If you have your sights on attending Stanford GSB, then you’ll have to answer the somewhat daunting essay question of “What matters most to you, and why?” I would say that, of all of my MBA application essays, this prompt was the one that I was the most nervous about. What matters most to me? Well, a lot of things matter to me. Family, friends, being a good person, etc. etc. Is one answer any better than another? What do the admissions officers want to see?
If one, blatantly obvious answer to the prompt doesn’t pop right into your head, don’t worry; It definitely didn’t for me, either. Though, what I did know is that I needed to have pertinent examples of me doing things that show how much my “thing” mattered to me, and that I should probably be able to tie it back to business school.
So, the first thing I’d recommend you do is to sit down and list out every major thing you’ve done from freshman year of undergrad and onward. List the research, the courses, the independent studies, the international experience, the internships, the jobs, the volunteering. List everything notable that comes to mind. After that, take a break.
Come back to your sheet in a day or two with an investigative mindset. Analyze what you’ve written. What are the common themes? Are there any trends? For me, I started noticing an education theme. I had worked on renovating schools in Ecuador, taught English in the DR, worked as an academic tutor, served as an English chat room partner, and even the business that I started centered around education. It was a strange realization for me because I had never thought about education in a “this is the thing I care most about” light, but the more I thought about it, the more true it seemed. I care about education, and my actions reflect that. I guarantee that if you put in the time and effort to seriously reflect on your experiences over the past few years, you’ll be able to see what has been driving you this whole time, too.
With your “thing” in mind, you’re ready to begin your essay. Keep in mind that this will be a process. If you pump out an essay in one hour, proofread it once, and never touch it again, it probably won’t be the strongest piece that you could’ve submitted.
Stanford requires that the two essays you submit total no more than 1,150 words combined (see more here). They suggest dedicating approximately 750 words to this essay and 400 to the “Why Stanford?” essay.
- The Hook & Realization (~150 words)
- Business school admissions officers are reading thousands of essays. You need something to make yours stand out. Simply starting with “the thing that matters most to me is…” is just boring and lazy. You want the officers to be like, “hey, remember that guy who worked with elephants in Kenya?” or “oh, yeah, she was the girl who held her own fundraiser benefiting cancer research” and the way you do that is through a memorable anecdotal hook. (Examples from my own essay are in italics in each section).
- The children were playing soccer with a rock. I was in Canoa, Ecuador, leading a team of international student volunteers on a playground construction project at a local school. Over the next few weeks, when I wasn’t toiling with the bamboo structure or playing tag with shrieking children, I was noticing something. It was obvious that the school didn’t have appropriate recreational equipment. That’s why I was there, after all. What was more striking to me, though, was the quality of the school itself. The entire school was only one room in size and was crumbling. I began to speak with the students in Spanish about what school supplies they had access to and what they were learning, and the results were more than disheartening. It was at this point in my life that I had a major shift in perspective and began to seriously acknowledge how pervasive the concept of unequal opportunity can be.
- Frame the Topic (~220 words)
- Once you’ve established what matters most to you, you’re going to have to frame it. Does the issue sit in a larger societal context? Mention that. Also, tell us why this issue matters to you. What is it about you that makes this issue matter to you but not as much to the next guy? Make this section work for you. Show the admissions officers why you’re unique.
- The basic truth of the matter is that many of those children will not have a decent shot at gaining an education, following their passions, or fulfilling their dreams. Most will unfortunately end up illiterate and doing manual labor for low wages, not because they aren’t innately intelligent or hardworking, but because they never were given a chance to display that they were. I believe that being a first-generation college student has afforded me a heightened feeling of sympathy to those affected by this harsh reality. My education is not something that I take for granted, and I regularly reflect on how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to earn a degree. Without the right support and resources, I would have undoubtedly been in the same position as the students in Canoa. Without the correct environment, I would have never had the chance to show that I can work hard, that I can learn, and that I can flourish. Uncontrollable barriers should not have the ability to hamper people’s ability to learn, grow, and live a life that they are happy with. Unfortunately, they can and often do, and I strongly believe that this truth is one of the most grossly unjust parts of life. This is why I have dedicated myself to working ceaselessly to eradicate these barriers.
- Example of you acting on the passion (~220 words)
- This is a way to show that you’re not just blowing smoke and can actually back up your claim with a real world example. Stay away from mentioning something that you have already mentioned elsewhere in your application, if possible. Instead, use this section to introduce something new or expand on something that you only listed briefly somewhere else in your app. Again, try to make this section work for you in two ways, by backing up what you’ve said you care most about and also show some other skill you have (e.g. leadership, perseverance, etc.).
- For example, a few years after volunteering in Ecuador I was fortunate enough to travel to the Dominican Republic to teach English at a K-5 school in Monte Cristi. Having done extensive research on the quality of education in the DR prior to the trip, I knew that things were bleak there. With shockingly low literacy rates and an astronomically high percentage of high school dropouts, the odds of receiving a solid education were low. With the country’s educational system in such disarray, the only clear path to success for students there exists in learning English and then attending a university in the US. I wanted every student to have that opportunity. I began to pore over lesson plans. Using donated supplies, I created countless games, activities, and memory aids, all in the hopes that I could give these children their first step—an opportunity to learn. I can still vividly recall my time there. I was sweaty and exhausted in an overcrowded, stiflingly hot classroom, but a grin always came to my face as my students enthusiastically called out “PANE-SEAL!” when I held up a picture of a pencil. In fact, I was almost always smiling, knowing that I was helping to give these children the chance that I, too, was so fortunately given.
- Relate it back to your career (~80 words)
- This is your essay to business school, after all. So you’ve outlined what you care most about and why…but so what? What are you going to do about it? How does this passion tie into your career and future plans? How is a Stanford MBA going to help you do something that centers around your passion?
The importance of equal opportunity in an educational sense has imbued my career path with a certain vitality and direction. I seek to both work with companies that value equality and also create new organizations that can further remedy the extensive problem of disparity in access to opportunities. I have recently founded a company and launched an associated website dedicated to providing crowdfunding to all undergraduate students’ research and community projects, but I feel like this is only the start of my journey.
- Conclusion (~60 words)
- Wrap up your final thoughts. Reiterate what matters most to you and how Stanford GSB can play a role.
Ultimately, what a person does with an opportunity is up to them. However, there is a distinct difference between not taking advantage of an opportunity and never having one at all. My mission is to work to create opportunities for people, and I want the Stanford Graduate School of Business to serve as my ally in taking this initiative to the next level.
Obviously, this is just the style that worked for me and the word counts are just suggestions that I felt made the essay flow well while still being as informative as possible. I left a little bit of wiggle room in this essay because my “Why Stanford” essay was a few words over the suggested count, but if you feel like you could use an extra sentence or two in this essay, do it. Like I said, you won’t write this essay perfectly the first time; it will be a constant editing and revising process and it will take some time. Definitely don’t wait until the last minute to complete an essay like this. Other than that, the experience of writing this essay can lead to a lot of self-insight and can be quite enjoyable. Best of luck!
I’ve found that most admissions consultants provide the same advice on how to answer Stanford’s first essay question, and frankly it’s no different than the advice Stanford provides in the prompt itself: a good answer requires deep self-examination. Unfortunately, I’ve also found this advice to be remarkably unhelpful for MBA applicants setting out to answer the most difficult essay question in business school admissions.
So, while I agree that this essay requires significant self-examination and reflection, I hope to provide some more concrete advice for how to approach that process and how to know when you’ve gotten to a quality answer.
It’s about hard choices – those that have a real cost.
One of my favorite classes at HBS was Designing Winning Organizations, taught by professor Robert Simons. At the beginning of the semester, he posed this question as one of the most important that a company has to answer: “How do your core values prioritize shareholders, employees, and customers?” Of course, most companies want to please all three constituents, but those who do tend to fail. Only those companies that truly prioritize the three succeed. In his words:
“Value statements that are lists of aspirational behaviors aren’t good enough. Real core values indicate whose interest comes first when faced with difficult trade-offs.” 
This proposition proves quite useful for students embarking on Stanford’s first essay question – “What matters most to you, and why?” – in that a good answer will show how you’ve prioritized the many important things in your life. It will be an accounting of the major trade-offs you have made, personally and professionally, and why you made them.
The problem is that most applicants aren’t entirely honest with Stanford (not to mention themselves) about what they prioritize.
So, consider the major choices you’ve made in your life, and think about not only the options that you chose but also the options that you didn’t:
- Where you’ve chosen to live – and, by implication, where you’ve chosen not to live.
- What jobs you’ve accepted – and what jobs you’ve rejected or never pursued.
- What things in your life get your time and attention – and what things don’t get it.
- How you spend your money – and what you don’t spend it on instead.
After listing many important choices that you’ve made, and understanding what you gave up as a result, also consider that you may not have always prioritized what is most important to you. In some instances, you unknowingly prioritize the wrong thing, and you learn from it. These misguided choices can be great fodder for your Stanford essay, too.
Perhaps an example from my own life would help. For many years, I have wanted to work in media, specifically journalism. It has always been a passion of mine: I was editor-in-chief of my high school’s newspaper; I was a journalism minor in college; and I followed the news (and the news about the news) obsessively after college. So, when it came time to choose my summer internship during business school, I sought a corporate finance job in the media industry in hopes of figuring out a new business model to save the old and decaying industry of journalism. This required moving to a city with the highest concentration of media and journalism companies: New York City.
I loved the internship to be sure, and I felt passionate about what I was doing. But I was never that keen on living in New York, as none of the people I really cared about lived nearby. So, after a summer away from my closest friends and family, I learned that I wanted to live in Chicago after graduation, even though it would mean taking a job outside of the media industry, which is heavily concentrated in New York City.
Perhaps, then, what is most important to me is having a strong network of support close to me. I would have to consider the other choices I’ve made, and the choices I expect to make in the future, to really know for certain. But it was a misguided choice to prioritize the industry I work in over the people that live near me.
Making the choice to live in Chicago after graduation came at a real cost – namely not being able to work at the best companies in my first-choice industry – but it was worth it to me because it is more important to be near a strong support network of friends and family.
The CEO of the company I worked for in New York City said it like this: you can have anything you want in life, but you cannot have everything you want in life.
So, What Makes a Great Answer to Stanford’s First Essay?
So, I always push applicants who are answering this question to talk not only about the choices they have made, whether they were right or wrong, and why they have made them, but also what those choices cost them. What opportunities did they miss out on in order to prioritize what was most important to them? What did they have to give up?
What makes a really interesting answer to Stanford’s first essay question is when applicants can demonstrate how they prioritized what was important to them when it came at great cost – when their priorities were in conflict with other still important things.
If you feel like the choices you’ve made in life haven’t come at much of a cost, then consider: What things are you not? What else would you have been doing if you hadn’t been doing what was most important to you? How would you have been spending your time, energy, and capital? Do you live in a studio apartment so you can afford to travel one a month? Did you lose touch with a friend because you launched a website and spent all your time trying to make sure it succeeded?
Focus on the Why. Once you’ve identified a few good example of tough choices that you’ve made – where you’ve had to give up one important thing for another – it’s time to consider why you made the choice you did, and perhaps if you would still make the same choice today. The motives for why you made those tough choices – those choices with real costs – are what Stanford is interested in learning about. Perhaps you live in that studio so you can travel once a month because your parents taught you that worldly exposure is the most important value. Or, perhaps you lost touch with your friends to launch that website because you were dedicated to learning how to code for the first time – and learning new skills is the most important thing to you.
Starting from the bottom up, thinking about the hard choices you’ve made before thinking about what is most important to you, will always lead to richer, stronger essays. It’ll enable you to support your claim with hard anecdotes and stories – showing the admissions committee what is most important to you and why, not just telling them.
Tell a story, and make it emotional (happy, sad, funny, or anything in between). The writing should be much more personal and casual than a traditional MBA essay. You need your personality, humor, and sentiment to come through in a way that most business school essays don’t really demand. Fortunately, if you follow the advice above and pick something that has real cost associated with it, then you’ll have emotion built in right away. Talking about what you gave up, if you truly cared about giving it up, will almost assuredly force genuine emotion into the writing.
Don’t focus on your accomplishments and accolades. Many applicants make the mistake of making this essay about what they have accomplished, and claiming those accomplishments (often tied together by some central theme) as most important to them.
This is not an essay about what you’ve accomplished – that is what your resume is for. Rather, it’s an essay about the events, people, and situations in your life that have influenced you. It’s an essay about who you are and what you prioritize as a result.
Why Stanford loves this question. Great leaders are often self-aware, know what is important to them, and drive to it at all costs. Steve Jobs is a well-known example of this – a leader who was so singularly focused on one thing that he was willing to sacrifice social acceptance (before he became a tech idol) and what people thought of him, a cost that many of us would not be willing to pay.
Ultimately, Stanford’s first essay question is highly personal, so it’s likely you’ll need to rely on friends, family, and colleagues to help you work through your ideas. As always, we’re available to provide a free consultation to help you think through your answer to Stanford’s first essay, your broader application narrative, or any other questions you might have about the MBA admissions process.