How to Write Stanford's Supplemental Essays

Stanford's supplement requires 8 short essays and 3 long essays. Here are some tips to optimize your supplemental essays for Stanford:

Short Essay #1: Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (50-150 words)

This short essay is a version of an essay that used to be required on the Common Application. When the Common Application eliminated this short essay requirement, many colleges including Stanford began including a version of the essay in their supplements. How do you pick a good topic for this short essay? I would recommend taking a close look at your Activity List on the Common Application. There, you probably listed 10 or so activities that represent the most meaningful extracurricular experiences of your high school career. This essay should take one of those experiences (preferably one in the top 5) and elaborate on that experience. You should definitely avoid picking an activity that you already discussed in another essay.

Because this is a very short essay, you need to minimize the storytelling and focus more on packing lots of information into a condensed space. Don't just describe what the activity or experience is. Elaborate also on why and how you are involved in that activity or experience. Why did you pursue this? Why is it meaningful to you? How have you participated? How has the activity or experience changed you or made you grow? What have you ultimately put into this activity or experience, and what have you taken away? Remember that each piece of your application should provide more insight and information about you, and if there is a piece of your application that you have not yet been able to highlight sufficiently, this is your opportunity to explain its significance to your reader.

Short Essay #2: What is the most significant challenge that society faces today? (50 word limit)

This is an essay where it will be easy to fall into the trap of writing about cliché topics--big global problems like poverty that have been plaguing society since time immemorial. I would recommend that you limit the scope of your search to the recent past (i.e., the last 5-7 years). Try to brainstorm some of the most significant challenges and problems that have arisen in the last 5-7 years. What recent changes or developments have prompted those challenges and problems? Why have these challenges and problems suddenly become so problematic or conspicuous?

What's most important in this essay is not identifying the challenge or problem. It is explaining why you believe this challenge or problem is the most significant one that society faces today. Try to connect it to your personal values, beliefs, and experiences and explain why you care about this issue. Is there anything practical you have done to try to address this issue? In what contexts have you personally witnessed the effects of this challenge? Provide specific and concrete examples of this challenge, preferably in your own local community.

Short Essay #3: How did you spend your last two summers? (50 word limit)

Show your reader that you are a normal teenage human being! I recommend providing some balance and perspective in your response to this prompt. Don't just pack your response with all of the academic, extracurricular, and enrichment activities that you have done over the last two summers (e.g., summer school, science camps, debate camps, leadership conferences, etc.). Also sprinkle in a reference or two to things that you did for fun and recreation that enabled you to recharge your batteries and live a normal life. You want to show that you use your summers productively, but you don't want to sound like you had no life during these summer vacations either. Seek balance in your essay. I would recommend formatting this into two short paragraphs, one paragraph for each summer.

Short Essay #4: What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? (50 word limit)

This is another essay where it is easy to fall into the trap of writing about cliché topics--well-known historical events that everyone will be writing about. To avoid clichés, dig deeply into the wealth of domestic and international historical events that you can choose from. Esoteric events or references might actually be useful in this response. There are literally centuries that you can sift through.

To help you with your search, try to identify an issue or value that you care deeply about. That will help you narrow the focus of your brainstorming. Once you have identified an issue or value that matters to you, then try to think about the significant historical moments or events that have surrounded that issue or value. Then, when you write about the historical moment or event, you will have a personal reason that you can write about that motivates your desire to witness that moment or event. Having a meaningful and significant connection to your own values, beliefs, or experiences is critical.

Short Essay #5: What five words best describe you? (10 word limit)

Use five words. Don't try to create hyphenated combinations of words to circumvent the prompt. This is an essay where you really should pick up the thesaurus and think carefully about the words you choose. However, this comes with a caveat: don't just pick the most interesting and exotic words to describe yourself. You want your reader to easily understand the words you are using to describe yourself. If your reader has to look up every single word in a dictionary, then that is not helpful. Aim for clarity and precision of expression in the words that you choose.

Short Essay #6: When the choice is yours, what do you read, listen to, or watch? (50 word limit)

There is no hidden agenda behind this prompt. Just be honest and straightforward with your response. You don't need to have a response for each category (reading, listening, watching). If there is one category that is more significant for you, just emphasize the things from that category that interest you. If you make your response too contrived and slant it a bit too academically, your reader will detect the disingenuous nature of your response. Remember that this is what you read, listen to, or watch when the choice is yours, not when you are forced to by a school assignment or when you are doing it for college applications.

Short Essay #7: Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford. (50 word limit)

Because this is a very short essay, really focus on just one thing. Don't make a laundry list of all of the great things at Stanford that you want to experience. And choose something that is not in the top 5 most obvious things about Stanford. Show that you have done some homework and research regarding Stanford and that you are aware of its culture, traditions, and hidden delights. Be specific with your response. Don't choose something that is too broad or general. Pick a concrete aspect of Stanford that you want to experience and explain why with specificity.

Short Essay #8: Imagine you had an extra hour in the day — how would you spend that time? (50 word limit)

This is another opportunity to show your reader that you are a normal teenager with idiosyncrasies, hobbies, and special interests. I would recommend staying away from things that sound too academic or extracurricular--those kinds of responses sound fake and contrived. Think about what you like to do for fun--just for the heck of it. Not because it will look good for college applications. But because it's just fun, challenging, and exhilarating. How do you seek self-growth and self-improvement in your free time? Show your reader that you are pushing yourself to grow even when you are doing fun things in your life.

Long Essay #1: The Stanford community is deeply curious and driven to learn in and out of the classroom. Reflect on an idea or experience that makes you genuinely excited about learning. (100 to 250 words)

This is your opportunity to show off your scholarly side. Stanford wants to see that you are an intellectually curious and vibrant individual who will contribute not only to the extracurricular experiences of Stanford students but also to the classroom, discussion, and laboratory experiences of Stanford students. Learning happens in all sorts of indoor and outdoor contexts at Stanford, and you should show your reader the best context for your learning and growth.

Whatever idea or experience you choose for this prompt, it should probably relate to your core academic interests, which should hopefully line up with the majors and minors you are considering for Stanford. This essay will probably work best if you can select a pithy anecdote that will lead into a discussion of what kinds of subjects and topics excite you and inspire you to be curious and pursue greater knowledge on your own. Explaining why this idea or experience makes you genuinely excited about learning is the most important aspect of this prompt.

Brainstorm broadly when you are answering this prompt. Is there a certain special teacher whose extraordinary teaching methods inspire you to learn? Is there a club or extracurricular activity that you founded or participated in that really led you to a deeper understanding and knowledge of a subject that interests you? Is there an online resource that you have found yourself obsessed with as you pursue your intellectual curiosity? Whatever it is, be specific about it and show off your inner nerd.

Long Essay #2: Virtually all of Stanford's undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate – and us – know you better. (100 to 250 words)

I would recommend using a letter format to respond to this prompt: "Dear Roommate..." It will help you to embrace a more casual and friendly tone for this essay that will allow you to be honest, sincere, quirky, and silly. Be yourself and take this opportunity to reveal idiosyncrasies about yourself. The quirkier, the better.

Don't repeat things that we already know from other aspects of your application. Try to pick 2-3 core things about yourself that you would want to reveal to a new roommate, and provide specific details and anecdotes highlighting those core things in your letter. Be welcoming with your letter--it's not just an opportunity to spit out information to your roommate; it's an opportunity to invite your roommate into your life and to look forward to a shared experience at Stanford. In fact, if you can connect aspects of your life with opportunities available at Stanford that you can take advantage of with your roommate, even better.

Just as you would in a real letter to a roommate or friend, be conversational and friendly. Sometimes, appropriately placed rhetorical questions can work well. Pretend that you are dialoging with your roommate. Remember that this is your opportunity to make a great first impression on your roommate--don't squander it talking about things that aren't really meaningful to you, and don't say anything that will scare or weird out your roommate.

Long Essay #3: Tell us about something that is meaningful to you and why. (100 to 250 words)

If you put all of the long Stanford essays on a spectrum, long essay #1 is way on the scholarly and academic side, whereas long essay #2 is way on the personal and quirky side. This long essay sits somewhere in that middle. This essay is an opportunity to reveal something personally meaningful to you--but in a serious way, as opposed to the casual and conversational way of long essay #2. Hopefully, whatever you choose also has some connection to your academic and scholarly aspirations. Maybe it is what is inspiring you to learn and to grow through college. Maybe it is the personal experience that led you to pursue a particular major or minor. Try to bridge your scholarly and academic side with your personal and quirky side in this essay.

As with most essays, explaining why is more important than identifying what. However, I would recommend that you choose something that has some substance and depth. Not something so trivial that your reader won't take you seriously. For example, writing about video games or social media probably isn't the best idea. To pick a good topic for this prompt, try to think about where you spend most of your time, money, creativity, talent, and energy. Start making a list, and narrow it down based on what you have already mentioned in your other essays or other parts of your application.

Your topic selection for this prompt will reveal a lot about your values and character. What do you care about? How have you concretely and specifically expressed your care regarding this? And why do you care about it? Thinking about these three core questions honestly and deeply will help you generate the most authentic response to this prompt.

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