The Stanford Graduate School of Business wants to know “What matters most to you and why?”
If you are starting work on Stanford’s “What matters most” essay, chances are you are struggling. One thing you need to know right from the start is that struggling is essential to succeeding in this assignment.
In this article, I will offer some advice on how to approach the first part of the “what matters” question. I’ll address the “why” question in a later post.
Answering Stanford’s “What matters most” essay question requires self-reflection and self-discovery. You are expected to examine the life you’ve lived and the choices you’ve made. Which is to say that what matters most to you may be revealed by your past actions and decisions.
Your answer could take the form of a statement of philosophy, sense of purpose, ideal, belief, value, mantra, passion, or love. It could be a person, a place, or a thing. There is no “right” answer nor is one form of expression better than another. In your essay response, you will be expected to show the admissions committee how this “whatever it is” has manifested itself in your life. Therefore, you should begin this writing assignment by looking back at your life and performing some advanced “accounting.” Although looking backward is an important part of discovering your answer, what matters most to you might not be the same at every point of your life. Be aware that Stanford’s question is asking what matters to you most now — today.
The Right Approach
The wrong approach to tackling this essay question is to start with an answer you think will appeal to the Stanford GSB admissions committee and then to attempt to find evidence from your life to support it.
The right approach is to look back at your life and to try to express most clearly who you are and what you value. This is not going to be easy; it isn’t meant to be. Applicants who try to engineer an answer are never as successful as the ones who are willing to dive into the murky world of their memories and to do the hard work of finding an answer.
Just as there is no ideal form for your response, there isn’t any one path to follow to find your answer. If you are embarking on this journey, I have marked the trailheads of a few paths to explore. You don’t have to complete every single exercise in the list below. Rather, you should start down the path that looks most appealing and see where it takes you. If you’re not completely satisfied with where you end up, don’t give up; simply try another path.
Follow Your Struggles
In his book The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lagos Egri wrote, “a character stands revealed in conflict.” What does a playwright, writing about a character in a drama, have to teach us about answering Stanford’s “What matters most” essay? A great deal as it turns out.
What is true for a character in a play is also true for you as a human being. To discover what matters to you, examine the times you’ve been under strain, stress, and pressure. In times of tremendous conflict, your character is revealed and your values are tested. A value becomes your value when it has actually cost you something. You may think that “protecting the environment” matters most to you, but have you made any sacrifices for this value? This is part of the “accounting” exercise I alluded to in the introduction. The “value of a value” can be measured in terms of sacrifice – of time, money, comfort, etc. You may think something matters to you, but has it ever cost you anything of value?
Follow Your Decisions
The things that truly matter most to you have guided you consciously or unconsciously at the times of your life that you were faced with important decisions. For this exercise, begin by identifying the big decision points in your life—the major forks in the road. Don’t analyze them right away; just write down some brief reminder phrases (e.g., “choosing between colleges”). When you have a good list, go back and write a short story about making the decision. What were the options you were presented with, what did you think about each one, how did you “feel” about each one, and what choice did you eventually make and why? Finally, read all of your decisions stories together and see if you can discover a common thread or theme – a value that guided you or a belief or philosophy that you followed to make your decisions. This exercise may help you to see what matters most to you more clearly.
Follow Your Motivations
“What makes you tick?” From one perspective, Stanford’s essay question asks you to think about what motivates you. Think about the times in your life when you were truly motivated and energized. Food and sleep certainly matter a great deal, so consider the times that you worked through meals and sacrificed sleep for something that mattered more. At that time, what were you working on or what goal were you working towards? This exercise could reveal your deepest sources of motivation.
Follow Your Bliss
This advice is courtesy of the philosopher Joseph Campbell. Campbell believed that we should “follow our bliss” to discover our purpose in life. For this exercise, write down short narratives about the moments in your life when you were enjoying yourself so much that you lost track of time – i.e., the moments when you experienced bliss. Write down where you were and what you were doing at the time. It’s very likely that you were engaged in a pursuit that truly mattered to you.
Follow Your Sorrow
If your bliss isn’t the royal road to the answer of what matters most to you, then consider looking in the opposite direction: remember the times that you were truly unhappy—your darker days. This exercise is certainly not as fun as reminiscing about your joys and triumphs, but it can be revealing because depression, anxiety, and dissatisfaction are often signals that we are not living according to our values or fulfilling a deeper sense of purpose. Think back to those painful moments, and ask yourself what was missing from your life? You may have been living in a way that was contrary to your deeper values. Perhaps what matters to you will be revealed by its absence.
You may discover your answer to Stanford’s “what matters most” essay question by following one of the paths above, or perhaps your answer will only become clear after you’ve traversed them all. So how do you know when you have arrived at your destination? Only you can say for sure. It is the point that you decide that you no longer care what a Stanford admission committee thinks about your answer – this is what really matters to you and if it’s not what matters to them, then so be it!