MBA Essay Writing Blog

MBA Prompts and Instructions: Stanford

When applying for your MBA, you may find that the prompts come with instructions. If this is the case, don’t let the instructions that accompany your MBA prompt get you into trouble. By taking the instructions too much to heart, you may find yourself writing an MBA personal statement that tries to be everything at once, and misses the mark.

Sometimes, it’s best to just answer the question.

Stanford MBA Prompts and Instructions

Stanford asks you to complete two essays for your MBA application, and both come with instructions that can be quite confusing. You seem to have all the leeway in the world, but the instructions can derail you.

What matters most to you, and why?

This is what Stanford says about its prompt:

For this essay, we would like you to:

  • Do some deep self-examination, so you can genuinely illustrate who you are and how you came to be the person you are.
  • Share the insights, experiences, and lessons that shaped your perspectives, rather than focusing merely on what you’ve done or accomplished.
  • Write from the heart, and illustrate how a person, situation, or event has influenced you.
  • Focus on the “why” rather than the “what.”

These four bits of advice represent a mine field. The fact is that the first, second, and fourth bullet points will have you writing in circles and in clichés as well (by focusing on the “why” rather than the “what”). It’s an invitation to purple prose. That’s why the safest approach with this prompt is to use the third suggestion as a way to express “what matters most to you.”

The problem is with the word “why” in the prompt. It is true that your reader at Stanford wants to know how you have arrived at your values, but what your reader needs even more than this is evidence of your assertions (evidence that what you are saying is true in your case). And the only way to provide evidence is to talk about facts, not to talk about “why.” That’s why the additional guidance that Stanford has provided can be so confusing; as they say, they do not want you to be “focusing merely on what you’ve done or accomplished”; but this does not mean that you should not refer to what you have done or accomplished!

This is the problem with this prompt. It can mislead you into omitting some of your best assets. But you can sidestep the problem by focusing on that third bit of direction from Stanford.  After identifying what is really important to you, you can show how this quality has influenced a person, situation, or event (or business). This takes “you” out of the essay (for this portion of the essay) but it leaves your voice free to be clear about your values. It also can keep you from having up to 1200 words that are all about “you” – which can be very wearing on your reader (and on you as well). The portion of the essay that is talking about your values (“what matters to me and why”) can be even more effective when it is technically about something or someone else.

Why Stanford?

This is the second Stanford prompt, and this is their advice:

Enlighten us on how earning your MBA at Stanford will enable you to realize your ambitions.

  • Explain your decision to pursue graduate education in management.
  • Explain the distinctive opportunities you will pursue at Stanford.
  • If you are applying to both the MBA and MSx programs, use Essay B to address your interest in both programs.

A straightforward, three paragraph essay that responds to each of these three bullet points would be one of the best approaches. This is a much more direct and straightforward prompt. What are the skills that you most hope to acquire in the program? You could identify those skills and then say that these skills will be critical as you advance professionally, and the more specific you can be about your projected professional career path, the better.

This is also a chance to show your familiarity with the Stanford program and culture, and referring to specific opportunities at Stanford is the best way to approach this section of the prompt. Keep in mind also that this portion of the essay can address extracurricular activities and community service projects as well as academic endeavors.

Keep it simple! Sometimes, focusing in on the MBA prompt itself (and disregarding the school’s advice about it) can be the best approach. After all, there’s nothing like just answering the question when it comes to winning over your reader.

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