How to get into Stanford’s MBA program

BY Sydney LakeJuly 15, 2021, 2:00 AM
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Have you ever thought of what matters most to you? It’s the best food for thought ahead of applying to Stanford University’s full-time MBA program—one of the most competitive in the country, and ranked No. 2 on Fortune’s list

Of the 7,324 applicants to Stanford Graduate School of Business’s class of 2022, a mere 436 enrolled. Stanford doesn’t publish its acceptance rate, but the admissions committee selects only 10% or so of applicants for interviews—and about half of interviewees receive offers of admission, says Kirsten Moss, assistant dean of MBA admissions at Stanford GSB.

To earn a spot in Stanford’s MBA program, the school requires that you share evidence of intellectual vitality (academic performance), demonstrated leadership potential, and personal qualities and contributions. Stanford MBA applicants provide evidence of these qualities through an interview, letters of recommendation—and its standout essay question, “What matters most to you, and why?”

“It’s a philosophy question. It’s an existential question. It’s a life question,” says Tyler Cormney, cofounder of MBA Prep School. “So the fact that Stanford starts there I think says a lot about the type of candidate that they’re looking for.”

Why test scores won’t necessarily score you a spot

GMAT scores, your undergraduate GPA, and years of work experience can provide evidence of a strong work ethic and academic excellence, but those numbers aren’t enough to guarantee admission to Stanford GSB.

The average student admitted for the class of 2022 had a 3.8 undergraduate GPA, a 733 GMAT score (or 165 verbal and 164 quantitative on the GRE), and 4.7 years of work experience.

“If you look at the numbers, the medians are at the top, if not the very top, of all of the business schools,” Cormney says. “That just means that Stanford is in a position where they don’t really have to compromise on test scores or GPA or blue-chip work experience.”

Beyond the numbers, candidates must illustrate their leadership experience and what makes them stand out.

“If you’re in a situation where you have low numbers, you need that other element of your profile that makes people stop in their tracks and say, ‘Wow—we want her,’” says Hollis Kline, an admissions consultant with Gatehouse Admissions who earned her MBA from Stanford.

What matters most to you, and why?

Stanford admissions officials, students, and MBA admissions experts agree that the pillar of GSB’s application is that aforementioned essay question.

“Stanford has led the way toward essays that ask applicants more about who they are and how they see the world and less about a recitation of their accomplishments,” Kline says.

Discovering and recognizing what matters most to you is no easy task. Chris Aitken, also cofounder of MBA Prep School, performs an exercise with his clients to brainstorm ideas for the essay. By building a timeline of milestones from the past 10 to 12 years, applicants can find themes and ideas of things that matter most to them that aren’t trite or trivial, Aitken says. 

Kline adds that when it comes to brainstorming ideas for the essay, the “first answer is never the final answer.” The essay should be about something that gets you up in the morning and motivates you, she adds. When you think you may know the topic of your essay, Kline challenges you to keep asking yourself “why” at each level until you know what you’ve learned, where you want to go, and “what is at the core of who you are.”

Why Stanford?

Also part of the essay section is the question: “Why Stanford?” It’s important during this section to focus on what is most important to you—or what problem you want to solve in the world—then dig into what resources Stanford has that can help you achieve that goal, Moss says. 

“One of my big takeaways is to just really believe in yourself—especially when it comes to writing a Stanford GSB essay,” says Emily Calkins, a class of 2021 student. “You have to be self-confident enough to also admit you’re not perfect, which is an interesting tension.”

This section is an opportunity to show Stanford what you will contribute to its community.

“Tie together how the things that matter the most to you have influenced the things that you’ve done,” Aitken says. “Have a consistent theme of how that would influence the things that you would do in the Stanford class and community.”

Who should recommend you to Stanford GSB?

A common misconception among MBA applicants is that the more prestigious or seemingly important the title of the person referring you, the better the chance at acceptance. Unless your recommender happens to be the head of the company you work for and someone with whom you work closely on a daily basis, it’s best to go a different route.

“The letters of recommendation are so important because they’re the only objective ‘other voice’ that factors into your application,” Kline says. 

Through a letter of recommendation, the admissions committee should be able to see your strengths, qualities, leadership, creativity, initiative, and teamwork, Cormney says. 

“We’re looking for someone who has been in the trenches with you,” Moss adds. For that reason, an alumni letter of recommendation is welcomed, but not necessary. An advantage to an alumni reference, Cormney says, is that the “individual understands the school, the culture, what it takes to succeed. So, they can testify to the fit and they can testify to the ability to succeed.”

Getting to know you

Stanford GSB interviews are held with an alum, and typically someone who is in your career field. While the interview is more conversational than those at other top business schools, Moss encourages applicants to really be prepared for the interview. Remember—only about 10% of applicants are selected for this part of the process.

Interviewers will ask about your background and about choices you’ve made. MBA admissions consultants encourage applicants to really know their story and be able to explain transitions in their life and career. 

“Make sure that right as you walk in, you’re prepared to share those things you’re proud of and tell us in a way that we understand what was the context you were in, what was your challenge, what did you do, why did it matter,” Moss says.

Made an impact? “Put it on the list”

A key to success with the Stanford GSB application is knowing and understanding the MBA program well. Students, admissions officials, and MBA consultants encourage applicants to do their research, which they say can really make the difference in writing strong essay responses.

“When you start to talk to the people who understand the values and the culture, you start to understand what it means to be a part of this community,” says Kerry Omughelli, another class of 2021 student. While Stanford’s stats appear intimidating and out of reach, Omughelli says it’s important to “shoot your shot,” he says.

“If you don’t apply, you’re definitely not getting in,” he adds.

Because Stanford GSB’s motto is to “change lives, change organizations, change the world,” Moss encourages those who have made a difference to apply.

Have you made an impact at your organization or in your community? Put Stanford on the list, Moss says. “Don’t take yourself out because you perceive that you may not fit perfectly into our average of anything.”

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