How do you tackle the Stanford University short answers and college admissions essays? These are an important part of your application — one in which you can convey not only your writing style but also your personality. In fact, it’s one of the few places where you get to show off who you are, what you believe, and what’s meaningful to you.
To help you understand what the admissions committee is looking for, we’ve broken down the short answers and first essay topic (with example) and offered guidance below.
1. What is the most significant challenge that society faces today? (50 words)
It’s okay to be a little controversial here, as long as you offer a careful, nuanced analysis. If you’re going to use a common topic like climate change or conflict in the Middle East, make sure you put a unique spin on it and offer a new insight. Don’t waste too much space describing the issue — you only have 50 words, after all — but spend the majority of your time discussing why it matters and your thoughts on how it might be addressed.
2. How did you spend your last two summers? (50 words)
This serves as an important reminder that you should be spending your summers in high school doing something meaningful in pursuit of your larger goals, such as independent academic pursuits, paid or volunteer work, athletics or artistic expression, but don’t forget to include some pure fun. If you went to the beach a lot you can include that, as long as it's not the only thing. Of course, you shouldn’t lie, but chances are, you can think of something meaningful you did.
Given the short amount of space, focus on your one or two most important experiences. Rather than copying your activities section, you might use this essay to delve a bit deeper into an experience that helped you grow. For example, if you worked as a camp counselor, you might connect your experience to your larger goal of being a teacher or, cleverly, to something unexpected like an engineer.
Here’s another time in which the “why” matters far more than the “what” — although you do need to avoid cliches. This essay should tell the admissions committee something about you and your interests. Perhaps you’re a writer and would love to go back to the invention of the printing press in China. Or the political junkie in you wishes you could have seen the first televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.
Again, conveying your enthusiasm for the topic is more important than what it is. Don’t spend your 50 words explaining what happened; the admissions committee knows. Instead, focus on why it matters to you.
4. What five words best describe you? (5-10 words)
It’s fine to just list words here. The only real rules are that you keep them positive and avoid saying anything too trite. You don’t need to use “big” words, either. Just try to convey something real about your personality. Perhaps you’re persistent, ambitious, and passionate. Try not to use synonyms, and if you’re having trouble coming up with five words, ask people who know you well for help. Pro tip: contradictions can be interesting! Maybe your contemplative and efficient.
5. When the choice is yours, what do you read, listen to, or watch? (50 words)
This question is about getting to know you. While it may be tempting to list all complex and weighty works of literature — War and Peace, for example — but if it’s not actually true, the admissions committee is likely to see through that. Instead, choose works that you really enjoy. Don’t be afraid to reveal a guilty pleasure. If you love rom coms, say so! You should attempt to balance the list with some intellectual passions, but make sure they’re genuine. Including small details of why you enjoy something can add depth. For example, “How I built This (a podcast) is a master class in entrepreneurship.”
6. Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford. (50 words)
This prompt is a spin on the “why us?” essay and requires you to actually know something about Stanford that you can’t just get from a brochure. Think about why you really want to attend. Perhaps there’s a tradition or a program in which you’re looking forward to participating. You may need to do some research; it’s important to avoid choosing something too obvious or surface-level. You should also avoid an experience that you can have at numerous schools — such as studying English or gaining independence.
7. Imagine you had an extra hour in the day — how would you spend that time? (50 words)
What’s a passion that you wish you could delve into further? Or, alternatively, what’s an activity you’ve never tried and have always wanted to do? You might discuss wanting to learn how to play the piano or hone your craft further, for instance. Show the real you here — this question is probing what type of student and person you’ll be. The way you choose to or want to spend your time can help Stanford see the person you are and will become.
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 to 250 words)
This is a classic intellectual curiosity question — and it’s not really specific to Stanford. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate that you’re truly excited about learning. The topic itself is less important than how you describe it. While you should certainly choose something that’s a true passion, what’s really important is that your enthusiasm comes through. That said, it must be a true learning experience. Perhaps a book you read in English class helped you draw conclusions about the real world. Maybe a class discussion prompted you to do a deep-dive into a topic. The learning experience doesn’t have to be school-related, either, although it should in some way correlate to your future major or a deep passion that you hope to explore further. For instance, an aspiring doctor might discuss an experience connecting with a patient at a hospital where she volunteered.
Let’s take a look at an exemplary example:
While peer tutoring a sophomore English class this year, I found that curiosity is a two-way street. I spend my fifth period editing essays, clarifying textual details and answering questions. Many of these questions leave me pondering deeper implications. For example, several students asked me what it means to describe the farmhands in Of Mice and Men as “romantic” characters. As someone who prefers to let the words immerse me in gripping plots, unforgettable characters and unexpected endings, I hadn’t stopped to consider how context can affect the weight of a word. Explaining that being “romantic” connotes the possession of a softened or idealistic vision of reality as well as the more commonly known Hollywood definition of romance, made me wonder how people communicate effectively when words contain such complex duality. I find myself pausing more in my own reading to ponder how each word is affecting my overall experience. I've also found that my tutees each have their own learning style. Some of them absorb the material well with diagrams and examples, while others need only clear verbal explanation. How does each person’s unique learning style affect the way they perceive the world around them? I myself have begun to notice that as someone who learns by doing, I am able to be the most helpful when I can determine hands-on solutions to problems. Peer tutoring has truly led me to discover that every new perspective is an opportunity pointing me down an endless path of questions to investigate.
While peer tutoring might not be the most exciting choice of activity, the writer spins it into a compelling topic by drawing interesting conclusions and insights. She also uses a very specific example, keeping the essay focused on a single question rather than allowing it to meander. This is important since you have limited space.
She also does well in building suspense through a mini “hero’s journey” by grappling with a deep question. Remember, while you only have 100-250 words, you should still tell a story and make the reader care about your own learning journey. The topic itself — pondering the language in a literary work — is an intellectually curious one, and the author further displays her passion for learning by taking us step by step through her analysis. Ultimately, she reveals how she has come away from the experience having become a more sensitive reader and tutor, while demonstrating tremendous self-awareness, a quality admissions committees value in applicants.
As you write your own response, you, should think about an experience that somehow changed you and made you a deeper thinker. Then, walk the reader through your journey, using imagery to help us really see how your thought process has transformed you.