This question seems straightforward; though coming up with your answer can be a lot more difficult. This infamous essay is at the heart of Stanford GSB’s MBA application, and typically ties applicants in knots as they try to come up with an answer that they hope is clever, striking, or even profound. Many business schools ask similar questions.
Whether you’re actually applying to the MBA program at Stanford, or wondering about the career path that is right for you, taking the time to answer this question can provide invaluable insight about your life purpose, values, and true self. When you understand what matters most to you, it’ll help solidify your self-awareness and give you a strong foundation. This will lead to success at business school but also success with relationships and career. It’s a question that is worth considering in spite of the pain and anguish!
So why does Stanford ask this question, and why have they have stuck with it for so long? For Heriberto Diarte, a Stanford GSB alumnus and alumni ambassador, the question really gets to the heart of what Stanford is about, and links strongly to the school’s tagline, ‘Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world’. “Stanford is looking not just for extremely bright and successful professionals, but also young people who have strong values, and who want to have a positive impact in the world.” He goes on to explain: “The school genuinely wants to get to know you and to understand your values. Stanford MBAs are driven by a desire not just to excel in their careers but also to help others and to have a positive impact. The Stanford GSB Admissions office works very hard to bring together a group of students who are open, humble and have strong integrity and this provides the foundation of the incredible level of camaraderie and trust that you find at the school. This is really core to Stanford’s brand and the identity of its community.”
So what matters most to you, and why? Start off with your intuitive or first response. Write it down. We’ll return to it later.
Now Stanford is suggesting 750 words for this essay. Maybe you feel that you can answer the first part of the question in one word, with things like family, love, or chocolate. But the heart of the question, the part that reveals your true calling in life requires deeper reflection. Why does that one thing matter to you more than something else?
If you’re staring at a blank page, perhaps we can start with some of the advice that Stanford GSB itself offers. They propose that you think in terms of who you are, lessons and insights that have shaped your perspectives, and events that have influenced you. And they encourage you to write from the heart.
Stanford’s Derrick Bolton, Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions, has been quoted as saying ,‘please think of the Stanford essays as conversations on paper ‒ 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.” If you look up ‘story’ in the dictionary, you’ll find a definition along the lines of ‘an account of imaginary or real people and events told in an entertaining way.” The best essays are told in a captivating ‘story-like’ way that may involve emotion, inspiration, humor, insight, honesty, wit, and simply – being yourself. A Stanford GSB admissions officer may be reading 20 applications today, 30 tomorrow, and hundreds more in the following weeks. So how can you make an impact, sound intelligent, be original, and engage your reader? This is no easy task. Take the time to put on your thinking cap and reach within to tell the story that you are the best qualified to write.
At Fortuna, we’d like to help and offer you some guidance on how to best tackle the structure of this type of essay, while telling your ‘story’:
1. Start with identifying a person, event, or experience that greatly impacted you. What morals, values, and lessons did you gain from this experience?
2. How do you presently use these morals, values, and lessons, and how do they impact your drive, motivation, and vision of the world? (Remember, Stanford’s mission statement is ‘Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world’.)
3. How has the growth of your career linked to the above?
4. Conclude by showing the link between your values and your career vision, and why these objectives are important to you.
If you’re still coming up short as to what really matters to you, start by noting down all of your experiences to date, and exploring things like:
• What was your upbringing like? How did your parents/guardians and your surroundings shape you? Were you a happy child? What were you regularly involved in (by force or by choice)?
• What was school like? Were you focused? What were your friends like and how did they influence you? How did you feel, emotionally as a teenager?
• What has your career been like? Are you proud of your choices? Any regrets? What do you like/dislike about your job and why?
• What extra-curricular activities and hobbies did you/do you engage in and what’s the reason behind them?
• What do you love or hate about life? What makes you happy, sad, or angry?
• What gets you up (or not get up) in the morning? What motivates you and what do you really care about?
Now review your answers – including what you initially wrote down as your gut response. Can you identify an underlying theme (or themes) throughout your life? I bet you can. It might amaze you that you have a method to the madness in your life. You could even talk to family and friends as they may have some anecdotes about you that you’ve forgotten about. Now, through telling a compelling story, highlight the key themes and connect them to the general ideas expressed in your essays.
Even though you might have to spend hours on this essay through brainstorming, research, talking with others, writing a draft, then another (and then another), just remember that it’s all deep within you… it’s your story, and you just have to dig deep, find it, and pull it out.
Shouldn’t we all really think about what matters most to us, whether we’re applying to business school or not? This essay is, in fact, a very valuable exercise to help with self-awareness, to understand why we do certain things, and why we make certain choices in life. Take this on as a personal challenge, not as an MBA essay question. Stanford wants to know what matters most to you, and so should you.