Stanford Essay: “What matters most to you, and why?” Breakdown

If you have your sights on attending Stanford GSB, then you’ll have to answer the somewhat daunting essay question of “What matters most to you, and why?”  I would say that, of all of my MBA application essays, this prompt was the one that I was the most nervous about.  What matters most to me?  Well, a lot of things matter to me.  Family, friends, being a good person, etc. etc.  Is one answer any better than another?  What do the admissions officers want to see?

If one, blatantly obvious answer to the prompt doesn’t pop right into your head, don’t worry;  It definitely didn’t for me, either.  Though, what I did know is that I needed to have pertinent examples of me doing things that show how much my “thing” mattered to me, and that I should probably be able to tie it back to business school.

So, the first thing I’d recommend you do is to sit down and list out every major thing you’ve done from freshman year of undergrad and onward.  List the research, the courses, the independent studies, the international experience, the internships, the jobs, the volunteering.  List everything notable that comes to mind.  After that, take a break.

Come back to your sheet in a day or two with an investigative mindset.  Analyze what you’ve written.  What are the common themes?  Are there any trends?  For me, I started noticing an education theme.  I had worked on renovating schools in Ecuador, taught English in the DR, worked as an academic tutor, served as an English chat room partner, and even the business that I started centered around education.  It was a strange realization for me because I had never thought about education in a “this is the thing I care most about” light, but the more I thought about it, the more true it seemed.  I care about education, and my actions reflect that.  I guarantee that if you put in the time and effort to seriously reflect on your experiences over the past few years, you’ll be able to see what has been driving you this whole time, too.

With your “thing” in mind, you’re ready to begin your essay.  Keep in mind that this will be a process.  If you pump out an essay in one hour, proofread it once, and never touch it again, it probably won’t be the strongest piece that you could’ve submitted.

Stanford requires that the two essays you submit total no more than 1,150 words combined (see more here).  They suggest dedicating approximately 750 words to this essay and 400 to the “Why Stanford?” essay.

  1. The Hook & Realization (~150 words)
    • Business school admissions officers are reading thousands of essays.  You need something to make yours stand out.  Simply starting with “the thing that matters most to me is…” is just boring and lazy.  You want the officers to be like, “hey, remember that guy who worked with elephants in Kenya?” or “oh, yeah, she was the girl who held her own fundraiser benefiting cancer research” and the way you do that is through a memorable anecdotal hook.  (Examples from my own essay are in italics in each section).
    • The children were playing soccer with a rock. I was in Canoa, Ecuador, leading a team of international student volunteers on a playground construction project at a local school. Over the next few weeks, when I wasn’t toiling with the bamboo structure or playing tag with shrieking children, I was noticing something. It was obvious that the school didn’t have appropriate recreational equipment. That’s why I was there, after all. What was more striking to me, though, was the quality of the school itself. The entire school was only one room in size and was crumbling. I began to speak with the students in Spanish about what school supplies they had access to and what they were learning, and the results were more than disheartening. It was at this point in my life that I had a major shift in perspective and began to seriously acknowledge how pervasive the concept of unequal opportunity can be.
  2. Frame the Topic (~220 words)
    • Once you’ve established what matters most to you, you’re going to have to frame it.  Does the issue sit in a larger societal context?  Mention that.  Also, tell us why this issue matters to you.  What is it about you that makes this issue matter to you but not as much to the next guy?  Make this section work for you.  Show the admissions officers why you’re unique.
    • The basic truth of the matter is that many of those children will not have a decent shot at gaining an education, following their passions, or fulfilling their dreams. Most will unfortunately end up illiterate and doing manual labor for low wages, not because they aren’t innately intelligent or hardworking, but because they never were given a chance to display that they were.            I believe that being a first-generation college student has afforded me a heightened feeling of sympathy to those affected by this harsh reality. My education is not something that I take for granted, and I regularly reflect on how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to earn a degree. Without the right support and resources, I would have undoubtedly been in the same position as the students in Canoa.  Without the correct environment, I would have never had the chance to show that I can work hard, that I can learn, and that I can flourish.            Uncontrollable barriers should not have the ability to hamper people’s ability to learn, grow, and live a life that they are happy with. Unfortunately, they can and often do, and I strongly believe that this truth is one of the most grossly unjust parts of life. This is why I have dedicated myself to working ceaselessly to eradicate these barriers.
  3. Example of you acting on the passion (~220 words)
    • This is a way to show that you’re not just blowing smoke and can actually back up your claim with a real world example.  Stay away from mentioning something that you have already mentioned elsewhere in your application, if possible.  Instead, use this section to introduce something new or expand on something that you only listed briefly somewhere else in your app.  Again, try to make this section work for you in two ways, by backing up what you’ve said you care most about and also show some other skill you have (e.g. leadership, perseverance, etc.).
    • For example, a few years after volunteering in Ecuador I was fortunate enough to travel to the Dominican Republic to teach English at a K-5 school in Monte Cristi. Having done extensive research on the quality of education in the DR prior to the trip, I knew that things were bleak there. With shockingly low literacy rates and an astronomically high percentage of high school dropouts, the odds of receiving a solid education were low. With the country’s educational system in such disarray, the only clear path to success for students there exists in learning English and then attending a university in the US. I wanted every student to have that opportunity.            I began to pore over lesson plans. Using donated supplies, I created countless games, activities, and memory aids, all in the hopes that I could give these children their first step—an opportunity to learn. I can still vividly recall my time there. I was sweaty and exhausted in an overcrowded, stiflingly hot classroom, but a grin always came to my face as my students enthusiastically called out “PANE-SEAL!” when I held up a picture of a pencil. In fact, I was almost always smiling, knowing that I was helping to give these children the chance that I, too, was so fortunately given.
  4. Relate it back to your career (~80 words)
    • This is your essay to business school, after all.  So you’ve outlined what you care most about and why…but so what?  What are you going to do about it?  How does this passion tie into your career and future plans?  How is a Stanford MBA going to help you do something that centers around your passion?
    • The importance of equal opportunity in an educational sense has imbued my career path with a certain vitality and direction. I seek to both work with companies that value equality and also create new organizations that can further remedy the extensive problem of disparity in access to opportunities. I have recently founded a company and launched an associated website dedicated to providing crowdfunding to all undergraduate students’ research and community projects, but I feel like this is only the start of my journey.

  5. Conclusion (~60 words)
    • Wrap up your final thoughts.  Reiterate what matters most to you and how Stanford GSB can play a role.
    • Ultimately, what a person does with an opportunity is up to them. However, there is a distinct difference between not taking advantage of an opportunity and never having one at all. My mission is to work to create opportunities for people, and I want the Stanford Graduate School of Business to serve as my ally in taking this initiative to the next level.


Obviously, this is just the style that worked for me and the word counts are just suggestions that I felt made the essay flow well while still being as informative as possible.  I left a little bit of wiggle room in this essay because my “Why Stanford” essay was a few words over the suggested count, but if you feel like you could use an extra sentence or two in this essay, do it.  Like I said, you won’t write this essay perfectly the first time; it will be a constant editing and revising process and it will take some time.  Definitely don’t wait until the last minute to complete an essay like this.  Other than that, the experience of writing this essay can lead to a lot of self-insight and can be quite enjoyable.  Best of luck!

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