Stanford GSB’s Essay A: What Matters Most to You, and Why?

Perhaps the most famous MBA admissions essay, the first of just two essay prompts from the Stanford Graduate School of Business asks MBA applicants to dig deep into their personal motivations to answer the question.

A great “What Matters Most” essay will involve personal topics and strong emotions. As former Stanford GSB admissions director Derrick Bolton once said, “Essay A should be so personal that if you were working on it at 2am and accidentally printed a copy to your office printer, you would break out in a cold sweat, grab the keys, floor it and drive as fast as you could to the office to snatch the essay before anyone could read it.”

No possible topic is too intimate. Successful Stanford GSB applicants have written about topics as wide-ranging as overcoming drug and alcohol addiction, having an abortion, taking pride in their ethnic identity, receiving advice from a valued mentor, or using their professional career to make a social impact.

Below, we present three perspectives on this iconic essay.

The Importance of Story

Figuring out the core of your personal story, and how to explain it in a way that the Stanford Stanford GSB admissions reader can understand, is a critical part of a successful Stanford A essay.  Expert Admissions Consultant Yaron Dahan talks about the power of storytelling in essays like this one:

Don’t Overwrite

Many applicants think they have to be a creative writing genius to produce a great Stanford A essay. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Founding Partner Alice van Harten explains, using a simple writing style puts the focus where you want it — on your content.

A Guest Opinion on “What Matters Most to You, and Why?”

We asked our friend Kyle, an HBS MBA graduate and an experienced MBA admissions consultant, what he thinks of the prompt, and a few strategies for how to answer it. Here’s what he said:

I’ve found that most admissions consultants provide the same advice on how to answer Stanford’s first essay question, and frankly it’s no different than the advice Stanford provides in the prompt itself: a good answer requires deep self-examination. Unfortunately, I’ve also found this advice to be remarkably unhelpful for MBA applicants setting out to answer the most difficult essay question in business school admissions.

So, while I agree that the Stanford MBA admissions essay requires significant self-examination and reflection, I hope to provide some more concrete advice for how to approach that process and how to know when you’ve gotten to a quality answer.

It’s about hard choices – those that have a real cost.

One of my favorite classes at HBS was Designing Winning Organizations, taught by Professor Robert Simons. At the beginning of the semester, he posed this question as one of the most significant that a company has to answer: “How do your core values prioritize shareholders, employees, and customers?” Of course, most companies want to please all three constituents, but those who do tend to fail. Only those companies that truly prioritize the three succeed. In his words:

“Value statements that are lists of aspirational behaviors aren’t good enough. Real core values indicate whose interest comes first when faced with difficult trade-offs.”

This proposition proves quite useful for students embarking on Stanford’s first essay question – “What matters most to you, and why?” – in that a good answer will show how you’ve prioritized the many important things in your life. It will be an accounting of the major trade-offs you have made, personally and professionally, and why you made them.

The problem is that most applicants aren’t entirely honest with Stanford (not to mention themselves) about what they prioritize.

So, consider the major choices you’ve made in your life, and think about not only the options that you chose but also the options that you didn’t:

After listing many important choices that you’ve made, and understanding what you gave up as a result, also consider that you may not have always prioritized what matters most to you. In some instances, you unknowingly prioritize the wrong thing, and you learn from it. These misguided choices can be great fodder for your Stanford essay, too.

An Example of Finding “What Matters Most”

Perhaps an example from my own life would help. For many years, I have wanted to work in media, specifically journalism. It has always been a passion of mine: I was editor-in-chief of my high school’s newspaper; I was a journalism minor in college; and I followed the news (and the news about the news) obsessively after college. So, when it came time to choose my summer internship during business school, I sought a corporate finance job in the media industry in hopes of figuring out a new business model to save the old and decaying industry of journalism. This required moving to a city with the highest concentration of media and journalism companies: New York City.

I loved the internship to be sure, and I felt passionate about what I was doing. But I was never that keen on living in New York, as none of the people I really cared about lived nearby. So, after a summer away from my closest friends and family, I learned that I wanted to live in Chicago after graduation, even though it would mean taking a job outside of the media industry, which is heavily concentrated in New York City.

Perhaps, then, what matters most to me is having a strong network of support close to me. I would have to consider the other choices I’ve made, and the choices I expect to make in the future, to really know for certain. But it was a misguided choice to prioritize the industry I work in over the people that live near me.

Making the choice to live in Chicago after graduation came at a real cost – namely not being able to work at the best companies in my first-choice industry – but it was worth it to me because it is more important to be near a strong support network of friends and family.

The CEO of the company I worked for in New York City said it like this: you can have anything you want in life, but you cannot have everything you want in life.

So, What Makes a Great Answer to Stanford’s First Essay?

So, I always push applicants who are answering this question to talk not only about the choices they have made, whether they were right or wrong, and why they have made them, but also what those choices cost them. What opportunities did they miss out on in order to prioritize what matters most to them? What did they have to give up?

What makes a really interesting answer to Stanford’s first essay question is when applicants can demonstrate how they prioritized what was important to them when it came at great cost – when their priorities were in conflict with other still important things.

If you feel like the choices you’ve made in life haven’t come at much of a cost, then consider: What things are you not? What else would you have been doing if you hadn’t been doing what mattered most to you? How would you have been spending your time, energy, and capital? Do you live in a studio apartment so you can afford to travel one a month? Did you lose touch with a friend because you launched a website and spent all your time trying to make sure it succeeded?

Focus on the Why

Once you’ve identified a few good example of tough choices that you’ve made – where you’ve had to give up one important thing for another – it’s time to consider why you made the choice you did, and perhaps if you would still make the same choice today. The motives for why you made those tough choices – those choices with real costs – are what Stanford is interested in learning about. Perhaps you live in that studio so you can travel once a month because your parents taught you that worldly exposure is the most important value. Or, perhaps you lost touch with your friends to launch that website because you were dedicated to learning how to code for the first time – and learning new skills is the most important thing to you.

Starting from the bottom up, thinking about the hard choices you’ve made before thinking about what is most important to you, will always lead to richer, stronger essays. It’ll enable you to support your claim with hard anecdotes and stories – showing the Stanford MBA admissions committee what matters most to you and why, not just telling them.

Tell a story, and make it emotional (happy, sad, funny, or anything in between).

The writing should be much more personal and casual than a traditional MBA essay. You need your personality, humor, and sentiment to come through in a way that most business school essays don’t really demand. Fortunately, if you follow the advice above and pick something that has real cost associated with it, then you’ll have emotion built in right away. Talking about what you gave up, if you truly cared about giving it up, will almost assuredly force genuine emotion into the writing.

Don’t focus on your accomplishments and accolades.

Many applicants make the mistake of making this essay about what they have accomplished, and claiming those accomplishments (often tied together by some central theme) as most important to them.

This is not an essay about what you’ve accomplished – that is what your resume is for. Rather, it’s an essay about the events, people, and situations in your life that have influenced you. It’s an essay about who you are and what you prioritize as a result.

Why Stanford GSB loves this question

Great leaders are often self-aware, know what is important to them, and drive to it at all costs. Steve Jobs is a well-known example of this – a leader who was so singularly focused on one thing that he was willing to sacrifice social acceptance (before he became a tech idol) and what people thought of him, a cost that many of us would not be willing to pay.

Ultimately, Stanford’s first essay question is highly personal, so it’s likely you’ll need to rely on friends, family, and colleagues to help you work through your ideas.


Wondering about some strategies to approach the Harvard Business School prompt? See our article, The HBS Essay.