How to Write the Stanford University Essays 2020-2021
Stanford University was founded in 1885 by California Senator Leland Stanford and his wife, Jane, in memory of their son Leland Jr. It’s a private institution located in the gorgeous heart of the California Bay Area. The exciting buzz of start-up opportunities and entrepreneurial spirit permeates student life on campus, with an impressive offering of excellent STEM and humanities majors.
Stanford has become one of America’s most selective universities, with an admissions rate of 4.4% for the class of 2023. However, starting with the class of 2023, they have decided to stop releasing their admissions statistics. They have publicized that this move is “intended as a small step in reducing the outsized emphasis placed on the admission rates at U.S. colleges and universities.”
Other defining aspects include its status as the second largest campus in the world with over 8,000 acres, its undergraduate enrollment of 7,000 students, and its ranking as #2 in the nation by Forbes in 2019.
Stanford’s freshman application asks students to respond to 4 different short questions and 3 relatively longer essay questions as part of their admissions process. CollegeVine is here to provide detailed tips and examples to help you approach Stanford’s supplemental essays.
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How to Write the Stanford University Essays
Before we dive into the specifics of how to answer each of these short prompts, remember that limiting your responses to only 50 words requires writing answers that are straightforward and direct. Be honest with what you write, but also think critically about the different aspects of your personality you are highlighting with each answer. Try to vary the responses so that they don’t all cluster around only one or two activities or themes.
While these answers won’t make your application, they could break it if you use any inappropriate content; be mindful of your audience by choosing tasteful responses. However, overanalyzing what you think the admissions officers want you to write misses the point of showcasing your individuality.
Let’s discuss each question individually. Want to know your chances at Stanford? Calculate your chances for free right now.
For this significant challenge question, you might decide to go with a traditional answer but still put a creative spin on it. Avoid picking an obscure or arbitrary topic that is not actually a significant challenge, and also watch out for writing about an issue in overly vague terms. You could write about topics like gender parity, ageing populations, skills development, or global warming, but be careful since those topics have the potential to become trite depending on how you address them.
Writing simply about the fact that the challenge exists is also less interesting than if you wrote something referencing momentum in terms of future change, or possibly even past decline. For example, in addressing a topic like pollution, you could talk about how your view is that you believe the greatest challenge will be spreading actionable awareness of the issue to overcome our current apathy, maybe with a brief suggestion on how that could be attained. Doing so would make your answer stand out more than just speaking too generally. To give another example, if you talked about gender inequality, and suggested focusing on addressing the gender gap within STEM fields more specifically, you would be showing that you think proactively about trying to solve the issue without oversimplifying it.
Writing about how you spent your last two summers should be pretty direct — anything you have been involved in is fair game, and showing a variety of interests is again advisable. For example, you could write out a list of the disparate activities like:
This mix of activities allows them to see that you participated in some resume boosters, but also had fun and didn’t just completely restate your activities list section. You could also choose to hone in on just a couple of activities and give them each a bit more explanation instead of solely listing activities. For example:
This conveys some of the same ideas with a slightly more narrative structure.
Try not to waste space with a lead-in sentence like, “For the last two summers, I have mainly spent my time doing…” because that already uses up 12 of your precious 50 allotted words.
If no historical events come to mind after thinking about this prompt for a few minutes, and you’re starting to question whether you learned anything at all in your high school history classes, doing a quick google search of top 100 historical moments is not a terrible idea. However, since many of your peers will likely employ the same strategy to identify their historical event, you should strive to select one that makes sense considering your unique profile and current interests.
For example, if you want to indicate your interest in the techy Silicon Valley, you could write about witnessing the process Hewlett and Packard went through starting their business from their garage because you loved tinkering through your own projects throughout high school. Or if you are interested in history or politics, this is a good place to easily select one of the thousands of moments to tie into your interest. For instance, you could write about the time when Washington rallied his troops and convinced them not to abandon the Continental Army late in 1776, even when things looked just about as bleak as they could get.
The specific moment you choose isn’t extremely relevant, but again remember that if you pick something obscure, it might not qualify as a “historical moment” and may need more than 50 words to describe and add a brief explanation. Here’s an example of incorporating a potential major interest in engineering while going for something out of the box:
You don’t need to directly connect it to a personal reason or specific explanation like these examples did, but noting why you picked this moment allows your response to ultimately feel more memorable.
This prompt gives you a little more space to discuss one of your most meaningful extracurriculars from your activities list.
To pick an activity, think about the one that taught you the most, changed your perspective, or is most unique. If there’s something you haven’t been able to express in other parts of your application, this is your space.
Keep in mind that trying to write about multiple aspects of the activity will be difficult with only 50 words, and it can result in simply reiterating what will already be on your activities list. Pick just one aspect that was most important to you, and highlight that. Feel free to be straightfoward rather than artsy, as you have limited space. Also, don’t forget to briefly address what you gleaned from the activity as opposed to simply describing what it was.
Without committing to the full “Why Stanford?” essay, Stanford has still created a space for you to share something about yourself while using a specific reference to the tree-loving institution. This could mean doing research online and finding out more about the school’s quirks, asking alumni what they enjoyed, or even just mentioning that you have the intent to continue one of your activities with a student group there. Events that could offer some interesting material to research and write about could include:
|Going to Full Moon on The Quad||Stanford’s undergraduates come out to the main quad each year to continue the tradition of getting a rose and giving it to someone (platonic or otherwise…) with a kiss at midnight. This event now occurs in January (it was moved later than the rest of the *secret* Freshman welcoming ceremonies/events in the fall time frame) Caution: Synergy residents think clothing is optional and it tends to become somewhat crazier than the tradition prescribes. You could write about looking forward to developing genuine new relationships with friends in your dorm so that you can all roll out to weird events like this together to get a break from the school stress.|
|Performing the primal scream||Every finals week, you will hear Stanford students screaming out of their windows at the top of their lungs in the middle of the night when they’ve been studying for hours on end. It’s both annoying and strangely satisfying. For example, if you are someone who has test anxiety or can occasionally feel a little timid, you could write about looking forward to letting loose with fun traditions like the primal scream while still keeping up with the grind.|
|Feeling awkward at Gaieties||Since Stanford students know they are a little weird, they put on a play each year called Gaieties aimed solely at making fun of themselves. It’s student-led and wickedly funny. (See the theme of random fun events to take a break from procrastinating homework?) If you have been involved in theater or choir at all in high school, you should seriously consider trying out, which could be a natural way to answer this prompt while tying in something personal too.|
|Dying in the circle of death (or just hiking the dish)||The circle of death is the most trafficked roundabout on campus right next to the main quad. You could write about how you are looking forward to making your bike your new best friend despite the inevitability of wiping out in the circle of death (it happens to literally everyone). Or, if you like the idea of hiking around “the dish,” which is basically just a cute little loop of hills 15 min from campus, you could incorporate that into your response as well. Try to avoid talking about the ideal weather (believe us, admissions officers already know that you’re looking forward to that!)|
|Wishing you were as cool as the SIMPS||If you think you want to try out for comedy troupes, or if you just love watching funny performances, you could write about looking forward to regular shows from talented student groups like the SIMPS (Stanford’s improv comedy group).|
|Taking a Freshman Introductory Seminar||This is the token academic suggestion. If you go through the catalog of options for 2019-2020 Freshman introsems, you will definitely find something that inspires you to feel excited about classes or opportunities at Stanford with options to apply for engaging introsems on everything from nanotechnology to “Sappho: Erotic Poetess of Lesbos.”|
|Going to all the Cardinal Nights programs||You could write about looking forward to coercing your friends to go to all of the Cardinal Nights events with you! They take you to the Redwood City movie theater. They bring you Tom Hanks to perform. They bring carnivals. They take you to the Broadway Lion King musical. They take you to theme parks or the SF ballet. If you love weekend adventures but aren’t looking forward to the party scene, or if you wish you had more experiences going out during high school, you could write about looking forward to Cardinal Nights and glance through their past events for inspiration or specific references.|
|Going to Frost||Music lovers could easily write about looking forward to the awesome opportunity to see a free concert every year in Frost amphitheater. The past several years have featured Chance the Rapper and Zedd. Writing about joining groups like the club that runs Frost could demonstrate that you plan to keep showing initiative in college by joining new student activities.|
|Doing traditional fountain hopping||A quick Google search of “Stanford fountain hopping” should pull up images that pretty much sum this one up. It may be hard to write a full essay on looking forward to this, but it could be something fun to mention if you are writing about a general theme of looking forward to the exciting and playful atmosphere.|
|Braving Secret Snowflake||This tradition is also considerably strange, but if you can picture a whole dorm playing secret santa, but with dares instead of gifts, with three levels of extremity, you can see how it might get insane. You could write about looking forward to exploring your creative side at Stanford through everything from taking art studio classes to designing crafty secret snowflake feats.|
Again, as a reminder, remember to stay classy in your essays by not mentioning anything unsavory or illegal. Also, don’t forget that the prompt does say one thing, and that the heart of the answer is why you are looking forward to it, not just an explanation of what it is or why it’s awesome (generic reasons why anyone would look forward to it won’t stand out).
Pick something that you are genuinely stoked about and make sure that authenticity comes through when you are writing. Going for something more general than an event like looking forward to diversity in the dorms, a challenging curriculum, or research opportunities is okay too, but know that you will need to write it in a way that will stand out as they go through heaps of similarly-themed responses.
As you approach this first longer prompt, think back on all the hours you spent during class, after school during activities, or at home studying. Try to select an experience where you seriously felt that love of learning. Just writing about this idea or realization should make you feel like an extremely happy nerd (you are applying to Nerd Nation after all!). Whether you are someone who approaches standardized testing like it is a thrilling game, or someone who feels so excited after getting through a test that you poured countless hours into studying for, you can really highlight your own drive and intellect through this prompt.
For example, you could write some sort of introduction about deciding to self-study for the AP Physics C tests, then add some analysis like:
This response shows an authentic passion for learning without overloading on narrative. Another solid example that takes a more creative response could look something like this:
This response from a Stanford 2020 student majoring in International Relations shows the admissions office a thirst for learning without ever just overtly stating it, especially with tying in the childhood anecdote as an excellent hook.
As you approach your own essay, avoid using basic statements like “This made me excited because…” or “An idea that made me genuinely excited about learning was…” since your writing style is extremely important throughout this essay. Compare the two examples above syntactically to see why the essay becomes more engaging with the style of “show not tell” displayed in the latter.
As with all college essays, do not forget that the emphasis is on teaching the admissions officers something about you and why the idea or experience made you so excited; avoid spending too much time explaining the logistics or trying to use excessively flowery language.
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. A previous 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:
While this is just one essay (and remember that there are many, many directions you can choose to take your own essay), you can see from this example that showcasing a variety of passions can highlight how multifaceted and genuinely interesting you are. A year from now, you might find yourself cracking up over how weird you sound while exchanging what you wrote with your actual roomie to procrastinate working on your p-sets or essays. We know we did!
In this prompt, Stanford asks applicants to directly address what is most important to themselves. Admissions officers want to see the passion and drive behind the scores/grades/clubs that will indicate to them that an applicant is a good fit for the university. Good applicants should show in their essays that they can write well and that they are intelligent with diverse interests and skills.
This prompt also leaves the door wide open for particularly interesting responses. The WHY is typically the most important part of all essays, and particularly so in this instance. To address what matters to you, even cliché-sounding topics can be workable if you have tangible reasons behind them.
For example, you could talk about helping others (a cheesy-sounding response typically containing stale content). But you could relay that same message by writing instead about how the mentors in your robotics club reached out to you personally and invested extra training and time so that you could become a valuable team member. Follow up with something along the lines of how it built your confidence and inspired you to help teach other underclassmen to tie back into why it was so important to you.
Another example could be writing about how you decided to reach out to the school suicide awareness club and form a new organization that focuses on both bullying prevention and suicide awareness with active presentations to underclassman. Again, don’t forget to make a distinct why portion that doesn’t sound like lines out of a motivational speech or a soap opera (be objective in verifying this and try reading it out loud).
Picking a meaningful activity that you have participated in without over-dramatizing it is key, but you can also use abstract concepts like physics or history. These require more careful planning since they can sound cold or surface-level compared to more emotional essays, but an ode to a *meaningful* topic of your choice could show off your writing or comedic prowess if those skills haven’t shone through already elsewhere in your application.
For example, you could focus on something like the meaningfulness of colored chalk (writing that feeling the increased grip when your hands are covered in the rainbow powder is like feeling the increased grip while handling stress when you express your artistic side) or microwave easy mac (symbolizing how important efficiency is in your life and how you thrive off getting tasks done quickly) or any other interesting, obscure object you can come up with.
Some questions about this prompt that we often receive from students are:
If you are still really stuck on determining what matters to you, try thinking about the sentiment that what you spend your time on is what you love. This won’t be helpful if you realize that you mainly spend time on school, video games, and sleep. But if, for example, you realize that you spend a lot of time organizing your room, you could write an essay about how order is meaningful to you, and how the neatly lined pencils in your drawer help you feel balanced as you thoughtfully color code your schedule for the week.
This essay can easily then become a metaphor for balancing your time between school, family, work, friends, or clubs, being careful to stay on top of keeping them separate and orderly like the pencils in your desk, etc. Creating a conceit here can prove effective if it still highlights important aspects of an underlying message.
Is Your Stanford Essay Strong Enough?
At top schools like Stanford, your essays account for around 25% of your application decision. That’s more than grades (20%) and test scores (15%), and almost as much as extracurriculars (30%). Why is this? Most students applying to Stanford will have stellar academics and extracurriculars. Your essays are your chance to stand out and humanize your application.
That’s why it’s vital that your essays are engaging, and present you as someone who’d be a strong addition to the Stanford community.
After reading your essays over and over, it can be difficult to judge your writing objectively. Your friends, family, and teachers may also be biased. That’s why we created our Peer Essay Review tool, where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. Since they don’t know you personally, they can be a better judge of whether your personality shines through, and whether you’ve fully answered the prompt.
You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. We highly recommend giving this tool a try!
If you create incentives for yourself to work on your Stanford University essays early and choose topics that you genuinely care about, then you will end up devoting much more time to them, resulting in more polished essays. Since Stanford admissions are so extremely selective, it places a good deal of pressure on both the content and execution of all 11 essays.
While Stanford has a reputation of being pretty relaxed and laid back, you shouldn’t try to exude that attitude throughout all your essays. Remember that it is the admissions office’s job to read through over 40,000 of these essays each year and discern whether you would be a good fit, so avoid topics that are even vaguely cliché and be brutally honest with yourself about whether you would enjoy the essay you’ve written from an outsider’s perspective.
Overall, do your best to put in the effort on ideas that you feel are unique and still personal/meaningful. Good luck!
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