write a story? Well, as we all know from high school, a story needs a beginning, a middle and an end.
The simplest way to structure this is chronologically: start by talking about when you were in college or even before, gradually move to the present, and finish by looking ahead.
Essay 8 on this list is a fairly solid example of the chronological approach. You’ll notice that the candidate answers the “what matters most?” question right at the beginning, before going on to tell his journey (from 9 years old to present day) in order to explain the “why?”.
However, you don’t have to stick to the chronological, “life story” approach, far from it. For example, you could spend the entire first half of your essay describing a pivotal moment in your life, then go backwards in time to another pivotal moment that laid the foundation for the other.
The point is, there are infinite ways to tell a story, so be sure to experiment with different ways of telling yours.
If your story is going to inspire the admissions board, you’ll need to show you’ve dealt with some adversity or conflict.
This could come in many different forms. Perhaps you’re the first one in your family to go to higher education. Or maybe you grew up surrounded by people who thought you should be something you weren’t. These would both be classic adversity examples to use in your Stanford MBA essays.
But even if you’ve had a fairly privileged, “typical-applicant” upbringing, you’ve probably still had to deal with adversity or make sacrifices of some sort. Think about the times you really worked hard for something that you really wanted, when something wasn’t easy but you put your heart and soul into it anyway. These are the sort of experiences you’ll want to include.
Stanford GSB talks a lot about the “holistic” nature of the application process. It means that they want to get a sense of the whole you, not just the work version of you or the student version of you.
Your resume and recommendation letters should give Stanford enough information about your professional potential and achievements. In the essays you should put the focus on your passions, ideals, hopes, and dreams.
Is this a non-negotiable? We don’t think so. If you’re so passionate about your work that it is the driving force and inspiration in your life, don’t be afraid to say this. If a boss has been more of an influence on you than your parents, explain why. But just remember to do so in a way that’s personal and introspective, not like the sort of thing you would write in a resume or a formal cover letter.
“The essays are not intended to be about work topics, they should be a truly personal reflection on the people, the experiences and the situations that have influenced you.” Derrick Bolton, formerly assistant dean of MBA admissions at Stanford GSB.
Some candidates see the essay as a sort of extended version of their resume. This is absolutely the wrong approach.
As we mentioned above, the essays should be deeply introspective and personal, even vulnerable. If you look deep inside yourself and all you can find is a list of achievements, you haven’t looked hard enough.
The essays are for self-reflection, a thorough “self-audit,” to continue Leo’s metaphor. Save the marketing for your resume, where bragging is not only welcome, but very necessary!
“The Stanford essays are not a marketing exercise but an accounting exercise.” Stanford lecturer Leo Linbeck (source: Poets & Quants)
Being a high achiever is not enough to get into Stanford GSB. You need to be a great leader, or show you have the potential to be one. And this is where your values are really important.
Stanford doesn’t want candidates who are just trying to use it as the next stepping stone in their career. It doesn’t want people who go to sleep at night dreaming only about getting their next promotion.
“We’re looking for candidates for whom success is a by-product, rather than a goal.” Derrick Bolton.
Stanford wants candidates who care about something greater than themselves. People who will inspire others and who will, in some way, change the world. These are generally people who are guided by strong values.
Think about the best leaders that you’ve known personally. Most of the time, it’s not their achievements or skills that really impact you. What is more transformative is the way they behave, and the things they believe in. They hold strong values and act consistently in accordance with them.
As Kirsten Moss (assistant dean of MBA admissions at Stanford GSB) says: “Leaders' values are the energy which motivates their choices, behaviors, and impact.” (source: Stanford GSB). With this in mind, your essays should show how your values have driven the choices you have made and the impact you hope to have.
As we said above in tips #4 and #5, the essays aren’t the place to brag about all your fantastic achievements, but instead to focus on your values and what drives you.
There are even examples online of Stanford essays that have been successful without talking about achievements at all, such as this one.
However, we think essays like this are an exception, rather than a good reference point. Just because your achievements (the “what”) should take second place to your values (the “why”), it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still showcase them in your essays. As usual, Kirsten frames it nicely:
“We do want to know about your achievements, but in your context. It’s not about being the president of your class or being an Olympic medalist, it’s really about what you have worked toward and what you care about." Kirsten Moss (source: Clearadmit)
Kirsten is stressing the importance of values here, but not at the expense of leaving out achievements. If you really are an Olympic medalist, you should definitely make sure your essay mentions that extremely impressive achievement.
The trick is to frame it in its context: focus on why you were motivated enough to make all sorts of sacrifices to get on that podium and how the experience has informed your values.
Don't try and present yourself as anything that you're not. Instead, prioritize authenticity.
There is a school of thought that Stanford’s application process has become somewhat politicized, and that you’ll be looked at more favorably if you give what some people would call a “woke” slant to your experiences on your essays.
“Come up with, ideally, politically correct issues you’ve been involved in and say how that has influenced you.” Sandy Kreisberg, HBSguru founder and admissions consultant.
Sandy always has an interesting opinion on things and as you can see in the video below, his arguments are strongly made.
However, we think Sandy’s assessment here is overly cynical. While it may well be true that Stanford as an institution is on the progressive side of social debates in the United States, we think it would be a mistake to try to impose an artificially “politically correct” spin on your essays.
Why? We’ve watched and read numerous interviews with Kirsten Moss and other admissions officials at Stanford GSB, and the word that comes up again and again is “authenticity.” That’s the key ingredient that they’re looking for in applications and the one that is so often missing.
If you take the cynical view that Sandy espouses, you’ll probably end up sounding very similar to a lot of other candidates who share “politically correct” experiences and motivations that are not true to them, and it’s much less likely that your essay will seem deeply authentic.
This isn’t a creative writing competition. The focus of the essay should be its content, so prioritize clarity over creativity.
To illustrate what that means in practice, here’s an example:
“I threw body and soul into the project, working from dawn until dusk. I lived and breathed it, inhaling spreadsheets and exhaling prototypes.”
Here, by trying to be too creative, the candidate loses some clarity. It’s not awful, and perhaps in an essay that was otherwise quite simply written, it might even add a welcome creative flourish.
But imagine if the whole essay was like this, full of metaphors and emotive language. It would be difficult for the admissions officer to read and understand quickly, and the “creativity” would become annoying. The flowery language distracts from what the admissions officer wants to focus on: the content.
Compare it to this:
“I gave everything to the project and worked on it at all hours. It became all-consuming."
This sentence says the same thing. But it does so in much fewer words and with more clarity. It also seems more sincere, because it’s written more naturally. It’s not going to win any creative-writing contest, but it conveys what the candidate wants it to very efficiently.
Some candidates worry that by writing simply, they’ll lose “personality,” that their essays will be bland and will fail to stand out.
However, simple and direct writing should not be boring. You can, and should, try to inject emotion and humor into your essay. But the emotion should come from the content - what you’ve done, what you want to do, and why - rather than the style of prose.
“Think about the essays as conversations on paper.” Derrick Bolton (source: MBA Admissions Insights: Preparing for Your Letters of Reference and Essays)
This is a good way to get yourself on the right track. If you write using the same sort of vocabulary that you speak with, using direct language rather than lots of metaphors and similes, your essays will transmit authenticity and will flow more naturally.
This tip is specifically for tackling Essay A: “What matters most to you, and why?”.
It can be hard to know where to start when trying to work out your deepest motivations and most strongly held values. As Kirsten Moss says, the best way can be to pick out the big choices that you’ve made since college, and analyze why you made those choices.
“Look over your choices and think about what’s been important to you, and why you’ve made them, and you’ll understand what those deeper values are… Connect the dots between your choices since college.” (Source: ‘Dean’s office hours with Kirsten Moss”)
As Kirsten implies here, you should find an underlying theme that connects the choices that you’ve made as an adult. This theme will provide the thread that runs through your essay and binds it together.
We recommend watching the whole discussion with Kirsten as there are plenty of useful thoughts in it, both for your essays and for the rest of your application
This tip is specifically for tackling Essay B: “Why Stanford?”
It’s worth remembering that Essay B is about you, not about Stanford.
Of course, you’ll want to do your research on Stanford’s MBA program, showing that you’re attracted by the singularities of the courses on offer and not simply because of its global reputation.
However, simply showing you know all about their program isn’t going to inspire the admissions board. The key to acing this essay is getting the reader inspired by your journey and showing that you’re headed in a clear direction. You’ll need to have thought deeply about where you’re working towards - your “true north” - and you need to convince them that studying for an MBA at Stanford is going to help you get there.
This tip is specifically for optional short answer B, the “positive impact” question.
Yes, the short answers are genuinely optional. If you really think you’ve covered everything you want to say in the essays, you can leave this question. However, for most candidates, this will provide a useful opportunity to talk about a powerful leadership story they haven’t been able to mention, or go into it in a bit more detail.
You have a very small word limit, so your answer will need to be extremely tightly structured. We recommend using our SPSIL framework to help you do this. You can see an example of how it works here (the guide is written for candidates in consulting interviews, but the same principles apply).
Ace your Stanford MBA application
The tips we’ve laid out above should put you on the path to writing a couple of really strong essays. But of course, the essays are just one part of your Stanford MBA application. To make sure you ace every step of it, check out our other guides:
- Stanford and the GMAT
- 7 ways to optimize your MBA resume for Stanford GSB
- Stanford recommendation letters (questions, tips, examples)