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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

July 03, 2009

Stanford GSB MBA Essay Questions for 2009/2010

This is the first of five posts analyzing the Stanford GSB MBA Essay Questions for 2009/2010 Admission. It provides an overall perspective on applying to Stanford GSB. The second post is on Essay 1. The third post is on Essay 2. The forth post is on Essay 3. The fifth post is on additional information, resume, employment history, and activities. My analysis of Stanford GSB interviews can be found here.

In this post I provide some overall comments about the essay set for admission to the Class of 2012, an analysis of the centrality of demonstrating leadership potential for admission to Stanford GSB, and some suggestions for how to proceed in order to put together a great application for Stanford GSB.

Here are the complete essays and instructions from the Stanford GSB website (SORRY THIS IS LONG):

Tell us in your own words who you really are. Answer essay questions 1, 2, and two of the four options for essay 3.
  • Essay 1: What matters most to you, and why?
    • The best examples of Essay 1 reflect the process of self-examination that you have undertaken to write them.
    • They give us a vivid and genuine image of who you are—and they also convey how you became the person you are.
    • They do not focus merely on what you've done or accomplished. Instead, they share with us the values, experiences, and lessons that have shaped your perspectives.
    • They are written from the heart and address not only a person, situation, or event, but also how that person, situation, or event has influenced your life.

  • Essay 2: What are your career aspirations? How will your education at Stanford help you achieve them?
    • Use this essay to explain your view of your future, not to repeat accomplishments from your past.
    • You should address three distinct topics:
      • your career aspirations
      • the role of an MBA education in achieving those aspirations
      • and your rationale for earning that MBA at Stanford, in particular.

    • The best examples of Essay 2 express your passions or focused interests; explain why you have decided to pursue graduate education in management; and demonstrate your desire to take advantage of the opportunities that are distinctive to the Stanford MBA Program.

  • Essay 3: Answer two of the four questions below. Tell us not only what you did but also how you did it. What was the outcome? How did people respond? Only describe experiences that have occurred during the last three years.
    • Option A: Tell us about a time when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.
    • Option B: Tell us about a time when you made a lasting impact on your organization.
    • Option C: Tell us about a time when you motivated others to support your vision or initiative.
    • Option D: Tell us about a time when you went beyond what was defined, established, or expected.

Essay Length

Your answers for all of the essay questions cannot exceed 1,800 words.
You have your own story to tell, so please allocate the 1,800 words among all of the essays in the way that is most effective for you. We provide some guidelines below as a starting point, but you should feel comfortable to write as much or as little as you like on any essay question, as long as you do not exceed 1,800 words total.
  • Essay 1: 750 words
  • Essay 2: 450 words
  • Essay 3: 300 words each


  • Use a 12-point font, double spaced
  • Indicate which essay question you are answering at the beginning of each essay
  • Number all pages
  • Upload all four essays as one document
  • Preview the uploaded document to ensure that the formatting is true to the original
  • Save a copy of your essays

Editing Your Essays

Begin work on these essays early, to give yourself time to reflect, write, and edit.
Feel free to ask your friends or family members to provide constructive feedback. When you ask for feedback, ask if the essays' tone sounds like your voice. It should. Your family and friends know you better than anyone else. If they do not believe that the essays capture who you are, how you live, what you believe, and what you aspire to do, then surely the Committee on Admissions will be unable to recognize what is most distinctive about you.
There is a big difference, however, between 'feedback' and 'coaching.' There are few hard and fast rules, but you cross a line when any part of the application (excluding the Letters of Reference) ceases to be exclusively yours in either thought or word.
Appropriate feedback occurs when you show someone your completed application, perhaps one or two times, and are apprised of errors or omissions.
In contrast, inappropriate coaching occurs when your application or your self-presentation is colored by someone else.
You best serve your own interests when your personal thoughts, individual voice, and unique style remain intact at the end of your editing process.
It is improper and a violation of the spirit of the Fundamental Standard and Honor Code to have someone else write any part of your Stanford MBA Program application. Such an act will result in denial of your application or withdrawal of your offer of admission.

I know that was long, but I think it is really important to actually read the whole thing. Especially note the three year limit on Essay 3 topics and the fact that you can decide how to divide your 1800 words amongst the four essays. The rest of this post consists of my general comments on Stanford GSB and writing the essays. Specific essay questions are analyzed in the rest of this series.


Along with HBS, Stanford GSB began the trend of reducing the word/page count of their essays a few years ago. In the last two years other schools have followed their lead. Still Stanford, lets you choose how many words you want to allocate to each essay as long the maximum is 1800 words, so we still get a bit of West Coast mellow flexibility. With the Essay 3 essays coming in at a suggested 300 words each, Stanford has outdone Harvard's 400 word maximum per essay for the two Essay 3 essays. For both schools you get 1800 words maximum. Use them well.


Otherwise the biggest change is that two out of the four options in Essay 3 have changed completely and one was modified. Only option D has remain untouched.


Consider what my former client, member of the Class of 2010, said in an in an interview with me:
Adam: How hard was the first year?

Yukihiro: The first year in GSB was very tough! Especially in the first quarter, students must prepare hard for each class and deal with tons of readings and assignments. Actually, if there is one thing I have to complain about the program, it is that there is a risk that the understanding about each subject might be become halfway due to the lack of time. Even American students said the first quarter was very tough. Also, there are a lot of parties, networking and recruiting events in MBA. The students must manage their time efficiently to tackle the academic requirements.

Stanford has been very clear about the difficulty of the program.
Consider the following excerpt from the "Student Perspective" provided by Karen Hart, Class of 2009, found on the Stanford GSB curriculum page of the website:

Former Goldman Sachs banker Karen Hart says she appreciates the new curriculum's emphasis on globalization and managing in a global environment.... Although the workload can be challenging—at the beginning of the term she was spending up to 60 hours a week on class preparation and now averages 30-40 hours a week on academics outside class—Karen remains pleased at the ongoing level of collaboration among students.

Now if Karen was doing 60 hours per week when the program commenced and now is doing 30-40 hours of academic work per week, what about students whose first language is not English?

The new curriculum that commenced in Fall 2007 is clearly no piece of cake and anyone who thinks that Stanford GSB will be easier than schools
that are well know for being tough, like HBS and Darden, is likely to be in for a surprise.

Another consideration is that in the past, Stanford has clearly not been so closely associated with a leadership-focused education. Whether this is true or not is another issue, but it certainly has been the case that HBS has been much more clearly associated with a leadership-focused education. At this point, I would not consider such a dichotomy to be particularly useful. Consider what Stanford says about the first quarter, Management perspectives curriculum:

Compare this to how HBS describes its Required Curriculum:
HBS's MBA curriculum includes a range of exciting courses and is frequently refreshed with new content. The goal is to give students a firm grasp of broad-based fundamentals. The School's inductive learning model goes beyond facts and theories—a process that teaches individuals not only how to manage organizations, but also how to continually grow and learn throughout life.

Now I will not deny that there are significant differences in the use of learning methods, culture, and the overall structure of these two programs, but are the expected learning outcomes different? If the objective is to teach individuals how to be global leaders who can change and grow overtime, the answer is "No." Maybe this comes as no surprise to the reader, but I do point it so that no one thinks leadership matters less at Stanford than it does at HBS.

A blog post by Kirsten Moss, Stanford GSB's Director of Evaluation, indicates the extent to which there is a focus on finding students who demonstrate leadership potential
(this post also includes the full set of questions and Moss's comments in regards to them, so I have reprinted most of it):

This year's essay and recommendation questions are really the result of a journey that began over three years ago. Derrick Bolton, the Director of MBA Admissions, and I worked with experts in the field of leadership assessment from all over the world. We wanted to develop a set of questions that would stand the test of time--that would effectively elicit only the information most critical to our assessment criteria.

Moss's "confession" makes it very clear that rather than having completely open-ended criteria about who will fit at Stanford, the admissions committee is specifically looking to admit applicants who can (ESSAY 1) express values and ideals that will guide them as leaders and/or decision makers, (ESSAY 2) express why their professional goals require a Stanford MBA education, and (ESSAY 3) clearly demonstrate leadership potential. In one way, these criteria are not new because demonstrating leadership potential was always a consideration, but for me, as someone who has had clients admitted to Stanford in the Classes of 2011(click here for my client's testimonial), 2010 (click here for my client's testimonial), 2008 (Click here for my client's recommendation on LinkedIn, but you have to join LinkedIn to see it), 2007, 2006, and 2005, the clear focus on leadership represents a significant change. (I also had additional clients who were interviewed for the classes of 2011, 2009 and 2007, but not admitted.)

On the other hand, one thing that has not changed is that the applicants I have worked with who have gotten interviewed and/or admitted, wrote their own essays and were honest in their presentations of themselves.
In my discussion of Essay 1, I will discuss the critical importance of providing honest answers to Stanford's questions, but the following comments from Derrick Bolton apply to the essay set as a whole:
I can confirm that what has always made a winning set of essays for Stanford is the ability to commit to making an honest and insightful presentation of yourself. Based on my experience I can say the following are not effective:

1. Over-marketing: While I believe in the value of the marketing metaphor to some degree, I also believe you have to be able to understand that a crude, over-determined approach to doing so will not work here (For more about this, click here). If you are not real, you fail as one of Derrick Bolton's "flat friends."

2. Not writing your own essays. If your essays are not written in your own voice and don't reflect your English ability, don't expect to make it past Derrick Bolton's team. Their position is quite clear:

Begin work on these essays early, and feel free to ask your friends and family members to provide constructive feedback. When you ask for feedback, ask if the essay’s tone sounds like your voice. It should. Your family and friends know you better than anyone else. If they do not believe that your essays capture who you are, how you live, what you believe, and what you aspire to do, then surely the Committee on Admissions will be unable to recognize what is most distinctive about you.

However, there is a big difference between "feedback" and "coaching." There are few hard and fast rules, but you cross a line when a piece of the application ceases to be exclusively yours in either thought or word (excluding the letter of reference, which should be exclusively the recommender’s in thought and word).

Appropriate feedback occurs when you show someone your completed application, perhaps one or two times, and are apprised of errors or omissions. In contrast, inappropriate coaching occurs when either your essays or your entire self-presentation is colored by someone else. You best serve your own interests when your personal thoughts, individual voice, and unique style remain intact at the end of your editing process.

The above sounds very good in theory. If you have a friend or family member who can act as mentor in the way Stanford suggests, that is great. As I have discussed elsewhere in a series of posts on mentors, admission consultants, editors, and ghostwriters, such unpaid advisors are indeed valuable. However many applicants may very well find that they have no one around them who can provide such advice and Stanford's position does not account for that. Also the dichotomy between "coaching" and "feedback" is simply false because coaching is about feedback. What I find particularly ironic about Bolton's position on this issue is that Stanford GSB provides extensive career coaching to its students through the Career Management Center (CMC):

Personal advising and support—with only 360 students per class, the CMC staff works directly with you on your interests and goals.
Self-assessment—help with identifying and leveraging your strengths, as well as direction for skill development, if needed.

Resume and cover letter preparation—CMC staff can assist you with developing personal marketing tools that will stand out above the clutter, emphasize your abilities, and target your specific goals.

Mock interviews—role-playing and practice interviews enable you to gain confidence, hone your responses, and think on your feet.

It seems as though Stanford has two different standards for coaching: Stanford claims admissions consulting is bad because it helps applicants get into Stanford, but Stanford career consulting is good because it helps Stanford students get jobs. The services that Stanford offers to its students are the ones I and other ethical admissions consultants offer to their clients. The type of service I provide falls within Stanford's notions of the acceptable, though they would call it "coaching." There are other admissions consultants who will provide rewriting and ghostwriting, but I don't suggest using them if you want to go to Stanford or other top schools. Whoever assists you had better be able to make sure that their feedback helps you to best present yourself authentically.

Stanford really does provide great advice about both the Stanford GSB essays and about how to handle your applications. Review the curriculum, the school's mission statement, and the vast online resources (including a blog, podcasts, and "Myth Busters" ) that admissions provides to make this determination. Don't make assumptions about what Stanford GSB is or based on what someone told you it is. Instead, make that determination yourself after sufficient research. If you are thinking about Stanford GSB and have not yet attended one of their Outreach Events, I suggest doing so if you can. Visiting when school is in session is ideal.

Essay writing is a learning process. The more you do, hopefully the better you become. As such, given the difficulty of getting into Stanford, it seems like a bad idea to me to give them your rawest stuff.
Instead try work on two to three other schools first so that you have a better idea of what your best stories are. You will need them for Stanford. It is fine to start with Stanford and then work on other schools and then revise Stanford after doing so, but I usually advise clients to work on another school first.

Applicants often ask me this question.

I think it is important that your goals, Essay 2, be clearly established first. If you think about it, what matters to you most (Essay 1) must be consistent with and complimentary to your goals. As far as Essay 3 goes, the potential you show through the skills and values that you demonstrate in Essay 3 must also support the goals you write about in Essay 2. Therefore start with Essay 2.

As to whether you should then do 1 or 3, chances are, if you have written a bunch of essays for other schools first, that you have multiple options for Essay 3, but don't make any final decisions on Essay 3 until you write Essay 1 because you might very well find that a particular story that is ideal for Essay 1 was one you were considering for Essay 3. Use your best examples to support what you say matters to you most because you should try to make your answer to Essay 1, the only truly Stanford specific question, as strong as possible.

Getting into Stanford GSB is simply harder than getting into any other MBA program, but if it is where you want to go and if you think you fit there, commit to putting a significant amount of time into making a great application.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to. If you are looking for a highly experienced admissions consultant who is passionate about helping his clients succeed, please feel free to contact me at adammarkus@gmail.com to arrange an initial consultation. To learn more about my services, see here. Initial consultations are conducted by Skype or telephone. For clients in Tokyo, a free face-to-face consultation is possible after an initial Skype or telephone consultation. I only work with a limited number of clients per year and believe that an initial consultation is the best way to determine whether there is a good fit. Whether you use my service or another, I suggest making certain that the fit feels right to you.
-Adam Markus
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