How to Approach the Stanford Essays

Grace Kennedy

How to Approach the Stanford Essays

We all know that Stanford University is one of the most competitive colleges in the world. With over 44,000 applications last year, Stanford’s acceptance rate is the lowest nationally at 4.8%. Only 2,085 students got the big envelopes! So how does Stanford decide which lucky students they want to admit? Along with taking every component of the Common Application into consideration, Stanford asks 3 supplemental essay questions to help make their decisions. The Stanford essays this year seem straightforward:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Tell us about something that is meaningful to you, and why?

You have a maximum of 250 words to answer each question in a thoughtful and specific way! How do you even begin? If you want to know how to get into Stanford, start by researching what Stanford looks for in their applicants. Stanford reviews applications holistically, emphasizing three different characteristics: academic excellence, intellectual vitality, and personal context.

  • Academic Excellence: Although there is no numeric cutoff for admission to Stanford, the university places a strong emphasis on academic track records. It definitely helps to be the smartest one in your class! There is no specific GPA or number of AP classes that needs to be hit, but students must be able to handle extreme academic rigor, tackle the hardest material, and perform well in challenging classes.
  • Intellectual Vitality: Stanford wants to see persistent academic curiosity. Students must be eager to learn, and should follow their passion beyond traditional limits. This might mean conducting your own research to find answers, or seeking opportunities completely outside of your comfort zone. Stanford looks for students take initiative, seize opportunities to expand their knowledge, and push the envelope!
  • Personal Context Stanford’s website states the following: 

“We take into account family background, educational differences, employment and life experiences. By focusing on your achievements within context, we evaluate how you have excelled within your unique school environment and how you have taken advantage of what was available to you in your school and community.”

Stanford wants to understand your personal circumstances. Admissions officers want to learn about how your life experiences have impacted your world view. Stanford seeks individuals whose experiences may differ from their peers — this is a university that looks for diverse, unique, even weird students!

You should keep these three factors in mind when you write your Stanford essays. There is no formula or right answer for the Stanford essays, but here is some strategic advice on how to approach each one. Be specific, and be personal!

What makes you genuinely excited about learning?

Again, Stanford looks for students who are intellectually curious about everything. They want to know if you stay after class to ask questions that weren’t answered, if you debate with your peers, and if your dinner conversations reflect your intellectual excitement. Show your passion and what drives you to learn!

When attacking this supplemental essay, think about what intrigues you. It can be as complicated as the String Theory, or as odd as pondering how animals think. (The latter was my actual essay topic inspired by my dog.) Stanford just wants to get a glimpse inside your mind. Focus on a specific story; this will give an admissions officer a better look at your life.

Letter to your future roommate

Out of all the Stanford essays, this question is the most well-recognized. When approaching this question, think about what makes you interesting. Admissions officers read thousands of applications each year, and I can guarantee that they get bored. Don’t just explain that you will be a nice roommate and clean your room. Stating this etiquette is obvious! Be honest. Show your imaginary roommate (and actual admissions officer) what you really care about.

One of my Stanford friends truly loves the color green, and in her Stanford essay, she explained this obsession to her future roommate. Her funny descriptions of green clothes, bedding, beverages, and desserts explained what green represented to her: her home in Fresno (which she calls FresYES). This essay showed her personality and wittiness, and gave the admissions officer a clear picture of what type of student they were admitting.

What is meaningful to you?

Whatever you choose to write about for this Stanford essay, don’t focus on your family. I’m sure your family is meaningful to you, but imagine how many other students' families are meaningful to them? If you want to stand out, a description of your family would have to be absolutely amazing and unique.

The goal of this question is to learn about your character. You could write about an idea, a special place, or an activity! I suggest thinking of a specific moment in which you felt intensely about something or someone. Then think about why this moment means so much to you, and write.

When approaching the Stanford essays, take time for self-reflection to identify what makes you a standout candidate. Make your answers as personal and detailed as possible to really give the admissions officers a sense of who you are. Keep their three tenants — academic excellence, intellectual vitality, and personal context — in mind when trying to answer their essay questions and, most of all, be yourself!

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