Stanford Graduate School of Business Essay Questions and Strategic Guidance, 2023-2024

The Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) holds the title of being the world’s most discriminating MBA program. With an acceptance rate that hovers around 7%, the business school has the enviable position of curating a class of amazing stars. Yet, there is an unenviable side to this as well:  so many of the GSB’s applicants are extraordinary; how can the GSB admissions committee determine which candidates are a cut above the rest?

To help the decision-making process, the GSB relies in part on an essay question that has long stood the test of time:  “What matters most to you, and why?” Incredibly simple in structure, incredibly challenging to answer, the essay prompt encourages applicants to contemplate and reveal their inner self in a way that most of us have never had to.

Keep in mind that Stanford provides you with more than this one essay prompt. The GSB also asks why you are applying to Stanford. Lastly, the GSB gives you an opportunity to share up to three experiences when you have created a positive impact and a chance to share more about your background and life experiences.

Essay A:  What matters most to you, and why? (Recommended word count: Up to 650)

Stanford GSB’s first essay question—WMM, for short—is very straightforward yet can still be difficult to answer. We say “straightforward” because it is not a trick question and has no right answer you are supposed to guess; the school is not testing your ability to be original or clever, nor is it going to judge what values or “thing” you mention. Stanford sincerely wants to know what matters most to you and why. We say “difficult” because rarely do any of us ask ourselves this question. When we are tasked with stripping out everything else and forced to identify what truly matters most to us (the single most important thing!), the process is often very challenging. The only “right” answer is an authentic and sincere answer. And conversely, a wrong answer is an inauthentic answer. Being genuine and true to yourself is essential with this essay.

The Stanford GSB provides the following guidance: “For this essay, we would like you to reflect deeply and write from the heart. Once you’ve identified what matters most to you, help us understand why. You might consider, for example, what makes this so important to you? What people, insights, or experiences have shaped your perspectives?”

To help you get started, consider the following questions to cut through the noise and uncover “your” answer: What are you fighting for most? What inspires you above all else?  What empowers you to march toward your future? What fuels you and gives you energy? And what are you marching toward and/or chasing? As you consider potential answers, you can check each one by thinking about how it has influenced your past behavior and decisions. What matters most to you is your single most powerful motivator, so to write a strong essay about it, you will need to be able to prove that this force has guided you to where you are today.

Your essay will likely be a series of stories and examples that exemplify how your “what matters most” has manifested it in your life. Although you do not have to mention anything about your career in this essay, you do need to make sure that it is consistent with the goals you present in Essay B. Patience is important! The first several iterations of this essay might feel very challenging, but do not abandon hope. Keep working, keep exploring, and be true.

Read a successful response to “What matters most to you, and why?” along with instructive commentary.

Essay B:  Why Stanford? (Recommended word count: Up to 400)

Like Essay A, the GSB’s Essay B—WS, for short—is also both straightforward and challenging. Candidates tend to feel that they need to differentiate themselves, their goals, and/or their love for the GSB when answering it, yet the truth is that it really does require an honest and direct response. When you read the question “why Stanford?,” instead think, “Where am I headed professionally, and how will I use the Stanford GSB to ensure I can get there?” If you can answer these questions well, your essay will be differentiated.

The Stanford GSB provides the following guidance: “Describe your aspirations and how your Stanford GSB experience will help you realize them.”

As the guidance above indicated, this essay requires two main parts. One involves your goals and where you are going (and perhaps a mention of where/how these relate to where you have been), and the other concerns how and why the GSB is the right school to help you get there. We generally recommend a 40/60 breakdown between the former and the latter.

In describing your goals, include what inspires you about the space you are targeting and the legacy you want to have. We find the most effective Essay Bs for the GSB are those that allow the reader to feel the applicant’s excitement.

Moreover, responding effectively to this essay question requires researching the GSB’s courses, programs, experiences, faculty, and other key elements. Go beyond the school’s materials and website and also sign up for virtual classes and contact and speak with students and alumni. As you do your research, your goal is not to find the most unique or little-known classes or resources; instead, you want to identify several offerings that will enable you to close the gap between where you are now and where you want to go after business school. However, if your essay is exclusively about the GSB, it will fail. The admissions committee is already well aware of everything the GSB has to offer! What they do not know so well is YOU!

One trap we often see people fall into is simply waxing poetic about the GSB’s various resources and offerings. Yet, it is impossible to succeed in the GSB’s application process by love alone. (Quite frankly, the GSB knows how much everyone loves the school—it is Stanford, after all! Limiting yourself to praising the school and describing what you think is so special about the school will bore the admissions committee and do nothing to strengthen your candidacy.) Instead, share what you hope to accomplish professionally and/or how you want to make your mark in the world and show that you have thought deeply about what you need to gain from your GSB experience to maximize it.

Essay B is a goal statement essay, a common essay type that many MBA programs use in the admissions process to better understand your vision for the future. For more tips on how to craft your goal statement, please view our video workshop on the Career Statement.

Optional Short Answer Question: Think about times when 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 others?  (You can have three such examples, each no longer than 1,200 characters or approximately 200 words.)

The GSB is very specific that submitting any response to the above question is optional. Yet, we at Gatehouse view submitting three responses as critical. Doing so gives you more opportunity to show who you are as a candidate.

We encourage you to hold off on working on these until your “What matters most?” and “Why Stanford?” essays are at least 80% complete. You do not want to risk using a story for an impact story that would be a better fit in one of your core essays, nor do you want to repeat any stories in multiple essays.

When you are ready to start working on your impact stories, strive to select a range of stories that reveal multiple sides of you rather than offering multiple stories on the same topic (e.g., having each story be about a time when your mentored someone). Impact can come in all shapes and sizes and in all situations—personal and professional—so think expansively.

Also, keep in mind the GSB’s motto: “Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.” Perhaps you could discuss a time when you changed someone’s life, a time when you changed an organization, and a time when you changed something more macro.

Remember that you have only 1,200 characters (including spaces!) with which to present your chosen stories. You will paste your story into a text box that has a character counter to prevent you from going over. That space will fill up quickly, and you need to convey a full story (with a clear beginning, middle, and end), as well as results and some reflection. The STARR format can work great here: situation, task, actions, results, and reflection/growth/learning. And despite the required brevity of your answers, showing rather than telling is still critical. Including vivid, specific details is key.

The online application for the GSB also includes a prompt in the “Personal Information” section.

Additional Context: We know that each person is more than a list of facts or pre-defined categories. With this question, we provide you with an optional opportunity to elaborate on how your background or life experiences have helped shape your recent actions or choices. (Limit:  1,200 characters)

This question provides an opportunity for you to tell the admissions committee something new or different about you.

Really think about your upbringing/formative years—the environmental and situational factors that have made you “you.” Here are two strategies for coming up with potential stories for this topic: one, select a key influence or characteristic from your early life and see if you can trace it to relevant choices or actions you made recently. Two, think about different times recently when you chose a certain path or took a certain action, and then identify what motivated your behavior.

Ideally, you want to demonstrate a somewhat causal relationship between the actions/choices and your personal past (e.g., “I grew up with my mom as the breadwinner, so I was surprised that our organization had so few women leaders and was inspired to found a women’s group”). The example you offer does not have to be momentous, but it does need to have meaning for you (e.g., “My dad ran a laundromat when I was growing up, so when my PE firm was looking at a laundromat business, I raised my hand to join it”).

We generally suggest that you allocate one-third to one-half of the word count to the “background or life experiences” and the remaining one-half to two-thirds to your “recent actions or choices.” Aim to present the actions/choices part as a complete story, though it does not need to showcase any impact.

Similar to the impact mini essays, you have only 1,200 characters (including spaces!) with which to present your chosen stories.

For additional support on writing these short essays, view our video workshop on crafting business school essays. In it, you will learn several strategies for effective writing.