How to Write the Stanford Supplemental Essays 2023–2024

How to Write the Stanford Supplemental Essays 2023–2024

With a professorship roster including 19 Nobel laureates, nearly 900 student organizations, and a gorgeous campus in the heart of California’s Bay Area, Stanford University is an easy pick for many students’ dream school. Its acceptance rate, however – 3.68% for the class of 2026 – is a more daunting statistic to swallow. Don’t get discouraged! We’re here to help you take your best shot at getting into Stanford, starting by teaching you how to write the Stanford supplemental essays.

Stanford University campus

Students admitted to Stanford report an average unweighted GPA of 3.96, an average SAT score of 1505, and an average ACT of 34. In other words, at universities like Stanford, top-notch academics are the norm rather than the exception. You’ll need to count on more than just your GPA and standardized test scores to stand out – which is where your essays come in.

Stanford asks you to respond to 5 short-answer prompts, 3 long-answer prompts for a total of 8 essays – double what most other universities require. While means you have twice the writing to do, it also means you have twice the opportunity to show admissions officials your unique strengths as an applicant. With that in mind, let’s have a look at Stanford’s 8 supplemental essay prompts for the 2023-2024 application cycle.

Stanford’s 2023–2024 Prompts

Short Response (50 words)

  1. What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?
  2. What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?
  3. How did you spend your last two summers?
  4. Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities, a job you hold, or responsibilities you have for your family.
  5. List five things that are important to you.

Essay Prompts (100-250 words)

  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.
  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. Please describe what aspects of your life experiences, interests and character would help you make a distinctive contribution as an undergraduate to Stanford University.
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General Tips

For the 5 short-answer prompts, you’ll only have 50 words to convey a meaningful response. Avoid restating the question and trim unnecessary connector words to make the most of your word count. You can also improve concision by replacing conjunctions and clunky transition phrases with colons, semicolons, and em dashes.

The first example below is an instance of choppy, overly verbose writing.

Ex. 1 : “I think that the most significant challenge that society faces today is improper urban planning. Improper urban planning can result in a surprising number of issues, including noise pollution, increased fossil fuel output, and overcrowding.”

The second example cleans it up using the tips we’ve just discussed.

Ex. 2: “Improper urban planning may sound like a niche issue, but it encompasses a surprising number of society’s challenges – from noise pollution, to fossil fuel output, to overcrowding.”

You have more wiggle room with the reflection – 50-150 words – and even more for the long essay prompts – 100-250 words. Still, you should strive for concision to improve your essay’s flow. Unnecessary fluff and run-on sentences will confuse your reader no matter the length of the essay.

Wherever possible, write your essays on topics you haven’t discussed elsewhere in your application. If an admissions official sees your math team in your activities transcript, and then reads three short responses about the same math team, they may see you as a one-note applicant. Instead, try to vary your essay topics and take advantage of any opportunities to discuss an activity or interest that isn’t reflected in your transcript.

Finally, before we move to a prompt-by-prompt breakdown of the Stanford supplemental essays, here are two tips to keep in mind for both your short-responses and long-answer essays.

One, detail is key. Instead of telling admissions officials that your 10th-grade swim team was important to you, tell admissions officials about the swim meet where you came last in freestyle, motivating you to practice for months and earn first place at the next meet. Especially in your long-answer essays, detailed anecdotes are an excellent way to craft an engaging narrative.

Two, write essays that tell admissions officials about you. This may seem like obvious advice, but some of Stanford’s prompts ask about topics that don’t relate to you directly. Even so, you need to connect these topics to your own perspective. Instead of reciting to Stanford admissions officials impressive statistics about their own school, tell them why it excites you that Stanford has nearly 900 student organizations. Instead of flatly describing the challenges climate change poses to society, tell your reader how these specific challenges have impacted your own life and what you’ve done to help solve them.

With these higher-level tips out of the way, let’s move on to a prompt-by-prompt breakdown of the Stanford supplemental essays.

Stanford’s Short-Responses

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

A good response to this short-answer prompt will clearly identify one significant challenge society faces, with unique insight into its problems and potential solutions. Remember, detail is key – even if you pick a broader topic, you can still explore that topic in a way that sets your response apart from other students.

Let’s say the challenge you’ve chosen is economic inequality. Rather than stating in vague terms that poverty is an issue, you might propose building more homeless-friendly public architecture to combat the dangers poverty poses – and if you connect your response to the public architecture you see in your own community, even better. By going into detail on a specific issue, proposing a solution, and connecting it to your own experience, you’ve shown admissions officials you’re a conscientious and observant student who can bring those qualities to their campus community in turn.

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

Instead of going into exhaustive detail on this short prompt, try to consider themes – what skills or personal experiences did you focus on developing over the last two summers? Can you group your different activities together under an overarching goal you’ve been working towards? If so, you’ll be able to include a wide variety of activities while keeping your response cohesive, and giving admissions officials a sense of your long-term plans.

Ex. 1 : “Last summer, I played basketball with my city’s team and volunteered for a school board chair’s campaign. The summer before that, I worked at a Columbia Sportswear in the local mall.”

Ex. 2: “For me, these last two summers were all about connecting with my community – sweating it out with my city’s basketball team, tamping down campaign signs for a school board candidate, and showing a friendly face to customers at the mall’s Columbia Sportswear.”

Like the last prompt, you’ll also want to try thinking outside the box for your response. Don’t just consider extracurricular activities, jobs, or volunteer experiences – did you travel anywhere interesting? Did you make any long-lasting personal connections? Did you learn any valuable life lessons? Keep your word limit in mind – but even if you don’t have a lot of formal activities to recount, you still did something over the past two summers. Try to tell admissions officials more about yourself by highlighting the experiences that were most meaningful to you.

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

Prompts like these can be tricky if an idea doesn’t come to mind right away. Try to choose a moment that’s widely recognizable so you don’t have to waste words giving context, but unique and relevant to your specific interests. You might wish you were in the audience for Shakespeare’s first production of Macbeth, or at a 1980’s board meeting when Shigeru Miyamoto first pitched his idea for Super Mario Bros. Remember, you have a wide range of history to work with!

Some other questions to consider: are there any historical mysteries you wish you could solve, like the disappearance of Amelia Earhart? Do you have any historical role models? When you read or watch historical fiction, what time period do you go for? Try to have fun with this prompt – a creative answer will go a long way toward making efficient use of your 50 words.

Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities, a job you hold, or responsibilities you have for your family. (50 words)

This prompt gives you an opportunity to dig a little deeper into a job or activity you’ve listed on your transcript. Ideally, this should be an activity you didn’t mention in Prompt #2 – as always, you want to avoid repetition wherever possible so you don’t appear single-faceted.

Try to choose an activity you’ve put a lot of time and passion into. If you’ve changed as a person through the friends you made at chess club, or your role in a political advocacy group completely changed your perspective, tell that story here! Narratives of personal growth make for effective college essays in general – admissions officials want to invite students who are open to learning and changing over time – so keep an eye out for any you’ve experienced in your past activities. Of course, the 50-word limit is still looming, so make sure you clearly identify the narrative you want to tell before distilling it into 2-3 sentences.

The last part of this prompt also gives an opportunity to discuss family responsibilities, an activity you may not have been able to get into elsewhere. Looking after your baby brother, helping your aunt renovate her new home, and cooking meals for a parent who works late may not be activities you’d put on your resume, but they’re still important activities that can help round out your background. If something immediately comes to mind, consider taking advantage of the opportunity this prompt gives you to discuss it.

List five things that are important to you. (50 words)

This prompt breaks from the standard short-response format and asks you to provide a list instead. Take advantage of this formatting break to save on your word count! Consider using a numbered or bulleted list – maybe even ordering your items from least to greatest importance.

Beyond the formatting, the content of this question is vague – on purpose. A lot of things might be important to you, from your custom-built PC, to a deeply-held value, to a close family member. Vary your answers to show you can think outside the box, and give a wide-spanning overview of your personal qualities. If you can, make each of your five things fall under a different category.

Some categories to consider: objects that are important to you; people; specific personal values (i.e. not just “gender equality,” but perhaps “holding the door for anyone who comes through, regardless of gender”); abilities; aspirations; places you love to visit.

Stanford’s Essay Prompts

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. (100-250 words)

For this first longer essay prompt, anecdotes are your best friend. Was there a moment in class when you realized you were no longer learning to pass a test, but because you found the subject genuinely fascinating? Can you recall the first time your favorite hobby captivated your interest? If so, opening your essay in that moment will immediately draw readers in and engage them with your perspective.

From there, you can spend time showing your reader why you find your favorite subject/hobby so fascinating, and what you’ve done to pursue it. The idea here is to show admissions officials your enthusiasm for learning at its peak – if your reader can sense your excitement through the page, then you’re doing a great job with this prompt. Again, narratives of personal growth are a great way to craft an engaging essay, so try to illustrate how you actually did learn beyond just feeling excited.

Here’s an example essay to help you get a feel for this prompt, as well as the larger word limit:

“There’s no such thing as talent, only hard work.”

Coming from anyone else, these words would’ve sounded cheap – but as I looked over my older sister’s shoulder at the sketches she was etching in her notepad, I was breathtaken. I couldn’t believe those life-like characters – the expressive work of a professional comic artist – were something I could learn to do with hard work.

From that moment, I resolved to draw one sketch a day. I looked up online courses on anatomy, perspective, and shading, and made my own disastrous renditions of the tutorials that popped up. Some nights, even though my eyes stung from looking at the page, I refused to go to bed without completing my daily sketch.

When my brother bought a drawing tablet, he immediately regretted saying I could borrow it whenever I wanted. I had a whole new skillset to learn: digital art, with all its quirks and conveniences. Slowly, I began producing work I was proud to look back on, my character sketches starting to look like they could just maybe stand on the same page as my sister’s.

Now, with three sketchbooks scattered haphazardly around my desk as I type, I’m so grateful to my sister for teaching me about hard work early on. I’m happy with where I am in my artistic journey, but I know I still have heaps to learn – and I’m excited to begin that learning process all over again with the next tutorial I click.

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. (100-250 words)

For your second long-answer essay, you’ll answer either this prompt OR Prompt 3 below. Try brainstorming a few ideas for both prompts, and going with the prompt you can describe in more compelling detail.

This prompt challenges you to shake up the essay format with a more personal, casually formatted letter. While earlier essays showed off your interests, activities, and background, this prompt aims to find out who you really are in your day-to-day life. While your tone should still be polite – and your sentences grammatically correct – feel free to take a more playful, informal approach to this essay. What music will your roommate likely overhear blaring at max volume from your earbuds? What eccentricities should they expect from living with you?

Your response also shows admissions officials how you might interact with other members of the Stanford community. Try to think about what kind of relationship you’d like to have with your roommate, and how that reflects more broadly with how you’d like to interact with other Stanford students. Would you want to host dorm room study sessions? Are you hoping your roommate will tell you about courses and clubs you might not otherwise have known about? Details along these lines can show admissions officials you plan to engage intellectually with other community members – but again, don’t be afraid to talk about the more casual aspects of your ideal roommate relationship.

You can also get a little more creative with your essay’s format for this prompt. A letter format may be the most obvious, but you might also try out a bulleted list of things your roommate should know, or a memo you left on your roommate’s desk before leaving for class.

Please describe what aspects of your life experiences, interests and character would help you make a distinctive contribution as an undergraduate to Stanford University. (100-250 words)

Lots of applicants give huge laundry lists of reasons they want to go to Stanford – the intellectual prestige, the academic resources, the vast opportunities for extracurricular engagement. Here, you need to think the other way around. If Stanford’s community can contribute tons to your college experience, what can you contribute to Stanford’s community?

You might be tempted to answer the prompt straight away, but remember – avoid restating the question, and consider your essay’s narrative structure as a whole. Instead of:

I can make a distinctive contribution as an undergraduate at Stanford by drawing on my unique perspective as a first-generation college student.

Because of my hard work and resourcefulness which I learned by seeking out help through the college application process, I’ll be able to make meaningful connections in the community and succeed even in the face of adversity.

Try structuring your essay more along the lines of this:

In my junior year of high school, I had no idea how to begin the college application process. Neither of my parents attended college, and I didn’t know anyone who could help – so I learned to reach out on my own. I started by researching my school’s faculty page to find our guidance counselor, then arranged a meeting with her to catch me up to speed on the process.

Even though I started a head behind other students in my class, I learned how to be resourceful and ask for help – and now, as a prospective Stanford student, I’ll bring that resourcefulness to campus by forging connections in the community and uplifting other first-generation students like me.

By describing your personal experiences first – ideally in an anecdote – you can answer the prompt more confidently in your later paragraphs. Plus, you can grab your reader’s attention and stand out among other applicants who answer the question in a more typical fashion.

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