Stanford Graduate School of Business Application Essay Example

How many times have you thought about what truly matters most to you? Or what fuels your drive, or what guides your decisions above all else? There is a good chance that you have never thought deeply about your response to any of these questions. That makes the Stanford GSB’s main essay prompt—What matters most to you, and why?—surprisingly vexing. Answering it well requires a considerable amount of introspection and honesty, something we do not always give ourselves the time to do.

The following essay response to “What matters most to you, and why?”, along with its associated commentary, is one of fifty essays featured in “What Matters?” and “What More?”: 50 Successful Essays for the Stanford GSB and HBS (and Why They Worked)a book co-authored by our firm’s founder, Liza Weale.

We have selected Jules’ essay to share here because it captures the reflection and authenticity that can make for a successful GSB essay, at least according to the Stanford GSB admissions committee! We also like the essay because of the absence of any single incredible story. Too often, people assume that the only people accepted by into GSB’s MBA program are those who are running a unicorn start-up or are, as the saying goes, “saving the world.” Yet, even more relatable stories can reveal a tremendously inspiring person worthy of attending the GSB!

Stand by Me, Stand by You – Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) Application Essay Written by Jules, GSB MBA

Pre-Reading Commentary from Liza Weale, Founder of Gatehouse Admissions:

Jules is a reapplicant to the Stanford GSB. Reapplicants have different strategies they can choose from for their new essay submission, and we reached out to Jules to learn how similar this essay was to the first one she submitted. She shared that in her first GSB application, she had focused on relaying what she wanted the GSB to know about her. Afterward, she realized that she had never actually answered the school’s question (for herself or for the admissions committee), and although she had presented a robust, multidimensional picture of who she was, her essay lacked the singular thrust the prompt demands. This time, rather than trying to control how the school might perceive her, she simply answered the question truthfully and sincerely. Kudos to Jules for recognizing the importance of being authentic in her essay!

In the essay, Jules makes no mention of her earlier application. Instead, she discusses three disparate situations—a classmate’s suicide, a difficult sibling relationship, and a company reorganization—and links them via what matters most to her: relationships. Her essay also conveys a strong sense of discovery and reflection, and each challenge better equips her for the next. Another thing Jules does well is openly admit her shortcomings (notably, her impatience with her brother). As we have said before and will undoubtedly say again, business schools are not expecting, or even seeking, perfection. Jules references her impatience matter-of-factly, with no sense of defensiveness or dramatization, thereby earning the reader’s compassion.

Some applicants might think Jules had the “good fortune” of finding herself in what was surely a very difficult work situation, rife with opportunities to demonstrate commitment, integrity, and empathy. Yet BigBoxCo would not likely have put Jules in the middle of this reorganization had she not already displayed these traits. Throughout her essay, Jules’s actions clearly underscore who she is, ultimately giving the GSB admissions committee compelling and sufficient evidence of its desired Demonstrated Leadership Potential.

What matters most to you, and why?

Stand by Me, Stand by You (written by Jules, GSB MBA)

My cell rings. Victoria. One of my co-mentors to a group of high school underclassmen. “Hi… I think you should sit down for this.” Victoria pauses, “Amit killed himself tonight.” [1]

Amit was one of our 40 freshmen mentees. A few times a week, we’d bring the mentees together, as one or in smaller groups, to provide a “safe space” in the school’s high-pressure environment. I’d only been involved in the program 9 months, but it had become integral to my high school experience.

The news of Amit’s suicide rocked me, and my grieving was intense. The school’s guidance counselors reached out, as did friends and family, but I didn’t know how to accept their help. The only people who I felt understood were other members of our group. With them, I could share my feelings of disbelief and guilt and listen to theirs. We used each other to figure out how to grieve and accept what happened. But we also channeled our pain towards action, organizing a Suicide Prevention gathering, visiting Amit’s family, and creating a field day to inspire some happiness.

These relationships saved me, and saved us, and while it took time, I ultimately got through the worst of this period. I was left with a profound appreciation for the power of relationships. I also gained resolve to fix an important one that I’d let languish.

My twin brother Johnny struggled with depression for much of my childhood. Anything set him off, resulting in hours of hysteria and cries for attention. I tried not to upset him, which essentially meant not interacting at all. In fact, Johnny was why I’d begun mentoring: I felt disconnected from him and ill-equipped to help, so I latched onto mentoring in school to build relationships and have an impact.

But after I’d processed much of my grieving for Amit, I started reevaluating my approach with Johnny. I realized I was angry at Johnny for the state of our relationship without taking any responsibility myself. I’d never tried to understand the reasons behind his outbursts and instead assumed ill-intent. I also realized I had never been upfront with him about how his actions impacted me.

Slowly, I got more comfortable dealing with Johnny when I felt he was irrational. I also tried harder to understand his feelings, and I asked him to be honest right back. This hasn’t been easy, and even now that Johnny is in a good place, we still have to intentionally work on our interactions. [2] But it has gotten us to what I gratefully have today—a relationship that is truly one of the most meaningful in my life.

More recently, the importance of relationships again showed itself. I joined BigBoxCo shortly before the company decided to dismantle a 30-person Product Development team. The tasks would be absorbed by folks in other groups, while the 30 people would be reallocated to different areas across BigBoxCo.

Over the next 18 months, I had to maintain absolute secrecy as I documented everything I could about the processes. Without letting on the reason behind my attendance at meetings or my line of questioning, I spent significant time with people who would be impacted by the reorg. I struggled internally, wondering if I could do my job with integrity, without feeling like I was betraying these people, many of whom I called “friend.” [3] I focused on my belief that the reorg was better for the company and those affected, and I hoped my involvement in the project would help me support them once they began their new roles.

After the changes were announced and we moved into implementation, I prioritized connecting with colleagues whom I couldn’t tell about the reorg. I reached out initially to clear the air about my involvement in the project but continued reaching out when I picked up on their eagerness to ask me for advice on navigating the new structure. Throughout this period, I’ve found no one holds anything against me. Instead, many of my relationships have actually gotten stronger—my colleagues seem to trust me and appreciate how committed I am to their success.

To this day I grieve for Amit and mourn the fact that I couldn’t help him more. But, I take solace in the fact that, since his death, I have realized what matters most to me: that I have and form strong relationships. They fulfill me and give meaning to my actions, and in turn, my actions give meaning back to them. [4]

Additional Commentary from Liza:

[1] Dealing with heavy topics such as suicide in a business school essay can be challenging. Stating the situation clearly and simply, with one or two salient details, will provide enough context for the admissions reader to be able to empathize without thinking you are “playing the sympathy card” (to quote candidates who worry the admissions committee might perceive such topics negatively).

[2] Sometimes, candidates are tempted to shout from the hilltops, “Look! I fixed the issue! Just like that!” The truth, of course, is that change takes time, and because Jules admits that the relationship can sometimes still be challenging, the reader is more likely to appreciate her efforts to improve it.

[3] Jules again reveals her struggles, reassuring the reader that she is like the rest of us—human!

[4] Jules chooses to clearly state what matters most to her at the very end of her essay, but by this point, her answer is a foregone conclusion. By laying out the evidence from the start, she has more than convinced us that relationships matter most to her, and as result, she needs very few words for her conclusion.

If you would like to see more examples of successful HBS and GSB essays, you can purchase the entire guide here.

For strategies on crafting your response to “What matters most to you, and why?”, read our Essay Analysis for the Stanford GSB.