06/06/2012 05:34 BST | Updated 05/08/2012 06:12 BST

What Matters Most to You, and Why?

This question is the opening note on Stanford's Graduate School of Business application for prospective MBAs. The question appears year after year and is one of the most recognisable questions for anyone who has gone through the MBA application process. It seems innocuous at first, as the aspiring MBA thinks 'Sure... family, friends, passion...this essay should be fairly straightforward. Of course I know what matters most to me and why!' But this question is notorious not only because it is unexpectedly personal but also because each applicant expresses frustration at how hard it ultimately is to answer in a thoughtful, genuine, but not trite, way.

Applying to business schools this past fall, I was surprised how emotionally rigorous and personal the application essays were for me. The difficulty of the business school essay really lies in being able to eloquently, yet honestly convey both who you are as well as who you want to become, in 500 words or less. To do successfully required me to analyse my personality, past and future, which was the hardest but most valuable part of the process. Precisely because the questions require this type of personal analysis, I would recommend the process of writing an MBA essay or two to everyone, even if you have no interest in an MBA.The questions may seem straightforward at first - name three setbacks, name three accomplishments -- but for real, compelling answers to these questions, you need to do a bit of emotional processing. For me, I wondered how I wanted to define myself, both in the privacy of my brainstorm and in the eyes of a discerning admissions committee.

The self-analysis was a months long process. I attempted a number of brainstorming exercises and then drafts, but patient editors fed back that the essays were mostly 'one-dimensional.'

I lost patience with seemingly endless brainstorming exercises advising me to 'write your personal and professional qualities on a spreadsheet, map out a story that illustrates that about you, and then analyse it.' I was skeptical that these exercises would really flesh out who I really was. After all, as a 20 something, was I not still figuring that out? But after some time, what emerged from the chaos (or a Google docs spreadsheet in which row 23 read 'activities enjoyed -baking...what does that say about me?!') was the beginning of a new understanding of myself, an emergence of a maturity of what I do and do not need professionally and personally, and what is actually important to me. The self-reflection had a compounding effect, as a seemingly useless brainstorm done in August came back to me in December. It was amazing to me to realize there was a method to the madness of my life. The qualities that led me to move to London unquestioningly also explained why I had tried fashion straight out of university. A childhood exhortation of wanting to be President of the United States explained my delight in public speaking in my professional life. And the question of 'why do you want an MBA' turned from a transactional description of what I wanted to do in three to five years into a visualization of who I wanted to become.

One of the most common sticking points for the job search I hear from my friends is that they don't necessarily know how to think their way out of their preferences. Most people know what they are running from, but they don't know what they want to run to. People will take Myers Briggs tests or equivalent, hoping that the next career emerges from the detailed results. Yet, in my limited experience, the eureka answer doesn't come after a beach vacation or a brunch you stayed home from to think through your life goal. This pattern obviously happens for some, but if you are feeling stuck, I recommend picking one or two questions that appeal to you and doing an initial brainstorm. You'll find that you keep thinking back to the brainstorm, not necessarily on the Saturday morning you have allocated to it, but in the walk to the tube on Tuesday evening or in the shower Friday morning. To get to the point where essays are genuine and cohesive (ie, high quality), you have put a mirror to your choices and unique attributes. As a friend recommended, "In the end, you should feel that your essays are fairly personal that you wouldn't want to show them to everyone." List your qualities and stories and experiences that make you proud and those that make you sad. Talk to your friends and family. I found this book helpful for guiding my brainstorm. I was surprised to grapple with such personal questions for a professional degree, but with the crisis of leadership constantly cited these days, it's increasingly critical that we have thoughtful leaders who can take stock of who they are as opposed to just giving the first and easiest answer. So as a starting point, here are the most recent essay questions for both Stanford and Harvard. How equipped are you to answer them honestly and wholly? Can you vocalize who you are and what you value?

I found a renewed confidence in myself and a better understanding of attributes, decisions, and traits that are distinctively me. For so many of my choices and reactions, I had long thought that most people would react how I did or choose how I had. I needed the business school application exercise to understand the simple truth that I am a unique product of inherent qualities and formative experiences which shape my passions and ambitions. And in getting to that realization, I found a completely unexpected answer to the 'what matters to you and why' question. I sent the essay to Stanford, but it turns out what matters to me most and why was an answer I needed for me more than for them.