We’ve got this thing where you can submit an essay for consideration for a freebie review here on the blahg and since we began talking about Stanford this week, here’s an essay from last season, for Stanford GSB’s classic “What matters most to you and why?”
torture device essay question. It’s possible that Stanford will be changing their essays this season but we’re betting that they will keep this one, even if they modify the other application requirements — and even if this essay goes away in its current form, the essence of what they’re asking will still almost definitely be your critical success factor to consider as you craft your message for Stanford.
When my dad was a youngling, he lived in such poverty that a hole in the ground in an outside cabin served as a toilet for the family of ten. My mother shared a sofa-bed with one of her seven siblings for most of her childhood. This situation is diametrically opposed to the favorable conditions in which I was conceived. It was through education, bold goals, determination and clinging to the few opportunities available that my parents could thrive and offer new possibilities for my brother and me. They taught us that everything is possible if you pour your heart into it. What matters most to me is to continuously become a better version of myself by knowing where I want to go and passionately giving my best to get there.
Yeah, that word “youngling” threw us a bit in the opening sentence, too! FWIW, this BSer appears to be an international candidate for whom English is not their first language. The writing in the rest of the paragraph is surprisingly sophisticated, in contrast to that odd term in the first line.
Let’s not worry about that and instead give some first impressions of this paragraph in the context of the assignment at hand.
1. Does it answer the question?
Yes, we get an answer to “What matters most?” in the last sentence.
2. Does that answer give us something personal or illuminate something that seems to hold potential to write a full 750-word essay on?
3. Since the answer comes at the end of the paragraph, does the prelude to that answer convey necessary and meaningful information about the applicant?
Aw snap. We’re already having to say no. The preamble content about dad and mum is just not useful. How does that say anything about the person writing the essay? The details offered are more specific on the parents than they are on the author of this piece. Here’s a post that deals with similar issues.
As an opening to an essay, there may not be anything technically wrong with this paragraph. But we hafta say, we’ve read near-identical paragraphs like this from gobs of other BSers already this year. And unfortunately, based on our deep dataset that tracks outcomes for applicants, we don’t often see essays like this turning into admits for these folks.
That’s not to say it’s impossible to get into Stanford with an essay like this one. It’s just that essays like this one are a dime a dozen.
We actually discuss this pretty extensively in our Stanford MBA Application Guide. It’s probably the most common trap to fall in. When you start researching schools, you quickly learn that Stanford cares about do-gooders and they have this lofty mission statement about changing the world. The very natural tendency is to try and write an essay that fits with those themes, so that you match what Stanford is putting out into the world.
The problem is that EVERYBODY is trying to do that — and because you are trying then that almost 100% of the time means what you’re coming up with is contrived. It is not authentic. Your end product takes you 180 degrees away from the goal that you’re aiming for.
Let’s see if this BSer’s second paragraph shows any glimmer of potential:
My father trailed a 30 years engineering career at Petrobras, but such a mammoth corporation supressed his innovation bias. In this sense, he has always incentivized me to pursue a brighter path and to commit to what I truly believe, whatever it takes, instead of accepting the common sense of settling in a big company for a comfortable paycheck. He also taught me the value of money, hence I was granted a small allowance as soon as I was could do simple math and decide how to spend it instead of asking my parents for what I wanted. Those messages sunk deep and I have always strived for acting thoughtfully and independently.
Now we see that this is 245 words — one-third of the essay — talking about stuff that is not-you. The essay needs to be about YOU, the Brave Supplicant. Not about your parents. It’s really not going to make your case about what matters most to YOU when you spend all this time talking about some other person’s experience.
And even worse, the content here isn’t even telling a concrete story; we get nothing of substance about the dad. It’s mostly waxing poetic around concepts — “incentivized me to pursue a bright path” and the stuff about committing to what you belief in. Whatever it takes.
That simply doesn’t work.
All of that is at a 1,000-foot level.
It’s not saying anything.
Or another way to put it: Couldn’t the vast majority of other applicants also say the very same thing?
Most everyone has parents who love them, who believe in them, who tried to teach them to succeed. This second paragraph contains nothing specific and it has the focus almost entirely in the wrong place.
The easy questions to ask are:
1. HOW did your father “incentivize” you?
2. WHAT is this “brighter path” that you wanted to pursue? Brighter than what? What is it specifically?
3. What do you TRULY BELIEVE IN and how have you committed to it?
The other thing we’ll point out is that there’s nothing in paragraph 2 that in any way supports the answer given for what matters most; in fact, the end of paragraph 2 seems to be introducing another theme entirely.
These are all the classic mistakes.
This essay really needs to be scrapped and started again. 🙁
The good news (shameless plug) is that there’s actually time to go through the full process of the Complete Essay Package for Stanford.
It’s great that you’ve gotten to this stage so early! Having full drafts already done by early December shows us that you’re motivated and putting in the work. But pretty much everyone finds that their first drafts end up not being on target in one or more ways, and that’s particularly true for the GSB. You have time to take a step back and examine your approach. Picking up that Stanford Essay Guide is a bare-minimum next step if you haven’t done so already. Perhaps reading it now, in conjunction with seeing these comments, will help you understand the issues and how this draft is off base from almost the very first sentence.
And for a school as competitive as this one, we really encourage you to pull out all the stops. The Complete Essay Package is an incredibly valuable investment and in the big picture view, a worthwhile expenditure when so much is on the line. At minimum you’ll want to get these essays formally decimated through our one-on-one personalized essay review.
We really appreciate that you sent this in for us to discuss here today! We imagine that there are many others who’ve got essays that say nearly the same thing. You’ve allowed us to post this important information and give everyone a chance to redirect while there’s still time to take stock and examine the strategy. So thank you for that! And we’re sorry if you’re cursing us now. 🙁 We know that starting over can be painful. But this essay is not doing what it needs to be doing for a school in this tier.
You may also be interested in:
- essay critique: Stanford “What matters most and why?”
- essay critique! Yale “biggest commitment”
- essay critique! Stanford “What matters most and why” military version
- Submit your own essay for review — no guarantees we’ll get to it in time but you can try if you’re game!