Stanford Business School Essay Sample

What are the most challenging essay questions business schools ask applicants? That’s a question we hope to answer in the second feature in this new six-part series. Stacy Blackman, founder of the MBA admissions consulting firm that bears her name, is picking out what she considers to be the most challenging and then providing advice for how to approach each essay.

What constitutes a highly challenging essay? It may force you to be incredibly introspective, surprisingly creative or perhaps highly succinct. Some essays are not as straightforward as they seem, others are very straightforward, but it is tempting to stray off topic. Whatever the reason, we are here to help, with some tips taken straight from the Stacy Blackman Consulting series of school specific essay guides.

Most Challenging MBA Essay Question #3:

Stanford Graduate School of Business:

What matters most to you, and why?

OVERVIEW OF THE QUESTION

Stanford’s first question is unique among the business school application essay questions. In fact, you might expect to find it on an application for a master’s in philosophy program rather than an MBA program. This essay question is a clear indication that the Stanford Admissions Committee is interested in much more than your academic transcripts, resume, and record of achievements. Those matter to Stanford but what matters more is your ability to look inside yourself and “to express most clearly what is there.”

Many of our clients ask us what Stanford wants to hear in a response to this essay question. Any set of tips on the What Matters essay must include a stern warning that you cannot search solely outside yourself for an answer to a question that demands intense self-examination.

Unless you have already undergone an intensive period of deep reflection, it is unlikely that the answer to this essay question will be on the tip of your tongue. Rather, you should view this question as an opportunity to learn about yourself – to look up from the rat race and to decide what you truly value and what is important to you. If approached correctly, it can be a fun and enlightening experience.

ESSAY TIPS

TIP #1 The answer to the “what matters” question is essentially a statement of life purpose.

Once you have stopped looking outside yourself for the “right” answer and committed instead to the process of self examination and “accounting” demanded by this essay question, it is fair to ask, “When I search, what sort of thing should I be looking for?” To guide you here, we must venture into philosophical territory. We have found that the answer to the “what matters” question generally takes the form of a “statement of life purpose” – a kind of personal mission statement that expresses the essence of who you are and why you are alive. So all you have to do is decide “what is central to your being.” (Is that all?!)

So how do you go about creating a statement of life purpose? There are myriad approaches and thousands of books on the subject –mystical, religious, and secular. You’ll have to find an approach that works best for you, but it might help if you have an example of what a statement of life purpose looks like. A journalist who went to a seminar to develop her personal mission statement crafted this: “My mission statement is to embrace and communicate good news.” A screenwriter penned the statement: “My life’s purpose is to tell stories that exalt the mind and the spirit.” A more personal example unrelated to work is, “What matters most to me is for my friends and loved ones to know I will always be there when they need me.”

Creating a statement of life purpose is incredibly difficult. A quote by the author Viktor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, might help you: “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us…. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” Frankl believed that meaning was derived by confronting the challenges that life presented and that one’s purpose was found in serving others in some way.

Since an early age, education has always been the thing that matters most to me. I grew up in a family that emigrated to my country with nothing, and through education, built itself up, gaining financial security. My mother, who holds an M.A. in Educational Management and has been a teacher for 40 years, has always inspired me.

Education is important to me in two distinct ways: firstly, I believe that it is the best tool to enable people to take responsibility for their lives. I believe strongly in the old Chinese saying: “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime”. Secondly, although history has shown that even educated people can hate, I believe that good education is still the most effective tool we have to reduce unfounded hatred.

I devoted myself at an early age to teaching young people because I wanted to encourage social responsibility and community contribution. From age 10 to 18, I was a member of a youth movement that taught strong democratic values and social responsibility. At the age of 15, I was sent for a two week youth leaders’ training course, following which I became a volunteer youth leader in the movement. From age 15 to 18, I led groups of 30 children in weekly activities. For 2 years, I also served as Chief Editor of the movement’s newspaper, managing 10.

In high school, I initiated and edited my school’s first newspaper, because I felt it was important that students would have a platform to publish their ideas. I also volunteered as a Big Brother for an economically disadvantaged child for 2 years, a child who had never been taught by his parents to value education. I worked hard to help him understand that education is the key to independence in his future life and was thrilled to see him graduating from high school with excellent grades that enabled him to apply to any local university.

I educated in the army too, when I was selected to be the Platoon Commander for the Intelligence Corps’ leadership program training course. For 6 months, in an enclosed facility with no access to the outside world, and with limited vacations, I was responsible for every aspect of my 15 young cadets’ lives, being to them commander, teacher and father, instilling in them the importance of responsibility and initiative in their future leadership roles.

I believe strongly in ‘first-hand’ and ‘hands-on’ learning. This is one reason I decided to continue with full time work and community service even during my undergraduate studies. As a student, I volunteered weekly for two years with the “Youngsters Build a Future” organization, tutoring groups of 3-4 fourth grade children from disadvantaged backgrounds and serving as their role model.

In my current job, I participate bi-weekly in a corporate-non-profit partnership between my company and a local youth cultural center, teaching groups of children from low-income families from the surrounding neighborhoods how to utilize education to build a better future, and strengthening their confidence to do so. I want to continue the community service I’ve been doing for 5 years through Stanford’s “I Have a Dream” Club, which is similar to the programs I participate in with my company.

I think that encouraging education should be the task of every capable person, not only a governmental task. When I achieve my goal of becoming a CEO, I would like to create at my company a corporate-non-profit partnership similar to the one I participate in now. The program will encourage employees to volunteer to teach disadvantaged youth, and youngsters who remain dedicated to the program will be given scholarships. I intend to use Stanford’s “Education” and “Social Venture” Clubs to brainstorm this idea with other Stanford students, and Stanford’s “Social Entrepreneurship” course to gain exposure to similar programs that might help me make this partnership a reality.

When I realized that I was gay, at the age of 20, education took on a new importance for me. I realized that I now have another personal reason to promote education. Lucky for me, I was born to an open-minded family in a democratic country with an open society. However, I felt strongly that it is my duty to somehow help prevent other gay people from suffering unfounded hatred—and I knew that education is the most effective tool.

I acknowledged that, although I am not a public figure and not involved in political activities, I can set an “educational” example for my close friends and family, some of whom had incorrect stereotypes about homosexuals. Although it took some time, I decided that I will not be embarrassed about who I am and came out, telling all my family and friends, but otherwise not changing my lifestyle in any way. The real significance of my example struck me when a brother of one of my friends approached me discreetly and told me that he thought he was gay. He said that, looking at me, he realized that a person can be both gay and live an “ordinary” life. I understood that, in addition to my educational work, I can educate and contribute to a better society just by living true to myself. I hope that I can continue to set this example not just in Stanford’s Out4Biz Club, but simply by being who I am at Stanford.

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