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 this 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 important 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:
- Where you’ve chosen to live – and, by implication, where you’ve chosen not to live.
- What jobs you’ve accepted – and what jobs you’ve rejected or never pursued.
- What things in your life get your time and attention – and what things don’t get it.
- How you spend your money – and what you don’t spend it on instead.
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 is most important 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.
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 is most important 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 was most important 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 was most important 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 admissions committee what is most important 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 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. As always, we’re available to provide a free consultation to help you think through your answer to Stanford’s first essay, your broader application narrative, or any other questions you might have about the MBA admissions process.