Thursday, May 30, 2013

Stanford GSB 2013-14 MBA Essay Analysis

What follows is an analysis of the 2013-14 essay questions in the Stanford MBA application. There are 3 things worth noting as you read this post:

1. These are my opinions based on my experience with successful Stanford GSB admits. They are not suggestions meant for everyone to follow blindly.  A lot of people (most?) have no idea what to do or how to begin the process of approaching essay questions, and for them I have tried to provide some insight here.
2. My approach offers more of a starting point than a finishing point.  You'll find more expansive (and better written) analyses of the Stanford essays online elsewhere.  But as far as initial brainstorming goes, I think this analysis serves its purpose.
3. Be sure to read Stanford's own advice on their essay questions, you can do so here and here. The admissions team at the GSB goes further than most programs in offering information and analysis on their own essays. They will, after all, be reading what you wrote so their advice is therefore worth considering.

Essay 1: What matters most to you, and why?

Your answer to this question will serve as your introduction to the reader of your application. As with any good introduction, it should be honest, insightful and memorable. And as with any good application essay, it should help the reader feel you could fit into their school's community, and offer something positive to it.

1. There are two questions here - what and why.

a) What

The answer to the "what" part can be almost anything, so it is important that you not limit yourself when brainstorming or evaluating potential topics with someone who knows you and the application process well.  I've seen people write good essays that are based upon a wide variety of topics, so don't rule anything out as you consider your own options.  When you have narrowed down your list of topics, ask yourself two questions about each in order to narrow the list a bit further.  1) Is writing about this topic going to allow me to help my reader understand one of my key strengths or characteristics well? and 2) Is this topic going to show that I possess some characteristic that could be appealing to admissions at Stanford?  Both are important and I don't think you can fully evaluate your topic choice without considering each of these questions.

b) Why

What matters most to you may be the subject of your essay, but it is the "and why" part of the question that really requires introspection. If what matters most to you is to sell something to people all over the world, great, but WHY does this matter to you?  If what matters most to you is to be the best at something, then again, why? With this question your essay needs to go to a deeper level of introspection. If you are driven to do or value something, where has that drive originated from? Maybe the product you sell is nice, but can that alone explain the drive you have to sell it? Probably not. Introspection means an awareness of yourself - what you're good at and why you do things for instance. People with strong levels of introspection tend to be successful at making big transitions (like attending b-school) and contributing to teams of smart people coming from diverse backgrounds (another common trait to the b-school experience).

2. Balance personal and professional, past and future

A good essay will often include personal and professional elements.  Think about it: is it possible that what matters most to you has absolutely nothing to do with your job? It is possible, although it may cause your reader to wonder how you have shaped your career. The reverse is also true: is it possible that what matters most to you is entirely a work-related topic, that has absolutely nothing to do with your life outside of your job? Again this is possible, though I would think it even much less likely, in that what matters most to you should by definition be something you've devoted yourself to (hence the fact that it matters).

In the same way, what matters most to you should optimally touch upon your past, and also your future.  If what matters most to you is dinner tomorrow, then it may sound like you have not considered the question deeply (unless of course you have a really creative explanation for that dinner tomorrow). If on the other hand what matters most to you started and finished in elementary school, your reader might feel they are not getting to know who you are today through your essay.

3.  Key strategy: show proof

No matter your choice of topic, it is important that your essay be persuasive. In order for the reader to feel like the what and why are genuine reflections of who you are, you need to give examples of actions you have taken that show your topic to be true. These actions should not be token ones, but rather strong ones. Imagine if someone writes that protecting the environment is what matters most to them (I am not necessarily endorsing this as a valid topic choice). It would be necessary to detail something they did to benefit the environment in their essay.  Moreover, it would be extremely helpful if what they had done involved continuous effort, rather than just donating money. How did they get involved? What did they do? This is what people mean when they say "show" your passion. 

Finally, I think that showing proof is especially important if your "what" isn't a thing (like your family) or an activity (like driving change in your organization) but is instead a feeling or emotion (like being competitive or not complacent).  All can possibly work as topics - but especially with the latter case, you want your essay to move beyond your thinking and to shed light on the concrete actions you have taken.

Essay 2: What do you want to do - REALLY - and why Stanford?

This essay has two easily identifiable parts: your goals, and how joining the Stanford MBA will help you position yourself to be able to achieve those goals.

1. Your Goals

You should be able to describe both short-term and long-term goals in this essay. I would define a good short-term goal as the best possible thing you can do with the combination of a Stanford MBA and the experience you will bring to the program. Most good long-term goals I have seen in the past involve a mix of three things: 1) they are big, 2) they are global and 3) they impact on other people or society in a positive way. Every year people ask me what the REALLY part means and why it is so emphasized in the question. I give a two part answer:  

a) If you have big, crazy goals, Stanford wants to hear about them.  Don't hide what you are really and truly interested in impacting in the future.
b) If all you are going to explain is that you want the MBA to transition to a typical post-MBA field, like consulting or banking, you probably need to give a bit more detail in terms of why this goal is attractive to you.

2. Why Stanford

This to me is one of the most straightforward questions a school can ask in their application.  It is important that you demonstrate how you feel a strong fit with the GSB using concrete examples. See my previous post on fit for several possible categories of examples.

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.

Consider the balance of your overall essay set when deciding which essay will work best for you. If, for instance, your essay have empathized more personal than professional examples, then perhaps a work-related story here would balance your essay set nicely.  But in each ace - building a team, improving an organization, or going beyond what was defined or established - there is an opportunity to use either a personal or a professional story.

The three year requirement is not new, but nonetheless it is worth emphasizing that a more recent story will help the reader to understand how you think and act now - rather than how you used to think and act.

Option A: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.

Here let me define and elaborate upon two parts of the question: "built or developed a team" and "performance exceeded expectations".  First, note that you do not need to have been the official leader of the team. You should however have contributed to the team, by helping to define or rework the roles of members, bringing members together or otherwise helping the group get from point A to B. Was your contribution training, motivation, or the development of a mission statement that others could rally around? Be clear as to what exactly you contributed, and how this had a concrete impact on the team's ability. 

Next, you should define how exactly this team exceeded expectations. If numbers or dates are involved then this is straightforward, as the team may have beaten a budget or achieved something well in advance of a target date. But what if the expectations were vague to begin with? What if the expected outcome was not clear? In this and other cases, it is important in your essay that you show a) the initial expectations on the team (or project being managed by the team) and b) how the eventual outcome went beyond that. 

Option B: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you identified and pursued an opportunity to improve an organization.

If someone identifies and pursue an opportunity, they are taking initiative. Initiative is when you decide to do something, and you devote your energy to accomplishing it. In some cases the eventual outcome may not be clear, but taking risk is often part of taking initiative. Have you done this before? Note that it does not have to end in success (though a success story may be more effective than a failure story). But it should be an experience that you initiated, through one of your ideas, and then pursued, by involving or convincing others. Don't forget to state clearly the impact of the improvement you made on the organization. How were those around you affected, and is this impact still being felt?

Option C: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you went beyond what was defined or established.

A truly excellent response to this essay is, to me, part creativity and part initiative. Both are involved in the process of going beyond what is established. Have you ever created a new way to solve an existing problem? This could fit here. Otherwise, have you ever created something new, or changed the way something was done? Any of these could work. They key here is to show that you have experience doing more than just taking orders, or fulfilling the responsibilities that have been handed to you. 

Additional Information

Only complete this section if there is any other information that is critical for us to know but is not captured elsewhere (e.g., extenuating circumstances affecting academic or work performance). Do not include essays. This section is limited to 250 kbs.

As the question shows, you are only meant to use your answers here to explain weaknesses in your application, rather than submitting additional essays about your strengths or accomplishments. 

Overall Comments about the Essay Set

1. Stanford offers a guideline as to how to use your word count (limited to 1,600) across your three essays.  They suggest (only as a starting point they stress): Essay 1 - 750 words, Essay 2 - 450 words, Essay 3 - 400 words.  But this is not hard and fast and as your stories evolve for each question, you may find you have more word count allotted to Essay 1 at the expense (for instance) of Essay 3.  This is natural.  

2. If you are applying to multiple programs, this essay set is not a great one to start with. The questions are unique, and for most Stanford is a top-choice destination.  Given this, it is best to start your essay writing process (and development) on other schools.  Over time your writing will likely improve in both focus and detail, and so only after working through a few other applications should you start in on these questions.

3. This is an essay set.  As with all schools, Stanford will read your essay as a set. Make sure your own voice is consistent and natural throughout the whole thing.  

John Couke