3 Things Stanford GSB looks for in the essay “What Matters To You And Why?”
On getting into Stanford Business School
“You should go to business school,” my teammate says on the phone. Let’s call him “Allen.” Allen was an alum of Stanford Business School.
“Why? I am not sure if I need to,” I reply.
“Business school will put you on a different trajectory,” Allen goes, “you’re operating on one plane right now. Business school will elevate you to a different plane.”
“Huh” I go. I only half-understood what Allen meant.
“Elsa would tell you the same thing.” Elsa, our other teammate, is an alum of Harvard Business School.
“Huh,” I say.
“Business school is like taking two years to go to the moon.” Allen continues enthusiastically. “It’s an opportunity to go to the moon. It’ll take two years, and when you get back, life on earth will be exactly the same as it was before. But you get to spend two years in an incredible rocket-ship ride around the moon. Afterwards, all you’ll have is your memories of your trip and the friends you made on the rocket.”
Now Allen has completely lost me. “Well, I like the idea of a two year journey to the moon…” I say, trying to sound like I understood what he was talking about.
I was sitting in my car at the parking lot of Life Time Fitness. Allen had called me to discuss our game plan, as our startup will run out of money soon. Allen wanted to work on a new startup. I, craving more stability, had applied for a job at Google Health. But I didn’t get the job. I did, however, have an offer to work at Microsoft Health. But I didn’t want to work at Microsoft again because I’d worked there in the past.
“Going back to Microsoft feels like going backwards,” I say to Allen.
“Then go to business school.” Allen pushes.
And so, I applied to business school. I applied to only Stanford, because it was the only school that didn’t require a GMAT. I didn’t want to sit through three hours of taking the GMAT. I avoid standardized tests like the plague, especially ones with Reading Comprehension.
There is a famous essay question that appears every year in Stanford’s Business School’s application:
What matters to you, and why?
For those of you who’re interested in applying to Stanford, here’s what the essay is looking for:
1. Your Soul
That’s the most important one. This question wants to know what matters to you? What makes a difference to you? If you were to fulfill this one thing in life, what would it be? If you were to loose this one thing, why is that so bad? This question reveals your inner-core. While MBA essays at most schools ask about this in some way (usually indirectly), Stanford asks you, straight up.
2. Your Intellect
You’ll need to wax-philosophy. The question wants to see what matters to you, but also how you think about it. You can write your essay on how what matters most is that people pick up after themselves, period. Pretty uncompelling on its own, right? But, if the way your mind goes from A to B is interesting, then it becomes clear that your reasons are genuine, and it could be a homerun. Anything can be a homerun. It’s the deep rumination — the intellectual rigor — that is KEY to unearth. You’ll probably need to spend more time thinking about this one than any other question.
3. Your Dimensions Beyond Business
The temptation is to rope it all into how the thing that matters most to you will make for a more efficient operation. Or grow profits. Or save humanity, etc. This is an opportunity to not allude to those things. Sure, what matters to you can affect all that, but it should, at most, be implied. Stanford’s question is far more philosophical in nature than that of other schools. Imagine yourself up on Mount Kilimanjaro, breathing through your little oxygen tank, you’ve stripped off all the unessential things. You think about the important stuff that you simply won’t live without…what’ll you think of then? Why? Avoid roping business into this, unless it’s core to your theme.
The Stanford Graduate School of Business wants to know “What matters most to you and why?”
If you are starting work on Stanford’s “What matters most” essay, chances are you are struggling. One thing you need to know right from the start is that struggling is essential to succeeding in this assignment.
In this article, I will offer some advice on how to approach the first part of the “what matters” question. I’ll address the “why” question in a later post.
Answering Stanford’s “What matters most” essay question requires self-reflection and self-discovery. You are expected to examine the life you’ve lived and the choices you’ve made. Which is to say that what matters most to you may be revealed by your past actions and decisions.
Your answer could take the form of a statement of philosophy, sense of purpose, ideal, belief, value, mantra, passion, or love. It could be a person, a place, or a thing. There is no “right” answer nor is one form of expression better than another. In your essay response, you will be expected to show the admissions committee how this “whatever it is” has manifested itself in your life. Therefore, you should begin this writing assignment by looking back at your life and performing some advanced “accounting.” Although looking backward is an important part of discovering your answer, what matters most to you might not be the same at every point of your life. Be aware that Stanford’s question is asking what matters to you most now — today.
The Right Approach
The wrong approach to tackling this essay question is to start with an answer you think will appeal to the Stanford GSB admissions committee and then to attempt to find evidence from your life to support it.
The right approach is to look back at your life and to try to express most clearly who you are and what you value. This is not going to be easy; it isn’t meant to be. Applicants who try to engineer an answer are never as successful as the ones who are willing to dive into the murky world of their memories and to do the hard work of finding an answer.
Just as there is no ideal form for your response, there isn’t any one path to follow to find your answer. If you are embarking on this journey, I have marked the trailheads of a few paths to explore. You don’t have to complete every single exercise in the list below. Rather, you should start down the path that looks most appealing and see where it takes you. If you’re not completely satisfied with where you end up, don’t give up; simply try another path.
Follow Your Struggles
In his book The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lagos Egri wrote, “a character stands revealed in conflict.” What does a playwright, writing about a character in a drama, have to teach us about answering Stanford’s “What matters most” essay? A great deal as it turns out.
What is true for a character in a play is also true for you as a human being. To discover what matters to you, examine the times you’ve been under strain, stress, and pressure. In times of tremendous conflict, your character is revealed and your values are tested. A value becomes your value when it has actually cost you something. You may think that “protecting the environment” matters most to you, but have you made any sacrifices for this value? This is part of the “accounting” exercise I alluded to in the introduction. The “value of a value” can be measured in terms of sacrifice – of time, money, comfort, etc. You may think something matters to you, but has it ever cost you anything of value?
Follow Your Decisions
The things that truly matter most to you have guided you consciously or unconsciously at the times of your life that you were faced with important decisions. For this exercise, begin by identifying the big decision points in your life—the major forks in the road. Don’t analyze them right away; just write down some brief reminder phrases (e.g., “choosing between colleges”). When you have a good list, go back and write a short story about making the decision. What were the options you were presented with, what did you think about each one, how did you “feel” about each one, and what choice did you eventually make and why? Finally, read all of your decisions stories together and see if you can discover a common thread or theme – a value that guided you or a belief or philosophy that you followed to make your decisions. This exercise may help you to see what matters most to you more clearly.
Follow Your Motivations
“What makes you tick?” From one perspective, Stanford’s essay question asks you to think about what motivates you. Think about the times in your life when you were truly motivated and energized. Food and sleep certainly matter a great deal, so consider the times that you worked through meals and sacrificed sleep for something that mattered more. At that time, what were you working on or what goal were you working towards? This exercise could reveal your deepest sources of motivation.
Follow Your Bliss
This advice is courtesy of the philosopher Joseph Campbell. Campbell believed that we should “follow our bliss” to discover our purpose in life. For this exercise, write down short narratives about the moments in your life when you were enjoying yourself so much that you lost track of time – i.e., the moments when you experienced bliss. Write down where you were and what you were doing at the time. It’s very likely that you were engaged in a pursuit that truly mattered to you.
Follow Your Sorrow
If your bliss isn’t the royal road to the answer of what matters most to you, then consider looking in the opposite direction: remember the times that you were truly unhappy—your darker days. This exercise is certainly not as fun as reminiscing about your joys and triumphs, but it can be revealing because depression, anxiety, and dissatisfaction are often signals that we are not living according to our values or fulfilling a deeper sense of purpose. Think back to those painful moments, and ask yourself what was missing from your life? You may have been living in a way that was contrary to your deeper values. Perhaps what matters to you will be revealed by its absence.
You may discover your answer to Stanford’s “what matters most” essay question by following one of the paths above, or perhaps your answer will only become clear after you’ve traversed them all. So how do you know when you have arrived at your destination? Only you can say for sure. It is the point that you decide that you no longer care what a Stanford admission committee thinks about your answer – this is what really matters to you and if it’s not what matters to them, then so be it!