July 1, 2023

MBA Essay Guidance 2023-24: Stanford Graduate School of Business

Stanford Graduate School of Business has released its MBA application deadlines and essay questions for the 2023-24 application cycle.  Here are the important dates and Admitify’s guidance on the essays.


R1: September 12, 2023  /  R2: January 4, 2024  /  R3 & Deferred: April 9, 2024



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

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?


Admitify Guidance

We recommend up to 700 words for Essay A (Stanford’s guidance to use up to 650 words notwithstanding). Begin work on the essays early to give yourself time to reflect, write, and edit. In each essay, we want to hear your genuine voice. Think carefully about your values, passions, aims, and dreams. There is no “right answer” to these questions — the best answer is the one that is truest for you. Feel free to ask friends or family members for feedback — especially about whether the tone and voice sound like you. Your family and friends know you better than anyone. If they think the essays do not capture who you are, what you believe, and what you aspire to do, then surely we will be unable to recognize what is distinctive about you.


There is no ‘formula’ for a good Stanford essay. Aiming for authenticity in content and tone is essential. Stanford does not want accomplishments per se here. Indeed, Kirsten Moss explained in 2019 that the reason Stanford added the 3 250-word impact essays is to give applicants a place to share their proudest moments so they can get introspective in Stanford A. Looking back, we have seen many effective Stanford A’s that started with some vivid pre-college experience that really captures the applicant’s passions or unusual life experiences while also showing their roots – where they come from both culturally and personally. The rest of the essay then shows how this unique perspective evolved over time typically through challenges or stretch experiences. Stanford wants ‘self awareness’ which means an ability to see yourself as others see you and to grow from that knowledge as well as an ability to change and know what you’ve been through. This is maturity and they like it. 


Many applicants think they have to figure out what matters most to them before writing this essay. We take a different approach. We ask the applicant two questions: what have been your most intense, life-changing or memorable experiences and in what ways do you consider yourself most distinct from other applicants. The answers to these two questions can – with some probing by the consultant and honesty by the applicant – usually lead to a list of core experiences that were both interesting and significant/life-evolving for the applicant. Have the applicant then ‘open up’ or unpack these core experiences. What was the challenge or difficulty? How did they respond to it? What did they feel or think? How did it change them? It’s not enough to describe the experience for the reader. The experience must also be narrativized – turned into a story in which the participants are named, the situational dynamics are explored, and a lesson is learned. Hopefully, the core experiences the applicant discovers demonstrate the applicants’ qualities (leadership, EQ/people skills, ethics/integrity, creativity/innovation, etc.). In demonstrating these positive qualities, these core stories can become accomplishments but their presence in the essay should not seem to be primarily because they are accomplishments, but rather because they show the applicant growing. IMO Stanford only wants to see accomplishments in this essay if those accomplishments also (or primarily) show your ‘growth as an EQ-empowered, self-aware person/leader’ and if those accomplishments are not primarily business accomplishments but primarily ‘people/team/society/community’ impact accomplishments. 


When these 2-3 core stories are combined chronologically they will helpfully show the applicant evolving toward some understanding of himself and/or the world. At this point, you can step back and ask, what themes link these core stories? Usually the ‘what matters most’ is fairly obvious when these stories are told. You can then add an explicit ‘What matters most to me is …’ statement at the beginning of the essay or at the end. Edit the essay ruthlessly so that everything shared in it serves the theme. Avoid clichés if at all possible (like ‘my family’ or ‘making the world a better place’ or ‘challenging myself’ or ‘success’). In our opinion, the actual what matters most ‘matters’ far less than the stories that illustrate it (after all, we all tend to value a lot of the same things, but our life experiences are unique). Note that in our opinion, Stanford A and HBS’s ‘what else do you want us to know’ are often the same story (though the HBS version is usually longer). Ideally but not necessarily, Stanford B (Why Stanford) will open with a concrete/specific goal statement that seems to blend easily into the end of Stanford A, without any repetition of the last words of Sanford A (which usually will not say anything specific about post-MBA goals). That is, the ‘what matters most’ and the post-MBA goals stated in essay B will clearly complement each other. A good Stanford A will never start with wondering what Stanford wants to hear. It will start with an honest reflection on the experiences, people, ideas, etc. that have really changed or motivated you. 



Essay B: Why Stanford?

Describe your aspirations and how your Stanford GSB experience will help you realize them. If you are applying to both the MBA and MSx programs, use Essay B to address your interest in both programs.


Admitify Guidance 

  1. State your goals in paragraph 1 as factually and meatily as possible (short-term and long-term, titles/roles and possible organizations, maybe a Plan B for the short-term goals. Note that GSB has said in the past that too many of its MBA students are Bay Area and Silicon Valley focused, both geographically and in terms of technology, so feel free to show you have ‘non-local’ plans.
  2. Describe in as much specific detail as you can how Stanford’s academic resources (classes, faculty, etc.) are robust and relevant enough to help you meet your goals (private equity classes, innovation and technology, etc.). Note that GSB has its entire curriculum including electives online so you can really drill down. 
  3. Then describe how GSB’s culture perfectly fits the kind of person you are and want to be. This is where you show you ‘get’ GSB’s self-awareness and no-sharp-elbows culture: Touchy Feely, TALK sessions, massive number of leadership development and coaching classes in its curriculum, ‘The No Assholes Rule,’ etc. This would be a good place to talk about campus visits and GSB people you’ve spoken with.
  4. Stanford recommends up to 400 words for Stanford B and up to 650 words for Stanford A. However, we see Stanford A as the essay where you are most likely to differentiate and help yourself – since your personal story is unique, whereas your reasons for needing a Stanford MBA are less likely to be unique. So we suggest 350 words (but no less than that) for Stanford B and 700 words for Stanford A. 



Optional Short Answer Question

In this section, we provide an optional opportunity for you to discuss some of your contributions more fully.


What do we mean by “optional”? We truly mean you have the opportunity to choose. In evaluating your application, we want to know about who you are and how you think Stanford will help you achieve your aspirations. We are also interested in learning about the things you have done that are most meaningful to you. If you feel that you’ve already addressed these questions well in other areas of the application, congratulations, you’re done! 


If you would like to discuss your contributions more fully, this section is the place to do so. Perhaps you would like to expand upon a bullet item from your resume and tell us more about the “how” or “why” behind the “what.” Or maybe you have had impact in a way that doesn’t fit neatly in another part of the application. You are welcome to share up to three examples (up to 1,200 characters, or approximately 200 words, for each example).


Optional Question: Think about times 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 to others?


Admitify Guidance

Although this is optional we do recommend that you respond with up to (hopefully all) 3 examples. (Anyone applying to Stanford should have at least 3 examples of impact.) Stanford told us in early August 2019 that they added this essay because too many applicants were using the What Matters Most essay to try to impress the committee with accomplishments so they added these short essays to enable you to share your accomplishments so you’ll use the What Matters Most essay more for what motivates you. Kirsten Moss also stated in June 2020 that Stanford has admitted applicants who didn’t write any optional essays at all, but we don’t recommend trying that strategy. 


Optional impact essays are a good way to elaborate on community work or extracurricular work; doesn’t have to be impact at scale but can show how you grew a mentee, it’s all about ensuring they have enough evidence; structure is like a vignette; don’t try to ‘fit the space’ only use them if you feel you can add more to your application, and don’t feel like you have to use all three.


Ideally, these examples would show how well-rounded you are by describing impact in very different parts of your life, perhaps one professional, one community/extracurricular, the third personal/family or academic. 


Use the following ‘screens’ to decide which stories belong here:


  1. What concrete accomplishment (with outcomes, etc.) are you truly proudest of?
  2. What accomplishments/impacts would your superiors cite as your biggest wins?
  3. In which of your accomplishments did you lead/drive the largest number of people toward a concrete outcome?
  4. Which three accomplishments demonstrate your impact in 3 very different contexts and perhaps highlight 3 different types/kinds of impact?
  5. Recent accomplishments often trump older accomplishments (if old they need to be amazing).
  6. Which of your accomplishments are really fairly unique relative to others and reflect your passions and differentiators?


Essay Tone:


  • Stanford wants to hear an Authentic voice, wants it to be genuinely heartfelt and vulnerable, but your heart doesn’t have to bleed and you don’t have to retrigger past trauma (that’s going too far), if you’re funny or have another quirk, that should come through; mission and values are a good starting point/framework because good leaders lead from mission/values
  • When making a decision, what makes you go one way or another? How do you move through the world? An example is if curiosity/wanting to explore/learn matters most, that influences every decision you make



Additional Information

We are deliberate in the questions we ask. We believe that we get to know you well through all of the elements of your application. Complete this section only if you have critical information you could not convey elsewhere on your application (e.g., extenuating circumstances affecting academic or work performance). This section should not be used as an additional essay. (Up to 1,200 characters, or approximately 200 words.)


Admitify Guidance

Stanford only wants explanatory or extenuating circumstance material here. Their language here (“critical information; “This section should not be used as an additional essay”) makes this the most restrictive optional essay of any business school. They clearly do not want you to share an additional accomplishment or community involvement or hobby; brief, factual statements/bullets are expected. On their website they note that examples of content for this section include “Extenuating circumstances affecting your candidacy, including academic, work or test-taking experiences” and “Academic experience (e.g., independent research) not noted elsewhere.”



Personal Information / Additional Context Question 

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. (Up to 1,200 characters, or approximately 200 words.)


Admitify Guidance

This is a ‘diversity’ essay but diversity very broadly defined. (This was Stanford’s Optional Question B: Background last year, and this year it is embedded in the application under the Gender and Sexual Identity section) Think of a recent situation (professional or otherwise) – within the past 3 years – in which you acted or made a choice that was driven or shaped by your identity or background. For a non-US applicant or a US underrepresented minority applicant, an experience involving your national or ethnic background/identity might be (but need not be) the most obvious focus. But keep in mind Stanford’s earlier language for this question, where background and identity were defined very broadly: “your background, such as your work and life experiences, education, skills, interests, culture, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, where/how you grew up, and/or other factors.” Using this description of identity/background anyone can find a ‘recent action or choice’ that was shaped by one of these influences.


‘Action’ implies an event that you initiated. Choice also focuses on your action but implies some decision or dilemma you had to think through and act on. In either case, the best examples will not be introspective examples involving only you. There will/should be a social dimension (your action or choice should influence or involves others). Focus on the human dynamics of the situation – how you used your unique background/identity to make the choice, execute the action, resolve the challenge or contribute to the group. Show the reader how you were effective with/used your EQ with others. Try to avoid situations that were described in Essay A or that your recommenders describe – one purpose of this essay should be to show another new side of you.



Professional Experience / Required short-answer question: Post-GSB Aspirations

Briefly share your short- and long-term professional aspirations after graduating from Stanford GSB. (255 characters)

Admitify Guidance:

A very concise (but meaty), factual statement of your post-MBA goals, especially immediately after your MBA, is all you’ll have space for here. When you briefly describe your goals in Stanford B studiously avoid repeating the language you use here – ensure this and the Stanford B goals statement complement each other without overlapping.


Now is the perfect time to contact us and get started on your Stanford MBA applications!