Stanford Essay Example: Breakdown + Analysis

Stanford is the most selective college in the nation, with an acceptance rate of 4.4% for the Class of 2023. If you want to snag a spot at this renowned university in sunny California, you’ll need to write standout essays.

 

Stanford requires four short-answer questions, and three short essays. In this post, we’ll go over one of Stanford’s supplemental essay prompts, and what admissions officers are looking for. Then, we’ll share an essay from a real applicant, analyzing what they did well, and what they could’ve improved. 

 

Stanford Supplemental Essay Prompt

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

This is perhaps the most well-known of Stanford’s prompts. It’s extremely open-ended, but requires specificity and depth. 

 

Still, take this prompt at its word. Admissions officers really do want to know what matters and holds meaning for you, because by understanding what you value, adcoms will get a clearer glimpse of who you are.

 

Many students may say that kindness and hard work are meaningful to them, but this alone won’t set you apart from the other applicants. We encourage you to try to find something highly specific to your life and personality, and to avoid cliche topics.

 

Start off with an exhaustive brainstorming session, whether you’re freely talking into a recording device, or jotting down your thoughts in a notepad or Google Doc. Going on a brisk walk before or during your brainstorming process will bring blood flow to your brain, allowing for deep, clear, and creative thinking.

 

Write them down without judgment and don’t open your thoughts to criticism just yet. You may find yourself thinking of broad values, like harmony or togetherness, or specific anecdotes from Sunday dinners with your cousins. From a political movement to time spent with your grandfather, no topic is too big or too small!

 

Remember, your success within this essay won’t be determined by what you write about, but how you do so and what the final product says about you.

 

As is the case with most private school essays, we urge you to show, not tell. Instead of explicitly stating your passion for equitable health care, use vivid imagery and active verbs to detail your lifetime spent taking up every medicine and equity-based project you could get your hands on. 

 

Instead of saying that “harmony” is meaningful to you, show us the cohesive symphonies you lead as orchestra captain, the careful balance of color in your watercolors, and your penchant for mediating religious debates at your cross-cultural dinner table. 

 

Never forget to answer the “Why?” Implicitly or explicitly tie your chosen subject to a core aspect of your life, whether it be a core personality trait that runs throughout all of your activities or a future you hope to build.

 

The strongest, deepest essays won’t say “Harmony is meaningful to me because…” The reader should be left with a strong yet near-intangible impression of your chosen subject.

 

Above all, work to craft an interesting, insightful read. Draw in admissions officers with your storytelling prowess to make them as excited about your topic as you are.

 

It isn’t easy to encapsulate the core essence of your passions in a few hundred words, but if you take our tips into account, you’ll have a polished, insightful, and interesting essay in no time!

 

Stanford Essay Example

 

 Let’s break down an essay which we consider to be one of Stanford’s strongest:

I am an avid anti-annotationist; the mere idea of tainting the crisp white pages of any novel with dark imprints of my own thoughts is simply repulsive. However, I have one exceptionmy copy of George Orwell’s 1984, weathered and annotated in two languages. While victimized by uneven handwriting eating away at the margins, it is the only novel I still hold beloved despite its flaws. 

 

Two years before reading 1984, I was indulging in the novels of Dr. Seuss, not because of my preferences, but because my reading level was deemed an “A”the reading level of a toddler. I was certainly anything but that; I was a fresh-off-the-plane immigrant and rising middle schooler who could barely name colors in English. 

 

After reading the likes of A Very Hungry Caterpillar like a madman, my next step was purchasing more advanced books in both English and Korean, so I could understand the nuance and missing details of novels after I initially read them in English. This crutch worked perfectly until George Orwell’s 1984the first novel I purchased and read without the training wheels of a translated copy. It took me weeks to finish the book; it was painfully slow, like a snail inching toward an arbitrary finish line. 

 

I read the novel twenty-seven times, each reading becoming faster and revealing more information. When I look at my copy of 1984, I still cringe at its weathered and tainted pages, but I can’t help admiring that initial portal between two literary worlds. 

Breaking Down This Stanford Essay Example

 

This essay draws its strength from its succinct writing style, demonstrated intellectual vitality, and personal flair. To get into the specifics, let’s start off by breaking down the first paragraph:

 

I am an avid anti-annotationist; the mere idea of tainting the crisp white pages of any novel with dark imprints of my own thoughts is simply repulsive. However, I have one exceptionmy copy of George Orwell’s 1984, weathered and annotated in two languages. While victimized by uneven handwriting eating away at the margins, it is the only novel I still hold beloved despite its flaws. 

 

The first sentence starts off the passage with an interesting hook. “Avid anti-annotationist” is certainly a specific and unique self-descriptor! Secondly, the writer’s introduction of 1984 generates a natural curiosity within readers, making us wonder why this stickler for cleanliness would “break his own rules” for this particular book.

 

His writing style becomes readily apparent as well; crisp and precise, the author stays true to his main message despite richly detailed side notes. There are no rambling sentences or excessive repetition throughout this essay. 

 

As you draft and revise your own essay in keeping with a limited word count, choose every word with clear intent, allowing for no wasted space.

Two years before reading 1984, I was indulging in the novels of Dr. Seuss, not because of my preferences, but because my reading level was deemed an “A”the reading level of a toddler. I was certainly anything but that; I was a fresh-off-the-plane immigrant and rising middle schooler who could barely name colors in English. 

 

After reading the likes of A Very Hungry Caterpillar like a madman, my next step was purchasing more advanced books in both English and Korean, so I could understand the nuance and missing details of novels after I initially read them in English. This crutch worked perfectly until George Orwell’s 1984the first novel I purchased and read without the training wheels of a translated copy. It took me weeks to finish the book; it was painfully slow, like a snail inching toward an arbitrary finish line. 

 

Here’s where we begin to understand a bit of the applicant’s background and the circumstances he came from. We get a sense for the rapid rise in reading ability that must have taken place within two short years, as well as the high determination and willingness to learn that this applicant must possess. We understand that the applicant is tenacious and adaptable without his directly saying so. This skillful pairing of high achievement and humility makes the reader increasingly likeable as this essay progresses.

 

I read the novel twenty-seven times, each reading becoming faster and revealing more information. When I look at my copy of 1984, I still cringe at its weathered and tainted pages, but I can’t help admiring that initial portal between two literary worlds. 

 

Throughout this essay, we realize that 1984 is significant for not only its contents, but for its symbolism. The first “hard” English book this student read served as a bridge within the author’s transition from Korean to English. 1984 is a vessel for this journey and physical evidence of this student’s diligence.

 

This is a potentially useful tool for you to incorporate within your own essay. If you do choose to write about a broad value, we recommend making your “big thing” smaller through using an object, activity, or memory as a symbol for something greater. Here, a small, tattered book holds meaning for the writer because it represents a pivotal time in his life.

 

One of Stanford’s deepest values is intellectual vitality (in fact, there’s a whole separate prompt dedicated to the topic!). This student demonstrates this value through establishing a willingness to learn and a love of cross-cultural literature.

 

All the while, this student is authentic. There’s little posturing here intended to impress the admissions officers with the student’s resilience and deep love for the written word; instead, he is genuine in sharing a small but authentic part of his life. We understand his thought processes and outlook on the world, almost as though we’re getting a quick peek into his mind.

 

If you’re still stuck on how to answer this essay prompt, or if you’d like to learn how to to approach the rest, check out this breakdown of how to write them all!

 

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Our college essay experts go through a rigorous selection process that evaluates their writing skills and knowledge of college admissions. We also train them on how to interpret prompts, facilitate the brainstorming process, and provide inspiration for great essays, with curriculum culled from our years of experience helping students write essays that work.