How to answer the Stanford supplemental essay prompts 2019-2020

Posted 22 days ago

Stanford University has remained a prominent institution through the almost unbelievable transformation of its surrounding area. The South Bay has gone from being a low density area, a string of small suburban towns, to the birthplace of the tech boom, the site of a hyper-growth that intensely alters the economic and social landscape of the San Francisco Bay. Adapting to the changing landscape, Stanford is a prestigious hub of intellectual activity, research, innovation, and activity.

Stanford’s undergraduate application requires 7 short answer questions and 3 longer essays. Below Crimson provides pointers on how to respond to these prompts for a successful application to one of the best schools in the country.

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Short Answers

These short answers are exactly that: short. Brevity requires clarity. For each question, first choose a word that will be central to your answer. You’ll use that word in the first sentence. Then brainstorm some related words that will be key to each of the sentences that follow. Don’t try to write 200 words and then pare down.

Question 1: Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 words)

This isn't merely an opportunity to brag about an additional accomplishment (although if this essay ultimately includes an accomplishment, that's ok!). It's really an opportunity to discuss an experience you've had outside of school that you feel gets buried by the rest of your application. Since it specifies an "extracurricular activity," it likely wants you to write about something that appears on your Common App list of extracurriculars but does not appear elsewhere in your app. Writing an anecdote, rather than a summary or list of all your extra curricular activities, is advised.

Pro tip: It could be a good idea to choose an activity that contrasts with your intended major. This shows your diverse interests and gives your application more texture overall.

Question 2: What is the most significant challenge that society faces today? (50 word limit)

Obviously society faces many challenges - migration, climate change, population growth, terrorism, public health crises, economic decline, discrimination of many kinds, etc. This essay asks you to choose one, so part of the exercise is describing the logic behind your choice. The challenge here is to be specific and succinct.

Examples:

  • Transportation infrastructure is the biggest challenge facing society because in order to have economic opportunity, people need mobility.
  • Climate change is the biggest challenge facing society because it is difficult to understand and because it causes a deprivation of resources for people globally.

Question 3: How did you spend your last two summers? (50 word limit)

Be honest but keep it appropriate.

Don’t just say you spent time with your family, say what you did in your time together. Nothing is mundane about the details of another person’s life. Say also something you did that relates to your intended field of study, whether reading or working or volunteering.

Feel free to state a variety of things you did (be honest).

Do not write about experiences you wouldn't tell your Math teacher about.

Question 4: What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? (50 word limit)

This essay should stir up your imagination. Try to think here of something you truly wish you could have witnessed.

This does not have to be a generic “historical” moment, it could be a Whitney Houston concert.

Perhaps you are a prehistory/archaeology buff - do wish you had been present for the painting of the Lascaux Caves?

Maybe you wish you could meet your great great grandmother - to better understand your ancestry and cultural heritage?

What do you think you would learn about the contemporary from bearing witness to the historical event?

What would the timing of the event be? A few minutes? Several days?

Question 5: What five words best describe you? (10 word limit)

Do not choose similar words. Ask your family and friends for help with this one. You may be very surprised by their answers.

Think about your tendencies, and what kinds of words sum these up, like if you always clean your room and organize your school stuff the night before, use a word like attentive or prepared or fastidious or organized. If you always end up in a position of leadership, telling people what to do, use a word like assertive, extroverted, or generous.

It may work well to have words that offer sharp contrasts within yourself - easygoing and stubborn, fearful and courageous, loyal and expansive. Within the tension between these pairs of words a lot of content can be generated.

If the words you come up with feel boring or common, use a thesaurus and see if you can’t find a synonym that more pressingly, accurately speaks to the quality you’re describing.

Question 6: When the choice is yours, what do you read, listen to, or watch? (50 word limit)

Here is your chance to talk about yourself-your desires, interests, curiosities.

It is also your chance to show off your “lit crit” (literary criticism) skills- your art writing. Describe the TV show, news article, novel, etc. that you consume in your spare time with accuracy and intense detail in a sentence or two.

What do these media do for you? Escape? Connection? Do you relate to the people in the narrative, or to other people who read, listen to, or watch this work?

Question 7: Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford. (50 word limit)

Take a look at Stanford’s website and check out the kinds of experiences they offer. Importantly, don't write about something that you could experience at any school.

In addition to being specific about what Stanford offers, make sure you also let your background and personality shine through. This goes for each essay, of course! You can achieve this effect by being honest about your particular interests, experiences, and dreams.

Why are you excited about this? Because you will learn a lot? Because you will meet people who will transform you?

Question 8: Imagine you had an extra hour in the day — how would you spend that time? (50 word limit).

Is it something you already spend time doing and wish you had more time for? Perhaps something you rarely do? Or something you’ve never done? What would an hour’s worth of this activity afford you? Would it bring a peace of mind? A learning? Would you be helping others?

Examples:

  • Meditating - what style?
  • Helping your parents - with what?
  • Reading - what material?
  • Physical practice - dance, sports, alone or in a group?
  • Being with friends, talking with friends - connecting to the past, planning the future
  • Alone time - how would you spend it?
  • Walking around your neighborhood, paying attention to things you don’t have time to notice
  • Writing poetry
  • Prayer
  • Studying - for which class? What is a challenge for you to find time to do?
  • Learning another language

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Essays

While these essays are a bit longer, they are still quite short and will require careful thinking and editing. Make sure you choose a topic in which you feel invested before diving in.

Essay 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. (100-250 words)

This is the most serious of the three essays. For this essay, it’s important not to be vague, but rather to describe exactly the idea or experience that makes you excited about learning.

First, think about what it is that you are curious about. Be creative and generous with yourself- now that you are moving beyond high school, more topics are fair game for study. Rather than the five or six subjects you study in school, subjects from fashion design to ethnic studies are on offer. You could take a class on death and dying, food science, or gender. Just having such a breadth of education opportunities may be exciting.

Now think about the experience you’ve already had that made you excited about learning. How did you end up in that situation? What led you to that concept? Who introduced you to the encounter you had that made you excited? Did you talk about the experience? What did you say? What response was your account met with? Sometimes people make us feel ashamed of the things we’re excited about, try to push us away from one thing and towards another. Think about the things that really made you excited, whether or not you were encouraged in your pursuit by parents, teachers, etc.

What was the excitement like?

So you got excited about learning something. What form will that education take at Stanford? Will you learn more about this inside or outside the classroom?

What kind of question does the topic demand? Like, what form would research about it take? Archival? Lab experiment? Ethnographic? How will you work with others at Stanford to learn about the topic?

Essay 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. (100-250 words)

Don’t brag about yourself. Be honest. Be specific.

Think about the things that come into play when sharing a space with someone else. Sharing space isn’t easy, but can be deeply rewarding.

The most humorous, or possibly poignant of the essays, approach this one with the tenderness, intimacy and playfulness you might a sibling, who you may also have shared a room with at some point! Humor does not necessarily come from being silly or light, but from being vulnerable, even self deprecating.

While the instinct here would be to use many adjectives to describe yourself, adjectives actually say very little, because they are subjective measures of interpretation of an experience. So try to use more nouns and verbs to describe an experience, habit, or opinion you have.

*Examples *

  • Perhaps what you hold close to your heart is your religious belonging, and the daily prayer that comes with that. Describe how you were taught these practices grow and how you once had to adapt them to being on a school trip. Perhaps this is where humor comes in, describing waking up very early when you and everyone else was already sleep deprived just to make sure you could work prayer in your day, or praying in the bathroom so as not to disturb your roommate on the trip.
  • You love bringing beautiful things into your space so much that even when you can’t afford to buy flowers you pick a few in your neighborhood to assemble a bouquet.
  • You feel very precious about your birthday, and once even planned your own surprise party. Describe the party, and also why your birthday matters so much to you.

Essay 3: Tell us about something that is meaningful to you, and why? (100-250 words)

This essay lends you almost complete freedom to write what you can write best about.

There’s no such thing as objectively meaningful; meaning is personal, so don’t worry about choosing something that fits into some idea of what you think other people think is meaningful.

Again this is a rhetorical exercise in proving the meaning in something, whether it’s obviously apparent or not. In fct, choosing something that’s less universally significant (like “ my daily wake up time,” as opposed to “my mother”) may make for a more impressive essay - if you can really show why it’s meaningful to you.

*Examples: *

  • Something your family family does every year: Every year my family goes back to the town where my parents are from. It’s meaningful because it’s regular (we don’t do many things consistently as a family), and because my parents talk about the past in a way they don’t usually at home. It’s also meaningful because on the ride there we listen to music and it’s very fun and relaxing.

  • Language: A language may be meaningful because of who taught it to you, or because of you it gives you the opportunity to communicate with. It may also be that the language itself is beautiful and you get pleasure out of learning or speaking it.

  • Art form: Art can give our lives so much meaning. Dance, for example, can be a physical practice, a way of being in community, a creative process (dance composition, or choreography). It can also be a scholarly subject - learning the theory and history.

*Other ideas: *

  • A daily practice.
  • A subject at school.
  • Doing well at something.
  • A food.
  • A friendship.

Optional Essay: Have you previously submitted a first-year or transfer application to Stanford University? Reflect on your experiences and personal development since your last application. (50 to 250 words)

Do not take on a defensive tone. Being truly reflective will go a long way. While students who haven’t previously applied have their whole lives to reflect on, having already applied can actually be advantageous in that you only have a year or a few years (depending on when you previously applied) on which to reflect. Because of the limited time, you can distill a growth process.

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