It definitely means going beyond the obvious.
Nowhere is “don’t tell us what you think we want to hear” more applicable than in your MBA essays for the Stanford GSB.
If we read one more Stanford essay about “what matters most is helping people” then we’re gonna scream (j/k. if that’s what you wrote we’re happy to read it!! and then we’ll tell you why you maybe want to rethink things).
Perhaps it means being vulnerable?
It’s not necessary to bare your deepest darkest secrets to the adcom in an essay. However, it IS necessary to go beyond a surface-level answer.
What we propose, if you’re interested in applying to the Stanford Graduate School of Business this year, is this:
Start to pay attention.
What we mean by that is, listen to yourself when you’re out and about. Ordering a coffee at Starbucks. Waiting for the bus. When you’re in a client meeting at work. When they bring the new hire around and introduce him.
Listen to yourself, and pay attention.
When are you putting on an act?
When are you saying something fake?
It’s inevitable that you will use different personas in different situations. There’s nothing wrong with that. When the barista at Starbucks asks, “How are you today?” you’re not going to give an honest list of all the ailments afflicting you at the moment. You’re going to breezily say, “I’m good. Can I get a double tall extra hot macchiato?”
That’s not what we mean.
We mean, simply observe. Who are you with the different types of people in your life?
Who are you when you’re with yourself?
Who are you with your significant other? Does your tone of voice change when you speak with him/her? Do you use different language?
What about with your family? How do you speak to your mom? Your brother?
All of us are different with different people in our lives, and that’s OK.
The assignment today is only to listen.
Step outside of yourself, and pay attention.
It’s likely you’ll forget to do it. You’ll probably go through whole stretches of the day without paying any attention at all.
And that’s OK.
But at some point, something will kick in and you’ll stop. You’ll pull back inside yourself, and detach. And you’ll watch.
See what you discover.
You don’t have to do this for the rest of your life. Just do it for one day.
It will be the process of observing that will lead you to discovery.
When you’re writing an essay about “What matters most?” you are unlikely to come upon an authentic answer through any brute-force method.
It’s like forgetting someone’s name — even when it’s your best friend in the world. You know this person, yet your brain serves up a blank. It’s on the tip of your tongue, yet you cannot, for the life of you, think of it.
When you’re forcing yourself to come up with an answer to a very challenging, and very personal, essay question, you’ll either get a lot of blanks, or you’ll get a lot of empty ideas that are superficial and possibly even false.
However, if you commit to an extended period of listening — even if it’s only for today — then you may be surprised.
The real answers have a way of revealing themselves. But it is usually a very unexpected process, and not one you can actively manage.
That’s just how it goes with creativity. Writing essays is not a creative exercise, in the sense that you’re not “creating” stuff. You’re just answering the question. But writing ANYTHING is inherently creating. When you’re caught up in trying to figure out the “right” answer to an essay, you’re stepping on your own toes. Your busy brain is too busy. It’s working on the essay question like a problem it needs to solve – just like it’s working to come up with the name of that friend of yours, that for whatever reason, you just can’t remember. The brain working to solve a problem is unlikely to deliver the goods when it comes to questions like Stanford’s.
So. That was a long post that has nothing to do with writing MBA essays. You don’t have to embark on this silly EssaySnark exercise. You can read this and move on and not bother. Totally OK if you choose that. There’s no guarantee that spending a day trying to watch yourself from the inside will bear fruit anyway.
To go back to today’s topic: What does authenticity mean for Stanford?
It means asking yourself some serious questions, and when you come up with an answer, to test it.
If you’re doing this observe-myself exercise, you will notice in certain contexts that you will say something that, a half-second later, you recognize to be smarmy. Or saccharine. Or in pursuit of the one-ups-man. You’ll try to be witty and it will fall flat. Or you’ll respond to someone with an apology without thinking — the instant “I’m sorry” for something you weren’t even responsible for. You’ll HEAR yourself. (Please note: We’re not suggesting that you do this listening exercise in order to beat yourself up over the stupid things you say and the lame way you speak to other people throughout the day. The assignment at hand is just to listen. Most of us are already plenty hard on ourselves. Please don’t use this instruction from EssaySnark as yet another weapon to clobber yourself with. Your task is only to listen. Not to judge.)
What’s the value of all this?
Well, what we can predict is, it’ll help you to hear. You’ll be listening which is the first step in being able to hear.
When it comes time for you to evaluate possible answers to an essay question like “What matters most?”, you will have developed an inner compass, a muscle on the inside that lets you navigate your choices. You’ll be able to push back against your own ideas for the essay, to validate them for yourself.
You’ll have an answer for “What matters most” and you’ll be able to ask yourself, “Is that true?”
Being able to discern truth from fiction for yourself, when you’re looking at your own stories from life, is the most valuable skill in the world.
It will definitely be useful in writing essays.
Especially for Stanford.
If any especially brave Brave Supplicant embarks on this listening-to-yourself exercise, and has any experience or insight or discovery or simply observation that they want to share, please feel free! You can always post anonymously here on the blahg. Comments are welcome!
You may also be interested in:
- “If it feels forced, I’m doing it wrong.”
- Applying to bschool? The Strategy of Authenticity
- 2017 Stanford MBA Essay Questions
- No whitewashing (relates to Stanford Essay A)