Essay Prompt 2015

(Note: this post has been updated for the 2016-2017 application cycle. To view the updated post, click here.)

Famed for its entrepreneurial spirit and laid back environment, Palo Alto–based Stanford University is a great option for students looking for a more science and engineering focused institution than Harvard, Yale, Columbia, or the University of Chicago. When combined with the (relatively) warm weather in California, it is little wonder that Stanford now takes the mantle as America’s most selective university, with an acceptance rate of 5.05% for the class of 2019.

Like many institutions, Stanford requires applicants to answer several short essays and questions. Unlike single-prompt supplements, supplements with multiple short prompts require you to utilize several different topics. Thematically, you should not write all of your essays about the same thing, whether that’s an extracurricular passion, or a particular facet of your personality that you wish to highlight. Instead, your essays should work like a portfolio, each one acting to highlight a different portion of your application or personality, with a collective effect that conveys what you want. The short answer questions also fit into this portfolio, because they allow you to reinforce key themes from your essay, or introduce additional components of your life or personality.

Note: this year’s Stanford app is almost identical to previous years’. We’ve updated this year’s post to reflect new trends in admissions. Read the post for the Class of 2019 here and the Class of 2018 here.

Briefly respond to the following seven inquiries so we can get to know you better. Do not feel compelled to use complete sentences.

Name your favorite books, authors, films, and/or artists. (50 word limit)

What newspapers, magazines, and/or websites do you enjoy? (50 word limit)

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

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

What were your favorite events (e.g., performances, exhibits, competitions, conferences, etc.) in recent years? (50 word limit)

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

What five words best describe you?

These short answer questions are nice in that they don’t necessarily have any wrong answers. For the most part, you are okay answering these questions truthfully, so long as you avoid potentially controversial or offensive responses. These questions are designed to give admissions officers a brief look at your personality, and each answer reflects a different portion of your personality or application. For the most part, your answers can be very straightforward and they convey straightforward things. For example, if you said that you wish you could have witnessed W.E.B Dubois’ “Talented Tenth” speech, then the Stanford admissions counselors will know that you are interested in history and in questions related to race and racial relations. Normally with short answer questions, you might want to avoid writing an extremely advanced work of literature or erudite publication down as your “favorite.” However, because you have 50 words to work with, you can afford to list out several different books, publications, and the like. If possible, try to strike a balance between things that are pure enjoyment and things that are educational. Also, if you decide to feature a particular theme for your application, you should try to make sure that some of your answers to these questions reinforce that theme.

Princeton’s app has a similar rapid-fire section—for further tips, check out thepost here.

Essay Questions

Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 word limit)

This essay is similar to the extracurricular prompt that used to be on the Common Application. One option for writing this essay is to choose the most meaningful or in-depth extracurricular on your application and then write about that. However, if your Common Application essay significantly addresses this activity, you should try to move on to another on your resume. You can choose almost every activity, however you shouldn’t be writing about a superficial experience just because it fits with your major – focus on something more meaningful. With regards to the content of the essay, your focus should be on specificity. Don’t just recount your accomplishments in that activity (that belongs on a resume) focus either on what you learned from it, what it says about you, or a specific event or project within that activity that illustrates your ability to execute key projects or your ability to work well with others. Another option is to write a descriptive anecdote about a particular moment or accomplishment during one of your extracurricular activities. This option doesn’t offer as much in the way of highlighting your accomplishment or skills, but instead allows you to show off your writing prowess.

Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development. (100 to 250 words)

The focus of this essay should be how and why the idea impacted you, not necessarily discussion and explanation of the idea itself. If possible, you should spend maybe 50 words discussing the idea, and then the remainder of the essay analyzing its impact on your intellectual development. And with regards to the latter aspect, you should either discuss how the process gave you an important skill, or how it made you fall in love with a field (ideally one that’s tied to your major). For example, you could discuss the idea of quantitative easing (a monetary policy tool, or more broadly an economics idea) to either discuss how it gave one the ability to be analytical or how it made you fall in love with economics (your major). Your idea need not be so academic. The term “intellectual development” can be applied loosely to almost anything you like. For example, you could talk about a type of dance move, and how your persistent perusal of the internet looking for tips on successfully performing said dance move inspired you to become a music major. 

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 to 250 words)

This essay is as much about what not to say as about what you should say. The key thing to avoid in this essay is, anything that could disqualify you in the eyes of the admissions committee. While you don’t want to write something that’s bland and clichéd, you should avoid discussing illegal or unsavory activities. Conversely, you shouldn’t be afraid to explore your quirky side. Good topics are always unique hobbies or interesting personality quirks and it’s perfectly fine to get a little weird. You can also talk about your favorite experiences with friends and how you’d enjoy similar experiences with a hypothetical roommate. But you should probably stay away from things like politics. You can say you’re politically motivated if you are, but don’t indicate which party or ideology you tend to support. Also, try not to talk about specific political issues, especially if you hold a conservative viewpoint. It’s very easy to offend someone with politics.

What matters to you, and why? (100 to 250 words)

While it may seem as though this essay is asking you to discuss a social justice cause or some sort of “problem” with the world, the actual prompt is a lot broader. Basically, Stanford wants to know what’s at your core, the things that take up the majority of your mental desire. The focus of this essay should be on the “why” portion of the essay; the “what” is important, but your explanation of the “why” is ultimately what will convey something new about you. Pretty much any topic so long as you can legitimately describe why it matters to you is fair game, though when writing about potentially controversial topics such as religion and politics, your focus should be explicitly on yourself. It’s okay to discuss how Christianity, for example, helped you gain a new appreciation for the value of personal discipline, but you shouldn’t discuss your deep held desire to convert others to Christianity, because the idea of religious conversion could be offensive or controversial to some.

With these tips, you should be well on your way to writing the perfect Stanford Supplement. Best of luck from the Admissions Hero team!

For more help, feel free to check out last year’s post on How to Tackle the Stanford Essaysor reach out to work 1-on-1 with one of Admissions Hero’s trained Stanford essay specialists.

Picturing yourself at Stanford next fall? Find out how we can help make your dreams a reality!

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Some classic questions from previous years…

Joan of Arkansas. Queen Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mash up a historical figure with a new time period, environment, location, or occupation, and tell us their story.
—Inspired by Drew Donaldson, AB'16

Alice falls down the rabbit hole. Milo drives through the tollbooth. Dorothy is swept up in the tornado. Neo takes the red pill. Don’t tell us about another world you’ve imagined, heard about, or created. Rather, tell us about its portal. Sure, some people think of the University of Chicago as a portal to their future, but please choose another portal to write about.
—Inspired by Raphael Hallerman, Class of 2020

What's so odd about odd numbers?
–Inspired by Mario Rosasco, AB'09

Vestigiality refers to genetically determined structures or attributes that have apparently lost most or all of their ancestral function, but have been retained during the process of evolution. In humans, for instance, the appendix is thought to be a vestigial structure. Describe something vestigial (real or imagined) and provide an explanation for its existence.
—Inspired by Tiffany Kim, Class of 2020

In French, there is no difference between "conscience" and "consciousness." In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language.
– Inspired by Emily Driscoll, Class of 2018

Little pigs, French hens, a family of bears. Blind mice, musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and describe why and how they fit together.
– Inspired by Zilin Cui, Class of 2018

The mantis shrimp can perceive both polarized light and multispectral images; they have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. Human eyes have color receptors for three colors (red, green, and blue); the mantis shrimp has receptors for sixteen types of color, enabling them to see a spectrum far beyond the capacity of the human brain. Seriously, how cool is the mantis shrimp: mantisshrimp.uchicago.edu What might they be able to see that we cannot? What are we missing?
–Inspired by Tess Moran, AB'16

How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.
–Inspired by Florence Chan, AB'15

The ball is in your court—a penny for your thoughts, but say it, don’t spray it. So long as you don’t bite off more than you can chew, beat around the bush, or cut corners, writing this essay should be a piece of cake. Create your own idiom, and tell us its origin—you know, the whole nine yards. PS: A picture is worth a thousand words.
—Inspired by April Bell, Class of 2017, and Maya Shaked, Class of 2018 (It takes two to tango.)

"A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies." –Oscar Wilde. Othello and Iago. Dorothy and the Wicked Witch. Autobots and Decepticons. History and art are full of heroes and their enemies. Tell us about the relationship between you and your arch-nemesis (either real or imagined).
–Inspired by Martin Krzywy, AB'16.

Heisenberg claims that you cannot know both the position and momentum of an electron with total certainty. Choose two other concepts that cannot be known simultaneously and discuss the implications. (Do not consider yourself limited to the field of physics).
–Inspired by Doran Bennett, BS'07

Susan Sontag, AB'51, wrote that "[s]ilence remains, inescapably, a form of speech." Write about an issue or a situation when you remained silent, and explain how silence may speak in ways that you did or did not intend. The Aesthetics of Silence, 1967.
–Anonymous submission

"…I [was] eager to escape backward again, to be off to invent a past for the present." –The Rose Rabbi by Daniel Stern
Present: pres·ent
1. Something that is offered, presented, or given as a gift.
Let's stick with this definition. Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc. — pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it.
—Inspired by Jennifer Qin, AB'16

So where is Waldo, really?
–Inspired by Robin Ye, AB'16

Find x.
–Inspired by Benjamin Nuzzo, an admitted student from Eton College, UK

Dog and Cat. Coffee and Tea. Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?
–Inspired by an alumna of the Class of 2006

How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be.)
–Proposed by Kelly Kennedy, AB'10

Chicago author Nelson Algren said, "A writer does well if in his whole life he can tell the story of one street." Chicagoans, but not just Chicagoans, have always found something instructive, and pleasing, and profound in the stories of their block, of Main Street, of Highway 61, of a farm lane, of the Celestial Highway. Tell us the story of a street, path, road—real or imagined or metaphorical. 
–Anonymous submission

UChicago professor W. J. T. Mitchell entitled his 2005 book What Do Pictures Want? Describe a picture, and explore what it wants.
–Inspired by Anna Andel

"Don't play what's there, play what's not there."—Miles Davis (1926–91)
–Inspired by Jack Reeves

University of Chicago alumna and renowned author/critic Susan Sontag said, "The only interesting answers are those that destroy the questions." We all have heard serious questions, absurd questions, and seriously absurd questions, some of which cannot be answered without obliterating the very question. Destroy a question with your answer.
–Inspired by Aleksandra Ciric

"Mind that does not stick."
–Zen Master Shoitsu (1202–80)

Superstring theory has revolutionized speculation about the physical world by suggesting that strings play a pivotal role in the universe. Strings, however, always have explained or enriched our lives, from Theseus's escape route from the Labyrinth, to kittens playing with balls of yarn, to the single hair that held the sword above Damocles, to the Old Norse tradition that one's life is a thread woven into a tapestry of fate, to the beautiful sounds of the finely tuned string of a violin, to the children's game of cat's cradle, to the concept of stringing someone along. Use the power of string to explain the biggest or the smallest phenomenon.
–Inspired by Adam Sobolweski

Have you ever walked through the aisles of a warehouse store like Costco or Sam's Club and wondered who would buy a jar of mustard a foot and a half tall? We've bought it, but it didn't stop us from wondering about other things, like absurd eating contests, impulse buys, excess, unimagined uses for mustard, storage, preservatives, notions of bigness…and dozens of other ideas both silly and serious. Write an essay somehow inspired by super-huge mustard.
–Inspired by Katherine Gold

People often think of language as a connector, something that brings people together by helping them share experiences, feelings, ideas, etc. We, however, are interested in how language sets people apart. Start with the peculiarities of your own personal language—the voice you use when speaking most intimately to yourself, the vocabulary that spills out when you're startled, or special phrases and gestures that no one else seems to use or even understand—and tell us how your language makes you unique. You may want to think about subtle riffs or idiosyncrasies based on cadence, rhythm, rhyme, or (mis)pronunciation.
–Inspired by Kimberly Traube

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