Forster-Thomas essay coach Kirsten Guenther shares her tips on how to answer the Stanford GSB essay questions for the class of 2016.

Last year, Stanford tweaked their essay questions a bit, reducing the number of essays from four to three and increasing the word count of the choose-one-of-three essay. In this year's May 24th newsletter, they wrote, "This worked really well, so essay questions are remaining the same as last year." In other words, this year's Stanford essays are identical to last year's. But you still need to make sure you answer them the right way, so here we go:

Essay 1: What matters most to you, and why?

Save the best for last. Hold off on this essay until you’ve completed the essays for every other school you’re applying to. Trust me, “WMM” will be strengthened by the introspection you have gained from delving into the other essays.

Important: This is not a goals essay (as Auntie Evan points out in Chapter 16 of The MBA Reality Check). This is not “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Think of WMM this way: The airplane is going down…you have one minute to live—think fast—what’s the most important thing in the world to you?

BE HONEST. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Stanford wants to know who you are at this juncture in your life, how you came to be that person and what it taught you, and how you have applied that lesson—or how a realization has shaped who you are today.

I recently read a book called, What I Saw and How I Lied. For the protagonist, the most important thing in the world was to live a life that is truthful. So true that she refused to even laugh at a joke that she didn’t think was funny just to fit in. HOW did she come to be this person? HOW did this become the thing that mattered MOST to her? When she was a teenager her mother committed a crime and asked her daughter, the protagonist, to be her alibi—this ended up causing a ripple effect of even more serious issues. The protagonist saw that no one was helped by the lie; in fact, their lives were made much worse because of it and they were unhappy. It was then that she vowed never again to tell even the whitest lie.

If she were applying to Stanford, I would urge her to write about the moment she made the decision to lie for her mother—the fallout from NOT being true to herself—and then what led her to make the commitment to live a truthful life in the future. She could then write about how this has affected her relationships with friends and colleagues and how she has had to adapt her communication skills in life from that day forward. No longer could she say she liked a Christmas sweater she didn’t, or could she agree with a co-worker just to placate someone. She would have had to adapt her communication skills so that she could be honest but not off-putting or awkward—not just in business but in her personal life as well. Who she is as a person was largely shaped by the decision she made to live a completely truthful life.

Last, drill down deep—you’re not revealing anything about yourself to stick to broad, common themes (no matter how truthful) such as “family” or “honor,” and you sound like you’re just saying what you think they want by writing about “access to opportunity” and “making the world a better place.” This isn’t the Miss Universe pageant. These things matter to everybody. Teach us something that makes you you.


Essay 2: What do you want to do—REALLY—and why Stanford?

What do you REALLY want to do? Okay—in the spirit of Forster-Thomas’s own Project Ridiculous—Go! Want to create an Indian dance troop to tour the globe, bringing awareness to the Indian tradition and culture? Great. Write about that…if that’s what you REALLY want to do. But if you think that’s just going to win you points by sounding meaningful? The adcom will see right through it (because nothing else in your candidacy will back that up).

State your aspiration—but don’t forget to include why YOU…why this is your calling. Why will YOU (specifically) succeed in this? Talk about the skills you’ve built thus far, but ALSO talk about your personal background or relationships you can draw from in terms of pursuing your goal. Maybe your cousin in India is a theatrical producer and the two of you can join forces?

DISCLAIMER: While your goal should be something you are passionate about, if you know nothing about Indian dance and have never been to India but you saw Slumdog Millionaire and thought it looked cool, that does not mean you should write about it in your business school application. You’re not playing pin the tail on the donkey with your aspirations here. Your goal needs to be something that you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and educating yourself about—it is something for which you have developed a PLAN to accomplish. This plan includes business school.

Next, talk about what skills you want to gain or improve—and why these skills are essential and how you will build these not at any business school but at Stanford. VISIT the school. Talk to alumni—go through the class schedule and figure out what curriculum and classes will support your aspirations. Don’t just talk about why these classes will help you achieve your goal, but also what you will offer your classmates and what you will contribute to the Stanford COMMUNITY.


Essay 3: Answer one of the three questions below. Tell us not only what you did but also how you did it. What was the outcome? How did people respond? Only describe experiences that have occurred during the last three years.

  • Option A: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.

Leadership. Leadership. Leadership. They want to know that you can motivate a group to work toward a common goal. More so, they want to know that you can bring together the right group to accomplish that goal. “When you built or developed a team…” For example, the time the afterschool program at the high school in your hometown was losing funding for the arts and you cast a team from your friends and colleagues to raise the funds to save the program. Maybe you called your college roommate who was a theater major, and your brother’s girlfriend who is a public school teacher, and your buddy on your intramural basketball team who’s a marketing guru. Talk about a time when you not only coached the team but you drafted the players as well.

  • Option B: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you identified and pursued an opportunity to improve an organization.

This is about creating positive change—leaving something better than when you found it. It’s not that guy you’re dating who you got to stop wearing two-toned shirts (though that would be an improvement). In this question, they want to know that you seek opportunities to create positive change. This doesn’t just have to be raising enough money to expand the work of a charity you believe in—get creative—and remember, leadership. Talk about the time you designed an innovative marketing strategy for your favorite charity and how that plan is reaching more donors. That is something that will CONTINUE to improve the cause, as opposed to a one-time fundraiser (we call this “legacy”—see Chapter 5 of The MBA Reality Check).

  • Option C: Tell us about a time in the last three years when you went beyond what was defined or established.

Talk about a time you didn’t just do the research your manager asked you to do and organize it into a spreadsheet—talk about the time you did that AND then created a method to make sharing this research with your whole department more effective. A time you didn’t just adopt a homeless dog—you built an animal shelter.

For all of the choose-one-of-three questions, remember to talk about HOW you were able to accomplish these things: what your methods were for problem solving and how you lead your team. What skill set and resources did you draw from?

For more information on the Stanford 2012-2013 essays, see our Stanford Essay Guide.

Need help digging down deep to write amazing essays? Call Forster-Thomas at 212-741-9090 or set up a free candidacy assessment.