Stanford's optional essays deal with multiple dimensions of leadership and teamwork. It is often difficult to separate good leadership from good teamwork, but when it comes to choosing MBA essay topics there is a difference. A leadership story, like Options 2-4, should recount how you, working alone or with a team, confronted and hopefully overcame an external problem.
A teamwork topic like Option 1, on the other hand, should demonstrate leadership that improved the team itself. In both cases, you have to play the lead role in your story. Don’t let the word “teamwork” fool you. Your team is not applying for an MBA. A final note when choosing topics: the best ones will be consistent with the theme you choose for Essay A (What matters most to you and why?)
Option 1: Tell us about a time when you built or developed a team.
If you’ve started a team at work or for a volunteer project, for example, this is a great chance to show how you built a strong team from the ground up, including member recruitment and selection, duty assignment, effective communication, mutual support, and most importantly conflict resolution. A key theme should be pro-activity. Explain what decisions you made and steps you took to avoid common teamwork pitfalls. If you did encounter problems, explain how you solved them.
Meanwhile, a “team development” story should showcase how you fixed a broken team. This involves identifying the main problems (which are often the result of poor communication), devising concrete solutions, and gaining the buy-in of your teammates. In both of these approaches, you are the leader, but your leadership is aimed at building or fortifying your team.
Option 2: Tell us about a time when you felt most effective as a leader.
An effective leader gets things done. This topic, then, requires a story in which the outcome is a clear “win”. You can start by outlining the situation, including all the factors that will eventually challenge you and your team, then explaining in detail your responses and results, and ending with the final outcome. Often these stories hinge on persuading a key person or group of persons to take a chance on an innovation that you or your team is promoting.
Option 3: Tell us about a time when you tried to reach a goal or complete a task that was challenging, difficult, or frustrating.
Despite your best efforts, not all situations end positively. By including the word “tried" this option accounts for that possibility. Instead of focusing on the final outcome, you can highlight your perseverance and problem solving ability throughout the process, much like you would do for Option 2. If you worked with a team, you can also illustrate how you kept your team motivated throughout. Please note that any good leadership story should show how you deal with challenges, difficulties and frustrations, so the main difference between Option 2 and Option 3 is the final outcome.
Option 4: Tell us about a time when you went beyond what was defined, established, or expected
A leader breaks barriers and takes responsibility in situations when other people might say, “Not my job.” Your topic can accentuate your willingness to act alone and take a chance when you have no clear support. If you have a leadership accomplishment in which there was no teamwork involved, then this might be a good option.
This essay also presents the interesting possibility of showing moral leadership, i.e., taking a firm stand on an ethical position that contradicts your superiors or colleagues.
As I mentioned, there is a lot of potential overlap between these options. Feel free to ask me about your particular situations.