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September 20, 2019

Stanford University Supplemental Essays

Please write a short essay in response to each of the three essay topics below. There is a 100-word minimum and a 250-word maximum for each essay.

First, let’s briefly get a sense of what 250 words means. It’s two average paragraphs, or three lean paragraphs. Also known as: not a ton of space! The burden is on you to think about the meatiest point you need to make, and then to build your surrounding elements strategically, so that they help you deliver that point with maximum impact, concisely. It’s not as easy as it may sound. For our analysis, we’re mostly going to dig into the “meat” aspect.


Strangely, this one rides or dies on the PROOF that you’re actually, truly, genuinely excited about learning. What serves as proof? Action. The stuff YOU DO in response to the stuff you’re inspired by… that demonstrates it, and makes it real. Anyone can CLAIM to be super inspired by X Y and Z and talk about it. But if all they do is talk, does it really matter? Not exactly the world’s sexiest Zen koan, but you get the idea.

Something to consider here – something common to folks who are genuinely excited about learning – is an unusual comfort level with being WRONG. A thirst for learning is predicated on (1) acknowledging that you don’t know everything already, and (2) that the stuff you may THINK you know, is wrong or incomplete. Why mention this? Cuz it can help your case to give EVIDENCE of that. Have you ever been wrong about something, and were THRILLED to discover what ended up being a BETTER WAY OF LOOKING AT SOMETHING? Walk us through what it felt like, why it might have felt bad at some point, but why it felt GOOD eventually to have developed, improved, evolved. We need to really PROVE that you’re turned on by learning, and admitting that you’ve been wrong (and loved it), is an excellent way to do so.

Another way, alluded to earlier, is purely through action. Is there evidence of “tirelessness” when you’re attempting to learn something? We need to see ways in which you pursue this thing, especially when it’s INCONVENIENT to do so. In other words, if your pursuit is compelling, but kinda expected, it won’t weigh as much. If you decided you wanted to get some cereal, and then went out and bought yourself some cereal… um, okay? But if on the way, it started to rain, and a hurricane arrived, and the store closed, so you hitchhiked to another location, and that store was closed too, so you decided to call your friend you know who happened to have an extra box, but he wasn’t home, so you decided to……. [yada yada]…. You ended up with your box of Crispix. Now THAT GUY’s interest in “cereal” seems unimpeachable, no? Show us how, when pursuing something for the sake of learning, you’ve done it (1) when no one else was looking, or (2) when it became inconvenient to do so, but you still did it, or (3) when the risk of continuing to do it started to outweigh the benefits, or… you get the idea.

Most students will focus on THE THING they’re excited about, rather than proving their excitement through action. It’s that second group that ultimately wins, because we now have reason to believe that they have that forward-leaning trait which will carry them through college and beyond. (And that’s whole point of this question – to make sure you won’t drop out in freshman year when you take a class that’s harder than any class you’ve ever taken before.)


Classic Stanford undergrad question. The mistake we see 95% of the time on first drafts is the impulse to try to “slip in” resume highlights. As if this is a veiled attempt by Stanford to get those highlights, instead of, you know, just asking for them. The way to impress Stanford here is through honesty and charm. But mostly honesty.

Indulge us here and take two swings at this. On the first attempt, get it out of your system, whatever letter you want to write, just take a crack and then file it away for the time being.

On your second attempt, go with us on a little journey. Start by creating a roommate, leaving everything to chance (the same way it’ll more or less work out when you’re actually assigned a roommate in your freshman dorm). For starters, your roommate will almost certainly be the same gender. Now, generate a bunch of parameters, like ethnicity, height, weight, athletic/ musical/etc., liberal/conservative, east coast/southern/west-coast/etc., affable/surly, cool/not-so-cool, American/foreign-born/etc.…. Don’t spend too much time, because it doesn’t really matter much. Give this guy or gal a name. Again, don’t get stuck on this, the idea is to paint a vague picture. But once you have this picture, commit to it for a second. Imagine a real person on the other end.

Now, you’re gonna address a fresh new letter to this person. If the open-ended-ness of the Stanford prompt leaves you stuck, consider some of the following ideas. Write the letter using one of the following:

  • What if your roommate just confided in you, and told you an incredible secret. Something that leaves your roommate in an extremely vulnerable emotional state having just put him/herself on the line. What might you reveal about YOURSELF in response? “Hey, so here’s something most people don’t know about ME…” (What might follow that up?)
  • Treat it as though it were a dating profile. What kinds of preferences would you reveal about yourself that might give the BEST clues about what you’re all about? Think about quirks and specificity here. If you were to say “I like Chinese food” it doesn’t say all that much since so many different types of people would fall under that same category. If, however, you were to say you absolutely HATE the HBO show “Game of Thrones” that would have the opposite effect since “most people are obsessed with that show (INCLUDING ALL OF US AT ADMISSIONADO, SO WATCH YOUR STEP!).” Can you stack up a few such preferences that, when summed, may help someone get a sense for what you’re all about, and even better, become more curious to get to know you better?
  • You know that classic question “if you were stuck on a desert island forever, what album would you bring?” … You can put a twist on it here. Name a few KEY possessions you’re gonna bring that’ll be essential to your comfort. Forget bland necessities like “a toothbrush” (since everyone will be packing one of those). More like, the “sounds of the rainforest” you use to lull yourself to sleep every night. Stuff like that. And possibly even suggest a few things you DON’T have that your roommate may bring to complete the set for total roommate symbiosis. You don’t need to follow this conceit exactly, but maybe this gives you an idea from which you can springboard to help show us something about who you are exactly, and what makes you … you.


Ha, in 250 words… you’re asked to grapple with one of life’s more challenging questions. A fitting test for a place like Stanford. Let’s start with what NOT to do.

Extinguish the desire to imagine what Stanford wants to hear. If you pen a response that you BELIEVE will put you in good stead because you think it shows maturity, or emotional intelligence, or whatever else… you are in for a crash landing. Or, tell you what, let’s a make a deal. Write that version, and keep it handy. Now write ANOTHER version that may never ever see the light of day. Think of this as a private diary entry. An exercise that may lead to something. But take the pressure away that someone might read it, so be more honest than you might want to be otherwise.

For this version, imagine you’re addressing a  huge crowd (as if you are the Pope, or MLK), and it’s a crowd of people who… aren’t really contributing all that positively to society. Maybe they’re lazy. Maybe they’re irresponsible. Maybe they’re disaffected. Maybe they’re dangerous. Let’s just call them the folks who aren’t model citizens of the world.

What might you say to inspire these folks? Think about it. If you were to say something obvious, wouldn’t it run the risk of not having much of an impact? Make it less about you (just for a second), and instead think about what you might say to inspire this crowd. If you were to say “say no to drugs” or “do unto others…” or “cherish each day as though it were your last” … hasn’t everyone heard it already? If they haven’t internalized those ideas, they’re certainly not gonna do so just because YOU said it, right? But they might if they hear something NEW, something fresh about what matters, in a way that may cause them to re-evaluate things or see things through a new lens.

Obviously, you won’t want to write about something trivial, like “driving a nice car matters because the value of a smooth ride is more pleasing than a bumpy one.” Unless it’s a cracking metaphor, something like that might make your message seem like you didn’t give it a whole lot of thought, or, worse, you’re someone who’s so privileged that that type of material comfort is truly something that matters more than deeper, cooler things. So, it probably will have to do with human interaction, or a way of approaching things, or a state of being, or the like. Think about where others are going wrong. What are others MISSING, in a way that leads to irresponsible behavior, actions, attitudes, etc.? What matters to YOU that makes you feel like your compass is pointed in a better direction?

This conceit (of addressing a crowd) is meant to unlock ideas, not for you to embrace the idea too literally. You’re not proselytizing. So, if it helps, use your imagination of the crowd to help the ideation process, and then if you find a neat germ of an idea, you can build on it and then personalize it and develop it in a form that’s more suitable for this 250-word space. If you’re having a writer’s block and there’s no hope in sight, consider taking advantage of college admissions assistance.

Above all, be interesting here, by taking some risks. If you write something that you think someone else might ALSO say, torch it. Do it over. Keep doing it until you’re convinced that no one else will be writing about this idea. Or, write about a common idea in an uncommon way. Push yourself here, and avoid “predictable.”

Learn more and explore each step of Stanford’s undergraduate application process here.

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