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July 18, 2012

Stanford GSB MBA Essay 3 for Class of 2015 Admission

This is the fourth of five posts analyzing the Stanford GSB MBA Essay Questions for Class of 2015 Admission. The five posts are overall commentsEssay 1Essay 2Essay 3, and additional information/resume/employment history/activitiesMy analysis of Stanford GSB interviews can be found here. In addition to the Class of 2015 posts, I also recommend reading and/or listening to my presentation, "So you want to get into Stanford GSB?" which was made to a Japanese audience in March 2011. That presentation focuses on issues that are applicable to all applicants as well as some issues specific to Japanese applicants. 
In the 2011-2012 application cycle, I had one client admitted in R1 and one client in R2. You can find results and/or testimonials from my clients admitted to to the Stanford Classes of 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010 here.  My full Stanford results prior to the Class of 2014 can be found here. My clients admitted to Stanford GSB have come from China, India, Japan, South Korea, and the United States and have had extremely diverse professional and educational backgrounds. The advice I provide below is based on that experience.

The Place of Essay 3 within the Stanford GSB Application Essays for the Class of 2015: If Essay 1 is ultimately about what you value and Essay 2 is about what you want, Essay 3 is about what you can do. Essay 3 can also be considered as the place to show your potential to succeed at what you write about in Essay 2.
Before looking at the specific questions, lets look at the instructions: Answer one of the three 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.Stanford GSB specifically requires that these experiences come from the last three years. This time constraint is important to keep in mind. One of the easiest ways to trash your application is to ignore this time limit. Essay 3 is the space to focus on the present or recent past.

  • Option A: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.
  • Option B: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you identified and pursued an opportunity to improve an organization.
  • Option C: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you went beyond what was defined or established.
One thing that is common to all three is that you must tell stories that show how you had an impact. Keep in mind what Derrick Bolton has written about this question:
Unlike the two previous essays, in which you are asked to write about your life from a more “global" perspective, these questions ask you to reflect on a specific recent (within the last three years) experience that has made a difference to you and/or the people around you. The best answers will transport us to that moment in time by painting a vivid picture not only of what you did, but also of how you did it. Include details about what you thought and felt during that time and your perceptions about how others responded. From these short-answer responses, we visualize you "in action.In the following table, which I will elaborate on below, I have suggested how to outline an essay designed to effectively answer this question.

    Situation (Remember the 3 year limit):


    Actions: Break them down in 2 or more steps. A step is what you did, thought, felt, and/or said that had impact.What skill(s)
    or quality(ies)
    did you
    Why does Stanford need to know about this?Is this something Stanford could learn about you elsewhere in the application? If so, to what extent?
    Action Step 1:

    Action Step 2:

    Action Step 3:

    Results: What was the impact of your actions?
    Result 1 (Impact on you):

    Result 2 (Impact on others):

    (You can cut and paste the above table into Google Docs or MS Word)

    The above table is based on the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) method. When Stanford GSB started asking behavioral essay questions, it was clear that they had borrowed this from MIT Sloan. This distinctive style of behavioral essay questions that MIT and Stanford ask have their origins in behavioral interviewing:“Bill Byham, CEO and founder of Development Dimensions International, originated the behavioral interviewing method in 1970.” In fact, the STAR technique outlined in MIT’s guide was developed by Byham as THE WAY to answer behavioral questions:

    The STAR technique is really the core method you need to use for answering Essay 3. It is simply the following, which is taken from the 2005 MIT Sloan Guide (No longer available for easy download, but if you search on "Situation: define the situation or “set the stage.” you can find it. The current guide is is not as helpful.):
    • Situation: define the situation or “set the stage.”
    • Task: identify the task/project performed.
    • Action: describe the action you took.
    • Result: summarize the outcome
    Just keep in mind that you need to be introspective as well, so write what you thought as well as what you did. Don’t just present “the facts” but actively interpret your actions. There is really nothing overly complicated about this as long as you understand that you need to tell a detailed story. Pure abstractions disconnected from a concrete set of action steps are highly likely to result in a weak answer. Similarly, grand actions not told in any depth are also likely to be weak. Identify specific actions that contributed to the result so as to establish a clear link between cause and effect.

    As when answering any kind of question, another important consideration is to think very critically about what your story selection, understanding of the task, actions taken, and results say about you. Keep in mind that the whole point of asking behavioral questions is to determine how someone acts and thinks as a basis for selecting or rejecting that person. It is obviously critical to be aware of your own message.

    When selecting your topic, you should ask yourself “What does this essay reveal about me?” If you can’t answer that clearly, you need to clarify your message. When asking this question, think about both what you intend the reader to think and what you might also be revealing. Control for the possibility of sending out unintended signals. One of the best ways of handling this issue is to have a very careful and intelligent reader review these essays. If you are working with an admissions consultant, they should be able to do this. Getting multiple perspectives on what you wrote will help you better understand your likely impact on an admissions' reader. All three options below allow for great variation and the most important thing is to tell the best story you can.

    After completing the chart you will see that some aspects of your action steps may be repeated. If there is a total duplication and nothing new is shown, either you need to redefine the action step or you may decide not to focus on it. The point is to show the value of each step you took and its overall relationship to the impact you had.

    Simply providing a description of your actions, is not enough. Think about what it signifies about you and why Stanford needs to know about it. Think about what your actions reveal about your intelligence, unique capabilities, leadership potential, your potential to succeed at Stanford, and/or future career. If you can't figure out why Stanford admissions needs to know about an action you took or a result, you may find yourself needing to reconsider part or all of your topic.

    Also ask yourself if Stanford admissions has already learned what you are writing about elsewhere in the application. The content in this essay is likely to overlap with content found elsewhere in the application and this is no problem as long as the  admissions readers of the essay are actually gaining greater insight into you that will motivate them to want to interview you.

    Once you think you have two to four fully worked-out action steps, write your first draft. Next start re-writing. Eliminate duplicate points made between action steps. Make choices about what parts of each action to step to highlight. Given the word limits, you will have to make some decisions about what to include.

    Finally, thinking and writing about leadership is an important part of preparing for interviews because you can be certain that you will have to talk about leadership. So, you might find that the parts of the outline you jettison now will become valuable when you will want to have alternative stories for your Stanford interview.

    Specific Comments about each option:

    Option A: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.
    This question has not changed from last year. I suggest you don't just simply a tell story with the following structure: "I led a team of X people. I told them what needed to be done and they agreed. They did it. The result was..." Not only will this be boring, but it will not really highlight why this story best  demonstrates your team leadership skills. It will also fail to answer the last part of the question: You need to show how the team went beyond what was expected. Don't be overly dramatic, but get admissions to understand the significance of what you have done. If you have a great extracurricular team story, don’t feel obligated to provide a work related answer to this question even though you may have developed such an answer for another school. Three questions to think about:
    1. What skills or qualities did you demonstrate in the process of building or developing the team?
    2. What does this story reveal about the way you interact with organizations and/or individuals?
    3. Specifically how did your team exceed expectations? If this is measurable, indicate that as clearly as possible.

    Option B: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you identified and pursued an opportunity to improve an organization.
    This is a modified form of a question that Stanford has been asking about impacting an organization. Improving an organization is another way that leaders have impact. Clearly indicate what that impact is and how you achieved it.  The identification of the opportunity is really critical. If you are about to write a leadership essay about how you lead a team successfully by carrying out someone else's plan, you don't have the right topic for Option B. A key part of this essay is that you identify something that other people can't see or don't see, that you initiate a positive change that adds value. I think the add value test is really important. A story where you identify a potential problem and simply prevent it from taking away value is not going to work here.

    Pursuing an opportunity means to get it implemented. To what extent  you do the actual implementation yourself is less important than your ability to go from having a good idea to making into a reality. If you do actually handle all the implementation then to the extent possible, explain what you did. Pursuing an opportunity is ultimately about getting to the results, so describe the results very clearly.  Given that this should be about something that was in the past, a situation where your are in the midst of implementing something will not likely work well here. You should be writing about a situation with a clear positive outcome where you added value.

    One very nice thing about this question is that you are not limited to the type of organization you improved.  It might be your organization or merely one you did consulting for or otherwise positively impacted.  It might be an organization that you got paid to improve or something you are doing in your free time.  A key point is to establish a clear link between the opportunity you identified and the improvement to the organization.

    Option C: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you went beyond what was defined or established.
    I have to say that I have always loved this question. Going beyond something defined or established may involve breaking the rules. Stanford GSB is a place for those who are not traditional and are flexible in their thinking. If you are a maverick, a risk-taker, or simply unconventional in your approach to adding value, this essay option is for you. Show how you alter the very rules of something that you have been a part of and have a positive impact as a result. Leadership is often tested most profoundly in situations where one has to go against "common sense," organizational tradition, and/or the interests of others. In one way or another show how you possess the courage to act in a situation that was outside the box.

    Behavioral questions are not necessarily harder than other types of questions, but they do have their own underlying logic: Past behavior is a guide to future behavior. Keep that in mind, so that Stanford GSB sees what you want them to see and believes in your future potential.

    -Adam Markus

    I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.
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