Stanford University Essay 2020-2021


Matthew: Stanford University’s application is notoriously long and demanding, with four essays and seven short answer prompts. While the length of the application discourages many highly competitive individuals from applying, Stanford’s application provides applicants with ample opportunity to communicate their extracurricular pursuits, interests, passions, and personality at a depth other, shorter applications simply do not allow. 

With this in mind, Stanford’s application best serves students who will “put in the hours” and write well-thought-out, intentional essays. In this essay guide, we will discuss how to best respond to Stanford University’s supplemental essay prompts.

Becky: Though Stanford University recently made the decision to stop releasing its acceptance rate, it’s no secret that the number is low—low enough that every component of your application needs to be as strong as possible to make your case for admittance.

If you’re reading this post, you’re probably far enough into high school that your GPA isn’t moving much and your activities are going to be your activities. This means that your essays may be the last big factor to optimize your chances of getting in. So without further ado, let’s talk about how to make these the strongest essays you’re capable of submitting.

The Extracurricular Essay :

Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work or family responsibilities. (150 words)

Matthew: The extracurricular essay prompt is one that you’ll see when applying to schools such as Harvard University, Brown University, Pomona College, and, of course, Stanford University. When writing this essay, it’s best to avoid reiterating what you’ve already stated on your resume. Doing so would waste an opportunity to contextualize your work for your admissions officer. 

In this essay, discuss how your work has impacted your community as a whole or you as an individual. Think about what stories an admissions officer has likely heard before. Try to frame your extracurricular, work, or family engagements in a novel way that’ll help you stand out in a sea of other applicants.

Michele: The primary difficulty of this prompt comes from the choice of topic. You may have an overwhelming number of different extracurriculars and work experiences that could be used to answer this question. If the choice is not immediately obvious, this may be a prompt that you want to skip and answer last in order to use it strategically to fill in any gaps. 

Once you get back to it, think through a few considerations in your selection. What might be missing from your application as a whole, considering both your Stanford supplement essays and your Common/Coalition app essays? Which important learnings from your extracurriculars or work experiences have you yet to communicate in your application? Which extracurricular or work experience holds a compelling story that you haven’t told yet? 

Once you’ve chosen, be focused on the “So what?” of your experience. For example, don’t simply describe the number of hours you dedicated to basketball or list the places you traveled for tournaments. Rather, explain what you learned about commitment during those hours or the new perspectives you gained through your travels. Ask, “Why does this matter?” and then make sure you include the answer to that question within your response.

Short Response Questions

Matthew: Similar to schools such as Princeton and Yale, Stanford University’s short answer prompts provide applicants with an opportunity to highlight aspects of their personality, experiences, or interests that might not be evident in their resume or longer essays. While a single short answer question may not make or break your application, Stanford’s short answer prompts are invaluable for humanizing your extracurricular activities, grades, and test scores.

Some general words of advice for answering short answer questions:

  • Avoid repetition. Short takes won’t help you if you share parts of yourself represented in other parts of your application.
  • Consider what might be missing from your application. Do you have any interests/passions that you haven’t already discussed?
  • Don’t rush the writing process, and don’t expect to finish Stanford’s short answer prompts in one sitting. Allocate ample time to brainstorming, crafting, and editing your responses. Every word matters.

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

Becky: There are plenty of problems you can write about in response to this essay. The trick is, it’s really not about what problem you choose; it’s about how you choose to talk about it. Stanford is looking for empathy, as well as awareness of the world and society at large.

Of course, you should still take this essay as an opportunity to teach your reader something about yourself. As an example, I spoke about the rise of mental health conditions and how I’ve seen it impact those close to me. This gave me an opportunity to share something personal to my life while demonstrating an awareness of a problem that faces society as a whole.

Remember: you only have 50 words to do it, so concision is key.

Matthew: Stanford University prides itself on being a training ground for the next generation of writers, activists, scientists, and entrepreneurs. In this prompt, Stanford asks you to consider your experiences as a member of your community and a global citizen more broadly. 

Is there one issue you are particularly passionate about? Perhaps discuss why you have dedicated your time to this cause specifically. Another route you can take is examining why certain societal problems exist. Additionally, you can use this short answer prompt as an opportunity to propose problems that go under other people’s radar. Regardless of how you choose to approach this essay, the word count will be an obstacle you’ll have to overcome.

Michele: With this question, Stanford University wants to know that you are both socially conscious and also personally passionate about at least one social issue. With that in mind, think about a challenge that is both objectively significant and also personally meaningful. 

The personal factor could be that you, your family, or your community directly experienced that challenge. The challenge could also be something that you have worked on solving, or plan on using your Stanford education to contribute to solutions. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and our national reckoning on systemic racism and police brutality are societal challenges that are currently most prominent in our news cycle. Don’t feel pressure to choose or not to choose these challenges. If you do plan to discuss either of these topics, think about intersectionality and the more nuanced implications of these issues. How does our education system perpetuate anti-black ideology? Where does gender play a role in COVID’s impact? How do race and COVID-19 intersect and what unique challenges stem from that intersection?  Your response should show that you’ve thought deeply about the subject matter and also considered solutions.

How did you spend your last two summers? (50 words)

Michele: I promise, this is not a trick question. Stanford genuinely wants to know how you typically spend your summers in order to get to know you better. With this question, don’t solely focus on launching your new app or your part-time job or volunteering with young kids. Include these accomplishments, yes, but also include any travel you did, or family reunions you attended. While Stanford cares about your achievements, admissions officers also want to know that you maintain balance in your life and take time for self-care (and fun!). 

Becky: This prompt is one of the more straightforward ones. They’re looking for a show of initiative here: in about two or three sentences, tell Stanford University what you do when you have more free time on your hands. You can list off the highlights or pick your biggest undertaking from each summer. Either way, remember that the goal here is not to talk only about weekends on the beach or five-hour Netflix marathons.

Matthew: This essay is an excellent opportunity to discuss opportunities, passions, or commitments not listed anywhere else on the application. Did you spend your summers circumnavigating the globe? Getting to know your grandparents? Teaching yourself photography? How did you grow as an individual from one summer to the next? Remember that you have the agency to determine the structure that best suits the idea/experience you are trying to convey. Your response to this prompt could look like a list or take the form of a one paragraph or two.

What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? (50 words)

Becky: Just as with the first prompt, the trap here would be picking an obvious answer —something you know hundreds of other applicants are also writing about — that sheds no light on who you are as a person. Don’t go for the cliches.

Spend some real time doing research for moments you may not have even thought of before, but that speak to you. You’ll know you’ve found the right moment when it shows how the way you think is different from the way every other applicant thinks. Perhaps you are a gymnast and wish to go back to the moment a human did a flip for the very first time. Or you are a musician and wish you could go back to the moment mankind played its very first note and invented music.

Remember: the goal is always to teach the reader about you while still answering the prompt.

Matthew: Exactly. Like with all of our short answer prompts, we should provide our admissions officer with an essay they haven’t seen before; ergo, it is advantageous to avoid historical events that are “low hanging fruit” that other students will likely use. Writing about the Great Emu War might make for a fun essay, it also might be one your admissions officer has read several times before.

If you are struggling to find a topic, think about what you want to reveal to your admissions officer with this essay. Work backwards. Is there a subject in school —unrelated to your prospective major — that you’ve absolutely loved? Scour the web for historical events related to that subject. Is there a language you’ve studied or want to take up? Find events significant to that respective culture or community. Is there a way you can explore a social issue through the lens of another culture, way of thinking, society, or time period? History is often where disciplines intersect. 

Michele: This prompt is ripe for storytelling, so think about how you could put yourself in that moment. What dialogue would be going on? What would the sights, sounds, and smells feel like? Instead of telling Stanford University what historical event you wish you could have witnessed, consider showing them through descriptive language.

What five words best describe you? (5-10 words)

Michele: The simplest of questions can sometimes be the most daunting. Don’t stress! To tackle this question, I started by asking those that knew me best to describe me in 5 words. That provided me with a robust list of options, and from there, I was able to strategically select my starting five. 

When making this selection, make sure you choose words that are colorful (i.e. replace “kind” and “helpful” with “affectionate” and “proactive”) and words that are unique from one another. Each word should reveal something different about who you are. Further, keep in mind that you have a 10-word limit for a 5-word prompt. Feel free to add adverbs to your five words to enhance your descriptions with even more nuance. Play around with it and seek feedback from others.

Becky: This question asks you to pick five adjectives to describe yourself to the reader. Your list should not look like this:

Kind, friendly, smart, hardworking, curious.

The reader will forget this list immediately after reading it. Those words could be copy-and-pasted to every single other Stanford University applicant. Moreover, words like ‘smart’ and ‘hardworking’ and ‘curious’ can be seen implicitly in your grades and extracurriculars. Make the words uniquely you, and make them words that are not otherwise obvious from your application. Here’s a better example:

Bookworm. Traveler. Old-fashioned. Lyrical. Sleepless.

These words are all distinct yet cohesive. They each tell the reader something different, while contributing to a holistic understanding of who the writer is. Moreover, they are probably not qualities you can infer from other components of the application.

Matthew: There are a couple directions you can go with this essay. You can come up with a five-word phrase that represents you, or choose five individual words that communicate the kind of person you are. Enlist the help of friends, teachers, mentors, and other people who know you well. 

Word to the wise — do not try to be too edgy with the word count. Avoid responses such as “can’t be described in five words” or “smart, cool, handsome, passionate, kind, rebellious.” Your admissions officer has seen submissions like these many, many times before. Individuality is key with this short answer prompt—if you think your five words might have been done before, it might be a sign that you’re not done with this short answer response.

Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford. (50 words)

Becky: You are probably familiar with the ‘why this school’ essay prompt. Well, this is Stanford’s version, condensed down to a mere 50 words. And because they don’t give you much room to share why Stanford University is your dream school, you need to do so with laser focus.

Pick one or two things to discuss, and make sure they are the most specific examples you can possibly think of. They should not be able to apply to a single other school — and ideally not to a single other applicant — in existence. Don’t, for example, discuss how prestigious their program is — so are many other programs. Do, for example, talk about how you have dreamed (pun intended) for years of learning from Stanford’s famous Sleep and Dreams professor, because you are going to cure insomnia one day.

Matthew: Unlike most ‘Why “X” School?’ essays, you have only 50 words to articulate why Stanford. The word count severely limits your ability to convey your love for the school; however, my advice for answering this prompt is largely the same as answering any ‘Why “X” School?’ essays: do your homework, discuss specific programs, professors, and opportunities, and show how you will grow at Stanford University. 

Your answer doesn’t need to be specific to academic programs. When I was writing my application, I realized that I had talked a lot about academic research and activism already in my application. Thus, I decided to use this essay as an opportunity to highlight my desire to perform stand up with the student organization Stand Up, D.

Michele: The key to this essay is to be specific, specific, specific. Do your research and name names! If you are looking forward to experiencing the diversity of Stanford, look up specific groups on campus that would broaden your horizons, such as the Black House, Hillel at Stanford, or El Centro Chicano y Latino. If you can’t wait to dive into Gender Studies, find specific professors and class names that you’re interested in taking, such as Intro to Queer Theory with Maxe Crandall. If engineering is your passion, check out the Stanford Solar Car Project or the Stanford 

Focus on an experience that you can only find at Stanford University, and make sure you explain why you are looking forward to this experience.


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