How To Write The Stanford University Supplemental Essays (2019-2020)



Before I get started, I want to warn you: the Stanford supplement is very long, and very difficult to write. You can often get a sense of what a school is looking for in their applications by reading their supplement to the Common App and Coalition App. Stanford’s supplement seems to be telling us, among other things, that they’re looking for students who are willing to put in some serious time and effort in order even to be considered for a spot at the school.


In addition to the Common App or Coalition App essay, Stanford asks that you respond to three short essay questions (100-250 words). These supplemental essay questions are very open-ended, so you have a great deal of freedom to write about just about anything you like. Plan your three responses out before you start writing, to make sure you’re hitting three distinct points that show three distinct features of your personality. There should be no overlap between these essays.


Stanford also has a number of (very) short response questions, and a question about your extracurriculars. I’d like to start with the short essays, and I suggest you start with them as well. The reason for this is that you don’t want to repeat any information on your application, and it will be easier for you to build your short responses around what you’ve already said on the essays. So here we go.



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)


Keep in mind that these are very short responses. You want to get right to the point. Don’t waste time repeating the question or praising the Stanford community for its deep curiosity.


Note that highly selective schools like Stanford care a great deal about what you do outside of the classroom. (Several outside-the-classroom questions will follow in the “short response” section.) So even though the question here is about an idea or experience that makes you genuinely excited about learning, the way the question is set up tells you that Stanford values not only what you’ve done in school, but also what you’ve done on your own. If you can speak to an idea or experience that you didn’t get/have in a high school class, it will make for a stronger essay.


So, continuing to close-read the prompt: you can either reflect on an idea or an experience. Whichever you choose, remember that the best essays are narratives—they tell a story. You can choose to write about an idea, but make sure you’re not simply waxing philosophical and getting lost in the conceptual stratosphere. Tell a personal story about your discovery of this idea, or give us a series of short anecdotes about what you’ve done to pursue it. Talking about a specific experience should be easy to relate as a story.


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—get to know you better. (100-250 words)


This response should be all personality. Actually imagine the person who is going to receive this note. You’re not writing for admissions officers anymore—you’re not trying to impress grownups who hold your future in their hands. Highlight your endearing quirks here. Maybe you have a ritual where every Tuesday at 9PM you absolutely have to make muffins and you’re planning on using the communal kitchen for this. Maybe your mother lives within driving distance of Palo Alto and is planning on bringing you cookies every week, even though she knows it’s going to embarrass you. Maybe you plan on bringing thirteen different houseplants with you to campus. Use this prompt as an opportunity to highlight something or -things about yourself that Stanford doesn’t know already.


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


This question is tough because it is so broad. You’ve already written your Common App or Coalition App essay. You’ve just written two short supplemental essays where, hopefully, you talked about something meaningful to you. So what’s left? It’s a serious question. What else do you want Stanford to know about you?


Avoid concepts like “family” and “friendship” here. This should be a story, or a series of anecdotes. It can be a story about a specific memory that has stuck with you and continues to inform the person you are. It can be a story about a hobby that holds personal meaning (and isn’t on your activities list). It can be a story about some-thing—an object—that holds personal meaning. Make sure you don’t repeat yourself when you answer the questions below.


Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work or family responsibilities. (50-150 words)


Here’s a question that other insanely selective schools, such as Harvard and Princeton, ask. It’s a big hint as to what they’re looking for in their applicants. They want kids who’ve done one really impressive thing outside the classroom.


Stanford phrases the question a little differently from Harvard and Princeton, however: they add the part about “family responsibilities.” There’s a fairly wide-spread misconception that good old-fashioned jobs aren’t particularly impressive to colleges. They are. In fact, holding down a part-time job for a couple years in high school can be far more impressive than a few fancy one-month internships.


If you’re wondering whether to talk about the summer job you’ve held for the past three summers painting houses, or the debate team you’re a part of, go with painting houses.


You can talk about any significant family responsibilities as well. The fact that you do the dishes ever night won’t impress Stanford, but if you’re the one whose job it is to milk the cows every day at 6AM and 6PM, or if you’re responsible for picking up your little sister at school every week day and taking care of her until your single parent gets home in time to tuck her in, write about those experiences.


If you’re going to write about a more traditional extracurricular, make sure your response goes beyond the description on your activities list. Tell us why the activity is meaningful and personal.


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


First off, let me emphasize that these “short response” questions are really very short. Maybe you’re thinking, “Great! This will be a cinch.” But there is a real art to writing concisely. You’ve probably heard the famous quote where Mark Twain apologizes to his correspondant for writing such a long letter because he didn’t have time to make it shorter. Writing concisely and effectively takes time. Plan for it.


So what’s the greatest challenge facing society today? Well, as I always say, I’m not a fan of these questions because it’s very difficult to answer them without sounding like a candidate for Miss America. But this is a required response, so the real question is: how do you stand out by talking about an issue that by definition affects millions or even billions of people, and which you certainly don’t have a solution for? (If you do have a solution for climate change or the refugee crisis, you should consider running for president.)


Answer: make it personal. At the very least, you need to be talking about an issue that affects you, or the people around you, directly. For example, you shouldn’t talk about the climate crisis unless you can link it to your community’s experience—unless your community has been affected by hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, floods, etc.


A personal connection is the bare minimum for responding to this prompt. Ideally, I’d like to know what you’ve done about this issue, which you believe to be the greatest challenge facing society. If you can’t tie this to something concrete that you’ve done, your response won’t be very convincing. If it sounds like I’m asking for a lot, I am. Stanford’s acceptance rate was under 5% the last time they bothered reporting it. They can afford to require that their applicants tried to change the world.


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


Princeton asks this as well. It shows you that these incredibly selective schools really care about your activities outside of the classroom. (I know, I’m a broken record, but if you’re a Freshman in high school, and you’re reading this for some reason, focus on your extracurriculars.) There’s no trick to this question. Either you’ve got something impressive to say or you don’t. Stanford just wants to know about all the incredible things you’ve done with your summers since your finished your sophomore year. Say what you did during the summer of 2018. Say what you did during the summer of 2019. Keep it to 50 words.


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

For this one, I always tell students to think about an event they’d actually want to be present at. The Normandy landings? No, you’d have to have a death wish. The moment Derrida decided to write “difference” with an a? No, in all probability there was nothing visually exciting about a French guy deciding to misspell a word. On the other hand, probably don’t say Woodstock, since your admissions officers will have a hard time picturing you there without assuming you’re violating some campus policies.


Now is a good time to remind you that all of these responses should serve to strengthen your personal narrative. In 50 words, you can’t explain yourself, so your choice needs to speak for itself. If you were born in Toronto, have a fiery passion for Early Middle Japanese poetry, are a champion shot-putter, and you started your school’s cooking club, we’re going to scratch our heads if you say “the moon landing” here. (By the way, don’t say the moon landing. It’s just too predictable.) The idea isn’t to be one-dimensional, but your choice here should make sense in the context of who you are. Your response shouldn’t come out of the blue… which, to attempt to tie this example together, is what the moon does every day.


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


I like how Stanford gives you up to ten words to list five words that describe you. Anyway, here’s my advice: this isn’t a vocabulary test; avoid words like assiduous and diligent because Stanford doesn’t want hard workers—they want natural brilliance and passion in their applicants. (Of course, don’t say “natural brilliance and passion” because you will look “conceited.”) Note that Stanford doesn’t specify that the words have to be adjectives. Don’t be afraid to let your personal quirks come though here.


When the choice is yours, what do you read, listen to, or watch? (50 words)


No required reading or viewing here. No 1984. For this question, I like podcasts, unusual news pages, and local concert venues. Of course, this needs to be truthful, so if you don’t listen to podcasts, read unusual news pages, or frequent local concert venues don’t say you do. But think about what you read, listen to, and watch that isn't hugely typical. Also keep in mind that you’re trying to reinforce your narrative while coming across as a three-dimensional person. I know that sounds a bit like a Zen koan, but trust me. I have your best interest in mind, and to prove it, I invite you to contact me.


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


You know how you’ve had to write oodles of “Why This College” essays? This question is kind of like that. It’s a 50-word response, but it still needs to be highly tailored to Stanford. So whatever you choose to write, re-read it and ask yourself if it could describe Berkeley, or Yale, or Duke. Whatever you choose should also relate to your unique academic and extracurricular achievements and how Stanford is uniquely suited to cater to your ambitions.


Imagine you had an extra hour in the day—how would you spend that time? (50 words)


The truthful (and perfectly reasonable) answer to this question may be “sleep,” but see if you can come up with something more interesting. You might begin by thinking about some of the activities you do that you enjoy so much you lose track of time. Psychologists call this phenomenon a “flow state”—that place you get to when you’re fully immersed in what you’re doing, and in the moment. For you, that might be quilting, canoeing, walking aimlessly through the city, or coding. These are ways you might want to spend that extra hour of your day. Of course, it might also be video gaming, but unless you’ve got 700K followers on your YouTube gaming channel, or video games relate to your life in some meaningful way that we already know about, don’t use your 25th hour of the day to do something purely hedonistic if it’s a highly common activity like video gaming.


Since this is the last short response question, let me emphasize that every question you answer should give your reader new information. Don’t repeat what’s already on your Common or Coalition App, and don’t repeat anything within your responses.


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