Derrick Bolton, the head of admissions for the Stanford Graduate School of Business, had been in the post for over a decade, and had written some thoughtful essays of his own regarding the GSB essays. Since he has moved on to other things, some of his best writings have been scrubbed from the website. I was fortunate enough to find a copy of some really thoughtful advice, and wanted to publish it here so that others can benefit in perpetuity.
Stanford MBA Program essays
In last month’s Director’s Corner, I explained my sincere belief that you benefit from the business school application experience – regardless of the outcome of the process. Because essay writing demands so much of your focused energy and time, it can be most difficult to maintain your perspective during what is probably one of the most contemplative periods of your life. Stanford professor Bill Damon’s most recent book, The Moral Advantage: How to Succeed in Business by Doing the Right Thing, contained a passage that might help you maintain the larger context as you delve into the essay-writing process:
We are not always aware of the forces that ultimately move us. While focusing on the “how” questions – how to survive, how to get ahead, how to make a name for ourselves – often we forget the “why” questions that are more essential for finding and staying on the best course: Why pursue this objective? Why behave in this manner? Why aspire to this kind of life? Why become this type of person?
These “why” questions help us realize our highest aspirations and our truest interests. To answer these questions well, we must decide what matters most to us, what we will be able to contribute to in our careers, what are the right (as opposed to the wrong) ways of behaving as we aim toward this end, and, ultimately, what kind of persons we want to become. Because everyone, everywhere, wants to live an admirable life, a life of consequence, the “why” questions cannot be ignored for long without great peril to one’s personal stability and enduring success. It is like ignoring the rudder on a ship – no matter how much you look after all the boat’s other moving parts, you may end up lost at sea.
The two Stanford MBA Program essays provide you a structured opportunity to reflect on your own “truest interests” and “highest aspirations”. The essays, along with the letters of reference, are a vital part of the application process. While the letters of reference are stories about you told by others, the essays enable you to tell us who you are by articulating what matters most to you and why, as well as how you have decided you can best contribute to society. Please think of the Stanford essays as conversations on paper – each time we read a file, we feel that we meet a person, also known as our “flat friends” – and tell us your story in a straightforward, sincere way.
The most important piece of advice on the essays is extremely simple: answer the questions – each component of each question. An additional suggestion for writing essays is equally straightforward: think – a lot; then write. We ask about your values, passions, ideas, experiences, and aspirations – and 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. Your essays are not the entirety of your application: we are reading them with all the information contained in your application as part of a holistic process. Please remember that the admission process for the Stanford MBA Program focuses on intangibles: character and competence, with an emphasis on character. Our goal is to understand what motivates you and how you have become the person you are today.
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, given that these are essays for business school, but we don’t necessarily 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, etc. – to learn what you have accomplished and the type of impact you have made. Your task is to connect the people, situations, and events in your life with the values you adhere to and the choices you have made – and then to communicate that through your essay. In other words, the essays give you a terrific opportunity to learn about yourself! While many good essays describe the “what”, great essays move to the next order and describe how and why these things 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. We do appreciate and reward thoughtful self-assessment and appropriate levels of self-disclosure.
NOTE from Betsy: the following advice is for a different essay question than “Why Stanford” but the philosophy is useful: In the second essay, please remember that there are three distinct parts to this question (you do not need to answer them separately as long as all three are addressed within your essay). First, we ask you to provide us with a sense of your passions and your focused interests – what you hope to contribute in your career in the short term and in the long term. You don’t need to have your entire life planned, but applicants often find it difficult to address why an MBA is required to achieve your goals if the goals themselves are ill-defined. You should be honest, with yourself and with us, in explaining what you aspire to achieve. Then, please explain why, of all the choices in your life at this time, pursuing an MBA is the best way for you to achieve your personal and professional aspirations. Describe why an MBA is the right way for you to progress toward your professional aim and to develop into the person you seek to become. Finally, explain why you believe that Stanford is the right MBA program to help you reach your goals. <Bolton’s comments on a question that has changed.
I’d like to address a couple of myths. First, one of the most good-spirited but misguided pieces of advice is “Tell the admissions committee what makes you unique” in your essays. This often leads applicants to believe that you need to have accomplishments or feats that are unusual or different than your peers (e.g., traveling to an exotic place or talking about a tragic situation in your life). How are you to know which of your experiences are unique when you know neither the backgrounds of the other applicants nor the topics they have chosen? What makes you unique is not that you have had these life-altering experiences, but rather how and why your perspective has changed or been reinforced as a result of those and other everyday experiences. That is a story that only you can tell. If you concentrate your efforts on telling us who you are, differentiation will occur naturally; if your goal is to appear unique, you may achieve the opposite effect. Please remember that most Stanford MBAs have excelled by doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.
Second, there is a widespread myth that if you have stupendous essays, you can compensate for an otherwise unconvincing application; and that if you don’t have amazing essays, you won’t be admitted even if you are a compelling applicant. Please be assured that we try to give the benefit of the doubt to the applicant rather than to the application. This means that we will admit someone despite the application essays if we feel we’ve gotten a good sense of the person overall. And the corollary is true: even the best essays will not result in admission for an uncompelling applicant. Yes, the essays are important. But they are neither our only avenue of understanding you, nor are they disproportionately influential in the admission process.
Alumnus Leo Linbeck, MBA ’94 told me on an alumni panel in Houston a couple of years ago something that I have since appropriated. Leo said that, in management terms, the Stanford essays are not a marketing exercise – they are an accounting exercise. This is not an undertaking in which you look at an audience/customer (i.e., the Admissions Committee) and then write what you believe we want to hear. It is quite the opposite. This is a process in which you look inside yourself and try to express most clearly what is there. We are trying to get a good sense of your perspectives, your passion for leadership, and how Stanford can help you realize your goals. As professor Damon would say, we are helping you ensure that your rudder steers you to the right port.
[Former] Assistant Dean and Director of MBA Admissions