The fun part. Essays. I get the feeling that this is one area of the application that won’t be around much longer. Schools seem to be cutting down on the number and length of the essays (I just heard Harvard only has one this year and it’s optional!). My guess is that in a few more years many schools will just ask for one short personal statement, a lot like med school or law school.
But in the meantime we still have to worry about the essay collections each school requires. My plan for this post is to give a quick run-down on what I wrote for the GSB essays and then some of my analysis/advice.
1. What matters most to you and why?
For this, the most famous of essay questions, I wrote about walking onto a varsity team in college. I know, it seems like a pretty shallow topic. However, the essay wasn’t truly about the sport. I just used to sport to illustrate the characteristics that define how I approach life (the ability to prioritize, work hard, overcome enormous challenges, be part of a team, thrive under pressure, and enjoy steep learning curves). In truth, the essay was about the joy and fulfillment I get from approaching life this way. That’s what matters most to me.
2. Goals & why Stanford
This was pretty basic. I wrote about going to college and seeing a broader view of the world, realizing where I wanted to focus my energy, and diving right in. Then I described where I saw some problems in the overall organization and efficiency of the social sector and how I think I might be able to help fix that. After that, I more or less listed the classes, clubs, programs, etc. at Stanford that would allow me to do this.
3. Tell us about a time you went beyond what was defined established or expected.
Again, very straight forward. I told a story about signing up to help at a summer program, realizing that a lot more needed to be done, and stepping up to do it. I ended by explaining how I had learned to step up and use some imagination to overcome frustrating problems.
4. Tell us about a time you generated support from others for an idea or initiative.
This essay was a continuation of the previous one. I described how after that summer experience I decided to keep working on one of the same problems. I came up with a solution, started a small organization, raised funds, found supporters, managed the group, and implemented the solution. The basic theme was persistence and how that led to eventual success.
So that’s what I wrote. You’re probably thinking that it’s not that impressive. And I agree with you- it’s not. I didn’t have an extraordinary history I could play up. I haven’t overcome any extreme hardships or changed the world (yet : ) ).
Then how on earth did I get into the GSB? Well, as I’ve been saying all along, I really have no idea. But if I had to guess, I’d say that the answer lies in essays #2 and #4.
In #2 the things I actually wrote are unbelievably naïve. I talked about wanting to actualize astronomical changes in the social sector and listed a couple of ways I think I can make those changes happen. If I were starting the process today, I probably would be too cautious to write such ambitious stuff, no matter how true it is. Then again, if you go to the GSB website, you will quickly learn that the new campus is “dedicated to the things that haven’t happened yet and the people who are about to dream them up.” My interpretation of this is that the GSB wants dreamers. They want students who believe that the impossible can be done. And that might be how I got in.
The other reason I might have gotten in was essay #4, which was about starting a small organization. The organization itself wasn’t super impressive but it took a lot of work to get it off the ground (and keep in mind that I was doing this in addition to school, a varsity team and a part-time job). So maybe they liked my persistence.
As for the infamous essay #1, I really have no idea. I think if the right person reads the essay in the right way then it is a decent piece of writing that really gives some insight into how I deal with the world and what potential I might (not) have. On the other hand, there’s a strong chance I was accepted in spite of that essay.
And #3 just wasn’t anything exciting at all. I doubt it helped or hurt.
Now you know what I wrote on my GSB essays. I wish I could share a bit more about what parts were good and what parts were bad but all I have is my suppositions. I think the biggest thing I can share here is that you don’t need amazing stories and experiences to get in. You just need to have the characteristics/goals that they’re looking for, a couple of stories to demonstrate those characteristics/goals, and decent writing ability.