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How to Respond to Stanford’s First Short Answer Prompt

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Johnathan Patin-Sauls and Vinay Bhaskara in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.


What’s Covered:



The first short answer prompt for Stanford’s supplemental essays asks for your opinion on topics that affect society. In just 50 words, you need to discuss what you consider society’s biggest challenge and back up your claim. The prompt reads:


What is the most significant challenge that society faces today? (50 words)


In this article, we’ll delve into ways to approach this prompt as well as some tips for writing your response and keeping it within the word count.


Treating The Essay Like An Interview


One way to approach this essay is by treating it like an interview. It might sound weird, but answering these college essay prompts is a lot like responding to an interview question. While this is Stanford asking the question, try and imagine if your friend asked you this in a casual conversation. This should help you begin brainstorming different opinions. 


It will be hard to give a truly original answer to this question considering how well news and media circulates today. Your topic will probably be something many other students choose to write about as well, but there are ways you can make your response unique. Your opinion on why you’ve chosen this as society’s biggest challenge is the best way to do this. Carefully crafting your argument can make you stand out among other responses.


Picking Your Topic


Writing an essay on political and global issues can be challenging, since topics like climate change and poverty are quite broad. These are the problems circulating news and media regularly, so climate change and poverty are well known topics for a reason. Picking these general topics isn’t a bad idea, but, if you decide to write about any of the more well known issues, try and discuss a specific area or sub-topic. Specificity here can really enhance your argument and prove that you have a deeper understanding of it. 


Another way to stand out is by choosing a counterintuitive topic. However, it is important to keep in mind that by picking a topic or opinion that might not align with the popular public opinion, you are taking a risk. On the positive side, the committee member will remember your essay and application. On the negative side, if the reader disagrees with your counterintuitive proposal, they can actually hold it against you. There is both risk and reward. If you do go down this path, think carefully about the possible reactions your reader might have. 


The last thing to remember is that Stanford is a progressive institution. They tend to have progressive social values. While your personal beliefs might not align with this, make sure to remember your audience.


Managing the Word Count


Another thing that you want to be mindful of in this prompt is your essay’s length. You aren’t given a lot of space to make an extensive argument, so managing word count will be a challenge. 


The point of these short answer questions is for Stanford’s admissions officers to gain more insight into who you are, what you are passionate about, and how you think. You want to make sure you prioritize stating your opinion clearly on the subject rather than giving a long explanation of the challenge. This essay isn’t meant for you to solve the problem either. If it’s society’s greatest challenge, that can’t be resolved in 50 words. The important thing to write about is your opinion on the matter.