Because Stanford Admissions will likely release the class of 2012 essays in the coming weeks, I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss Stanford GSB Essay A, which is often cited as the most difficult of all business school application essays. In fact, I know of at least one potential applicant who stopped considering Stanford after learning that GSB Admissions Director Derrick Bolton and his staff want to know, "What matters most to you and why?"
When I first learned about that essay the summer before I applied, I knew that I wanted to write about relationships. I didn't know what any of the supporting ideas were going to be and I didn't have a clue how I was going to structure the essay, but I knew intrinsically that what matters most to me is building new and developing existing relationships.
After settling on this topic, I avoided sitting down and writing this essay for as long as I could. I had one "burst of genius" when I was lying awake in bed one night in early September. I took out my laptop and wrote one paragraph in my pajamas. That paragraph remained the opener to my essay, virtually unchanged through more than ten iterations.
For another month, I favored writing business school essays on the much easier subjects of leadership, career goals, and learning from a mistake. I finally picked up essay A again about three weeks before it was due. I spent a full Saturday sulking in my living room as I struggled to introduce ideas that I thought were relevant and to answer the second part of the question, Why. I continued to flounder up until the deadline. I even changed my essay just four days before it was due to a letter format, and then changed it back to the original. (I still prefer the letter format but was told by several people that it didn't work as well.)
Unfortunately, dear applicant who may be reading this, I have no silver bullet. There was no "Aha!" moment in my writing process. The ideas just trickled out slowly and very painfully.
I have created a short list of tips that I hope will help you in your endeavors. And readers who have also been through this process, please add your thoughts in a comment below.
Essay A suggestions:
1. Start early. Yes, I do encourage you to write your essays in a strategic way--many people suggest writing HBS essays first (if you are applying) because they are short and force you to reflect on a wide variety of experiences; others say to write the essays for your last choice school first progressing to your top choice last. Both of these are reasonable strategies. Whatever you do, please give this particular essay some serious thought early in the application process.
2. Trust your instincts on the subject matter. I have heard of people writing their essay A on wide variety of subjects, including community service, teaching, learning, achieving life-work balance, supporting family, perpetual self-improvement, and giving back to the impoverished community from which the author came. Lots of subjects work; family is a popular one. Don't worry about being unoriginal. And don't worry about your subject being too "out-there" or too broad (many people told me my subject was too general). Just don't try to emulate other people's essays and do go with your gut, even if you initially struggle to articulate your thoughts.
3. If you don't have an idea, start reflecting... NOW. A friend of mine successfully wrote this essay by sitting down and mapping out his entire life trajectory and then looking for a pattern in his educational, career, and extracurricular choices. This strategy takes considerable time and self-examination so don't put it off.
4. Answer the entire question. Make sure to answer the why portion of the question; that is really the meat. As I wrote earlier, most subjects can work. But they can't work if you don't explain what your subject personally means to you, how it has shaped your decisions, how it influences your values, and what it means for your future.
5. Get help. I have heard a couple times that Derrick or someone on the GSB adcom once said that if you are willing to show your essay to more than three people, you haven't dug deeply enough. I have no idea if anyone really said that, but I believe that sentiment is "hippopotamus shit" to quote one of my favorite movies (80's trivia bonus points if you know what flick I'm referencing). I hated sharing my essays initially, even the dry career goals essay. But by the time I got to my Stanford essays, which I wrote last, I had gotten over my propensity for essay privacy. I implore you to do the same. Other people's input is invaluable. And to be clear, I am not suggesting that you have editors rewrite your essays, just that you "open the kimono" and get input from friends, family, and colleagues who know you well. (I had two colleagues, my significant other, one parent, and two friends read my essay A.)