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EssaySnark Essay Review! Stanford Essay 1: What matters most, and why?

Uh oh. The classic Stanford essay.

We're a little surprised it took this long for anyone to send this in! It's traditionally held the spot of “Most Difficult Essay” among all top business schools of the world – that is, until HBS mixed things up with the completely open-ended essay this year.


That's just a little word o' advice from the 'Snark. We're actually going to discuss Stanford today, not Harvard. But we know that many people will try to jigger other schools' essays into that Harvard prompt, and Stanford Essay 1 is a common candidate for this misguided effort. Please resist the urge. Not only are the questions the schools are asking totally unrelated, but the schools themselves are so different that the Stanford content just isn't appropriate for Harvard.

Not to mention the fact that it'll be completely obvious to Harvard if that's what you do.

But back to Stanford.

As you know, Stanford doesn't have actual word limits for each individual essay. They have guidelines for a suggested allocation, and you can't go over 1600 words total. They recommend a 750-word essay for the Matters Most question – which is downright liberal by bschool essay standards these days. Used to be, 750 words was a middle-length essay. Now, this is one of the longest essays around.

Still, 750 words isn't that long when you have a lot to say. After all, this essay is asking you to talk about the thing that's most precious to you – most important – most core-critical over all else in the world. Seems like that should take some space to do a good job, wouldn't it?

Yes and no.

Some people do in fact wander off into la-la-land with the extreme permissiveness that Stanford has allowed of 750 words for Essay 1. Your biggest challenge with this essay is that you must FOCUS. You have to directly answer the question – in fact, both elements of the question.

We're happy to report that the Brave Supplicant who sent in this draft did exactly that. At least, there's a clear and direct answer to the main element right upfront – in the first sentence, in fact. Here's what we got:

Keeping an open mind, from exploring other countries to shedding personal biases, matters most to me. As a first generation Chinese American, I not only grew up speaking two languages, but I also adopted two distinct cultures. My parents, who had lived in Germany before immigrating to the United States, further influenced me to broaden my horizon. Because of them, I have always gravitated towards new ideas and experiences.

So refreshing! So direct! You would not believe how many of these essays we see where there is no specific answer to the question to be found – not in the first sentence, not in the first paragraph, not nowhere.

So your next tip for today (besides the one about not trying to re-use Stanford 1 to HBS) is that you MUST ANSWER THE QUESTION.

This is true for every essay for every school – you're saying, “Like, duh, EssaySnark” right?

Yeah. Well. Not everyone seems to get this part. It's a very very common misstep among BSers' drafts everywhere. And it's super critical for Stanford.

The reason for that is, with 750 words, you can quickly hang yourself if you don't have a specific core around which to build your essay. You must know literally what you're talking about (“duh” again, right?) in order to say something useful and intelligent.

This BSer has done a fairly good job of that. We get a real answer in the first sentence. When we first read it, we had some misgivings that it sounded like an answer written to impress the adcom – that's probably the second most common mistake that people make on this one, behind the “not answer the question” part. The hardest part of Stanford essay 1 is to say something that's authentic, to share a real part of yourself. The answer given in the first sentence made us hesitate straightaway, since we were worried it was gonna be another one of those essays. We were also worried that it sounded like the BSer was answering the “matters most” question with multiple responses.

That's tip #3: Only write one single answer in this essay. This BSer has said that “keeping an open mind” is the most important thing, and that works, but it seems like they are also saying that “exploring other countries” and “shedding personal biases” are also what “matters most” - and obviously you can only have ONE thing that “matters most”. Singular. The way it's written, we can kinda excuse it, but you're heading into dangerous territory there.

EssaySnark has already managed to write 750 words ourselves in this discussion of just a single paragraph of Stanford Essay 1 – so we need to wrap things up here. Obviously there's a lot that can be said about any of these essays, and we're not trying to claim that we've covered all the ground in even this one paragraph. Here's a quick summary, to help this BSer understand what they've done and where they need to be careful:

    1. Besides the “multiple answers” thing you need to look at the focus of the essay. You start off with this decent opening and then you do an excellent job of talking about specific experiences in your life by which this answer is true – (tip #4 for BSers: that's the way to execute on this essay, is by DESCRIBING ACTUAL EVENTS that have shaped you and made the “matters most” thing what it is). **BUT!** This BSer has too much “not-me” content. You describe in great detail some experiences in Germany, which are well-written and generally interesting... but are they about YOU? You need to be careful with this. We're not saying that you should delete all of it, but you need to examine it closely and make sure that it's revealing something specific about you – and that it's truly supporting your answer to the “matters most” thing. Around paragraphs 6 and 7 we started wondering what the point was. And paragraph 8 is really off track. You're totally out in the wilderness there discussing your friends' grandparents... what does that have to do with YOU? This needs attention.

    2. You need to test the argument you're making. This is again true for everyone (tip #5: does the “why” answer fit logically with the “matters most” answer?) This BSer brings everything full circle at the very end but it's a little high-concept; we're not completely convinced that these threads tie up as neatly as you want them to. Maybe it's fine... the essay feels complete, which is definitely important and hard to do... but somehow the “why” statement seems like it could be more directly focused on YOU.

Hopefully these tips and the specific reactions we've offered to the brave BSer who submitted this will also be useful to all of you. This is still one of the hardest essays around. If you're just starting out on your essay-writing adventure, we do not recommend beginning with Stanford. Get your feet wet on essays to another school – Wharton or Kellogg have “easy” essays to learn the ropes with. Then come tackle your Stanford drafts a little later, after you have your chops down. The whole ordeal will be easier that way.

Or relatively so. It's still Stanford. And it's still a killer of a question.

Good luck with it!

EssaySnark is reviewing essays here on GMAT Club every week. If you want to see if yours is up to snuff, please read the instructions here to submit it. Personally identifiable information in your essay needs to be removed and won't be published – don't worry, you'll be able to stay anonymous if you prefer.

I respectfully disagree that what matters most is SINGULAR. It can definitely plural as long as it supports your story and allows the committee to understand who you truly are.

EssaySnark's Strategies for the 2017-'18 MBA Application for the Stanford Graduate School of Business

We did a full refresh on this Stanford guide, as we always do — yes, even when the school’s questions don’t change. Why? Because we learn more and more each and every year, based on working with yet another crop of Brave Supplicants who are successful in their apps. And, there have been some changes and shifts that we’ve observed at Stanford, even if the school does not broadcast news of them loudly. We are tuned in, and we are able to share what we learn with you in this updated and revised GSB essay strategy guide for 2017.

The bottom line is that we cannot simply phone it in – just like you won’t be able to phone it in with your Stanford application. As we did last year, we took the time to revise this from cover to cover, including adding whole new sections about recommendations, the GRE, and the in-app questions. We also pared things back and edited out information that was no longer available from the GSB website, which you’d think would have allowed this guide to get shorter. But no! It’s now up to 77 pages of core content including additional introductory details that push the total page count to over 100. This is all actionable advice on how to think about, and construct, your Stanford essays.

Stanford is looking for similar qualities, year in and year out, and they don’t need to revamp their essays all the time in order to find the best candidates. They’re in the “if it works, don’t fix it” camp. The consistency of the Stanford application shows that their essays – “What matters most, and why?” and “Why Stanford?” – are reliably delivering information about candidates that the adcom values in their assessment processes.

Even though on the surface the questions look the same, there have been some subtle changes that Stanford has communicated this year. This newly expanded 2017 guide covers those, to give you the greatest advantage possible in constructing your pitch.

This guide will show you:

  • How to identify the information that the adcom will value
  • An ideal structure for these two essays
  • How much career goals matter (if at all)
  • How to show the adcom who you really are

EssaySnark’s 2017 MBA Application Strategy Guide for Stanford gives you a specific process with detailed exercises to complete that will generate the raw material you need to authentically answer the questions. We do this while operating within the guidelines that Stanford has around seeking outside help. When you use this guide, you can be confident in your application, and confident in yourself, knowing that your work is your own.


EssaySnark's Strategies for the 2017-'18 MBA Application for the Stanford Graduate School of Business

First published in: 2011
Current version published on: 06/08/2017 Specific to: 2017

Subscribe to online access to the Stanford 2017 Essay Guide for 90 days – $ 21.95.  

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The 2017 Stanford MBA Application Guide has been completely reworked with new insights about all aspects of admissions, with commentary on the school and, very important, exercises for digging into your own past and personality, to uncover the best answers for the very difficult Stanford MBA essay questions. Understand what they're looking for with the most thorough Stanford strategy guide on the market. This SnarkStrategies Guide is available in an instant-access online version, viewable through your browser - no special software required. You will have access for 90 days. You must be connected to the Internet in order to view the SnarkStrategies Guide; no downloads are available. Access for this purchase is provided through your login to and cannot be shared. This is an instant-access information product; no refunds available.

Please be careful if you buy this guide on Amazon Marketplace or other sites; there are some used copies floating around and they’re all the old versions. EssaySnark’s guides are now only available on If a reseller claims they have a “new” version then they’re lying. Be very careful with what you buy. A hardcopy version has not been published since 2013. The 2017 edition, version 7.0, is what you want.

You could get this for free! One strategy guide is included with The Complete Essay Package.


Reviews from Brave Supplicants!

Screenshots of what was said about the 2013 guide:

We kept that first comment in mind when we revised this book for 2014 (though we hope you’ll account for the two reviews in conjunction with each other! gah didn’t that one person read the whole darn book??).

Back when the first GSB guide was released in 2011, at least one person found it valuable!

And another Brave Supplicant thought that our guides were useful too (April 2012): Check out their review here!

If you found value in this strategy guide – or not! – we’d be most appreciative if you’d add a review on the Amazon product page, or leave some comments here.

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