A SIMPLE QUESTION
Essay 1: What matters most to you, and why?
From my experience, most successful applicants to Stanford write essays for at least one or two other schools first. While they are doing those other schools, they have already started THINKING about Essay 1. Which raises the following question:
WHERE DO SUCCESSFUL ANSWERS TO ESSAY 1 COME FROM?
In my experience answers to this question that result in acceptance, come from the HEART and the HEAD. The two combined will allow you to tell your story about what matters most. GSB's Admission Director, Derrick Bolton, makes this very clear in his advice regarding the question:
In the first essay, tell a story—and tell a story that only you can tell.
This essay should be descriptive and told in a straightforward and sincere way. This probably sounds strange, since these are essays for business school, but we don’t expect to hear about your business experience in this essay (though, of course, you are free to write about whatever you would like).
Remember that we have your entire application—work history, letters of reference, short-answer responses, etc.—to learn what you have accomplished and the type of impact you have made. Your task in this first essay is to connect the people, situations, and events in your life with the values you adhere to and the choices you have made. This essay gives you a terrific opportunity to learn about yourself!
Many good essays describe the "what," but great essays move to the next order and describe how and why these "whats" have influenced your life.
The most common mistake applicants make is spending too much time describing the "what" and not enough time describing how and why these guiding forces have shaped your behavior, attitudes, and objectives in your personal and professional lives.
While you will need to consider the leadership implications of what matters most to you, as I suggested in my first post in this series, I suggest beginning with no fixed assumptions about what Stanford wants here. One of the easiest ways to write a bad version of Essay 1 is to have a theme that does not directly relate to your actual experience: Round pegs do not fit into square holes.
HEART: The admits I worked with found what matters most to them by looking inside of themselves and finding something essential about who they are. No one is reducible to a core single concept, a single motivation, or any other sort of singularity, but certain things do make each of us tick. Beyond the most basic things of survival, what motivates you? What do you live for? What do you care about? How do you relate to other people? Are you driven by a particular idea or issue? Where do you find meaning?
HEAD: Once you think you have identified that essential thing that matters most to you, begin analyzing it. What is its source? WHY does it remain important to you? HOW?
The heart will tell what it is, but the head must explain it. From my perspective, great answers to this question combine a very strong analytical foundation-A FULL ANSWER TO WHY AND HOW IS MANDATORY- and specific examples. Avoid the common mistake that Derrick Bolton mentions above of ignoring the "Why?" and the "How?" by focusing too much on the "What?"
If you are having difficulty answering Essay 1 to your own satisfaction, I have few suggestions:
1. Write some other schools essays first. In the process of doing so, you may discover the answer. This has worked for a number of my clients.
2. Stanford admissions repeatedly emphasizes that there is no one right answer. Some applicants become paralyzed because they want THE RIGHT MESSAGE. You need to fully account for who you are and what you have done, but should not try to overly sell yourself to Stanford because that is simply at odds with the way in which the school selects candidates. Therefore don't focus on finding THE RIGHT MESSAGE, instead be honest and give an answer that is real.
If you are having some more fundamental difficulties with this question, one book I suggest taking a look at is Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. This classic is worth a look for anyone who is thinking about what their life is about. Frankl makes us think about meaning from the most extreme of perspectives, inside a concentration camp, and in the process helps us to understand that meaning itself is deeply tied to our own survival. If you need to engage in some self-reflection, Frankl’s book is one place to start. I might also suggest reading Plato or doing some mediation, but in my experience those take more time and Frankl's book has the advantage of being short, inexpensive, available at many libraries, and has been translated from the original German into twenty-two languages.
3. The answer may be real, but is it a good one? If you are not sure, look critically at Stanford GSB's mission statement:
Our mission is to create ideas that deepen and advance our understanding of management and with those ideas to develop innovative, principled, and insightful leaders who change the world.
Does what matters most to you fit within this mission? Think about this statement in the widest possible way. Given the small class size and the highly collaborative nature of the program, admissions will only be doing its job right if they select students who fit into Stanford GSB's mission. As I stated in the first post in this series, Stanford is looking for leaders, but leaders come in many forms and the values and ideals that inform them vary greatly. In my experience, Stanford highly values "Thought Leaders" as well as those who demonstrate more standard forms of leadership. If what matters most to you is something that admissions can clearly connect to informing your ideals as a leader than you are on the way to forming an effective answer to what is Stanford's most unique essay question.
3. MAKE A CHOICE!
All successful versions of this essay that I have read involve making a choice. That is to say, you must actually clearly indicate something that matters most. As someone who is frequently contacted by those who have failed to obtain admission to Stanford and want to know why, I often find that they don't make this choice. Their "what matters most" lacks clarity and unity. Make a clear choice and really explore it. This will best reveal your self-awareness and your passion.
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