Stanford Business School Application Essay


The GMAT score is sky-high at the GSB, at 737 for two years straight. You need to bring the differentiation if you’re going to have a shot in Round 2 especially!!


Our Stanford MBA guide is up-to-date and includes new details on getting in, developed from our success in helping many other BSers get admitted in 2016. Use all these insights on your own application! We talk about the MBA and the MSx program too.


2017-’18 Stanford MBA Essay Questions & Recommendations – Class of 2020

If you’re thinking of trying for Stanford, please keep in mind that the average GMAT score for the GSB Class of 2018 went up to – gulp! – 737, and guess what? It stayed exactly the same for the Class of 2019. They don’t admit based on GMAT score, however a high GMAT is correlated with other qualities that they care about.

The Stanford MBA essay questions for 2017 are:

Two essays, 1,150 words total (or 1,200 if you’re doing the joint MSx application), allocated any way you wish — but going off the school’s suggested guidance is smart!

  1. What matters most to you, and why? (750 words suggested – you will need this much space to tell your story)
  2. Why Stanford? (400 words suggested – which is really not much! but you’ll be able to work with it)


What everyone says is true: You need to be AUTHENTIC in your MBA applications.

Nowhere is this more true than with Stanford!

OK great. So how can you do that??

Resist the urge – as irresistible as it may be – to try and impress your reader.

Don’t try to think of what “sounds good.” Don’t think about what you think they want to hear. It’s hard not to do this but it’s important!

Instead, spend time sincerely reflecting on what your answer would be IF YOU WERE ANSWERING THIS JUST FOR YOURSELF.

Seems simple, eh?


These two essays are a way to share your uniqueness with the adcom. But believe us when we say this: You don’t have to manufacture that uniqueness when you write them! The best way to grab the attention of the GSB is to do the work of self reflection that they talk about all over their website.

The competition here has always been fierce, but to put it into perspective: They were up to 8,100 apps in 2015, which we understand to be an all-time record, and then it bumped to almost 8,200 in 2016. HBS is the only school that gets more apps. Nobody else even comes close. Average GMAT at Stanford is 737 for two years in a row. This is crazy.

Our Stanford essay guide is new and improved for 2017. Please get started now! You need all the time you can get to build it for this school! There are a bunch of exercises in this guide to help you get started with the all-important process of self-exploration. We also have plenty of Stanford MBA application advice available here on the site. An important tip? Don’t make Stanford the first application that you tackle! (Though ***do*** apply in Round 1 if you can.)


Stanford MBA recommendations (or “Letters of Reference” in their lingo)

Stanford has the same questions as certain other schools ask in 2017 – but how they require the info be entered in their system is not exactly the same as other schools.
  • Two Letters of Reference
  • Two main questions plus one optional for your recommenders to answer – though note that they’re not identical to how other schools are asking these questions.
  • Review the questions here.

Definitely get a recommendation from your boss if you can (and if you think you can’t, reconsider). The recommender’s title does NOT matter to the adcom; it adds no value to have your CEO write about you if the first time he met you was when you asked him to write your recommendation. You want someone who knows you well and can speak in detail about the questions they’re asking. You have a lot of leeway in who to choose for both of these but it’s definitely quite easy to make a strategic misstep. There are lots of resources for choosing your recommenders available through posts on the blahg; if you want more help, our Letters of Recommendation App Accelerator walks through the specifics and lets you submit your recommenders’ strategy for feedback from EssaySnark.


Stanford 2017-2018 Dates and Deadlines for the Class of 2020

This is the same admissions schedule as they’ve traditionally run, however they’re now requiring apps to be submitted by 10am Pacific time (used to be a 1pm cutoff). See Stanford MBA Admissions Deadlines

  • Rd 1 2017:

    INTERVIEWS: The general pattern at Stanford has been that interview invites will go out for a one-month period from about the end of October through end of November, when they have Round 1 release day and set the no-luck applicants free into the wild. You can expect a similar sequence this year. (Exact dates have been announced for interview invitations in Round 1 to come between mid-October to mid-November.) Final decision is mid-December.

  • Rd 2 2018: – this is one of the later Round 2 deadlines, for which we are grateful! You will thank Stanford for this! As we complained about last year, the many schools that stack all their Rd 2 deadlines in the few days after the holidays deserve their own little spot in a very hot place. Stanford is a saint for at least giving all of you a little wiggle room after the first of the year.

    Similar to above: Round 2 interview invites are typically released in a one-month window, expected to begin somewhere around the first of February. In early March, they usually have a “release”, at which time anyone not moving forward says bye-bye. Final decision is end of March.


Stanford MBA Useful Links

Remember when reviewing info about Stanford that anything a school states is specific to its own programs only – not to other schools – and information can also change from year to year.

  • The Stanford MBA Admissions Blog was closed down in late 2014. Why a school would shutter its blog, we do not know. It used to be at (anyway, it was updated infrequently, even when it was live)
  • The school has a Twitter account but it’s not typically got any admissions stuff on it

Huh. Not a very useful list, is it? Stanford does do webinars from time to time and they have a standard campus visit program as other schools do. They do not encourage applicants to cold-call or -email their students, however. If you know a Stanford alum personally then that’s an excellent resource to start with.


For Reference: Stanford’s Past-Season Questions

Included for historical purposes, in case you want to study what they’ve asked in the past – which has been largely the same for many years, so this section should be useful. This content is preserved as it was originally posted for each respective year. Be sure to check what this year’s requirements are before proceeding!

Click to view last year's questions

[The essay questions for the Class of 2019 were the same as they are for the Class of 2020, which are discussed in detail at the top of this page.]
2016 Stanford MBA Essay Questions

Two essays, 1,150 words total, allocated any way you wish:

  1. What matters most to you, and why? (750 words suggested – you will need this much space to tell your story)
  2. Why Stanford? (400 words suggested – which is really not much! but you’ll be able to work with it)

The word count suggestions are different if you’re doing the simultaneous MBA + MSx app.

[End last year’s questions section.]

Click to view 2015 questions

2015 Stanford MBA Essay Questions & Recommendations for the Class of 2018
Stanford has made some applicant-positive changes this year AND WE HOPE OTHER SCHOOLS WILL FOLLOW SUIT. (Oh look! MIT has done so!)

Our 2015 predictions for the GSB were on target:

  • Essays: Stanford is – mostly – maintaining status quo from last year, keeping the same two questions (see below).
  • However GOOD NEWS! They’ve expanded the length limit!!! And, Stanford allows you to allocate the word count any way you like (this is not new, we’re just pointing it out since it’s very unique among all the bschools and their essays). Your total allocation is now 1,150 words for these two essays, which is up 50 words from last year – that is not a lot, but any little bit will help. This is positive.
  • Another plus? They’ve adjusted their deadlines in a way that is HUGELY BENEFICIAL TO ALL OF YOU. It’s almost like the Stanford adcom read our recent post with suggestions on that – or maybe we’re just oddly prescient these days. 😉
  • They’ve also – sort of – kept the two standard recommenders’ questionsbut they’ve added one more! Another big ‘yay!’ This is an optional “anything else you want to say?” question. It may sound trivial but honestly, it lets your recommenders talk in greater detail about you – so they can make a stronger case for your admission. This is a plus.
  • The one downside? They actually changed the wording of the first “standardized” question – don’t these schools realize that CHANGING THEM means they’re NO LONGER STANDARDIZED?? Sheesh.


The Stanford 2015-’16 Essay Questions

Same prompts as they’ve had for awhile – and you have plenty of resources available to tackle these on this site.

EssaySnark **knows** what makes for a strong app, and (finally!!) the Stanford admissions peeps are openly saying the same things. It’s all covered in this guide. Get a head start on what to expect with this very challenging application. You’ll want to give yourself as much time as possible to work on these essays (but please don’t start writing until after you’ve figured out what to say!!! this guide explains how).

Our Stanford essay guide has been expanded for 2015 to cover more tactical angles (previous editions of this guide have been largely strategic).

And yet another plug for these guides: Stanford has recently tweaked the instructions on its website for this season, being more direct and clear with what they’re looking for in terms of essays and recommenders. Every one of these angles was already covered in our Stanford guide.

[End 2015 questions section.]

Click to view 2014 questions

2014 questions – these are OLD

There was no behavioral question in 2014, as there had been for many many years. They announced the Class of 2017 app changes on their blog on May 15, 2014.

In 2014, also Stanford streamlined the number of letters of reference that they need, down to just two, from the three that they had asked for before. They require one from your current direct supervisor (there are certain situations where it’s acceptable not to get one from your current manager, but you should do so if you possible can). The second you have flexibility with; can be a former supervisor, or a peer, though we suggest a former supervisor as typically the best option. Choose wisely, Brave Supplicant!

[End 2014 questions section.]

Click to view 2013 questions

2013 questions – these are VERY OLD

The essays are exactly the same as last year, with one teensy tiny change:

Three essays:

  1. What matters most to you, and why?
  2. What do you want to do—REALLY—and why Stanford?
  3. Choose one:
    •  Tell us about a time in the last three years when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.
    • Tell us about a time in the last three years when you identified and pursued an opportunity to improve an organization.
    • Tell us about a time in the last three years when you went beyond what was defined or established.

Essay length limits: 1600 words, divided up among the essays as you see fit. (EssaySnark recommends you stick with their suggestions, though: 750 / 450 / 400.)

The teensy-tiny change is, there’s a few “Just for Fun” questions within the application about your favorite place; last year, they asked about your favorite food.

[End 2013 questions section.]


The best help for the Stanford app? Our SnarkStrategies MBA Guide for Stanford GSB, available in an easy access online version.

EssaySnark reviews and advice on Stanford essays

Our advice is to study these – but please don’t try to copy what someone else wrote about in a ‘matters most’ essay! We hope the reason for this caution is obvious.

You might also want to check out:


The EssaySnark Stanford MBA guide has been updated, and expanded, for the 2017 application, to give you all the support you need to tackle these daunting essay questions. It’s now 77 pages of useful insights and actionable tips for how (and how NOT!) to approach your task. Brave Supplicants this year have even more help in understanding how to build a compelling set of two essays!

[Index of essay questions by business school]

Stanford University Graduate School of Business – Ethan Baron photo

When Stanford GSB’s former Dean of Admissions Derrick Bolton first introduced the ‘What Matters To You and Why’ admissions essay in the MBA application over thirteen years ago, did he have any idea that it would become such an enduring and iconic question? Even if you don’t include Stanford among your short list of target schools, this prompt is well worth reflecting upon before you start writing your applications.

With the arrival of a new director of MBA admissions, Kirsten Moss, who officially assumes her duties on June 1st, the school has been the first to announce application deadlines for the 2017/18 admissions cycle, and confirmed that there are no major changes to the essay questions. “What matters most to you, and why?” is with us for at least another year.

Kirsten will be speaking on an Admissions Director panel at the CentreCourt MBA Festival in San Francisco on June 24th, and I look forward to hearing her take on this question, and how best to approach it.


This question seems straightforward, although coming up with an answer can be a lot more difficult than one might think. At Fortuna Admissions we have seen how this question has tied some applicants in knots as they try to come up with an approach that they hope is clever, striking, or even profound.

Whether you’re actually applying to the MBA program at Stanford, or wondering about the career path that is right for you, taking the time to answer this question can provide invaluable insight about your life purpose, values, and true self. When you understand what matters most to you, it’ll help solidify your self-awareness and give you a strong foundation not only for success at business school but also success with relationships and career. It’s a question that is worth considering in spite of the pain and anguish!

So why does Stanford ask this question, and why have they have stuck with it for so long? For my colleague at Fortuna Admissions, Heidi Hillis, a Stanford GSB alumnus and former MBA admissions interviewer for the school, the question really gets to the heart of what Stanford is about, and links strongly to the school’s tagline, ‘Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world’.


“Stanford is looking not just for extremely bright and successful professionals, but also young people who have strong values, and who want to have a positive impact in the world.” She goes on to explain: “The school genuinely wants to get to know you and to understand your values. Stanford MBAs are driven by a desire not just to excel in their careers but also to help others and to have a positive impact. The Stanford GSB admissions office works very hard to bring together a group of students who are open, humble and have strong integrity, which leads to the incredible level of camaraderie and trust that you find at the school. This is really core to Stanford’s brand and the identity of its community.”

So what matters most to you, and why? Start off with your intuitive or first response. Write it down. We’ll return to it later.

Stanford allows no more than 1,150 words to cover this essay and a second essay question, “Why Stanford?” Maybe you feel that you can answer the first part of the question in one word, with things like family, love, or chocolate. But the heart of the question, the part that reveals your true calling in life, requires deeper reflection. Why does that one thing matter to you more than something else?


If you’re staring at a blank page, perhaps we can start with some of the advice that Stanford GSB itself offers. They propose that you think in terms of who you are, lessons and insights that have shaped your perspectives, and events that have influenced you. And they encourage you to write from the heart.

Derrick Bolton was quoted as saying ,‘please think of the Stanford essays as conversations on paper ‒ when we read files, we feel that we meet people, also known as our “flat friends” ‒ and tell us your story in a natural, genuine way.” If you look up ‘story’ in the dictionary, you’ll find a definition along the lines of ‘an account of imaginary or real people and events told in an entertaining way.” The best essays are told in a captivating ‘story-like’ way that may involve emotion, inspiration, humor, insight, honesty, wit, and simply – being yourself.

A Stanford GSB admissions officer may be reading 20 applications today, 30 tomorrow, and hundreds more in the following weeks. So how can you make an impact, sound intelligent, be original, and engage your reader? This is no easy task. Take the time to put on your thinking cap and reach within to tell the story that you are the best qualified to write.


At Fortuna Admissions, we’d like to help and offer you some guidance on how to best tackle the structure of this type of essay, while telling your ‘story’:

1. Start with identifying a person, event, or experience that greatly impacted you. What morals, values, and lessons did you gain from this experience?

2. How do you presently use these morals, values, and lessons, and how do they impact your drive, motivation, and vision of the world? (Remember, Stanford’s mission statement is ‘Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world’.)

3. How has the above impacted your career decisions?

4. Conclude by showing the link between your values and your career vision, and why these objectives are important to you.

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