How to Write the Stanford Supplemental Essays

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

There are many traps that students fall into when answering this question. One is that they pick an incredibly vast, yet vague issue that begins to sound like a “Miss America” response. (Think world hunger, terrorism, etc.) Another is that they are too nearsighted and write about an issue that is very troubling in their own community, but doesn’t resonate with others. It’s important to find the middle ground and talk about an issue that is important to you, tells the reader something about your view of the world, and demonstrates maturity. Remember you are NOT asked to talk about a solution, just the issue and why it’s particularly challenging. 

Not to get too morbid, but if you read the news regularly or stay up to date on current events, it’s likely that you won’t have a problem finding an issue to write about. The hardest part is narrowing down your list to the most significant challenge from the many options you have. Once you feel as though you’ve come up with a thought-provoking challenge, you have a chance, albeit a short one, to express your opinion and to defend it.

Now, how do you go about doing this without appearing unaware of the current global landscape? If you choose to talk about systemic racism in the United States, you’ll seem naive for ignoring the catastrophic effects of climate change, right? Well, not exactly. Stanford is very aware that you don’t have the space to acknowledge other challenges in just 50 words, so the best thing is to accept your limitations and use them to your advantage. This means you don’t need to include any qualifiers like “Society suffers from issues such as … yet I find … to be the single greatest challenge we face.” This will unnecessarily dilute your response. Make a stand and stick by it. 

If you feel that your response is polarizing, keep in mind that that is not necessarily a bad thing. Societal issues are polarizing topics, and even your readers will likely disagree about the single greatest challenge the world faces today. That does not mean that you have free-reign to be offensive or off-putting, but remember that Stanford welcomes and supports a diverse range of opinions. Be true to yourself and don’t try to fool or please your reader—use your own experiences to say something original or insightful. It’s likely other applicants will write about a similar challenge, so try to stand out! 

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

This is a chance for you to elaborate on Extracurriculars again. The best answers don’t try to detail entire summers or list programs, they have a “theme” for each summer and feature the most memorable thing an applicant did. If you had a less structured summer, you should talk about a trip, a friendship, a skill, etc. that has had an impact on who you are.

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

Avoid the moon landing at all costs. Be unique. Tell the reader about a time they may have heard of but not be quite as familiar with, and explain why it’s so cool in your opinion. Again, this question is a chance to show the reader your personality, not that you did your homework. This event should be related to one of your interests, though it can be an unrelated interest, you’ll just have to explain why.

Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities, a job you hold, or responsibilities you have for your family.* (50 word limit)

This is a space where you can talk about a meaningful experience you’ve had or a community you’ve been a part of, or where you can elaborate on the part-time job you’ve had throughout high school (any job counts, even if it’s flipping burgers or tutoring kids in your neighborhood). This prompt also allows space for you to get personal and talk about roles and responsibilities you’ve had within your family. Remember, there is space for only 50 words, so be brief but thorough!

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

Everyone is looking forward to having an engaging conversation with a peer or faculty member. Everyone is looking forward to the amazing facilities, the research opportunities, and the wonderful chance to learn from masters in their fields. Everyone wants to experience that gorgeous Californian weather. BORING. 

This question is very important—it’s essentially a hidden “Why Stanford?” question and you can show that you’ve done your homework. The most successful answers really take the “one thing” to heart and talk extensively about a small moment, sight, sound, tradition, or resource that they have been dreaming about since they heard about it. 

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)

Everyone is looking forward to having an engaging conversation with a peer or faculty member. Everyone is looking forward to the amazing facilities, the research opportunities, and the wonderful chance to learn from masters in their fields. Everyone wants to experience that gorgeous Californian weather. BORING. 

This question is actually surprisingly important—it’s essentially a hidden “Why Stanford?” question. It’s a chance for you to show that you’ve done your homework. The most successful answers really take the “one thing” to heart and talk extensively about a small moment, sight, sound, tradition, or resource that they have been dreaming about since they learned about it.

Stanford can be an intimidating place, and you may feel unprepared to answer this question. That’s okay! You haven’t been a student on campus yet, so no one is expecting you to know about the university’s quirks or idiosyncrasies. This question is actually more about YOU than it is about the university, something many students fail to remember!

A quick Google search will reveal unique Stanford traditions such as fountain hopping, full moon on the quad, primal screams, and Gaietes. Don’t stop here! These are the most common responses, and admissions officers are well aware of how “fun” they can be. They don’t need to be reminded again. 

The real reason that these are not great responses is because they don’t tell us anything about the writer. For the most part, everyone likes to have fun and join in on memorable social events—what in particular makes you different though? Are you excited to audition for one of the many storied Acapella groups on campus? Do you have a hidden talent or passion that can be explored at Stanford? Is there a volunteering opportunity in East Palo Alto you’re excited about undertaking? 

A good question you can ask yourself is, what do I do now that I love and want to take to the next level in college? This is a great way to reveal who you will be on campus, and how you will interact with specific communities at the university.  

If you are still struggling to come up with something you’re excited about, you’re likely overthinking it. This should feel natural, not contrived or researched obsessively; cleverness is not rewarded as much as authenticity is here. You’re not trying to reinvent yourself, you’re trying to show why Stanford and you are a great fit for each other!

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)

In most cases, students write about an idea or experience that is closely related to their intended studies. This can work, but it’s not the only way to go about answering this question. In fact, many successful students write about experiences or ideas from one subject that have influenced their thinking or views on another. 

The key here is to demonstrate that you would be a good fit on campus as an ambitious, self-motivated learner who sees the value in the pursuit of knowledge. The topic itself is not so important, but rather what it has shown you and what you have done and will continue to do with this information—a mini paradigm shift if you will.

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) 

This question typically gets a love-hate response. If you’ve written many letters in your life, you may feel comfortable writing this one. It’s also okay if you haven’t  —  there are a number of ways to write an impactful letter. The first tip we suggest is to start by writing your letter by hand. This will help you get out of your academic mindset and into letter-writing mode.

The response should be formatted just like a letter, and should give a sneak peek into what it would be like to live with you and to be your friend. You can include how you plan to decorate your side of the room, what music you like to listen to, what cuisine you like to eat, or any other quirks or talents you may have. Remember not just to tell, but to show us how your personality may play out in a dorm room. Try not to write to a specific type of roommate or talk about them too much—after all this is your letter and you don’t know who it’s going to.

Tell us about something that is meaningful to you and why. (100 to 250 words)

After all this writing, there has to be something you haven’t told Stanford yet, right? Here’s your chance to do it. The emphasis should be on conveying some piece of information that admissions officers do not already know. Whether that is a person, memory, trip, item, experience, philosophy, or feeling is up to you. Try to tell readers something that only you could say, and that will leave them on a positive last note. You want to write something so unique and memorable your admissions officer will keep thinking about your application even after they put it down.