How to Tackle the Stanford Supplement Essays for 2014-15
Note: this blog post has been updated for the 2015-2016 application cycle. To view the most recent version, click here.
Famed for its entrepreneurial spirit and laid back environment, Stanford University is a great option for students looking for a more science and engineering focused institution than Harvard, Yale, Columbia, or the University of Chicago. When combined with the (relatively) warm weather in California, it is little wonder that Stanford now takes the mantle as America’s most selective university, with an acceptance rate of 5.1% for the class of 2018.
Like many institutions, Stanford requires applicants to answer several short essays and questions. Unlike single-prompt supplements, supplements with multiple short prompts require you to utilize several different topics. Thematically, you should not write all of your essays about the same thing, whether that’s an extracurricular passion, or a particular facet of your personality that you wish to highlight. Instead, your essays should work like a portfolio, each one acting to highlight a different portion of your application or personality, with a collective effect that conveys what you want. The short answer questions also fit into this portfolio, because they allow you to reinforce key themes from your essay, or introduce additional components of your life or personality.
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Briefly respond to the following seven inquiries so we can get to know you better. Do not feel compelled to use complete sentences.
- Name your favorite books, authors, films, and/or artists. (50 word limit)
- What newspapers, magazines, and/or websites do you enjoy? (50 word limit)
- What is the most significant challenge that society faces today? (50 word limit)
- How did you spend your last two summers? (50 word limit)
- What were your favorite events (e.g., performances, exhibits, competitions, conferences, etc.) in recent years? (50 word limit)
- What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? (50 word limit)
- What five words best describe you?
These short answer questions are nice in that they don’t necessarily have any wrong answers. For the most part, you are okay answering these questions truthfully, so long as you avoid potentially controversial or offensive responses. These questions are designed to give admissions officers a brief look at your personality, and each answer reflects a different portion of your personality or application. For the most part, your answers can be very straightforward and they convey straightforward things. For example, if you said that you wish you could have witnessed W.E.B Dubois’ “Talented Tenth” speech, then the Stanford admissions counselors will know that you are interested in history and in questions related to race and racial relations. Normally with short answer questions, you might want to avoid writing an extremely advanced work of literature or erudite publication down as your “favorite.” However, because you have 50 words to work with, you can afford to list out several different books, publications, and the like. If possible, try to strike a balance between things that are pure enjoyment and things that are educational. Also, if you decide to feature a particular theme for your application, you should try to make sure that some of your answers to these questions reinforce that theme.
Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 word limit)
This essay is similar to the extracurricular prompt that used to be on the Common Application. One option for writing this essay is to choose the most meaningful or in-depth extracurricular on your application and then write about that. However, if your Common Application essay significantly addresses this activity, you should try to move on to another on your resume. You can choose almost every activity, however you shouldn’t be writing about a superficial experience just because it fits with your major – focus on more meaningful ones. 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. Another option is to write a descriptive anecdote about a particular moment or accomplishment during one of your extracurricular activities. This option doesn’t offer as much in the way of highlighting your accomplishment or skills, but instead allows you to show off your writing prowess.
What matters to you, and why? (100 to 250 words)
While it may seem as though this essay is asking you to discuss a social justice cause or some sort of “problem” with the world, the actual prompt is a lot broader. Basically, Stanford wants to know what’s at your core, the things that take up the majority of your mental desire. The focus of this essay should be on the “why” portion of the essay, the “what” is important, but your explanation of the “why” is ultimately what will convey something new about you. Pretty much any topic, so long as you can legitimately describe why it matters to you is fair game, though with potentially controversial topics such as religion and politics, your focus should be explicitly on yourself. It’s okay to discuss how Christianity, for example, helped you gain a new appreciation for the value of personal discipline, but you shouldn’t discuss your deep held desire to convert others to Christianity, because the idea of religious conversion could be offensive or controversial to some.
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 essay is as much about what not to say as about what you should say. The key thing to avoid in this essay is, anything that could disqualify you in the eyes of the admissions committee. While you don’t want to write something that’s bland and clichéd, you should avoid discussing illegal or unsavory activities (for example your passion for cabaret clubs and/or the consumption of marijuana). Conversely, you shouldn’t be afraid to explore your quirky side. Good topics are always unique hobbies 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 enjoy similar experiences with a hypothetical roommate. But you should probably 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. 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.
Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development. (100 to 250 words)
The focus of this essay should be how and why the idea impacted you, not necessarily discussion and explanation of the idea itself. If possible, you should spend maybe 50 words discussing the idea, and then the remainder of the essay analyzing its impact on 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, you could discuss the idea of quantitative easing (a monetary policy tool – more broadly an economics idea) to either discuss how it gave one the ability to be analytical or how it made you fall in love with economics (your major). Your idea need not be so academic. The term “intellectual development” can be applied loosely to almost anything you like. For example, you could talk about a type of dance move, and how your persistent perusal of the internet looking for tips on successfully performing said dance move inspired you to become a music major.