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Last updated March 8, 2023

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How to Write the Stanford Supplemental Essays

Key Takeaway

The Stanford supplemental essays are some of the trickiest around. In this post, we show you all the Stanford prompts and give you our best advice for answering them—including the famousStanford Roommate Essay.

The Stanford application is one of the more notorious school supplementals for two reasons. The first: so many people apply to Stanford every year that a large portion of applicants have to deal with it at some point in their college application journey.

The second reason for the Stanford application’s notoriety is its sheer difficulty. The Stanford application has three supplemental essays and a bunch of short answer questions. And the essay questions aren’t easy. They’re not generic “Why Us” questions, but specific essay questions that you’re likely going to need to write just for the Stanford app.

That means it can be hard to practice the art of college essay recycling that we recommend across your application more generally. In this post, we’re going to tell you how to approach your Stanford application. The information in this guide is drawn from reading literally hundreds upon hundreds of Stanford apps.

Everything you need to know about the Stanford supplementals

Stanford is, as you know, an incredibly competitive school. With admissions rates below 4%, it’s one of the toughest applications to crack. Students who are admitted to Stanford are among the most competitive in the application pool, and their supplemental essays are top notch.

The best Stanford applications are relentless in demonstrating intellectual vitality. They show admissions officers exactly why you deserve a spot at one of the most academically prestigious schools in the country. That means that while you shouldn’t focus on academics in every supplemental, intellectual curiosity and vitality should be evident in every essay.

If you’ve read our posts about crafting a cohesive narrative, you should have an idea about how to approach the Stanford supplementals. Bottom line? You need to pick essay topics that emphasize the biggest strengths on your resume while painting an overall picture of who you are—as a person and a learner—for the admissions community.

How to Write Stanford Short Essay Question - Prompt #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.

This is probably the most straight-up essay question on the Stanford application. It’s reminiscent of other “intellectual vitality” essays (for example, UC prompt #6). You may be able to borrow from another supplemental you’ve written for another school.

Your mission here is to go as deep as possible into a topic, or topics, that incite your intellectual curiosity. But they shouldn’t be any random topics. Ideally, you should draw from an academic project or area of interest that you have significant experience in as demonstrated on your resume.

And remember to read the prompt. Stanford students learn both in and outside of the classroom. That means that you need to talk about one form of learning, or both. Here are a couple of examples for how to align your response with the prompt:

  • A+ response: Talk about an area of research that you’ve pursued both in and out of the classroom on a significant level, and talk about any interdisciplinary questions that you have for further exploration in school.
  • A response: Talk about a project that you did outside of the classroom and how it influenced your learning.
  • B+ response: Go deep into the in-classroom work you did related to a powerful concept.
  • B response: Pick a concept from a class that stood out to you and talk about why it was interesting.

We recommend prioritizing, when possible, topics that do blend the two spaces of learning—in and out of the classroom. The best case is when you’ve done some research on a topic that you really care about deeply, and when your research straddles experiences inside and outside the classroom.

How to Write the Stanford Short Essay Question - Prompt #3

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

As you can see, the final Stanford short essay prompt is short and sweet. It’s also pretty obscure. There are probably thousands of things you’d consider “meaningful,” so how do you choose?

Well, it really depends on what else your application says about you. If you’ve read our post about crafting a cohesive application narrative, then you already know that every part of your application should work together to make a clear, cohesive narrative about you for your admissions officer.

If you think about your first two Stanford essays, you should already have an academic interest essay and a risk-taking roommate essay. This third prompt is your chance to make sure you’re covering all your narrative bases. In particular, what you focus on may hinge on what you’ve written your personal statement about.

Let’s say your personal statement is about how your love of tinkering with machines inspired you to become an engineer. You might decide to answer Prompt #3 with a more personal story from your home life to show depth and diversity in your narrative.

Alternatively, if your personal statement is about a day you spent teaching your sibling to kayak, you might take a more intellectual approach to this essay by writing about how you find meaning in machines.

In short, the third Stanford essay question is your chance to fill in any gaps in your application and round out that overall application narrative.

How to Answer the Stanford Short Questions

Thought you were done with the short essay questions? Think again! Once you’ve got those down, you’ve still got to answer five short questions. Your answers for each will be fewer than 50 words.

What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?

You should probably take this question seriously and use it to reveal something you’re passionate about. Avoid going meta or trying to come up with a clever or inauthentic answer. Instead, a good answer will show awareness and critical thought. The problem you focus on will likely be connected to your academic interests, but not necessarily. Your answer can gesture to a solution to your problem—or to the implications of what a solution would bring—but doesn’t have to.

How did you spend your last two summers?

This question may seem like a trick, but it’s not. Stanford admissions officers really do want to know how you spent your last two summers. Since they’ll likely have already seen your activities in your activities list, you’ll want to use this to add something new. In your answer, make it clear why your time mattered. Feel free to be creative in your answer, but know that 50 words really isn’t very many.

What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?

Here’s the moment for you to show a little intellectual vitality. Like we recommended with the UChicago supplementals, you want to use this question to say, “Hey–I’m already thinking like a Stanford student.” Try not to choose a run-of-the-mill historical event. Instead, find one that relates to your own interests, personality, goals, or more. It can be related to your academic interests, or it could be something more personal. Again, your answer should state or imply why witnessing the event would be meaningful to you.

Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities, a job you hold, or responsibilities you have for your family.

Try not to double dip with question #2 here. If there’s overlap, that’s fine. But each question should reveal something different about you to your Stanford admissions officer. Specifically, you can use this section to elaborate on the most important, impressive, or resonant activity you’ve been involved in. If there’s not an activity that immediately comes to mind, try returning to the idea of your application narrative: What’s missing from your application? What could use more emphasis? What strengths do you want to drive home?

Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford.

And with this last question, you’ve got a chance to create an explicit connection between you and Stanford. You’ve got a couple of options. If there’s something particularly compelling about your academic fit with Stanford, you can take a more academic route. Or if you want to show some more personality, you can choose a topic that highlights your cultural fit.


Alas—that’s all for the Stanford supplement.  If you haven’t already, be sure to consult our Stanford Common Data Set and How to Get into Stanford guide for more strategic insights.

The Stanford supplements are one of the trickiest groupings out there, so take your time with it. If you find yourself wanting more guidance along the way, we’ve put together a digital course called the Essay Academy. It’s all about how to write your best college essays, and it’s filled with tons of examples and step-by-step guides. Hope to see you there.

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