Stanford GSB Essays 2018-2019 – Analysis & Strategy

July 24, 2018 | by Matt Symonds

When he introduced the “What matters most to you and why” admissions essay in Stanford GSB’s MBA application over 14 years ago, did former GSB Dean of Admissions Derrick Bolton Stanford have any idea that it would become such an iconic and enduring question?

Whether Stanford is among your short list of target schools or not, this prompt is worth reflecting upon before you begin writing any business school application.

Director of MBA admissions, Kirsten Moss, now her second year at the helm, confirmed that there are no major changes to GSB’s essay questions. The second essay question is one favored by many schools: “Why Stanford?” The program instructs applicants to “enlighten us on how earning your MBA at Stanford will enable you to realize your ambitions” and offers a bit more direction here:

  • 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.

But let’s explore how to approach the more vexing question, “What matters most to you, and why?”



This question seems straightforward, although coming up with an answer that’s memorable, compelling and sincere can be a lot harder than you think. This question has vexed many an earnest applicant as they try to land upon with an approach that they hope is striking, clever or even profound.

Whether you’ve set your sights on Stanford or wonder which career path that is right for you, taking the time to answer this question can give you invaluable insight into your values, life purpose and true self. Understanding – and articulating – what matters most to you demonstrates significant self-awareness, and the process to getting there gives you a strong foundation not only for success at business school but in your career and relationships.

So why does Stanford want to know, and why have they stayed with this question for so long? For my Fortuna Admissions colleague, Heidi Hillis, a Stanford GSB alumnus and former MBA admissions interviewer for the school, the question really cuts to the heart of what Stanford is about, and connects strongly to it’s motto, “Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.”



“Stanford is looking not just for extremely successful and bright professionals, but also young people who have strong values, and who want to have a positive impact in the world,” says Heidi. “The school genuinely wants to understand your values and get know you. 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 humble, open and have strong integrity, which leads to the incredible level of trust and camaraderie 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? Listen to your intuition and start off by listening to what comes up first. Write this down. We’ll return to it later.

Stanford allows no more than 1,150 words to cover this essay and the second question, “Why Stanford?” Maybe you feel that you can answer the first part of the question in one word, with things like love, family or chocolate. But the essence of the question, the part that illuminates your calling in life, requires sincere reflection. Why does that one thing matter to you more than something else?



If you’re staring down the blank page, begin with some advice that Stanford GSB itself offers. They propose that you think in terms of who you are, events that have influenced you, and insights and lessons that have shaped your perspectives. They also encourage you to write from the heart.

Derrick Bolton was 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.” The dictionary definition of ‘story’ is along the lines of ‘an account of imaginary or real people and events told in an entertaining way.’ The best essays are conveyed in a captivating, ‘story-like’ way that may involve humor, inspiration, emotion, honesty, wit, insight and simply – being yourself.

A GSB admissions officer may be reading 30 applications today, 20 tomorrow, and hundreds more in the subsequent weeks. So how can you grab his or her attention, be original, sound intelligent, and connect with your reader? This is no easy task. Take the time to get introspective and excavate below the surface and dare tell the story you are best qualified to write. (Hint: the story you’re best qualified to write is your own.)



Here’s some advice on structuring of this type of essay while telling your ‘story,’ taken from my Fortuna Admissions colleagues, senior MBA admissions professionals:

  1. Start with identifying an event, experience or person that greatly influenced you. What values, morals, and lessons did you gain from this encounter?
  2. How do you presently use these values, morals and lessons, and how do they impact your motivation, drive and vision of the world? (Remember, Stanford’s motto is ‘Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world’.)
  3. How has the above impacted your professional decisions?
  4. Conclude by showing the connection between your values and your career vision, and why these qualities are important to you.

If you’re still coming up short as to what really matters to you, start by chronicling all of your experiences to date, and exploring key milestones and themes such as:

  • Were you a happy child? What was your upbringing like? What were you regularly involved in (by force or by choice)? How did key figures and your surroundings shape you?
  • What was school like? Were you a focused student? How did your friends influence you and what were they like? How did you feel emotionally as a teenager?
  • What has your career been like? Are you proud of your decisions? What do you dislike/like about your work and why? Any regrets?
  • What extra-curricular activities and pursuits did you/do you participate in and what’s the motivation behind them?
  • What do you love or hate about life? What makes you sad, angry or happy?
  • What makes you want to get out of bed (or not) in the morning? What motivates you and what do you really care about?



Having jotted some notes to the questions above, now review your answers – including what you initially captured as your gut response. Can you identify an underlying thread (or themes) throughout your life? My bet is that you can. If you’re new to this type of exercise, it might amaze you that there’s a method to the madness in your life. You might even talk to friends and family and friends to solicit some anecdotes about you that you’ve forgotten. Now, through telling a compelling story, connect the key themes to the general ideas expressed in your essays.

You might have to spend hours on this essay through brainstorming, talking with others, research, writing a draft, revising (and then revising again). Just remember that it’s all deep within you… because it’s your story, and you just have to reach down, find it, and pull it out.

Isn’t what matters most to us something all of us should think about, whether we’re applying to business school or not? This essay is, in fact, a meaningful exercise to solidify self-awareness, to clarify why we do what we do, and why we make certain life choices in the process. Take this on as a personal challenge, not just a business school essay question. Stanford GSB wants to know what matters most to you, and you should, too.

Fortuna Admissions Co-Founder and Director Matt Symonds is Business education industry expert and columnist for Forbes, The Economist, BusinessWeek, the BBC, among other publications.

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