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3 Things You Need To Know About Getting Into Stanford GSB

The application to the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) is the most comprehensive among top US MBA programs. Along with the usual application, resume, recommendation letters, and the application itself, there is the famously wide-open essay: “What matters to you, and why?”, as well as “Why Stanford” and  four more  optional essays.  This all adds up to a total word count of almost 1,850 words to make your case —almost double of what Harvard Business School allows. 

This can seem daunting if not exhaustive. It’s actually an opportunity, according to Fortuna Senior Expert Coach Heidi Hillis. In a recent video chat with Poets&Quants’ John Byrne, she shares three key tips for using every bit of this generous space to set yourself apart from the crowd.


1: Use the entire application.

“So many people come in totally focused on that one essay, ‘What matters to you and why.’ People get hung up on it and think it’s what the application is all about, but it’s really so much more,” said Hillis. 

“I advise people to think about it almost like a work of art, with lots of layers, depth, color, and texture. You can use every part of the application to add that depth and color and texture.”

Byrne agreed: “You have an opportunity to paint a multidimensional portrait of yourself, so that no piece is redundant, but every piece adds value, and every piece works in your favor. 

 For example, you can take one of the bullet points on your resume and use one of the optional impact essays to go into depth and explain why it matters and why you think it sets you apart. If you know generally what your recommenders are going to say you can also use these essays to reinforce, but not repeat, the points they are making, adding yet another layer of depth..


2: Use that iconic essay to highlight your values and your leadership skills.

Along with a comprehensive application, Stanford has a deep and detailed view of what leadership is, Hillis says. “They ask recommenders to rate you on 12 different leadership qualities and provide five different rating levels. They have a very clear idea of what they are looking for. You have to help them find it.” The essay where you explain what you value is an excellent place for stories that show your leadership.

“That brings me to another tip: Show, don’t tell,” Hillis adds. “If your message in that iconic essay is that you are really passionate about the environment and are going for a career that’s going to help address issues in climate change, don’t tell them that, show them by telling the story of when you were a child and something happened, or when something happened at work that really made you think about this.” 

When you tell a story, try to take it to the next level, Hillis advises.  “Ask yourself, ‘So what? What did I learn from that? How did I apply that to my next decision, how did it influence me to make my next career move?’” 

Hillis gives the example of  a former coaching client who wrote about how, during the pandemic, she spent an entire weekend developing a personalized trivia game to help her team feel more connected during a time of stress and isolation. “Although it may seem small, stories like this help  demonstrate who you are and how you lead, and —critically —the details help you stand out in the minds of the application readers and admissions committee.”


3. Be genuine and authentic. 

A lot of people will start off trying to tell Stanford what they think Stanford wants to hear, Hillis explains. “People will say, ‘I read that Stanford really likes it when you say this, or when you say that.’  I will say, ‘Stop that.’ Really, just think about the question and answer it genuinely for yourself.”

What Stanford is looking for is that unique story that illuminates a unique person. “They are really constructing this incredibly diverse and talented cohort of 400 people, so they want to hear your unique story. Don’t try to do what someone else has done. If it worked for someone else, don’t assume it would work for you.” 

This requires asking yourself some hard and deep questions, to get to the bottom of who you are and what motivates you to pursue a business degree. It’s also about being honest and courageous enough to go to some places that are a little uncomfortable. Reflect on questions like: “What are you still looking for?  What are some challenges that you faced that you haven’t really overcome?  What failures have you had that taught you some lessons?” Hillis says. “They want people who challenge themselves, who aren’t going to glide through life, and they want to see that through your application.”

Hillis and Fortuna coaches offer more advice on getting into Stanford:

Want more help optimizing your application? Fortuna’s expert coaches can provide deeply personalized advice and support through every step of your admissions journey. Register now for a free consultation and learn how we can make your MBA dreams come true.


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