Stanford is hard to get into. With an acceptance rate hovering around 5%, applying to Stanford isn’t something anyone should be tackling on a whim. The ridiculous number of applications flooding in every year means that Stanford, like other elite schools, has had to develop a sorting process that helps them filter out people who aren’t a good fit quickly and find the people who are a good fit efficiently. The first level of the filter is, of course, academic standing. Having an outstanding GPA is crucial as are impressive test scores, but Stanford wants more than cookie cutter kids. Stanford’s supplements are intense because they care deeply about who a student is behind the manicured metrics. They are looking for specific things in each supplement that aid them in putting together a class of thinkers.
Before you start your Stanford supplements, make a list of different things that you would like to hit on in them. While you’re writing, tick the things off of the list and be sure NOT to repeat them. It’s like a Thanksgiving Table. You don’t want 3 additional bowls of mashed potatoes taking the place of the turkey, green beans, and stuffing, so why would they want you to repeat that you are in student government over and over where you could be giving them new information? They want thinkers, not parrots.
We know what we’re talking about because we have a 100% acceptance rate at Stanford. Pretty cool, huh? Read on for some of the advice that we give to our students.
QUESTIONS FOR 2017
What is the most significant challenge that society faces today? (50-word limit)
Warning!!! Caution!!! This is a bit of a trick question so proceed with care. There is obviously no single challenge that is the ‘most significant’. The purpose of this question isn’t to quiz you for an answer that doesn’t exist, but to gauge who you are and what you care about. So…
- Have an opinion: Don’t give a beauty pageant “world peace” answer. Be specific.
- Make it personal: Pick something that is immediately relevant to you and tie it your answer into your life.
- Stay timely, but don’t be too topical: The challenge should be current, but not something you clearly just picked off of the front cover of the paper this week.
- Think globally, look locally: your answer will help define what society means to you, so let it tie into your home community.
Finally, everyone is writing about climate change. Unless your home is actually drowning or drying up, please try to find something else.
How did you spend your last two summers? (50-word limit)
This one is actually pretty straightforward (don’t get used to it). All they want to know is what’s in the question, so be honest and don’t inflate your internship at a doctors office into an episode of Doogie Howser, M.D. DO tie things together, though. What you’ve done over the past two summer should, at least here, somehow make sense going together. It’s only 50 words but think about it like a mini-story.
What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? (50-word limit)
This is another one to be very careful with. Whatever you say is going to speak volumes about you, and not just that you’re curious. First, don’t say anything dark or disturbing even if you think you have a semi-good reason. Battles, executions, and any other extremely violent moments are off of the table. Every year someone tries to legitimize writing about something really morbid and it just doesn’t work. What you should be writing about is something that ties into your life directly. Yeah, it’d be cool to go to a speakeasy during prohibition, but what does that say about you other than you read Gatsby once? Go deeper. Think about events that had a direct impact on the life of a family member. Maybe you want to be there when you great great great grandfather came through Ellis Island, or you want to have been alongside your grandmother during a lunch counter sit-in? It doesn’t need to be flashy, though. What it needs to be is personal, real, and poignant.
What five words best describe you?
This one isn’t a trick question per se, but it is tricky. Most colleges, like USC for example, ask applicants to describe themselves in three’s. This makes sense between we tend to think in groups of three, not in groups of five. By having you list five, Stanford is forcing you to think outside of your normal pattern.
But describing yourself can be tough no matter how many words you have to work with, so we recommend enlisting the help of a friend...or two...or five. If you’ve been following our advice, you already will have done this, but shoot a few friends a text asking them how they would describe you. They might say something you would never have thought of!
Now take those words, add a few of your own, and map them out on a piece of paper.
Cross out any that don’t resonate with you, condense any that are synonymous, and make sure that they are actually all adjectives. You can be a little fun and playful, but calling yourself a platypus isn’t either of those things. Short is an adjective. So is tall. Probably don’t use either. Definitely, don’t use both. Also, please don’t use a thesaurus to come up with ornate words for simple things. It is totally transparent. Finally, we have a few ‘banned’ words. Some highlights of our list are leader, humble, talented, smart, and caring. Don’t use them.
When the choice is yours, what do you read, listen to, or watch? (50-word limit)
Red flag, red flag, red flag. We’d used emojis here if we could, so please just imagine a ton of caution signs, roadblocks, and those little bombs that look deceivingly cute. If your immediate answer isn’t “Only 50 words?!?” don’t apply to Stanford. Kids who get into Stanford have hobbies. They do things. They are quirky and interesting and have read and watched and listened to more in the last year than what’s been assigned in school, plastered on billboards, or on the Top 40. If you aren’t reading, watching interesting films, or consuming music in a conscious and thoughtful way, you aren’t going to get in. There may still be things you can do. Reach out to us.
Even if you are doing one of more of those things, be careful. Whether you’re an admissions officer or a six-year-old in a first-grade reading circle, we are all very judgemental about what people consume. Listing Twilight, for example, paints a very different picture of you than...basically anything other than Twilight. However, don’t try to be someone you’re not. If you are working your way through the Beat Poets, that’s awesome, but if you aren’t it will come off as disingenuous when you list something that doesn’t vibe with the rest of your application. Also don’t list anything that would likely be assigned in school, like To Kill a Mockingbird, because they will assume you were assigned it in school and are trying to pass that off as “choice.” We’re focusing on books here because we highly recommend prioritizing reading in this answer unless you are really into music or film and can give a truly interesting answer.
Finally, by “watch” they don’t mean binge watch. If you love Mad Med, that’s ok, it’s won a bunch of awards. Pretty Little Liars, however, is not ok unless you have a really good explanation. But, guess what? You have 50 words. That’s four words less than this paragraph. You don’t have space for one.
Need help picking books to read? We have some advice.
Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford. (50-word limit)
This is another straightforward one. Be specific, do your research, and don’t say the dorms/social life/epic toga parties/friends with houses with pools/beach time/etc. Also, don’t say “finally being around people who are ‘at my level’” or any iteration of such. That kind of cocky isn’t cute. Do link it into your course of study in some way. Maybe there is a society or student group that focuses on the area you are interested in or a tradition in the department that you are looking forward to.
Imagine you had an extra hour in the day — how would you spend that time? (50-word limit).
You’re almost done! This one is both tricky and a ton of fun, both for the same reason - there are so many options! Flex your creative writing chops and show your sense of humor. This is the one place in the ‘short question’ supplements where you have the chance to make them chuckle and, if they got to this point, they already know that you’re stellar.
- Here are some of the things we would write:
- Learn how to whittle in the pursuit to transform into Ron Swanson.
- Become an expert in deep sea fishing...without living near the sea or ever going fishing.
- Train an iguana to do ballet.
- Hone your geocaching skills.
- Build a side hustle where you sell needlepointed or knit goods, a portion of the profits from which go to providing horses with hats.
- So many options!!!
Want more? We love helping motivated and passionate students get into the best colleges, so send us a note.
The point of this essay is to invoke the casual nature of roommate relationships and invite students to take a more relaxed approach to writing about themselves. It brings the application to life by asking you to write only about your own personality, which feels more open than other essays that ask you to answer a specific question like “Describe your community” or “Talk about a mentor who got you through a difficult time.” While answering both of those prompts still offers insight into who the author is, they are fundamentally centralized around another person or topic, which is why Stanford cuts straight to the chase with this prompt to actually get to know you better.
Stanford is looking for an extremely authentic 250-word portrayal of your character that could distinctly identify you from a crowd of essays. If you got to meet your admissions officer in person, and only had 60 seconds to pitch yourself without using anything from your activities or awards, what would you say first? If you were legitimately writing a letter to your roommate at Stanford, what would you want them to know about the prospect of living with you? If you imagine how your Stanford alumni interview might play out, what topics do you hope to steer towards?
Think deeply about these questions and first see if there is something meaningful that you want to convey, and look through Prompt 3 to see if it would best serve answering the question, “What matters to you, and why?” instead of this roommate prompt. If you do have a more serious answer, you can style the essay like a very formal letter or like a traditional 1-2 paragraph short essay without any of the letter gimmicks at all to stand out syntactically.
If you don’t think you have any important topics on the serious side that you want to specifically cover in the space for this prompt (an extreme medical condition, a family hardship etc.), you could also go for another popular tactic by creating a fun, miscellaneous essay.
This prompt can arguably be one of the most entertaining to write and read of all college supplemental essays because of the opportunity to present the admissions office with an amalgamation of weird topics. Last year’s CollegeVine guide encouraged students to explore their quirky side with this prompt by writing about unique hobbies or interesting personality oddities. It also advises staying away from things like politics (i.e., don’t indicate which party or ideology you tend to support, even through jokes or minor references, since you don’t want to step on any toes).
Don’t sweat too much over the exact way to put the essay in letter format. Starting with something like “Hi! I am ridiculously stoked to meet you!” or any other straightforward greeting that doesn’t sound too cheesy is totally fine. If you decide to, you can essentially make a bullet list of “fun me facts” if you want to include the maximum amount of content. Remember that this essay should be fun!
Since it is usually hard to come up with good material about your own diverse personality while staring at a blank computer screen, try keeping a note on your phone and adding to it gradually as you think of things throughout the day. Think about what you enjoy and jot down notes like:
I love Sandra Bullock movies. I wish I could stop biting my nails, and sometimes I do, but only until I take a test or watch a freaky movie. I hate doing my laundry and the song ‘Drops of Jupiter.’ I planned myself a Cutthroat Kitchen-themed birthday party last year because I love cooking contest shows. My favorite store is the Dollar Tree, and when I’m there I always feel like I’m getting too much stuff, but when I leave I regret putting stuff back. Before I go to bed, I like to watch clips from Ellen or Jimmy Fallon because I think it gives me funny dreams. I’m attracted to buying gift wrap even if I have no reason for it, a trait I inherited from my mom. I love chicken. I sleep like a rock and unfortunately, that means I need an incredibly loud alarm clock, but I also will never be bothered by late night noise, etc.
You can see by how long this section got just how easy it can be to talk about yourself once you get started…
Try to intersperse some facts that relate to activities you could do together or things that would be important for an actual roommate to know to stay true to the prompt. Juxtaposing random facts might not be the way to go if you feel they are redundant with your short answers or too all over the place for you. Putting together just a few key aspects of your personality and typical habits with more coherent elaboration on each and topping it off with a “Love, your future roomie” holds the potential to become an engaging essay as well.
Here is another example that shows a ton of personality and utilizes a list format: