Note: this blog post has been updated for the 2015-2016 application cycle. To view the most recent version, click here.

In recent years, Stanford University in Palo Alto California has grown in selectivity and stature. In fact, during the 2012-13 application cycle, it actually had the lowest acceptance rate of any school in the country (lower even than Harvard), at 5.7%. Stanford has become an attractive school for elite students around the country thanks to its proximity to Silicon Valley, its top-rated engineering program (as compared to middling programs at Ivy League schools and the University of Chicago), and its warm weather (along with Caltech and Duke, the only top 12 universities with warm weather.

Given its attractiveness and competitiveness, Admissions Hero asked essay specialist Vinay Bhaskara to take a look at the Stanford essays and how to approach each of them:

Vinay’s Take

Stanford has four essays on its writing supplement, three “extended” 250-word essays with defined prompts and a 150 word essay asking you to expand on one of your extracurricular activities. The key thing to keep in mind about these essays is that you need to use them to create a narrative about you – and that narrative needs to fit both your application profile and the major you indicate on your application (i.e. if you’re applying to Stanford Engineering with mostly speech and debate extracurriculars on your resume and you write the extracurricular essay about the engineering club for which you did nothing more than attend once-a-week meetings for three years, then it’s probably not going to turn out very well).

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 word limit.)

The trick with this essay is to isolate the most meaningful extracurricular on your application and then write about that. Or if your main Common App Essay is about that, move down to the second most meaningful one on your resume. You shouldn’t be writing about a superficial experience just because it fits with your major – focus on the most meaningful experience and reevaluate the major you’re applying to accordingly. With regards to the content of the essay, your focus should be on specificity. Don’t just recount your accomplishments in that activity (that belongs on a resume) focus either on what you learned from it, what it says about you, or a specific event or project within that activity that illustrates your ability to execute key projects or your ability to work well with others.

Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development. (250 word limit.)

For this essay, it’s important to spend most of your time discussing why the idea impacted you, not on outlining the idea/experience itself. The ideal split here is to spend 40% of your space (about 100 words) outlining what the idea/experience is, and then the remainder (roughly 150 words) on expanding on why it was important to your intellectual development. And with regards to the latter aspect, you should either discuss how the process gave you an important skill, or how it made you fall in love with a field (ideally one that’s tied to your major). For example, I would probably talk about quantitative easing (a monetary policy tool – more broadly an economics idea) to either discuss how it gave me the ability to be analytical (something I use in all of my other activities) or how it made me fall in love with economics (now my major).

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. (250 word limit.)

This essay is as much about what not to say as about what you should say. The key point in this essay is to stay away from anything that could disqualify you in the eyes of the admissions committee. Of course you don’t want to write something half-hearted and clichéd for it, and you certainly can explore your quirky side. Good topics are always unique hobbies (I’d clearly write about aviation!) or interesting personality quirks and it’s perfectly fine to get a little weird. You can also talk about your favorite experiences with friends and how you’d like to do the same with this hypothetical roommate. But I would stay away from things like politics. You can say you’re politically motivated if you are, but don’t indicate which party or ideology you tend to support, especially if you’re a conservative. Also, try not to talk about specific political issues, especially if you hold a conservative viewpoint. It’s very easy to offend someone with politics.

What matters to you, and why? (250 word limit.)

 

The idea behind this is to get you to cut to your core, to illustrate who you are. The importance must be placed on the “why” not on the “what,” and to that end, try to use a similar split like the first extended essay, 40% describing what it is, and 60% exploring why that’s important. The advice above on politics is obviously applicable here as well, but if you have to use it, try to focus on what politics means to you (it’s how you made your best friends, it’s honed your critical thinking skills, et. al) more so than on the actual issue (abortion for example). Religion is clearly going to be the answer for some of you and that is fine. But make sure that if you delve into a religious topic, make sure that it’s all about you, and not about the application of your religion to others (e.g. you think the entire world should convert to Christianity immediately).

Zack Perkins

Zack Perkins

Zack was an economics major at Harvard before going on indefinite leave to pursue CollegeVine full-time as a founder. In his spare time, he enjoys closely following politics and binge-watching horror movies. To see Zack's full bio, visit the Team page.
Zack Perkins