Stanford Supplemental Essays 2015

By Abigail Anderson

Last week we began the discussion of Stanford’s 11-part supplement. We covered the seven questions requiring answers in the form of either a list or 50 words and how to answer the activities essay.

Stanford’s short essays will require a little more thought and reflection than what you might’ve put into the short responses, and that’s to be expected; a 250 word limit gives much more space to engage an idea. These essays are all about demonstrating what you’ll bring to the Stanford community as a roommate, as a thinker, and as a member at large. Do some reflection on your best attributes and assets as you work your way through your brainstorming, and be willing to open yourself up in your writing. You can take risks here, but they should be measured risks that present a more complete picture of your personality.

Intellectual Vitality

The Intellectual Vitality essay is the one that gives my students the most trouble, I think because they are asked to think about learning in a different, non-academic way. When we talk about moments that were important in your intellectual development, we’re talking about moments when you went beyond the textbook, took your learning to the next level, and really pushed to understand something that was fascinating to you.

Think about the moments when you felt consumed by your learning experience—when you just wanted to know more and couldn’t slow yourself down in that pursuit. That’s the best place to start with this essay. If nothing comes to mind here, think about ways that your learning style had to adapt or was disrupted by a new experience: a science major in English class; an independent worker having to engage on a group project. Learning something about yourself through academic experience is a great way to approach this.

What matters to you and Why?

First and foremost, your essays should be thought of as opportunities to differentiate yourself from an enormous pool of qualified applicants. Eliminate common responses from your planning: we know you care about your family or about your future successes, academic and otherwise. Look for this as an opportunity to share something specific you care about. So many of my students lament that they don’t have an opportunity to share a passion or interest that they have that doesn’t quite fit the Common Application. Well, here’s your chance to bring that special something into your Stanford app! Whether it’s a passion for sustainable farming, a deep interest in art and design, or an abiding interest in Greek mythology, Stanford wants to get a sense of your curiosity in action. Light a fire under yourself and let it grow.

The Roommate Essay

Finally, Stanford asks you to write a letter to your future roommate. I tell my students to write this as though their future roommate will receive it, while also keeping in mind that their future roommate will not receive it—that it’ll end up instead in the hands of an admissions officer who’s making the decision on your file.

What does that mean? Your tone should be casual, conversational, engaging, and warm. Pretend you’re starting a conversation with someone who will be sharing a very small box with you for nine months. How can you get off on the right foot? What do you want to share about yourself that can break the ice? Try to make your “roommate” feel welcomed. At the same time, don’t go overboard—you’re still writing part of your application, so you want to maintain a filter. Late-night ragers might be on your real agenda, but probably shouldn’t be in this letter to your “roommate.” Be fun, be smart, be yourself.

When you’ve finished putting everything together, read all of your essays and responses as one. I think about this as a “family” of Stanford essays, each contributing to a bigger understanding of you who you are. Is something missing? Is something out of place? Take a look at the whole picture and make sure the finer points of your personality are clearly and thoughtfully conveyed. And then, take a deep breath, and press send!

Update as of July 8th, 2015–Stanford has been using the same three short answer prompts since 2011, but this is no absolute guarantee that they will not change one or more of them this year.  Feel free to read my posts on Stanford, but remember that until they go live officially ca. August 1st, with the opening of the Common App website for 2015-2016.   Until then, or until I can confirm and post this year’s prompts separately, you should tread carefully.  The Common App and other current prompts offer enough to do without risking wasted time in the event that, say, the Cardinal drops its letter to a roommate prompt.  Okay, you have been warned–read on and click away to your heart’s content.

The Cardinal updated their application essay page on July 16th, 2013, by inserting the new Common Application essays and parameters, but still have the same  supplemental essay prompts that they used last year . . . and the year before that.  It’s deja-deja-vu again.  At least Stanford’s supplemental prompts offer many applicants the  latitude to write a more interesting essay than the Common App does–see my recent posts on the Common App for more on that, in the Archive.

I will post  the  Stanford Supplemental Essay prompts below this short introduction, and  below those prompts, I will provide links to what I wrote about Stanford last year and related links with ideas and suggestions for  essays and essay topics which would fit these prompts, which, in addition to the now infamous roommate letter prompt (Dude, a letter in this day and age?), ask you to address an intellectual topic and also to discuss something you care about. I will include below links to posts on how to write about intellectual experiences, in particular if these experiences involved a book, as well as links to posts on writing about  problems (which could work if one of them is the something you care about).  Be aware that  if you are reading this post on my public site, The College App Jungle, not all of the information will be fully available.  My private blog contains all material in full, available for a subscription of $15, good through April, 2014.  See the bottom of this post for information on how to get a subscription.

I will add one more thing:  I really like Stanford prompts 1 and 3, and I am going to be writing a long post soon on a topic that could be used for prompt 3, a problem that almost nobody writes about.  Stay tuned.

And now:  The game is afoot!  On to the Stanford prompts for 2013-2014.

Stanford Essay Prompts


We want to hear your individual voice in your writing. Write essays that reflect who you are; use specific concrete details and write in a natural style. Begin work on these essays early, and feel free to ask your parents, teachers and friends to provide constructive feedback. Ask if the essay’s tone sounds like your voice. If those closest to you do not believe your essay captures who you are, we will not be able to recognize what is distinctive about you. While asking for feedback is suggested, do not enlist hired assistance in the writing of your essays.

The Stanford Writing Supplement Short Essays

Candidates respond to all three essay topics using at least 250 words, but not exceeding the space provided.

  1. Stanford students possess intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.
  2. 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.
  3. What matters to you, and why?

Note that, in recent years, the limit has been 2,000 characters, so a bit under 350 words.  Pretty short, in other words, so you need to write efficiently.  I would set 300 words as your target for a rough draft.


Writing to the Stanford Prompts. (This post was on the same topics, last year.  Analyzes the prompts and some approaches to them)

Writing About an Intellectual Interest. (Includes link that introduces writing about books.  This is an excerpt; part of this post is only available via paid subscription)

Writing about What Matters to You if What Matters to You Involves Saving Anything from a Nearby Tree to the World.

More Tips on Writing about What Matters to You if What Matters to You Involves Saving Anything from a Nearby Tree to the World.

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