How to Write the Stanford University Essays 2023-2024
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 ranking as one of the best colleges in the nation and world.
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.
Read this Stanford essay example to inspire your own writing.
How to Write the Stanford University Essays
Short Response Questions (50 words)
- What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?
- How did you spend your last two summers?
- What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?
- Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities, a job you hold, or responsibilities you have for your family.
- List five things that are important to you.
Essay Questions (100-250 words)
Prompt 1: 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.
Prompt 2: 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.
Prompt 3: Please describe what aspects of your life experiences, interests and character would help you make a distinctive contribution as an undergraduate to Stanford University.
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.
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Short Answer 1
What is the most significant challenge that society faces today? (50 words)
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, aging populations, skills development, or climate change, 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.
Short Answer 2
How did you spend your last two summers? (50 words)
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:
“I prepared for and competed in SkillsUSA’s National Skills and Leadership Conference, vacationed in California to visit my family, volunteered at my local food bank, started working at TJ Maxx, hiked with friends, went on family camping trips, tried new cupcake recipes, and helped run a STEM camp for girls.”
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:
“Family vacations always feel too long and too short. I melt in the SoCal summer heat, but returning home to cool breezy Washington brings 30-hour retail work weeks, with interspersed respite at the local library. After just finishing SkillsUSA nationals, the challenge to engineer a new invention returns, energizing me.”
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.
Short Answer 3
What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? (50 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:
“I have always been fascinated by the pyramids and Egyptian culture, although my perception of them has been greatly romanticized by my childhood obsession with The Mummy. I wish that I could have witnessed the pyramids’ amazing and mysterious construction to know the secret of their advanced ancient engineering.”
“When I was a little kid, I was obsessed with NASA. I always had glow-in-the-dark stars above my bed and rocketship sheets. I would love to see the moon landing (especially from the capsule) to experience the awe of seeing a new world.”
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.
Short Answer 4
Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities, a job you hold, or responsibilities you have for your family. (50 words)
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 straightforward 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.
I developed a marketing and sustainability initiative for my family’s grocery store. We gave free monthly workshops on topics like composting and zero waste cooking on a budget, which grew our client base 120%, and spread important ideas. People are interested in living more sustainably; they just need accessible education.
Short Answer 5
List five things that are important to you. (50 words)
This short response question is asking for you to reflect on things that are most important in your life. Keep in mind that these things can be a physical object (like your phone) or a concept or idea (like family or friendship). It’s also important that the items you list relate to ideas that have been represented in the rest of your application to provide a cohesive message across all your application elements. If you were applying for an arts major at Stanford, perhaps you wouldn’t say an important item to you is your model rocketship in your room unless you have previously suggested that your artwork is inspired by space travel and celestial bodies.
Some questions to help you brainstorm for this prompt include asking yourself: What things from my childhood or daily life bring me joy or purpose? If this thing was missing from my life, would I notice? Why is this thing important to me? What purpose does this thing bring to my life?
You should list out the things that are important to you from 1 to 5. When listing these items that are important to you, you can use any additional word space to briefly describe why the thing is important to you. For example, if you gave your faith as an important thing in your life, you could write “1. My faith: It gives me hope and strength in the face of adversity.”
Here are some additional tips for writing this essay:
- Be specific. Don’t just say that faith is important to you. Explain what makes your faith so special and why it is so important to you.
- Be genuine. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. The admissions committee will be able to tell if you’re being fake.
- Be concise. This is a short essay, so you need to get your point across quickly and effectively.
Essay Prompt 1
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)
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:
…I began to honestly enjoy learning all the new applications for the calculus concepts I had been learning alongside physics, previously unaware of just how intertwined they were. The relationship between position, velocity, and acceleration through derivatives and integrals tied everything together in a way that made so much sense it gave me chills.
After a few study sessions, I began to devour YouTube videos to prepare for the test, and each time I understood a new concept by learning it on my own, I felt more accomplished and intellectually independent. As I worked through practice problems and self-corrected my way across old exams, I felt driven to stop excusing or dismissing my mistakes, and to instead pull them apart by analyzing exactly why I had made them to target and avoid them in the future. This experience improved the way I study and showed me the value of truly mastering knowledge on my own.
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:
“How do you make pianos?
In 4th grade, I entered and won PBS’s Curiosity Quest question contest, resulting in my co-hosting a Curiosity Quest episode at New York’s Steinway and Sons Piano Factory. There I realized for the first time what can be found beyond textbook teachings. I saw the palpable pride the factory had in the heritage that they displayed, and the stunning beauty of a legacy and its centuries of refined knowledge. After that day, it was as if my consciousness had awoken. I resolved to begin creating my own legacy. I spent early morning hours in front of my piano daily, determined to make it my art — all because my curiosity rewarded me with knowledge that expanded the depth and range of just how far I can strive in this world.
Theory of Knowledge teaches of knowledge’s paradox: The more we know, the more we don’t. In retrospect, TOK put into words what I’ve since sensed — this inexplicable duality of filling a void that is ever-expanding. What began as a simple question of how something was made laid the very foundation upon which I’ve grown to ask questions that dig deeper: Why is there more inequality today than a century ago? What, if any, measures can be taken to end the conflicts in the Middle East? How can I further my legacy through striving to address these issues?
And as always, my quest for curiosity will serve to dually nourish and enlighten me, expanding my world once more.
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.
Essay Prompt 2
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)
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:
Ahem…May I make a toast?
First off, I am so pumped to live with you. I don’t have a sibling, so this is as close as it gets! Also, I just wanted you to know…
- I’m an ENFJ. I’m not nearly as brilliant as Obama or Oprah, but I do fancy the idea of sharing traits with them! ENFJs are “focused on values and vision, passionate about the possibilities for people, tuned into the needs of others, and tend to be optimistic and forward-thinking” — sums up my personality I’d say!
- I free my mind by exercising and writing. Our campus’s fresh forestry is perfect for morning/night runs/picnics. It would be so fun if you joined!
- I’m one to stay up all night to chat over coffee and pastries. I’m also one to venture out and walk/bike ten miles for Polaroid pics and yummy eats. Yelp4lyfe.
- I have a passion for fashion. I love it because style is universal and uniquely personal (read Worn Stories). I have a blog dedicated to learning about global cultures/styles — can’t wait to study abroad!
- I’m so deeply humbled to be surrounded by exceptional, passionate people like you who are going to rock this world. I had visited Stanford three times before applying, and I had written on my secret blog during my 2nd visit that my heart felt so moved to call this place home one day.
Well, I couldn’t be happier to be home with you.
Name (or nickname)
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!
Essay Prompt 3
Please describe what aspects of your life experiences, interests and character would help you make a distinctive contribution as an undergraduate to Stanford University. (100 to 250 words)
This is a classic example of the Diversity Essay. Your response should focus on your personal background and how your life experiences or cultural traditions provide you with a unique perspective that has influenced your interests and character. Stanford is looking for what makes you unique and how you will share that uniqueness with their community.
Your response should directly answer the question at hand; however, remember to “show, not tell.” A personal narrative is one way to successfully highlight your potential individual contributions to Stanford’s community.
For example, instead of simply saying that you are hardworking and persist despite obstacles, describe a time where you displayed this skill. Perhaps you grew up in the central US where there are seasonal tornadoes and damage to property. You could share a story about how you help rebuild neighbors homes every year after the storms and how you have learned about the value in lending a helping hand to strangers. Or, if you want to discuss your deep connection and commitment to your culture, describe a particular event or custom that has meaning to you that most other applicants would not be aware of. Or maybe you have a strong commitment to sustainability—you could discuss a time you created an initiative to reduce food and plastic waste in your school cafeteria.
Beware that this question is similar to some Common Application prompts. Since the Stanford application is on the Common App, you should use this supplement as a means to communicate something new about yourself to the admissions committee, so avoid discussing topics that you’ve already covered. For example, if your Common Application focused on your analytical mind, consider using this prompt to discuss your compassion for others.
In the remaining space you have in the essay, tie your unique identity back to how you will contribute to Stanford’s campus. If you have a deep connection to your Native American culture, mention how you are excited to be involved with the American Indian Organization at Stanford.
All in all make sure that the life experience, interest and/or character trait you are sharing in this essay is unique to you and provide evidence to support the unique self that you will bring to campus.
Is Your Stanford Essay Strong Enough?
Do you want feedback on your Stanford essays? After rereading your essays countless times, it can be difficult to evaluate your writing objectively. That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool, where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.
If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!
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!