New Stanford GSB Short Answer Essay: 3 Insider Tips

August 19, 2019 | by Heidi Hillis

There have been no major changes to the Stanford GSB admissions essays in some 15 years (see our recent how-to article on GSB’s enduring ‘what matters most’ essay) – until now. The noteworthy change for the 2019-2020 season is the addition of the Short-Answer essay.

The Optional Short-Answer Essay Question:

Think about times you’ve created a positive impact, whether in professional, extracurricular, academic, or other settings. What was your impact? What made it significant to you or to others? You are welcome to share up to three examples. (The GSB gives you up to 1,500 characters, or about 250 words for each example.) 

Aligned with the tone of its other essay questions, the recently added short answer question is inherently linked to the Stanford GSB’s motto: Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.  For context, essay #1 can (read: should) be deeply personal, as it focuses on motivations and values and motivations. (This isn’t the place for a laundry list of accolades.)

Essay #2 is focused on why an MBA, why now and why Stanford. This offers the admissions team a deeper sense of what drives you — both in your career and in your life. As such, the Short-Answer question is an invitation to reveal – with both specificity and substance – where you’ve been most impactful, and you’ll do well to not consider it optional. Behind this inquiry is Stanford GSB’s conviction that past behavior is the best predictor of an applicant’s future potential. 

It’s not unlikely your cited examples will find their way into other aspects of your candidacy: a bullet on the resume, a narrative used to bolster the recommendation and even on the application itself, which asks you to discuss your “most significant accomplishment” in each job. All things considered, this is your opportunity to dig deeper and not merely restate something found elsewhere. Your answers should add substance and value to your overall application. They should support the rest of your application in showcasing why you determined each situation to be formative. 

As you sit down to write, consider these three tips: 

1. Cast a broad net: When brainstorming potential examples, start by thinking broadly. Whether from leadership roles, community service or activities at undergrad, it’s an opportunity to highlight meaningful moments that “round out” the rest of your narrative. Thesetypically wouldn’t get much more than a mention elsewhere in the application or a bullet on the resume but may be critical pivot points that have shaped how you think and who you are.

2. Be strategic: Consider thoughtfully what the examples convey about you and how they align with Stanford’s definition of leadership (strategic thinking, initiative, persistence, results orientation, engaging and developing others). In doing so, you can highlight both the results/outcome of the action while also conveying how you define “positive impact”(which can tie into both your values and the GSB’s).

3.Get personal. Make sure thecommittee understands WHY you think a particular example was significant, and how it impacted not only others but also yourself. Beyond the final outcome, consider what was going through your mind at the time and what it conveys about your decision-making.

My fellow Stanford GSB alumnae and Fortuna colleague, Tatiana Nemo, sums it up eloquently. “It’s important to keep in mind throughout all three essays that the admissions office is genuinely interested in getting to know you in a deep and mindful way,” Nemo says. “Particularly for the optional essay, the experiences that you deem the most impactful and valuable to you and others offer a window into your thoughts, into your actions and into your perspective of life, offering a great opportunity to complete the truest representation of you.”

Fortuna Admissions Expert Coach Heidi Hillis is a Stanford GSB alum and former MBA Admissions Interviewer for the program.

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