Rule #1 of the Stanford GSB Application: Don’t Be Boring
Stanford admissions reps won’t tell you this. They will tell you to be yourself. Be authentic, they say. This is terrible advice.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not an advocate (EVER) of lying (or embellishing to the point of disingenuity) on your application. Rather, I fall into the happy camp of believers that everyone, in fact, does have something special to offer, some unique angle to exploit for application purposes. The problem with the “be yourself and don’t try to impress us” advice, though, is that it lulls applicants into a false belief that they don’t need to try hard. You do need to try very hard, and you need to engage in some serious self-analysis and perhaps a few conversations with trusted others so that you can find the bits of yourself that can really shine on an application. So pack a picnic and head out to the mountaintop because you have some serious soul-searching to do.
There is actually a little tip on Stanford GSB’s admissions website that is far more valuable than the “be yourself” nugget:
“While the Stanford GSB community does include students who have pursued incomparable opportunities, most Stanford MBA students have excelled by doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. What you make of an experience matters to us, not simply the experience itself.” [emphasis mine]
I would use this quote as your guiding principle for shaping your entire application. It’s not necessarily your degree, your job, your activities, or your background that will impress Stanford, but your ability to convey your self-awareness, and, more importantly, your ability to sell them on how you have made your ordinary world your extraordinary oyster.
This brings me to…
Rule #2 of Stanford Business School Admissions: Figure Out Your Pack….and Then Get Far Away From Them
Your application is going to be read by people who specialize in people like you (It is kind of creepy, yes.). There are readers who are experts in applicants from Asian countries, readers who are experts in people from finance backgrounds, readers who are experts in applicants fresh out of undergrad. This is so the right readers can gain perspective on how you compare to all the other Goldman Sachs or Princeton alums. So the biggest mistake you could make on your application is thinking that your impressive education or work experiences stand for themselves. Because guess what? The pack of wolves surrounding you (and viciously turning on you come application-time) look a lot alike.
So you need to figure out your unique twist. Maybe you are a literature major who found herself in a sales job at a brokerage and convinced the execs to join the company book club you started. Maybe you followed the family tradition into real estate, but stumbled into a public policy initiative meeting as an undergrad and now you want to pursue a joint degree in policy and business at Stanford so that you can work in improving low-income housing opportunities. Basically, the bottom line is that everyone who is applying to Stanford GSB is interested in business; you need send the message that you are interested in business AND _________). Then you become a lot more interesting, young wolf.
(And if you are wondering what exactly the various “packs” look like at Stanford, make sure you thoroughly scour the entering class profile for clues: it will tell you lots of important things about the most common backgrounds of admitted students.)
Rule #3 for Getting into Stanford Business School: Build Your Narrative from Your Unique Twist
Once you’ve found your “extraordinary” twist on your “ordinary” life, expand it into various aspects of your application so they notice it. This can be in one of the two essays (maybe a little in both essays if it makes sense), in your description of the meaningfulness of an activity or two, or an explanation of a leadership role. For example, let’s say you decide that your unique twist on life has been your dedication to wrestling. Now, you’re applying to business school here–not the UFC–so let’s keep it relevant. Maybe in your “What matters to you most, and why?” essay you talk about what you have learned, good or bad, from the grueling process of cutting weight. How has this experience shaped your approach when you prepare for big meetings? Or, perhaps, how has it increased your investment in the way nutrition is marketed to children and teens? Then, you highlight middle school wrestling coach as one of your activities, and presto, now you are not just a finance guy in admissions office’ discussions. You are “that wrestler-finance guy.”
Once again, make sure to take your time to think long and hard about the “whys” of your “whats.” Why did you study what you studied? Why did you take a certain employment position or become involved in a certain activity? If you do this, your application will improve by leaps and bounds, promise.
Rule #4 for the Stanford Graduate School of Business Application: Don’t Try to Be Something You’re Not
I know. I know. I questioned Stanford’s plea for authenticity at the beginning of this post. But I want to reiterate that I don’t mean you should strive to be something you’re not on your application. Rather, you are simply making a little bit more out of an aspect of yourself that you might not have even thought was that important before (and maybe that is simply because you took it for granted).
Not trying to be be something you’re not also means not trying to intentionally hide weaknesses. They are pretty smart at Stanford. So if you realized four months before the deadline that your life suffers from a dearth of community service activities, don’t think that signing up for a couple weekends of Habitat for Humanity and writing an essay about it is going to fool them into thinking you are an involved community leader. Instead, you need to perhaps find the ways in which you’ve been involved as a leader in less formal situations or find the reason why you’ve had less time than others to devote to such activities. Don’t over-engineer your app. After reading hundreds of business school applications, you get really good at seeing through all the usual ploys and tricks.
It’s easy to get intimidated when you are applying to the #1 business school in the country (or the #2 school), but remember, Stanford GSB is full of “ordinary” people like you who have figured out how to make their “extraordinariness” stand out on their apps–and you can too!