Evan Forster on how NOT to answer Stanford GSB'sn notorious What Matters Most essay question.

In just seven words—“What matters most to you, and why?”—Stanford GSB strikes fear into the heart of even the most accomplished candidate. With good reason: This is perhaps the most difficult essay question of all. Answering it requires a level of digging down deep that doesn’t come easy for most. It separates the men from the boys—those of you who understand inspiration and transformation as opposed to those of you who are trying to game the system through “branding techniques.” Save the latter for your company, not your candidacy.

Here's how NOT to answer this essay.

Pitfall 1: Over-connecting your long-term professional goal to what matters most to you.

One common version of this is that you’re committed to a long-term goal wherein you want to go into private equity so that you can grow Goldman Sachs’s new media group. Because you are passionate about this goal, it’s obvious that it matters a lot to you. Duh! On the surface, it probably even matters more to you than anything else at this particular moment, especially if you’ve only recently realized how passionate you are about transforming Goldman. The key word here is “surface.” Derrick Bolton, director of admissions at Stanford GSB, wants you to dig a lot deeper than that; he has even suggested that candidates use the essay as an opportunity to learn about themselves, and invited you to be transparent about that in the actual writing of the essay.

Pitfall 2: When “what matters most” makes your goal look like a strategy or gimmick as opposed to a value you deeply care about.

Those of you who have found a long-term goal that is about transforming the planet in that Free Willy way—you know, ending world hunger, irrigating the Irrawaddy River through venture capital—are particularly susceptible to such overkill. In these cases, the mistake is also particularly tragic: Having a persuasive, convincing Free Willy goal is a powerful thing, but it can easily be dismissed as an eye-roll-inducing gimmick when beaten into the ground in a what matters most essay.

Linking this essay with your long-term goal essay does seem like a nifty idea, but don’t think you are the first person to come up with it. It’s been done thousands of times, but in perhaps only ten of those times was it done well. As someone who probably has strong quantitative skills, what do you think the odds are that you’ll be one of those ten?

--Auntie Evan