04 Sep MBA Stanford #1 Guidance
Below is a description that remains timeless for Stanford’s first question, in which the school and its alumni take enormous pride…
Stanford’s first question can be intimidating to applicants. Here are a few suggestions and guidelines that may help you in deciding what to write about and how to approach the essay when it’s time to put pen to page or, more likely, fingers to keyboard.
Your first thought might be, “What do they want to hear?” This is trap number one. Candidates who set off to write about some contrived, abstract, admissions-committee-impressive topic like leadership, integrity, or teamwork fall into this trap never to be seen or heard from again. (At least, not on the Stanford GSB campus.)
So what is a better question to ask when starting out? “If you were woken up in the middle of the night and someone asked you what matters most to you, what would you say?” If you can’t come up with anything, put a notepad by your bed and set your alarm clock. You might get some really creative ideas.
Another thought exercise, imagine that you wake up and discover that your house is on fire. What is the one thing you grab on your way out and why? (Unlike the advice above, I don’t suggest that you try this exercise.)
Other questions that might help you to brainstorm are:
o What has changed you?
o What has shaped your personal values?
o Who has shaped you or your personal values?
o Think about the most significant or emotional or memorable moments in your life:
What do they say about you? What do they reveal about you? Do they hold the key to what matters most to you? Is there some theme that connects them?
o Who do you love? Why?
o What do you love? Why?
o What makes you mad?
o What makes you sad?
o What makes you happy?
o What makes you angry?
o What frightens you?
Stanford really wants you get personal in your response. Really! The best answers are emotionally moving, poignant, sentimental, human, funny, or all of the above. They must be entertaining! When someone reads this essay they should have an emotional response. They should get chills. They might laugh. They might even cry. They might feel like seriously hurting someone (ideally not you).
In essence, the essay is a collection of stories – scenes from your life starring you. If you can make a reader understand the story simply by telling it, then bravo to you! If not, you can, of course borrow an old movie trick called the voice over. You’ve seen it a hundred times. The scene shows three young hoods robbing a bank and making off with the dough. Suddenly, the voice of the protagonist or narrator is heard over the scene: “We weren’t bad guys—me, Mickey, and Vern—we just figured there was more to life than delivering papers all week and pitching pennies outside the bowling alley on a Saturday night.” The narrator interprets what we are seeing, hopefully adding to our understanding. This is fairly common practice in business school essays. You should reflect on the story during or after telling it to add a deeper layer of meaning, discuss what you learned, or interpret what the event says about you.
The content must be personal and the form must be creative. Many applicants will write about the same topic – family, travel, service to others, etc. Hundreds of applicants might write about their travel adventures, but only one will talk about the post cards on his bulletin board and the memory that each stirs inside him. Don’t steal my lens! Come up with your own creative lens through which to tell your story.
Professional stories are generally not a good idea, but a good essay still tees up a theme that will connect to your professional career goals. Think about it: if what you are writing about is truly what matters most to you in the world, there should be some connection between this theme and your career ambitions. The connection might not be direct. On the other hand, if you write that your family in New York is the most important thing in the entire world to you, then a career essay about going to China to live and work might raise questions of sincerity.
You can certainly weave in the strategic messages that differentiate you from other applicants, but this will come in later drafts. There’s a famous Hollywood aphorism that applies here: “Show us don’t tell us.” Don’t write that you are a behind the scenes leader who doesn’t relish the spotlight or expect praise when the job is done. Instead, tell a story from your life that shows that you are.
It might surprise you that Stanford is a very touchy, feely school. On your first day they gather all three hundred and seventy students in a room and read excerpt from, you guessed it, Essay (A). That should tell you something about what matters most to them: A great story!