written by
Michele Charles

Stanford University Essay Guide 2020-2021

Essay Guides 23 min read
Photo courtesy of Stanford University

In this Stanford University Essay Guide, Bullseye Advisors Michele, Becky, and Matthew will cover how to approach the 2020-2021 Stanford supplementary essays. For more guidance on personal essays and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

Introduction

Matthew: Stanford University’s application is notoriously long and demanding, with four essays and seven short answer prompts. While the length of the application discourages many highly competitive individuals from applying, Stanford’s application provides applicants with ample opportunity to communicate their extracurricular pursuits, interests, passions, and personality at a depth other, shorter applications simply do not allow.

With this in mind, Stanford’s application best serves students who will “put in the hours” and write well-thought-out, intentional essays. In this essay guide, we will discuss how to best respond to Stanford University’s supplemental essay prompts.

Becky: Though Stanford University recently made the decision to stop releasing its acceptance rate, it’s no secret that the number is low—low enough that every component of your application needs to be as strong as possible to make your case for admittance.

If you’re reading this post, you’re probably far enough into high school that your GPA isn’t moving much and your activities are going to be your activities. This means that your essays may be the last big factor to optimize your chances of getting in. So without further ado, let’s talk about how to make these the strongest essays you’re capable of submitting.

Stanford University. Palo Alto California United States.  Leland Stanford Junior University (Stanford University) is a private research university in Stanford, California. Stanford is known for its academic strength, wealth, selectivity, proximity to Silicon Valley, and ranking as one of the world's top universities.  The university was founded in 1885 by Leland and Jane Stanford in memory of their only child, Leland Stanford Jr., who had died of typhoid fever at age 15 the previous year. Stanford was a U.S. Senator and former Governor of California who made his fortune as a railroad tycoon.
Photographer: Jorge Fernández Salas | Source: Unsplash

The Extracurricular Essay

Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work or family responsibilities. (150 words)

Matthew: The extracurricular essay prompt is one that you’ll see when applying to schools such as Harvard University, Brown University, Pomona College, and, of course, Stanford University. When writing this essay, it’s best to avoid reiterating what you've already stated on your resume. Doing so would waste an opportunity to contextualize your work for your admissions officer.

In this essay, discuss how your work has impacted your community as a whole or you as an individual. Think about what stories an admissions officer has likely heard before. Try to frame your extracurricular, work, or family engagements in a novel way that’ll help you stand out in a sea of other applicants.

Michele: The primary difficulty of this prompt comes from the choice of topic. You may have an overwhelming number of different extracurriculars and work experiences that could be used to answer this question. If the choice is not immediately obvious, this may be a prompt that you want to skip and answer last in order to use it strategically to fill in any gaps.

Once you get back to it, think through a few considerations in your selection. What might be missing from your application as a whole, considering both your Stanford supplement essays and your Common/Coalition app essays? Which important learnings from your extracurriculars or work experiences have you yet to communicate in your application? Which extracurricular or work experience holds a compelling story that you haven’t told yet?

Once you’ve chosen, be focused on the “So what?” of your experience. For example, don’t simply describe the number of hours you dedicated to basketball or list the places you traveled for tournaments. Rather, explain what you learned about commitment during those hours or the new perspectives you gained through your travels. Ask, “Why does this matter?” and then make sure you include the answer to that question within your response.

Short Response Questions

Matthew: Similar to schools such as Princeton and Yale, Stanford University’s short answer prompts provide applicants with an opportunity to highlight aspects of their personality, experiences, or interests that might not be evident in their resume or longer essays. While a single short answer question may not make or break your application, Stanford’s short answer prompts are invaluable for humanizing your extracurricular activities, grades, and test scores.

Some general words of advice for answering short answer questions:

  • Avoid repetition. Short takes won’t help you if you share parts of yourself represented in other parts of your application.
  • Consider what might be missing from your application. Do you have any interests/passions that you haven’t already discussed?
  • Don’t rush the writing process, and don’t expect to finish Stanford’s short answer prompts in one sitting. Allocate ample time to brainstorming, crafting, and editing your responses. Every word matters.

What is the most significant challenge that society faces today? (50 words)

Becky: There are plenty of problems you can write about in response to this essay. The trick is, it’s really not about what problem you choose; it’s about how you choose to talk about it. Stanford is looking for empathy, as well as awareness of the world and society at large.

Of course, you should still take this essay as an opportunity to teach your reader something about yourself. As an example, I spoke about the rise of mental health conditions and how I’ve seen it impact those close to me. This gave me an opportunity to share something personal to my life while demonstrating an awareness of a problem that faces society as a whole.

Remember: you only have 50 words to do it, so concision is key.

Matthew: Stanford University prides itself on being a training ground for the next generation of writers, activists, scientists, and entrepreneurs. In this prompt, Stanford asks you to consider your experiences as a member of your community and a global citizen more broadly.

Is there one issue you are particularly passionate about? Perhaps discuss why you have dedicated your time to this cause specifically. Another route you can take is examining why certain societal problems exist. Additionally, you can use this short answer prompt as an opportunity to propose problems that go under other people’s radar. Regardless of how you choose to approach this essay, the word count will be an obstacle you’ll have to overcome.

Michele: With this question, Stanford University wants to know that you are both socially conscious and also personally passionate about at least one social issue. With that in mind, think about a challenge that is both objectively significant and also personally meaningful.

The personal factor could be that you, your family, or your community directly experienced that challenge. The challenge could also be something that you have worked on solving, or plan on using your Stanford education to contribute to solutions.

The COVID-19 pandemic and our national reckoning on systemic racism and police brutality are societal challenges that are currently most prominent in our news cycle. Don’t feel pressure to choose or not to choose these challenges. If you do plan to discuss either of these topics, think about intersectionality and the more nuanced implications of these issues. How does our education system perpetuate anti-black ideology? Where does gender play a role in COVID’s impact? How do race and COVID-19 intersect and what unique challenges stem from that intersection? Your response should show that you’ve thought deeply about the subject matter and also considered solutions.

How did you spend your last two summers? (50 words)

Michele: I promise, this is not a trick question. Stanford genuinely wants to know how you typically spend your summers in order to get to know you better. With this question, don’t solely focus on launching your new app or your part-time job or volunteering with young kids. Include these accomplishments, yes, but also include any travel you did, or family reunions you attended. While Stanford cares about your achievements, admissions officers also want to know that you maintain balance in your life and take time for self-care (and fun!).

Becky: This prompt is one of the more straightforward ones. They’re looking for a show of initiative here: in about two or three sentences, tell Stanford University what you do when you have more free time on your hands. You can list off the highlights or pick your biggest undertaking from each summer. Either way, remember that the goal here is not to talk only about weekends on the beach or five-hour Netflix marathons.

Matthew: This essay is an excellent opportunity to discuss opportunities, passions, or commitments not listed anywhere else on the application. Did you spend your summers circumnavigating the globe? Getting to know your grandparents? Teaching yourself photography? How did you grow as an individual from one summer to the next? Remember that you have the agency to determine the structure that best suits the idea/experience you are trying to convey. Your response to this prompt could look like a list or take the form of a one paragraph or two.

What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? (50 words)

Becky: Just as with the first prompt, the trap here would be picking an obvious answer —something you know hundreds of other applicants are also writing about — that sheds no light on who you are as a person. Don’t go for the cliches.

Spend some real time doing research for moments you may not have even thought of before, but that speak to you. You’ll know you’ve found the right moment when it shows how the way you think is different from the way every other applicant thinks. Perhaps you are a gymnast and wish to go back to the moment a human did a flip for the very first time. Or you are a musician and wish you could go back to the moment mankind played its very first note and invented music.

Remember: the goal is always to teach the reader about you while still answering the prompt.

Matthew: Exactly. Like with all of our short answer prompts, we should provide our admissions officer with an essay they haven’t seen before; ergo, it is advantageous to avoid historical events that are “low hanging fruit” that other students will likely use. Writing about the Great Emu War might make for a fun essay, it also might be one your admissions officer has read several times before.

If you are struggling to find a topic, think about what you want to reveal to your admissions officer with this essay. Work backwards. Is there a subject in school —unrelated to your prospective major — that you’ve absolutely loved? Scour the web for historical events related to that subject. Is there a language you’ve studied or want to take up? Find events significant to that respective culture or community. Is there a way you can explore a social issue through the lens of another culture, way of thinking, society, or time period? History is often where disciplines intersect.

Michele: This prompt is ripe for storytelling, so think about how you could put yourself in that moment. What dialogue would be going on? What would the sights, sounds, and smells feel like? Instead of telling Stanford University what historical event you wish you could have witnessed, consider showing them through descriptive language.

What five words best describe you? (5-10 words)

Michele: The simplest of questions can sometimes be the most daunting. Don’t stress! To tackle this question, I started by asking those that knew me best to describe me in 5 words. That provided me with a robust list of options, and from there, I was able to strategically select my starting five.

When making this selection, make sure you choose words that are colorful (i.e. replace “kind” and “helpful” with “affectionate” and “proactive”) and words that are unique from one another. Each word should reveal something different about who you are. Further, keep in mind that you have a 10-word limit for a 5-word prompt. Feel free to add adverbs to your five words to enhance your descriptions with even more nuance. Play around with it and seek feedback from others.

Becky: This question asks you to pick five adjectives to describe yourself to the reader. Your list should not look like this:

Kind, friendly, smart, hardworking, curious.

The reader will forget this list immediately after reading it. Those words could be copy-and-pasted to every single other Stanford University applicant. Moreover, words like ‘smart’ and ‘hardworking’ and ‘curious’ can be seen implicitly in your grades and extracurriculars. Make the words uniquely you, and make them words that are not otherwise obvious from your application. Here’s a better example:

Bookworm. Traveler. Old-fashioned. Lyrical. Sleepless.

These words are all distinct yet cohesive. They each tell the reader something different, while contributing to a holistic understanding of who the writer is. Moreover, they are probably not qualities you can infer from other components of the application.

Matthew: There are a couple directions you can go with this essay. You can come up with a five-word phrase that represents you, or choose five individual words that communicate the kind of person you are. Enlist the help of friends, teachers, mentors, and other people who know you well.

Word to the wise — do not try to be too edgy with the word count. Avoid responses such as “can’t be described in five words” or “smart, cool, handsome, passionate, kind, rebellious.” Your admissions officer has seen submissions like these many, many times before. Individuality is key with this short answer prompt—if you think your five words might have been done before, it might be a sign that you’re not done with this short answer response.

When the choice is yours, what do you read, listen to, or watch? (50 words)

Becky: Just as in the second question, Stanford is not asking to hear about your latest Netflix marathon. While there is room to mention your undying love for The Office or Friends, it is not the main objective for this essay.

Stanford University is looking for a demonstration of your intellectual vitality. Books, podcasts, websites, music, television — there are many different reasons for consuming all of this content. It can be driven by preference, culture, a desire to educate oneself, etc. The key is to show why this content means something to you; go beyond just listing off your favorite shows.

Matthew: This prompt is a valuable opportunity to humanize your application. Reveal your fascination with 19th century English literature, love for bad animated tv shows, or passion for podiatry podcasts. Some people answer this prompt by listing their interests; others select a few things to talk about and use the remaining words to explain their choices.

Similar to the historical moment question, if you are struggling to answer this prompt, reverse engineer your response. Think about what interests, passions, or aspects of yourself you want to convey that you have not conveyed elsewhere.

Michele: You could approach this question in a couple of different ways.

You could use your space to name your favorite books, musical artists, podcasts, TV shows, and/or movies in list-format. If you take this route, make sure you leave space for some brief commentary on your selections in order to add context to your responses.

You could also select only one or two of your favorites, and use your space to focus on why these choices are meaningful to you. Maybe there is a story behind a song or a book that would provide the admissions officer more insight into who you are and what you care about.

For either strategy, make sure you are being genuine! If you’re addicted to telenovelas, write that down. If your music taste ranges from DaBaby to Taylor Swift, let them know! Again, Stanford admissions officers are using this question to get to know who you are outside of your resume.

Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford. (50 words)

Becky: You are probably familiar with the ‘why this school’ essay prompt. Well, this is Stanford’s version, condensed down to a mere 50 words. And because they don’t give you much room to share why Stanford University is your dream school, you need to do so with laser focus.

Pick one or two things to discuss, and make sure they are the most specific examples you can possibly think of. They should not be able to apply to a single other school — and ideally not to a single other applicant — in existence. Don’t, for example, discuss how prestigious their program is — so are many other programs. Do, for example, talk about how you have dreamed (pun intended) for years of learning from Stanford’s famous Sleep and Dreams professor, because you are going to cure insomnia one day.

Matthew: Unlike most ‘Why “X” School?’ essays, you have only 50 words to articulate why Stanford. The word count severely limits your ability to convey your love for the school; however, my advice for answering this prompt is largely the same as answering any ‘Why “X” School?’ essays: do your homework, discuss specific programs, professors, and opportunities, and show how you will grow at Stanford University.

Your answer doesn’t need to be specific to academic programs. When I was writing my application, I realized that I had talked a lot about academic research and activism already in my application. Thus, I decided to use this essay as an opportunity to highlight my desire to perform stand up with the student organization Stand Up, D.

Michele: The key to this essay is to be specific, specific, specific. Do your research and name names! If you are looking forward to experiencing the diversity of Stanford, look up specific groups on campus that would broaden your horizons, such as the Black House, Hillel at Stanford, or El Centro Chicano y Latino. If you can’t wait to dive into Gender Studies, find specific professors and class names that you’re interested in taking, such as Intro to Queer Theory with Maxe Crandall. If engineering is your passion, check out the Stanford Solar Car Project or the Stanford d.school.

Focus on an experience that you can only find at Stanford University, and make sure you explain why you are looking forward to this experience.

Imagine you had an extra hour in the day—how would you spend that time? (50 words)

Becky: The main goal here is to convey your dreams and passions. If you had an extra hour of free time, what incredible thing would you pursue? Perhaps you would train harder, study harder, run further to reach the goals that you already strive toward. Perhaps you would learn a new language or pick up that hobby that you’ve dreamed of starting for years.

You can also choose to be whimsical. If you had an extra hour of time, would you walk through New York City and see what it was like for time to stand still?

Matthew: In an ideal world, how would you spend your time? What in your current life do you wish you could spend more time doing? What hobbies/activities do you want to take on? Avoid generic answers such as “I would use that extra hour to sleep more.” Doing so might seem mildly amusing at first, but it wastes an opportunity to bring your personality to the limelight.

Michele: For a question like this, you may feel pressured to choose what I like to call the “world peace” answer. That is, an answer that makes you look particularly generous, or hard-working, or studious. In reality, the rest of your application likely highlights these qualities about you already, based on your grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.

If you genuinely would use the extra hour to work on marketing materials for your start-up, then write about that. But if, in reality, you would use the extra hour to go on more bike rides by the lake near your house, mix a new song with friends, or try out new cookie recipes with your little brother, then write about that! Just make sure that you are specific and that the activity/activities reveal something new about you to the admissions officer.

Photographer: Jason Leung | Source: Unsplash

Short Essay Questions

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. (250 words)

Matthew: The intellectual curiosity essay provides an opportunity to discuss your intellectual interests and pursuits on a deeper level. Move beyond surface-level accounts of your experiences. Don’t simply describe what you learned. Talk about how your pursuit of the subject has affected you, your extracurricular engagements, and prospective life path.

Additionally, consider why you are interested in this topic. What exactly about this makes it so exciting to learn about? What will keep you motivated to study and engage with this topic? These questions can help you elevate your essay and discuss your passions beyond merely scratching the surface.

Becky: Stanford University admissions cares so much about intellectual vitality that they use a separate metric to track this quality when they’re reading through applications. And this essay, at its core, is about intellectual vitality.

Was there a time when you were so excited to learn about a new topic that you stayed up all night for a week reading about it? Or maybe ever since you wrote your first line of code at 12 years old, you’ve realized you’re at your happiest learning new languages and writing new programs. Whatever it is, you know what topic is so exciting to you that it makes your heart beat faster to learn about it. And now Stanford wants to know about it, too.

The only trick with this essay is the words, “in and out of the classroom.” It’s great if math is your favorite topic in school, but if the only time you engage with math is through mandated class assignments, then that is not a sufficient answer to this prompt. Show that you don’t need deadlines and school readings to fall in love with learning. Prove that you love learning for the sake of learning.

Michele: I love this question because it allows you to explore your curiosity. What do you geek out about? What’s an “Aha!” moment that you’ve had in the classroom? What’s a conversation you’ve had with a friend that you were reflecting on for a long time afterward?

When I answered this question, I wrote about a quote from a book I had read that I could not stop thinking about for weeks. Think about how this idea or experience could inform your decisions at Stanford University, whether through your coursework, career pursuits, or relationships. This idea or experience makes you genuinely excited about learning, so what do you plan on doing with that excitement?

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- get to know you better. (250 words)

Becky: This essay is a chance to have fun. You wrote the rest of your essays with an admissions officer as your audience, and that lends itself to a certain kind of voice. But for this essay, your audience is a peer, and that lends itself to a different kind of voice.

Here, you can laugh about your battle with your alarm clock, or talk about how excited you are to have someone to Primal Scream with before finals week (and yes, this is also another opportunity, should you choose to take it, to demonstrate your knowledge of what makes Stanford different from other schools). You can take a more informal voice and relax a little.

And as hinted at by the prompt, this is also an opportunity to demonstrate what makes you unique. You can tell your roommate that you’ve been playing violin for as long as you could hold the instrument, and that you’ll likely be spending long hours at the Braun Music Center. Or mention your dreams to be a film director and how you have a camera in your hand more often than not. Whatever your story is, tell it like you’ve just met your first friend at college and can’t wait for the next four years.

Matthew: Like asking a stand-up comedian to “say something funny,” this prompt puts applicants in the hot seat by ordering them to show how exactly cool they are in a 250-word essay. If you are struggling to come up with ideas, think of your niche interests or quirks, and then work off that. Expand on your love for Starbucks or lemon-flavored beverages or your stuffed animal collection. There is no incorrect structure for answering this prompt. You can write a letter or create a list or a mix of both.

Michele: This question is meant to allow your personality and humor to shine through. Think about any quirks or unique traits that haven’t come up in other parts of your application. Do you have a favorite snack that your roommate can expect to find stocked at all times? Do you have tons of siblings that you’re excited to introduce to your roommate when they visit? Are you a die-hard Lakers fan (shoutout LA), and plan to have all purple and gold everything on your side of the room?

You may want to crowd-source this info from family and friends if you’re having trouble coming up with ideas on your own. I wrote about my simultaneous love of singing and my objective tone-deafness. Like I said, bonus points if you can make the admissions officer smile!

Tell us something that is meaningful to you, and why. (250 words)

Michele: Similar to the first question about extracurriculars and work experiences, this prompt is broad and can be answered in many different ways. As you go about answering this question, think about what hasn’t yet been covered in the rest of your application. In this prompt, you can talk about an item, a person, a book, a tradition, a memory...think more on the personal side rather than the abstract. You may want to look back at a journal or a photo album for ideas. When answering this question, think about what story you could tell that would be able to answer both the “what” and the “why” of the prompt.

Matthew: When I was applying to Stanford University, this essay prompt was terrifying because of how broad it is. I was unsure of where to start. The prompt forces you to think critically about each of the communities you are a part of, the relationships you value, and the experiences you’ve had. After reflection, you can only choose one to write about as the topic of your essay.

Despite this, the “tell us about something meaningful to you” essay is my favorite essay prompt in Stanford’s application. No where else do you have an opportunity to go in-depth and discuss the impact of the personal impact of the work you have done. No where else do you have an opportunity to discuss the personal impact of attending an African American Affinity Group meeting or how much you loved sitting on the bench for your high school soccer team.

Don't shy away from taking a risk when crafting this essay. If you believe your essay could have been written by someone else, rewrite your essay. Make sure your "angle" is one that someone hasn't written about before.

Becky: For this prompt, you can either talk about something beyond your own life and why it matters to you — global warming, for example, and your weekend beach clean-ups — or you can talk about something specific to your own life, like the secret recipe that’s been handed down through generations in your family.

As you can tell from my two examples, there is a huge range in appropriate answers to this prompt. Just as with all of the other essays, it’s really not the topic that matters but how you choose to discuss it. The topic should be as specific to you as possible, helping to convey the ongoing story of what makes you unlike any other applicant.

And once you’re done with that, you have officially answered all of Stanford University’s essay prompts!


This essay guide was written by Michele Charles (Stanford ‘15), Becky Weinstein (Stanford University 22), Matthew Yekell (Stanford, ‘24). If you want to get more help writing your application essays from Michele, Becky, Matthew or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, click here to schedule a free call.

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