An aerial view of Stanford’s new nine-building complex for its business school.
Stanford’s Graduate School of Business’ celebrated (did I hear ‘dreaded’) What Matters Most essay(herein WMM) has both stumped and challenged applicants over the years. This question is (arguably) the furthest thing from a ‘traditional’ B-school question (though trends, including HBS’ question, are slowly following suit).
This essay requires deep levels of introspection and sincerity, often leading candidates to compare it to a psychology session. Applicants often ask: “What does the adcom want to hear?”
This unique question represents an opportunity for GSB to learn more about the values that guide a candidate’s life choices. In my experience, an effective WMM essay will reveal not only something intimate about the candidate but will also point to his/her potential as a future leader that will achieve impact.
TELL A STORY
So how do we achieve that effective WMM essay?
Let’s start from the beginning. Tell a story—and tell a story that only you can tell.
This essay should be descriptive and told in a straightforward and sincere way. This probably sounds strange, since this essay is for business school, but the adcom doesn’t expect to hear your business experience in this essay (though, of course, you are free to write about whatever you would like).
Your task in this first essay is to connect the people, situations, and events in your life with the values you adhere to and the choices you have made. This essay gives you a terrific opportunity to learn about yourself.
EXPLAIN HOW AND WHY THE WHAT HAS SHAPED YOUR LIFE
Many candidates make the mistake of not relating to both parts of this question; the ‘why’ here is instrumental. While the ‘good’ essays describe the “what,” the ‘great’ essays move to the next order and describe how and why this “what” has influenced your life.
So for your second task, be careful not to underestimate the value of describing how and why guiding forces have shaped your behavior, attitudes and objectives in your personal and professional life. Admittedly this is much harder, but it will also make for a stronger essay.
Consulting with GSB alumni, one once indicated to me that, “A great WMM essay will make me cry.” While I’ve helped candidates gain acceptance to GSB with essays that didn’t make me cry, I will agree that WMM necessitates a level of sensitivity and intimacy that is rare for most other B-schools applications.
CONSIDER THESE KEY ELEMENTS BEFORE YOU WRITE THE ESSAY
When you find yourself ready to answer this question, I have found the following approach to be very effective. First, identify a value or philosophy. Then, start with a sort of “personal story,” something from childhood, an anecdote, something that has guided you or helped sow the seed, or even solidify, WMM to you.
Next, develop two to three “stories” that serve to highlight the point you are trying to make. These “stories” should not be a grocery list of your achievements, they don’t even necessarily have to be something noted in your CV; in fact, in most cases, there will be no reference of this trait or story in your CV and this is okay.
Allow the following elements to guide your writing:
1) Sincerity – While it runs the risk of being too emotional or cliché-ridden, your essay needs to be personal, intimate, while at the same time logical. The story has to “fit” – fit your personality, fit your stories, fit your other essays. It has to “make sense” and be convincing. The flow from one “story” to another has to be smooth, with each story sliding nicely into the next. Another great way to show sincerity could be to talk about personal/private moments, or about moments of weakness.
2) Community – Stanford’s commitment to social activism and contributing to one’s community is unquestionable. If possible, try to have at least one community service story, or at least some kind of community angle.
3) People – At the end of the day, regardless of what you chose as “What Matters Most“, the most effective essays of this kind are often about people – interacting with people, caring about people, making an impact on others.
Whatever it is, your essay must have a clear “human touch” because, ultimately, achieving GSB’s motto, “Change Lives, Change Organizations, Change the World”, will depend on your ability to connect with, motivate, and empower others.
Danielle Marom of Aringo Consulting
Danielle Marom is a senior application consultant with Aringo Consulting, an MBA admissions consulting firm founded by Wharton MBA Gil Levi.
DON’T MISS: STANFORD’S FAMOUS TORTILLA ESSAY or WHY STANFORD IS BEATING HBS AMONG DUAL ADMITS
College supplemental essays are designed for applicants to demonstrate their personality and passion, but applicants are often stumped when they look the essay prompt.
Applicants tend to overthink the supplemental essay topic, often spending too much time trying to figure out what admission officers want to read. While it’s important to understand what the question is being asked, your efforts should be focused on what about personality or achievements you want to highlight.
Take one of Stanford University’s supplemental essay topic for example. Here’s the prompt:
What matters to you, and why? (250 word limit)
Instead of thinking about appealing to a university, think about this question as if your best friend just asked you at your usual hang out spot. What would you respond with? What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Don’t eliminate those ideas because you think they are too childish or not intriguing enough. These ideas and your reasoning behind is what makes you unique and different.
Here are 5 examples from students who were accepted to Stanford:
Stanford University ‘20
I have always been envious of characters in musicals: imagine jiving on the streets to Dancing Queen, or saying goodnight with So Long, Farewell! I, unfortunately, don’t quite have the skills to spontaneously set my feelings to music. I am privileged, however, to have music in my life. Keep reading.
Stanford University ‘20
Why do we humans even exist? For what purpose do we to continue to strive day after day, knowing our inevitable end? As quickly as I have come into this world, I will soon be out of it; I am but a second on an ever-ticking geological clock. Yet, I carry with me an innate longing for greatness, the wish to be immortalized for what I will achieve for mankind. Read on.
Stanford University ‘20
I am six. Pools of mudfish swim by my ankles, now slick and red with rashes, and when I scoop up the water with a hut! — The pink basket convulses with life, ready to burst. Eyes fixated on the muffled pop-pop of fish breaths, floating about like round balloons and splintering the shimmer of my reflection, I walk home with it. Continue reading.
Stanford University ‘18
I once stayed up all night with a twelve year old because no one else did.
I cried when my bunny cut her foot; but looked like stone the morning
I found that bunny stiff and cold.
I would rather lose my life than live without the chance to spend another hour in a hallway with a pair of somersaulting angels nothing like the stereotypical eighth grader.
When you ask me what matters,
when you wonder what’s wrong,
when you fail to catch my attention as I stare into space,
when the sky looks like a prayer but I act like it’s crumbling down,
pretty much every answer is true.
View full essay.
Stanford University ‘20
When my brother was diagnosed with leukemia for the first time over five years ago and when he relapsed last April, I saw firsthand how proper medical treatment, access to mental health resources, availability of marrow donors, and an insurance policy that didn’t set a lifetime cap or discriminate against preexisting conditions could help deliver my brother through a painful cancer journey. But he is only one of many, one child fortunate enough to have these resources. Continue reading.
Interested in reading these students full personal statements, and the What Matters to You, and Why supplemental essay? Unlock all of them in one go with our curated package
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About The Author
Frances was born in Hong Kong and received her bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University. She loves super sad drama television, cooking, and reading. Her favorite person on Earth isn’t actually a member of the AdmitSee team - it’s her dog Cooper.