Tag Archives | Stanford Business School

From the Archives: former GSB Director’s Thoughts on Essays

Stanford GSB admissions directorDerrick 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

Director’s Corner
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.

Derrick Bolton
[Former] Assistant Dean and Director of MBA Admissions

Annual San Francisco MBA Admissions Workshop

MBA admissions workshopEvery year in July I organize a workshop for potential applicants. It’s an interactive event — not just me talking, but you helping each other figure out what are the stories and themes in your life that will help you stand out in the competitive MBA admissions process.

The workshop is hosted by the Harvard Club of San Francisco, and has produced successful candidates who have gone on to all of the top business schools: HBS, Stanford, Wharton, Yale, Kellogg, MIT, Booth, Kellogg, Tuck…and more.  Plus, you don’t have to be a Harvard graduate to attend!

I’ll do bit of talking to de-mystify the admissions process, but you will do the work to kick-start your application — not just the essays — and make it shine.


At the workshop, you’ll go through exercises to help you identify unique personal and career successes. You will brainstorm ways to tell your own story in an inviting and compelling way. You will join small teams get to know each other, using both the left and the right side of your brain to identify what makes you stand out from just any old applicant.

We’ll have food on hand to keep you nourished, and by the end of the workshop, you will have at least one story that admissions committees can’t wait to read about.

Date: Tuesday, July 12
Time: 6:00pm – 8:00pm
Place: Sandbox Suites, 404 Bryant St (@2nd St), San Francisco
Cost: $25 members, $30 non-members. Includes food

For more information and registration, please click here.

RSVP requested by July 10

Stanford GSB Debunks MBA Application Myths


Students who are applying to business school are rightfully nervous about their chances for getting in. And there are some urban myths that certainly go around the blogosphere about interviews, campus visits and chances. Thankfully, the admissions office at Stanford Graduate School of business has taken on the job of myth-buster, at least according to the GSB.  This is from their admissions blog post of November 8, 2013:


— by the Stanford Graduate School  of Business Admissions Team

MYTH 1: The interview has a lot of weight so if I blow the interview, I have blown my chances of being admitted.
THE TRUTH: There is no specific weight assigned to the interview; the interview is one part of a comprehensive process. A positive interview does not guarantee admission, while a less than favorable interview does not, by itself, preclude admission. The written application, including the essays and letters of reference, is a critical part of the evaluation process. The interview is a key source of supplemental information.

MYTH 2: I received my interview invitation early in the round so it must mean I have a better chance of getting admitted.
THE TRUTH: The timing of your interview invitation reflects only the order in which your application was reviewed (and the order in which your application was reviewed doesn’t mean anything, honest!). Applications are not reviewed in any particular order, and applicants are not ranked.

MYTH 3: Visiting campus before or after I’ve submitted my application is an important way to demonstrate my interest in Stanford and increase my chances of being admitted.
THE TRUTH: Visiting campus does not affect your chances of admission whatsoever. Think of it this way – we wouldn’t want to bias the process towards only people with the proximity, time, or resources to visit. You may wish to visit if it’s helpful to your research and decision-making process about schools. Of course, we always welcome visitors! But we also understand that for some of you that may not be feasible. If you have only one chance to visit, save your time and money and come after you’ve been admitted for Admit Weekend, where you’ll meet students, alumni, faculty, and your future classmates.

Are you a Non-Traditional MBA Candidate? Then Read This.

Just about everyone, that is, other than McKinsey consultants and Goldman analysts, call themselves non-traditional candidates for business school. Why? Because they think that everyone who will populate the next MBA class comes

Defraying the cost of business school

from management consulting or finance.

We all of know a few consultants, investment banking types, and more than a few engineers at business school. And indeed, if you look at the profiles of many business schools (here’s a link to the Wharton MBA site, where you will see a combination of 42% for those in investment banking, private equity, or other finance). But thousands of others from backgrounds in the arts, social enterprise, hard science, start-ups, and the military will make their way to MBA program of their choice in the next intake class. Really.

It’s a Master of Business Administration

Here’s something that most people don’t understand: business school is about business. More and more students come from non-profits, and more and more will go into social enterprise (otherwise, why else would Stanford Graduate School of Business’s motto be “Change Lives. Change Organizations. Change the World?” Of course schools are looking for leadership. But they also want students to appreciate what makes a business enterprise work. Dee Leopold, the heralded director of admissions at Harvard Business School, calls this business acumen “bizability.”

The term bizability reminds students that they are (nearly always) applying to a school of business. The degree is called a Master of Business Administration. The Yale School of Management had tried for two decades to sell its Master of Public and Private Management (MPPM) degree, but the school officially changed the name to the MBA in 2000. Business is about commerce, about enterprise, and even in the case of non-profits, it’s about the bottom line. Dee Leopold described it as being “grounded in the language of business.”

Bizability means that students have to, at some level, grasp business. You can still be part of the 99%, that’s fine (many of us are). I once met a student who wanted a joint degree in education and business to fund a school, but she hated the concept of business. She didn’t see the value in finance; she just thought it was all evil. That is not a great admissions strategy. You have to like business well enough to have been exposed to what makes a company tick and want to learn more.

So what if you have worked in a government or non-profit organization. You don’t have to think too hard about where you have used “business skills” to succeed:

1. Have you run – or do you work with — the budget for your department?
2. Have you allocated resources (e.g., people, systems, programs?)
2. Have you raised money, either from investors or organizations giving grants?
4. Have you ever had your own business, like a lemonade stand, a neighborhood newspaper, or an Etsy store?
5. Do you follow business news, the financial press or the stock market? Do you know how your IRA works?
You don’t have to answer “yes” to all of these questions, but they probably shouldn’t scare you if you are thinking about an MBA.

So think about what business school is about and what having a career with a business degree means. Think about words like management, enterprise, company, operations, market, trade, and finance. Do you have an affinity for any of these ideas? If so, you are on your way, and are perhaps not so scarily non-traditional after all.

Business Schools that Accept the GRE or GMAT

More and more business schools are accepting the GRE in lieu of the GMAT these days. In response to a query I received from the academic adviser to students at one of the world’s top undergraduate schools, I thought I would put together a handy table for you to identify which schools accept either the GRE or GMAT. Below you can see that many do, but not all.




Columbia YES Columbia Business School
Darden YES UVA Darden
Fuqua YES Duke Fuqua
HBS YES Harvard Business School
Mich Ross YES University of Michigan Ross School
Tuck YES Dartmouth Tuck
Stanford YES Stanford GSB
Wharton YES Wharton MBA
Yale YES Yale School of Management
Chicago NO Chicago Booth
Cornell NO Cornell Johnson
Haas NO UC Berkeley Haas
Kellogg NO Kellogg

If you have any questions about updates to this information, please email me at betsy@masteradmissions.com

A few notes: Cornell does not indicate it accepts the GRE, but they haven’t said they *don’t* accept it, as Haas and Chicago Booth have. UCLA Anderson’s MBA program doesn’t accept it, but their Executive Program does.

Further, things do change! so please check the links and make sure the information you have is current.

Meanwhile, if you need any advice on studying for standardized tests, please see last week’s blog post on test anxiety and your brain.