An open letter to the new director of admissions at Stanford GSB

Whoever you are, you’ve got a great legacy to live up to.

When I started coaching MBA applicants over 15 years ago, the great Derrick Bolton was a paragon of the industry. His straight-shooting and transparent approach to the admissions process and quirky take on candidate assessment inspired others worldwide. Then came the great Kirsten Moss, who added some depth and dimension to the application via supplemental questions while keeping the awesome core essays intact (minus 100 words or so over the years).

The Stanford MBA application has remained stable for all my days as an admissions coach. As they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But since you’re coming in fresh and following well over a decade of no-change, I think if I were you, I’d have the urge to rebel a bit, try something new, take a risk. Fortune favors the bold, they also say. And I, for one, would LOVE to see some upending of the status quo from a school who claims to so value change. Heck, if anyone has a license to innovate, it’s ya’ll.

So I offer my humble advice as someone who has helped hundreds of applicants apply to Stanford GSB and tell their stories in revealing and inspiring ways (including this Military Veteran at Stanford Business School right now and this wonderful GSB alum who is now a Career Protocol coach). Here are some approaches you COULD take to the new Stanford MBA application that would help reveal the deepest and most interesting aspects of your applicants’ characters.

But first…

What you shouldn’t change in the Stanford MBA application

I can imagine the conversation that went on within the committee when the optional short answer essays were added.

“How can we make these folks stop using the What Matters Most essay to brag about their achievements and really tell us something meaningful about who they are?” This had to be the line of reasoning that led to the impact essays.

In the years prior to the introduction of…

Think about times you’ve created a positive impact, whether in professional, extracurricular, academic, or other settings. What was your impact? What made it significant to you or to others? (up to 3 examples, 1200 characters each)

… it was always a fight to disabuse my clients of the firm belief that they had to use the space of Essay A to delineate their awesomeness. The only other essay being Why Stanford?, it seemed that all the self-adulation had to go in what matters most. The truth is, the resume should ultimately do all the work of conveying one’s caliber and qualifications as a professional. No essay is required if you write the resume right.

But most people get the resume horribly wrong. And so, with the introduction of the 3 impact essays, Stanford eased the pressure on the What Matters Most essay to show accomplishment and indeed signaled that the adcom didn’t want to hear about achievements or impact in that essay. That’s what the short answers are for.

So, the first thing that I wouldn’t change are these short impact essays. Please keep them. It frees the candidate up to go wild in the main essay.

The second thing you should probably keep is Why Stanford? The best-worded, and most interesting and direct framing of all MBA personal statements, in my experience, this question leads to the richest answers. A client’s answer to Why Stanford is always much more interesting and revealing than the same candidate’s answer to, for example, Wharton’s “How do you plan to use the Wharton MBA program to help you achieve your future professional goals?”

The latter inevitably leads to a transactional analysis of the school’s offerings. That’s what the question is asking for, signaling that Wharton expects you to approach the experience more like a customer than a community member.

Whereas the forthright “Why Stanford?” opens the door to a genuine relationship between school and student, one in which each party is allowed to be insecure and vulnerable. The applicant reveals their motivations, desires, and rationale more than just listing out useful resources. It’s a valuable question, and I have no doubt that it gives you very meaningful data on applicants.

So, I would say keep that question too.

Why you might want to ditch the question: What matters most to you and why?

In the early days of my career, “What matters most and why?” was my favorite MBA essay question. But after over a decade of helping hundreds of Stanford MBA applicants probe the depth of their experiences to unearth the answer, I’ve come to realize that there is really only one truly authentic answer to that question.

And that answer is feeling good.

At bottom, all human beings, myself included, are motivated by only two things: avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. These two, in effect, reduce to one thing: feeling good. If you ask yourself why you do anything, the answer reduces to this.

This inherently means that whatever we tell ourselves, what ACTUALLY matters most to us is feeling good. This is tautology; it is part of what it means to be human in the first place. Whatever you put in the “what” spot, the more you drill down on the why, the clearer it is that the bedrock of human motivation and inspiration is just feeling good. A personal example:

  1. What matters to you? Having a positive impact.
  2. Why? Because it allows me to be useful to my fellow man.
  3. And why does that matter? Because then I know that my life matters.
  4. And why does that matter? Because if I don’t feel like my life matters, I get lonely and depressed.
  5. And why does that matter? Because I hate feeling lonely and depressed.
  6. And why does that matter? Because I want to feel good.
  7. And why does that matter? (No answer follows that doesn’t beg the question or create circular logic (e.g. “Because it’s better than feeling bad.” Or “Because that’s how I want to feel”. We’ve reached the bottom.)

This is just one hypothetical example. But try it on yourself, and you’ll see: all roads lead to feeling good. We’re just little iron filings, moving back and forth between the magnetic poles of pleasure and pain.

So at the level of what (feeling good) and why (because we’re wired to want to feel good), we’re really all the same. Where we start to diverge is on the how.

How do you go about finding and creating pleasure? (You can substitute whatever good-feeling words you prefer here: happiness, joy, fulfillment, satisfaction. They’re all the same.) How do you avoid pain? How do you make inevitably necessary trade-offs between the two? How do you go about building a meaningful (good-feeling) life? No two people will have the same answer to these questions. It’s the how not the what or why that reveals our rich differentiation.

I guess if you look through the essays that have really impressed you over the years, you will find that the author was really giving you a glimpse into the “how” of their lives. They revealed how they make tough choices, how they prioritize, how they treat others, how they define a meaningful life, and how they view the world they are navigating. That is what brought them to life and made you fall in love with them.

I also bet that you got a ton of very crappy essays written by valuable candidates who took the what and the why too literally, failing to reveal the information you needed to evaluate them fairly.

The new possible questions I suggest below are shaped with the intent of helping the admissions committee get maximum insight into each applicant so that you can give everyone a fair chance to show you who they truly are, which I know is the basis of your decision.

Potential New Stanford MBA Essay Questions

The ideas below are built off of Stanford GSB’s stated evaluation criteria, which in sum is…

“The mission of the GSB is to develop principled, insightful, and innovative leaders. As we build each class, we seek students who will be engaged in our classrooms and create positive impacts on campus and beyond. In our application, we seek to learn about how you think, how you lead, and how you see the world.” (Italics on the three how sentences are Stanford’s not mine.)

Possible Question 1: How do you measure your success as a person?  (650 words)

Additional context: Reflect on the values you live by and the goals you aim for in and outside of work. Think beyond your career to the aspects of your life that bring you joy and fulfillment and show us what drives you. Help us understand what living right looks like to you and how you know when you’ve succeeded.

Possible Question 2: Name one value you strive to uphold in your daily life. Provide examples of when you have lived up to your principles and at least one time when you didn’t. (750 words)

Possible Question 3: Who is the person you want to be? Illustrate your best self with three anecdotes from your past. (700 words)

Possible Question 4: Share your most defining life experience. (600 words)

Additional context: Imagine we are going to evaluate you on one single life experience. You can choose anything from your professional, academic, or personal life, recent or distant past. What experience would you choose and why? Tell us the story of that experience and why it defines you, why it shows you as the person you want to be.

Possible Question 5: How do you overcome challenges? (650 words)

Additional context: Think about the times in life that were difficult. Reflect on your strategy and approach to challenges, the actions that drove positive outcomes, and how you grew from those experiences. Share one or more stories of success earned through great difficulty.

Possible Question 6: Share one choice you’re proud of and one you regret. (650 words)

Additional context: Reflect on the most important and defining choices you have made in your life, big and small, recent and past. Provide insight into how you make decisions and how you evaluate the correctness of your choices against your own values by sharing two vivid illustrations of your decision-making to date.

Possible Question 7: How will you gauge your success in your post-MBA career? (700 words)

Additional context: Reflect on the mark you hope to leave in your career. Think beyond titles and awards to impact and influence. What bar will you aspire to and how you will ascertain if you are aligning with your own goals and values? Share one or more examples from your past that illustrate how you have held yourself to this success standard so far.

Possible Question 8: What do you like most about yourself and why? (600 words)

Additional context: Reflect on your intrinsic values, the qualities that make you you. Choose one quality that you appreciate the most about yourself, one quality, without which you would no longer be recognizable as yourself. Share the quality, how it defines you, and provide one or more vivid examples of that quality in action in your life to date.

Possible question 9: What are you most curious about? (500 words)

Additional context: We’d like to understand the questions that keep you up at night and the ones that get you out of bed in the morning. Provide insight into your leadership potential by showing us what makes you curious, what topics, ideas, principles, or concepts preoccupy your thoughts and shape your approach to your own growth and development. Illustrate your curiosity with at least one vivid anecdote from your life to date.

Possible question 10: What three words define you and how? (600 words)

Additional context: Reflect on who you are and how you believe people see you. Provide insight into your character by sharing three defining words and illustrating how these words are represented through your choices, actions, and experiences.

Final words to the new queen or king of admissions

We at Career Protocol love you. You’ve got a sacred and important job and we love how seriously you all take it at Stanford. Your candidates are so much fun to work with because your application forces them to bring out their best selves and really dig deep to discover who they are.

Keep up the good work!!!

Picture of Angela Guido

Angela Guido

Student of Human Nature| Founder and
Chief Education Officer of Career Protocol

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