The very first question applicants to Stanford’s MBA program must answer is this one: “What matters most to you, and why?”
A few years ago, one applicant wrote the now famous so-called ‘tortilla essay’ and it was published on the Internet. Immediately, at least in MBA admission circles, it became the equivalent of the infamous “Peanut Butter” memo from a disillusioned Yahoo executive. It spread around the net like wildfire, and many applicants copied the style. It was when Stanford did not place word limits on essays.
The controversy over the ‘tortilla’ began: Critics wondered how so silly an essay would get someone admitted to Stanford Business School. Was it an indication that Stanford doesn’t take essays as seriously as other schools in its admissions process? Or were people being too harsh in judging the quality of the essay?
“Actually,” says admissions consultant Sandy Kreisberg of HBSGuru.com, “the woman executed perfectly on helping victims and discovering her identity as a Latina. This was during the era of the 10-page essay, and this person wrote like 800 words. That was what was soooo shocking. Everyone else was beating their heads and poof, this short, identity politics chick just breezes in.”
Derrick Bolton, Stanford’s admissions director, finally clears the air. In an interview with Poets&Quants, he says the woman who penned the essay was admitted to Stanford but actually enrolled elsewhere. “We admitted that person despite that essay,” says Bolton. “She felt that it was the Stanford essay that got her in and that was not at all the case. So then it was really clear. That year you could see people following that template. It was really sad. That’s why there are consultants. That’s why there is a market for anything somebody peddles to help get people into business school. It’s like Jim Jones and the Guyana tragedy. People will follow people if they think there is something that could help them.”
Partly for amusement, partly for the historical significance, we reprint the essay in its entirety (certain words are deleted to conceal the identity of the author):
A famous saying at Disney goes, “…it all started with a mouse.” For me, the equivalent should read, “It all started with a tortilla.” A tortilla? Without over-dramatizing it, I believe a simple corn tortilla was the catalyst for a significant life change that would lead me to discover what matters most to me: challenging myself to open up, learn, and grow by building diverse relationships.
Most of the students from the high school I attended in [deleted] were from middle- and low-income Latino and Asian households. As a Latina-American, I was comfortable within my high school environment. However, reflecting back, I recognize that I was raised in a well-intended conservative household that offered little exposure to people outside of my immediate community. I was accustomed to the way things were at home and as a result, I was admittedly a little close-minded and uneasy with change.
ONE FATEFUL NIGHT IN THE FAJITA BAR.
[deleted] College was a culture shock. Gone were my Asian and Latino friends with whom I found it so easy to relate. I was in a new environment surrounded by strangers from different places and backgrounds. I initially dealt with this by gravitating toward people who were similar to me or appeared to share the same values I had grown up with. Instead of trying to develop relationships with students from diverse backgrounds, I put up my guard, with doubts about how I could relate to them. However, everything changed one fateful night in the college dining hall at the much-anticipated fajita bar.
For the first time in weeks I had a corn tortilla. What was once commonplace had become a strong reminder of home. I thought to myself, “That’s odd…I haven’t had a tortilla in ages. Why don’t we have tortillas every night?” That’s when it hit me. Things weren’t the same. I was no longer at [deleted] High School with a fairly homogeneous crowd, living under my conservative parent’s roof. Instead, I was in a different place, with new people and experiences. Gone were the days of having a tortilla with dinner every night – life, as I knew it, had changed. That was when I realized I had to make a choice: continue on the same parochial path and remain content with what I learned back at home, or explore what these new people and experiences had to offer. I took a chance and decided to make a change.
My decision to breakout of old mindsets and embrace diversity enabled me to open up to new people and ideas. This openness has helped me build a number of meaningful relationships that have not only brought me great joy but also changed my outlook on life and my future. As such, what matters most to me is challenging the way I think and constantly learning and growing by building relationships with people who inspire me, challenge me, or are otherwise different from me. By contrasting my experiences and values against those of others, I am better able to understand the values I grew up with and have opened my perspective to new ideas. Relationships with three people in particular have changed my perspective, shaped my values, and made me who I am today: an Admissions Officer who taught me about openness, a Professor who taught me leadership and self-confidence, and a student I mentor who taught me what courage and optimism really mean.
I became friends with a Latino Admissions Officer at [deleted] College; [deleted] and I had a strong affinity with one another because we both grew up in [deleted]. Because of his ethnicity and place of birth, I assumed we were very similar and shared common views and lifestyles. A few weeks into our friendship, I attended a panel hosted by the Gay and Lesbian Students Association to learn more about issues impacting the gay community. I was surprised to see [deleted] describing the challenges he faced as a gay Latino. Until that point, it never occurred to me that he could have had a different background, which included being gay. I assumed that because of a few common factors, we were similar and I knew him well. I was wrong. As a result, I had inadvertently failed to recognize that [deleted] comprised a set of unique values and experiences that I could learn from.
REJECTED BY A FAMILY FOR A GAY LIFESTYLE.
That meeting, and my subsequent interactions with [deleted], left an indelible mark in my mind. As I became more open and recognized his unique qualities and experiences, he could sense my interest in his life and shared more with me. [deleted] described the challenges he went through when he finally “came out” to his conservative Mexican family. Coming from a conservative household myself, I understood how that type of news might be received. I sensed his pain when he told me that his family rejected him and was “sickened” by his gay lifestyle. I admired his strength and commitment to himself when he introduced me to his partner.
Our friendship taught me many important values. First, it strengthened my resolve to be tolerant and to love my family and friends unconditionally. After learning how [deleted]’s family reacted, I vowed to never let anyone close to me feel that type of rejection or pain. In addition, our relationship taught me to enter all new situations with an open mind, with no preset notions or assumptions simply based on perceived background or outward appearance. This was something very different from what I had experienced in my home community, where most people had similar backgrounds and values, and were not always open to new ones. I learned that it was important to acknowledge the unique challenges and events that others have experienced and to understand how those events could impact their outlook. By setting those expectations for myself, I was able to learn more about him and others around me. Openness is a value I will always subscribe to. My ability to be open to new people and ideas has helped me forge many other relationships ever since.
Another relationship that changed my life is one with a Professor of Economics I regard as a mentor and good friend. I first observed Professor [deleted] when she gave a speech about the application of statistical analysis to everyday scenarios. I immediately wanted to meet her. She struck me as someone I could look up to as a role model – I was interested in her field of study and intrigued by her confidence and role as the only female economics professor in the department. In retrospect, part of the intrigue was also the contrast between the professor and my mother, who was raised on a ranch in [deleted] and educated to become a secretary. Although it goes without saying that I am proud of my mother and view her as an ideal role model in many respects, I never had the opportunity to develop a relationship with a woman who was a leader in her professional field – Professor [deleted] was my first exposure to a successful female leader in academia.
LEARNING HOW TO GRAPH SUPPLY AND DEMAND CURVES.
Ultimately, I learned about much more than how to graph supply and demand curves. I learned about confidence and leadership. Professor [deleted]’s creativity and initiative inspired me to think critically and to explore the application of economic analysis to other areas. This prompted me to complete two summers of research and regression analysis projects on low-income housing and volunteer labor. These research projects were some of my first real attempts at thinking “outside the box” while testing and stretching my academic stamina. The work I completed helped me develop self-confidence in my analytical abilities.
Professor [deleted] also demonstrated effective leadership. Her charismatic style made her approachable and motivated me even when I was unsure of myself. She helped me set goals that were challenging yet realistic and structured our research projects so that I could meaningfully address my educational and developmental needs. Most importantly, I learned that a key to successfully leading people with diverse interests, as she often did, was uniting them behind a common vision and ensuring that everyone’s concerns were acknowledged. I have applied this leadership style at [deleted] Consulting to motivate and unite teams of clients and consultants with very different goals and perspectives. For example, at an aerospace client, I led a team that included a golf-loving aerospace engineer who was fast-approaching retirement and an inexperienced analyst. I noticed that because of their specific concerns, they were easily distracted or discouraged. I brought the team together by rallying everyone around a common vision, addressing their issues, and ensuring that they felt important and were meaningfully engaged. This enabled me to bring together competing perspectives to form a cohesive team that successfully reached our goals. Overall, the leadership and confidence I learned from my relationship with Professor Brown has been invaluable in both my personal and professional life.
The values I learned through my [deleted] College relationships have enriched my ability to understand the differences between my home community and the world at large, and to develop and sustain relationships. These learnings have been excellent preparation for what I regard as one of my most significant relationships to date: mentoring [deleted], an Education First Scholar. My role as [deleted]’s mentor was intended to help her adjust to college life. Despite that arrangement, I think she has made an even greater impression on me!
When I first met [deleted], I was deeply moved by the challenges she overcame and could relate to some of the cultural issues she encountered. She too was a Latina from [deleted] with a conservative upbringing. However, her life took a much different course. As a young girl, [deleted] witnessed her parent’s marital problems before her father left the family. Feeling the absence of a father in her life, [deleted] grew dependent on her boyfriend and became pregnant. Despite those issues, [deleted] is a teenage mother who beat the odds by completing her high school education and gaining admission into a number of universities. As her Education First mentor, I have counseled [deleted] on issues ranging from potential majors to childcare alternatives. What has impacted me the most about our relationship is her ability to face any challenge head-on and maintain high spirits even during highly stressful times.
Because of [deleted], I see the world from a new perspective. Her strength, courage, and optimism have inspired me to face my own challenges more courageously and have also taught me a deeper level of introspection. Even though we share similar cultural backgrounds, I see how differently our lives have played out as a result of circumstance. Our relationship has given me a stronger sense of empathy and a better understanding of issues that can impact the well-being of colleagues and friends. Rather than fear setbacks and challenges, I have learned to face them as bravely and optimistically as possible and view them as opportunities to broaden myself. Despite the obstacles [deleted] faced growing up and the challenges of raising a baby while in high school and college, she has an incredibly strong and optimistic spirit – an attitude and outlook I have adopted in my own life.
A YEAR THAT BEGAN WITH RASHES AND HIVES.
The values I learned through our relationship were especially important last year when I encountered a significant obstacle of my own. For much of last year I was ill. It started with rashes and hives. Severe fatigue and aching joints slowly set in. Throughout this difficult time, I still managed to complete my client and non-profit work with little disruption. However, after countless doctor visits and blood tests, I received devastating news: my symptoms and lab work pointed to lupus, an illness that is manageable but often leads to significant health complications. I was scared, but drew strength from the courage and optimism I saw in [deleted]. Rather than succumb to fear, I chose to remain optimistic and do everything in my power to get well.
After several difficult months, my health and my life turned around. My doctors revised the diagnosis after many of my symptoms disappeared and my lab work alone was no longer conclusive evidence of lupus. As grateful as I am to have my health back, I also appreciate the new perspective I gained from this experience and am thankful for relationships with individuals who have inspired me to reach a new level of courage and determination.
Relationships have shaped my values, enriched my ability to relate to and support others, and have helped me understand how my family has shaped my perspective. It is important for me to continue developing relationships because they are a source of continuous education and personal growth. My relationships have allowed me to establish my own identity as an independent, tolerant, and free-spirited woman. The greatest outcome from my relationships is the realization that the better I understand myself, the better I am able to understand others, making me a stronger colleague, mentor, and friend. Relationships have also enriched the way I interact with my family and those closest to me and have provided insight and perspective into my own goals.
One of my primary goals in life is to continue developing strong relationships and the diverse Stanford community is the perfect environment in which to do so. While at Stanford, I hope to not only share my experiences and perspectives, but also learn through the experiences and perspectives of others. I hope to challenge my classmates to look within themselves to understand how building diverse relationships can help them grow as well. My life is richer and my goals are greater because I have opened myself to so many new people and ideas. It’s hard to believe there was a time when all I wanted to eat were tortillas!
Stanford University Graduate School of Business – Ethan Baron photo
When Stanford GSB’s former Dean of Admissions Derrick Bolton first introduced the ‘What Matters To You and Why’ admissions essay in the MBA application over thirteen years ago, did he have any idea that it would become such an enduring and iconic question? Even if you don’t include Stanford among your short list of target schools, this prompt is well worth reflecting upon before you start writing your applications.
With the arrival of a new director of MBA admissions, Kirsten Moss, who officially assumes her duties on June 1st, the school has been the first to announce application deadlines for the 2017/18 admissions cycle, and confirmed that there are no major changes to the essay questions. “What matters most to you, and why?” is with us for at least another year.
Kirsten will be speaking on an Admissions Director panel at the CentreCourt MBA Festival in San Francisco on June 24th, and I look forward to hearing her take on this question, and how best to approach it.
THE QUESTION CAN PROVIDE INVALUABLE INSIGHT ON YOUR LIFE PURPOSE, VALUES AND TRUE SELF
This question seems straightforward, although coming up with an answer can be a lot more difficult than one might think. At Fortuna Admissions we have seen how this question has tied some applicants in knots as they try to come up with an approach that they hope is clever, striking, or even profound.
Whether you’re actually applying to the MBA program at Stanford, or wondering about the career path that is right for you, taking the time to answer this question can provide invaluable insight about your life purpose, values, and true self. When you understand what matters most to you, it’ll help solidify your self-awareness and give you a strong foundation not only for success at business school but also success with relationships and career. It’s a question that is worth considering in spite of the pain and anguish!
So why does Stanford ask this question, and why have they have stuck with it for so long? For my colleague at Fortuna Admissions, Heidi Hillis, a Stanford GSB alumnus and former MBA admissions interviewer for the school, the question really gets to the heart of what Stanford is about, and links strongly to the school’s tagline, ‘Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world’.
WRITE DOWN YOUR FIRST RESPONSE
“Stanford is looking not just for extremely bright and successful professionals, but also young people who have strong values, and who want to have a positive impact in the world.” She goes on to explain: “The school genuinely wants to get to know you and to understand your values. Stanford MBAs are driven by a desire not just to excel in their careers but also to help others and to have a positive impact. The Stanford GSB admissions office works very hard to bring together a group of students who are open, humble and have strong integrity, which leads to the incredible level of camaraderie and trust that you find at the school. This is really core to Stanford’s brand and the identity of its community.”
So what matters most to you, and why? Start off with your intuitive or first response. Write it down. We’ll return to it later.
Stanford allows no more than 1,150 words to cover this essay and a second essay question, “Why Stanford?” Maybe you feel that you can answer the first part of the question in one word, with things like family, love, or chocolate. But the heart of the question, the part that reveals your true calling in life, requires deeper reflection. Why does that one thing matter to you more than something else?
STANFORD’S OWN ADVICE ON HOW TO ANSWER THE ESSAY QUESTION
If you’re staring at a blank page, perhaps we can start with some of the advice that Stanford GSB itself offers. They propose that you think in terms of who you are, lessons and insights that have shaped your perspectives, and events that have influenced you. And they encourage you to write from the heart.
Derrick Bolton was quoted as saying ,‘please think of the Stanford essays as conversations on paper ‒ when we read files, we feel that we meet people, also known as our “flat friends” ‒ and tell us your story in a natural, genuine way.” If you look up ‘story’ in the dictionary, you’ll find a definition along the lines of ‘an account of imaginary or real people and events told in an entertaining way.” The best essays are told in a captivating ‘story-like’ way that may involve emotion, inspiration, humor, insight, honesty, wit, and simply – being yourself.
A Stanford GSB admissions officer may be reading 20 applications today, 30 tomorrow, and hundreds more in the following weeks. So how can you make an impact, sound intelligent, be original, and engage your reader? This is no easy task. Take the time to put on your thinking cap and reach within to tell the story that you are the best qualified to write.
TELLING YOUR STORY
At Fortuna Admissions, we’d like to help and offer you some guidance on how to best tackle the structure of this type of essay, while telling your ‘story’:
1. Start with identifying a person, event, or experience that greatly impacted you. What morals, values, and lessons did you gain from this experience?
2. How do you presently use these morals, values, and lessons, and how do they impact your drive, motivation, and vision of the world? (Remember, Stanford’s mission statement is ‘Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world’.)
3. How has the above impacted your career decisions?
4. Conclude by showing the link between your values and your career vision, and why these objectives are important to you.