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You can find a better version of my blog at http://www.adammarkus.com/blog/.

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

May 27, 2013

Stanford GSB MBA Essay Questions for Class of 2016

This is the first of five posts analyzing the Stanford GSB MBA Essay Questions for Class of 2016 Admission. The five posts are overall commentsEssay 1Essay 2Essay 3, and additional information/resume/employment history/activities. My analysis of Stanford GSB interviews can be found here. In addition to the Class of 2016 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.

You can find results and/or testimonials from my clients admitted to to the Stanford Classes of 2015, 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.

In this post I provide some overall comments about the Stanford GSB MBA essay set for admission to the Class of 2016, an analysis of the centrality of demonstrating Stanford GSB’s three central admissions criteria- Intellectual Vitality,  Demonstrated Leadership Potential, and Personal Qualities and Qualifications-, 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:

Essay Questions for Class of 2016
(entering Fall 2014)

Tell us in your own words who you are. Answer essay questions 1, 2, and one of the three 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 do you want to do—REALLY—and why Stanford?
    • Use this essay to explain your view of your future, not to repeat accomplishments from your past.
    • You should address two distinct topics:
      • your career aspirations
      • and your rationale for earning your 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 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.
    • 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.

Essay Length

Your answers for all of the essay questions cannot exceed 1,600 words.
You have your own story to tell, so please allocate the 1,600 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 1,600 words total.
  • Essay 1: 750 words
  • Essay 2: 450 words
  • Essay 3: 400 words


  • Use a 12-point font, double spaced
  • Recommended fonts are Arial, Courier, and Times New Roman
  • Indicate which essay question you are answering at the beginning of each essay (this does not count towards the 1,600 word limit).
  • Number all pages
  • Upload all three 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 terms of this application process, 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.

Additional Information

If there is any other information that is critical for us to know and is not captured elsewhere, please include it. Examples of pertinent additional information include:
  • Extenuating circumstances affecting academic or work performance
  • Explanation of why you do not have a Letter of Reference from your current direct supervisor or peer
  • Explanation of criminal conviction, criminal charges sustained against you in a juvenile proceeding, and/or court-supervised probation
  • Explanation of academic suspension or expulsion
  • Any other information that you did not have sufficient space to complete in another section of the application (please begin the information in the appropriate section)
  • Additional work experience that cannot fit into the space provided
  • Additional information about your academic experience (e.g., independent research) not noted elsewhere

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 1600 words amongst the three 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.

I ‘developed’ a very simply spreadsheet so that word count between essays can be easily calculated simultaneously.  You can find it as a shared GoogleDoc here. You have 1600 words to play with, but you don’t have to use them in any particular way.  I can say that my successful clients distributed word count in a variety of ways.

The simple reality is that Stanford is for really smart people. My clients who get interviews and most certainly those who are admitted are, without exception, objectively smart people. One primary way, but not the only way, to measure this criteria is by looking at the key numbers (Taken from the premium version of US News & World Report):
GPA: Average 3.7 80% range from 3.36-3.97
GMAT:  Average 730   80% range from: 680 to 770
When I am helping clients determine whether to apply to Stanford, GPA is a major consideration, simply because the numbers make that clear enough.  While GMAT can be a hinderance, it is a solvable problem, whereas undergraduate GPA is simply a fact.

When I am talking with a client or potential, if I have somebody with a really strong academic background and I see a real sense of purpose and focus to their academic and professional career, I might advise them to apply to Stanford.And in the last few years, I have literally convinced three of my clients to apply to Stanford because basically I said “Hey, you're perfect, you're what they are looking for.”  And that's a sense.  It's not objective.  And so, it's just based on my experience. I am not always right about this, but I am right about it enough of the time to think I know when I have an applicant who is right for Stanford.

The Curriculum: Hard!
Consider what my former client, a member of the Class of 2010, said 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.
When I visited GSB in May 2010, I had the opportunity to meet with Yukihiro as well as a former client who is a member of the Class of 2011, both expressed that the program was challenging. Please also see my interview with a member of the Class of 2011 as he also discusses this issue.

Stanford should, like HBS, be associated with a leadership-focused education. Consider what Stanford says about its First Year Curriculum: These required courses in the first quarter and second quarter are designed to give students insight into the perspective of a senior manager and leader. A 2008 blog post by Stanford GSB’s Director of Evaluation, indicated the extent to which there is a focus in the essay set itself on finding students who demonstrate leadership potential:
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.
The 2008/2009 questions have changed little from last year; based on our satisfaction with the thousands of essay responses we read last year, we only made slight refinements.
Let me summarize why each of them is meaningful to our committee:
Essay A [WHAT IS NOW ESSAY 1]: What matters most to you and why?
This question helps us learn about your ideals and values. They set the context for how you see the world. They are your guideposts when you make any decision from what type of job you pursue to what type of culture you will create in leading an organization.
Essay B [Now 2]: What are your career aspirations? How will your education at Stanford help you achieve them?
This question helps us understand your professional dreams and from where your passion comes to achieve them. We also get a glimpse of what skills or knowledge you think you need to develop to reach them…..
We all have important stories to tell. We want to share moments when we have achieved great things or helped to shape the world around us. Essay C [Now 3] lists four potential questions (or prompts) to help you identify which are the two most important stories you have to tell us. The prompts themselves are not as important as the stories that they bring to the surface.
Good luck completing your application this year. I hope my “confessions” have given you a little more insight into the journey you are about to begin.
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. Though the wording of the questions has changed since 2008 and Essay 3 now consists of a single story, the overall structure of the Stanford essay has not changed. They are still looking for those with clear leadership potential.

I think reading what Stanford says about  Personal Qualities and Qualifications is the best place to start when thinking about this third criteria.  In essence, Stanford wants to why should be a part of the 6%-7% of the applicant pool that they will be admitting.  What makes you stand out?  How will contribute?  What is it about your experience and attitude that will not only make you a good fit for Stanford, but will give you the potential to make an impact to the Stanford community?  This does not just come out in one particular place, but is something will come of your entire application as well as in an interview.

In my analysis 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:
Please think of the Stanford essays as conversations on paper—when we read files, we feel that we meet people, also known as our “flat friends”—and tell us your story in a natural, genuine way.
Our goal is to understand what motivates you and how you have become the person you are today. In addition, we're interested in what kind of person you wish the Stanford MBA Program to help you become.
Reflective, insightful essays help us envision the individual behind all of the experiences and accomplishments that we read about elsewhere in your application.
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. My own approach to helping my clients does not involve me writing their essays, but instead I act as a coach, a close reader, and someone who can benchmark their work against those who have been admitted. I make the assumption that overly cooked essays that look like they were written by a professional journalist when you are not one or by a native English speaker when you are not one or similar inconsistencies are unlikely to succeed.

IS STANFORD RIGHT FOR YOU? 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.  Also see my discussion of Stanford GSB in my analysis of Essay 2. 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 t hinking 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.

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.

-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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