In opening its application for the 2020-2021 cycle, Stanford GSB demonstrated that its iconic essay question persists for well over a decade.
Stanford’s “What matters most to you, and why?” query embodies the sentiment ‘simple but not easy.’ It demands a level of profound self-awareness and unapologetic authenticity that can overwhelm the most excellence-driven applicant in the hopes of conveying something distinctive, intelligent and resonant.”
Regardless of whether Stanford GSB is on your application shortlist, dedicating time to think about this question is a valuable, notes Fortuna’s Tatiana Nemo, a Stanford GSB alum & former MBA admissions interviewer. “This kind of perspective-taking helps unearth a clarity of purpose that’s invaluable for anyone who’s ever wrestled with the expectations of others, peer pressure and unexamined momentum,” says Nemo. “If the question is tackled bravely and thoughtfully, with keen focus on the action of speaking from the heart rather than worrying on the effect that doing so will create, then it provides a substantial and valuable view into the applicant’s motivations, character, fears and beliefs.”
Fortuna’s Heidi Hillis, Stanford GSB grad and former GSB Alumni Interviewer, has encouraged many successful candidates to delve deeper in the spirit of getting this question’s core, which is inextricably linked to the school’s tagline: Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.
‘A GOLDEN TIME TO PAUSE, GET INTROSPECTIVE & MAKE SURE YOU’RE HEADED WHERE YOU WANT TO GO’
“It is so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, to plow forward with life and career without really considering our values. It’s a vital thing for everyone to do periodically, but especially early in your career,” says Hillis. “It’s a golden time to pause, get introspective, and make sure you’re headed where you want to go – that you even know where you want to go and what success looks like for you. This essay question makes you stop and think about what it is that makes you who you are.”
So, why has Stanford posed this question for so long?
Stanford GSB Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions & Financial Aid, Kirsten Moss, discussed what MBA Admissions really wants at the CentreCourt MBA Festival in San Francisco in 2017.
“One of the things that has been proven over and over in research is that highly inspirational leaders who get the highest level of performance from their organizations really know what drives them, and they are thinking beyond themselves to the problems they can make change and have an impact on. So in our application one of our key questions is ‘what matters most and why?’, and it has been an iconic question for a long time,” says Moss. “Taking the time to understand what matters to you will be your true north as a leader, no matter what school you go to, in the rest of your life… You will be one step ahead of the game in terms of being able to motivate others.”
So what matters most to you, and why? Listen first to your instinctive gut response and jot it down – we’ll revisit it momentarily.
CONSTRUCT A TIMELINE OF INFLUENCES, CIRCUMSTANCE & MOMENTS THAT HAVE IMPACTED YOU
Stanford suggests aiming to write 650 words (slimmed down from previous years), allowing no more than 1,050 words to cover this essay and a second essay question, “Why Stanford?” Perhaps you feel you can answer the first part of the question with one word, with things like knowledge, relationships or chocolate. But the belly of the question, the part that discloses your life’s calling and singularly uniquejourney for getting there, requires significant reflection. Why does that particular thing matter to you more than any other?
If you’re getting overwhelmed gazing blank page and blinking cursor, Nemo advises: “Invest time building a timeline of the influences, instances, moments that have shaped you. Dig deep connecting the dots between what has shaped you and who you’ve become. Devote essay A to talk about past and present, and talk about the future in essay B. Both essays need to be coherent and could read as a single story.”
Our expert coaches at Fortuna Admissions offer guidance on how to best approach the structure of these questions, while persuasively relaying your narrative:
- Begin by with recognizing an individual, occasion or experience that poignantly influenced you.
- What lessons, morals and values, did you garner from this person or experience?
- How do you specifically utilize these lessons, morals and values in your daily life, and how do they influence your motivation and views of the world? (Bear in mind Stanford’s motto above.)
- How has your professional progression been linked to the aforementioned?
- Conclude by reiterating the connection between your values and career aspirations, and why these ambitions are important to you.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF
If you’re still drawing a blank on what truly matters to you, commence by writing down your formative experiences to date, and examining aspects like:
- What was your childhood like? How did your parents or guardians and your environment impact you? What did you do regularly, elective or mandatory?
- What did your academic path look like? Were you a focused student? How did your peers influence you? Who did you surround yourself with? How did you feel emotionally as a teenager? What were you most involved with?
- What has your professional trajectory looked like? Are you pleased with the choices you’ve made? Do you harbor any regrets? What do you enjoy or dislike about your career and why?
- What extra-curricular engagements and hobbies do you participate in and why?
- What do you love or dread about life? What makes you blissful or unhappy, agitated or upset?
- What keeps you up at night? In this life, what do you sincerely care about?
Look back at all of your responses, including what you originally jotted down as your gut response. Can you distinguish underlying themes throughout? Probably. You might surprise yourself in recognizing an unconscious method to the madness of your life! Think about soliciting friends and family for anecdotes about you that may not be front of mind. By articulating a compelling story, you can highlight the major themes and link them to the overarching ideas communicated in your essays.
DARE TO BE PERSONAL, VULNERABLE AND HONEST
Even though you might have to allocate hours to this essay between brainstorming, due diligence, connecting with others, authoring a draft, then another (and then another), don’t forget that it’s all inside you. As my Fortuna colleague Sharon Joyce highlighted in Writing a Powerful MBA Essay, “There is no right story other than your own. And the person best poised to tell that story is you.”
Push yourself to be vulnerable, genuine and distinctive. “It is common to see answers like ‘never giving up’ or ‘always to push myself beyond my comfort zone’ – thematically that’s okay, but make sure to go beyond. Give examples and tell stories that only you can tell,” says Hillis. “Don’t tell a story that you think the admissions committee wants to hear – your essay is not a marketing tool. It’s ok – sometimes even better – to share a failure story. Tell the story that defines who you are and how you came to be that way. Use details – colors, smells, feelings. Let the reader go away knowing something that they only could have learned in the essay.”
Shouldn’t we all take the time to ponder what matters most to us and why, whether we’re applying to an MBA program or not? Undertake this exploration a personal challenge, not merely as an obligatory business school essay question. Stanford wants to know what matters most to you, and you should, too.
Want more advice?
View my related article for advice on How to Tackle All Stanford GSB Essays, as well as advice on Stanford GSB’s Short Answer Essay by Fortuna’s Heidi Hillis. You can also check out detailed, expert MBA Essay Tips for all top 20 business schools.
Updated September, 2021
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. For more free advice and a personal, candid assessment of your chances, you can sign up now for a free consultation.