Evan Forster on how to take on the Stanford GSB "What Matters Most" essay

While a great goals essay should encompass what matters most to you professionally, what Stanford GSB is looking for in this essay is what matters most to you as a whole person—not just as a professional. As Derrick Bolton, Stanford’s director of admissions, wrote in one of his online letters from the director, “This probably sounds strange, since these are essays for business school, but we don’t expect to hear about your business experience in this essay... Tell a story that only you can tell. If you concentrate your efforts on telling us who you are, differentiation will occur naturally; if your goal is to appear unique, you actually may achieve the opposite effect.”

Often, this essay goes hand-in-hand with open-ended questions such as Columbia’s “Please tell us about yourself and your personal interests.” As Columbia B-school says in its application, “The goal of this essay is to get a sense of who you are, rather than what you have achieved professionally.”

Similar soul-searching applies to questions asked by schools like Kellogg, Fuqua, and Anderson to name a few, not to mention HBS’s “How will you introduce yourself to your classmates” question. (All ask these types of background/what-makes-you-unique questions.)

How do you get to the answer? For Sabrina, a candidate I worked with a few years ago, a lifetime of experiences led her to understand that what mattered most was “being true to myself.” Any corniness this theme may have dissolves instantly when you hear the backstory. Sabrina spent her childhood training to be a world-class athlete—and succeeded—yet, on the eve of an Olympic-level event, she was forced to choose between attending college or pursuing a medal. That’s when Sabrina realized she never wanted to be an athlete, and had lived her life to please her father. After she walked off the field, she vowed to remain true to herself from then on—and embarked on a lifetime of accomplishments she truly cared about.

Caution: Because of the level of sophistication this essay calls for, what matters most (or any open-ended question) is often best answered after all other essays for all other schools have been tackled. Just because a school with an open-ended question like Stanford’s “what matters most” may be your first choice—and you want to finish that application first—that’s no reason to jump forward and answer this question early on in your essay-writing process. In answering all the other essay questions, you’ll be exploring many aspects of your life. All the introspection that’s required for those essays needs to percolate in the brain for some period of time. This percolation most authentically leads you to what really matters most to you. After the other questions have been answered, if there’s something important still left unsaid, still nagging at you because it seemed just too personal, that subject may be a great starting point here.

--Auntie Evan