How to Write the Stanford Supplemental Essays: Examples + Guide 2019/2020

How to Write the Stanford Supplemental Essays

If you’re applying to Stanford, you’ve got some work ahead of you. What do I mean?

While most colleges will have anywhere from 1-4 supplemental essay prompts you’ll write in addition to the Common App essay, Stanford asks for eleven supplemental essay prompts (see below). On top of that, Stanford has the lowest acceptance rate of any college in the US at 4.3% (and probably lower if you take athletes and legacy students into account).

So you’ll want to make the most of these supplemental essay opportunities. To this end, I put together a guide that covers each of the eleven Stanford supplemental essay prompts and how to answer them.

What are Stanford’s supplemental essay prompts?

Stanford Supplemental Essay Prompt #1

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

Stanford Supplemental Essay Prompt #2

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

Stanford Supplemental Essay Prompt #3 

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

Stanford Supplemental Essay Prompt #4

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

Stanford Supplemental Essay Prompt #5

What five words best describe you? (10 words)

Stanford Supplemental Essay Prompt #6

When the choice is yours, what do you read, listen to, or watch? (50 words)

Stanford Supplemental Essay Prompt #7

Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford. (50 words)

Stanford Supplemental Essay Prompt #8

Imagine you had an extra hour in the day — how would you spend that time? (50 words)

Stanford Supplemental Essay Prompt #9

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. (250 words)

Stanford Supplemental Essay Prompt #10

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. (250 words)

Stanford Supplemental Essay Prompt #11

Tell us about something that is meaningful to you and why. (250 words)

How to Write Each Supplemental Essay Prompt for Stanford University

How to Write the Stanford Supplemental Essay #1

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

This is your classic 150-word extracurricular essay. You’ll find a really in-depth step-by-step guide at this link, with specific advice for the 150-word format (plus some really great examples) towards the end.  I recommend using that post to guide you as you’re writing.

But if you want to see the short version, here’s what to do:

  1. Go to your Common App activities list and pick 2-3 possible topics. 

  2. Then, go through the Best Extracurricular Activity Brainstorm I’ve Ever Seen (AKA BEABIES exercise), either mentally or by filling out the chart. This will help you decide which topic might yield the most content for your essay.  If you’re unsure, maybe do a simple outline for two different topics. 

  3. Write a draft! You can either choose a bit from each BEABIES column, or focus on the columns you ended up filling in the most.

Pro-tip: Be careful about writing about an activity you’ve already shared a lot about elsewhere on your application. If you’ve already written about your most important extracurricular activity in your main Common App personal statement or any of the other Stanford supplemental essays, for example, consider writing about your 2nd or 3rd most important activity. This essay is your chance to say “Hey, there’s this other cool thing I’ve spent some time doing that I haven’t told you guys about yet.”  

Here’s a nice example essay for this prompt: 

Stanford Supplemental Essay Prompt #1 - Example Essay

Regular Dog: $1.49. Jimmy’s Famous: $1.89. Twenty-five cents for cheese. Bologna’s out. Milkshake machine’s broken. Refill sweet tea.

As cashier at Jimmy’s Hot Dogs, I was everything but the cook. After day one, my hair stood straight and old southern ladies sympathetically asked oh honey, is it your first shift? I wanted to cry.

But, an hour before closing, Nondis, the cook, checked the register. He smiled and said “Luci Lou, you the best.” Stress forgotten, we danced around the kitchen in celebration, talking about his brothers in Greece, World Cup soccer, and grilled fish.

After that, I didn’t feel alone. I had Nondis. I had the regulars. And I had the southern ladies to back me up. Jimmy’s taught me to value the people that make a job worthwhile. To focus on the positive when there’s soccer to be watched and perfectly grilled fish to be eaten. (150 words)

Want to read a few more? Here are a few other 150-word extracurricular essay examples I love.

How to Write the Stanford Supplemental Essay #2 + Example

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

My advice: Don’t go super broad with this (i.e. “racism” or “ignorance,” as these can be tough tackle in 50 words). Instead, try for a more specific, nuanced version of something that feels really important to you. 

Here’s a nice example essay for this prompt: 

I see many of my peers engaged in overly dogmatic discussions. I mourn the loss of discourse based on learned experience and individual perspective and how that seems to be creating social aggression. On a larger scale, I’m worried we are moving toward a homogenous society ruled by tyranny. 

How to Write the Stanford Supplemental Essay #3 + Example

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

This is pretty straightforward. You can use bullet points and sentence fragments.

Many students choose to pack in as much as they can, which can work. But if you decide to do that, make sure to put in 1-2 things that show you also have a life. Because you do. Right? :)

Here’s an example: 

2017: Attended FBLA Nationals in California. Researched Artificial Intelligence.

2018: Worked as coding teacher with self-developed Java curriculum. Built automated chicken-pen-door for grandparents’ farm. Created applications ranging from GPA Calculators to Foosball Tournament Software.

Both Summers: Interned at tech startup. Worked as Olympiad Math teacher for Combinatorics and Number Theory. 

Here’s another example:

2015: Playing select basketball, rehabbing ACL injury, researching East Asian culture, studying positive psychology, consolidating my creative writing research, posting writing critiques to discussion forums, pen-palling foreign friends

2016: All of the above plus learning chess, starting nonprofit, writing Instagram poetry, drafting my novel, two-weeks in Japan, brainstorming volunteering projects for NHS

And one more example:

Founded the Texas MCS Camp—created a two-week curriculum (and taught courses) covering topics from combinatorics to game theory

Montecito Music Festival—organized outreach concerts to assisted-living communities

Debate—researched possible joint U.S.-China research venture to explore hydrothermal vents

Aaaaand travel—saw the Tour de France finish at L’Arc de Triomphe!

How to Write the Stanford Supplemental Essay #4 + Example

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

Think moment for this one. Some students try to go too broad/big with this (i.e. World War II or The Renaissance--what, like, all of it?). Instead, pick a really specific moment and say why you wish you were there. 

Pro-tip: Don’t say “Big Bang” or anything related to dropping the atomic bomb, unless you’re going to surprise us with your explanation (AKA your “so what?”), as these tend to be pretty common choices for students.

Also, you can have some fun with this. Here’s a great example: 

I want to watch George Washington go shopping. I have an obsession with presidential trivia, and the ivory-gummed general is far and away my favorite. Great leaders aren’t necessarily defined by their moments under pressure; sometimes tiny decisions are most telling--like knickers or pantaloons?

Here’s another nice example response to this prompt: 

I wish I was in the studio the day Norman Rockwell finished “Triple Self-Portrait.” I would love to have gotten a chance to ask him about capturing America at a specific time in history and what he thought it might look like in the future.   

How to Write the Stanford Supplemental Essay #5 + Example

What five words best describe you? (10 word limit)

Don’t choose any of what you imagine might be the Top 50 adjectives that students are using (i.e. passionate, hard-working, dedicated, etc.). Also, you can choose words that aren’t adjectives but still describe you (i.e. “Mulan” or “Scientist”). Some students choose to create a mini sentence i.e. “Serene, affable, Amazon, kaleidoscopic, night-owl.”

You can get a ton more tips for these, and other short answer questions, here

Here are some great examples:

Unapologetically sarcastic. Fashionably questionable. Hungry.

Bubbly, Conscientious, Articulate, Philosophical, Non-conforming

Playful Nocturnal Pikachu. Collaborative aesthete.

How to Write the Stanford Supplemental Essay #6 + Example

When the choice is yours, what do you read, listen to, or watch? (50 words)

While some students pick one specific thing and emphasize a related value (e.g. I love listening to my grandfather tell stories of what it was like growing up in Bulgaria), my favorite answers to this question show variety.

Here’s a nice example:

Philosophical Discussions on YouTube: Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson (for his emphasis on taking personal responsibility, rather than his political views), Bret Weinstein, Richard Dawkins

Psychology Texts: Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Music: Elton John, Drake, The Beatles, Beyonce

Here’s another:

Debate reading: The Economist, The New York Times, NPR News, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post

Fun: Revisionist History, StreetPin, Unurth, Epicurious, 50 watts, Golem13, La boite verte, The Onion, Humans of New York, TedX, Writer Unboxed, Brain Pickings

And one more, because why not:

Thinking, Fast and Slow—spellbinding thought experiments sparked my interest in neuroeconomics

Ella Minnow Pea—funny sesquipedalian depictions of a serious topic: censorship

And Then There Were None—I just love mysteries

Bridge of Spies—love the adrenaline rush from watching diplomatic conflicts unfurl

Jascha Heifetz—Violin G.O.A.T.; never erred in concert!

How to Write the Stanford Supplemental Essay #7 + Example

Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford. (50 words)

Treat this like a one-item “Why us” essay. 

If you haven’t read it, here’s my full step-by-step guide on how to write the ‘Why this college?’ essay.

The quick version for how to write this essay: Skip to the Cornell essay and consider how any one of the four things he’s mentioned would be a beautiful thing to pick to write for a 50-word essay. Pick something that’s unique to Stanford, and is also maybe academic or related to an extracurricular activity that might help you stand out (i.e. The Stanford Storytelling project, for example, if you’re interested in podcasting).

Oh, and probably don’t mention Stanford’s roundabouts or jumping in fountains. These have been written about many, many times, and don’t say much about why you’d make a great fit for the school.

Here’s a nice example essay for this prompt: 

I am most excited to attend classes with professors who are already heroes of mine. I am a TED Talk nerd, so getting to study Biological Engineering with Manu Prakash, of “A 50-cent Microscope That Folds Like Origami” fame would be awe-inspiring. 

How to Write the Stanford Supplemental Essay #8 + Example

Imagine you had an extra hour in the day — how would you spend that time? (50 words)

This is another chance to show another side of yourself. Read this guide so you get a sense of what’s possible on shorter answers like these.

Pro-tip: Don’t say “sleep.” Almost everyone else writes that. In fact, brainstorm 8-10 things that you think other students might say in their essay, and don’t write about those in yours. Note that you can also have some fun this one.

Here’s a nice example: 

One thing I NEED to do is read the original screenplay for Star Wars in Green library. While I fell in love with Stanford because of its amazing students and faculty, my Stanford experience would be incomplete without geeking out over the nerd’s holy bible. 

How to Write the Stanford Supplemental Essay #9 + Example

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. (250 words)

Get really specific with what the idea is. (In my experience, a very particular idea tends to work better than an experience.) 

If possible, clarify what the idea is in the first 50 words (some students wait too long to clarify and the essay feels vague as a result, as we’re not sure what to focus on).

Consider using this another opportunity to share a part of yourself you have yet to share.

Connect the idea, as abstract as it may be, back to something personal. Many students keep the essay focused outwardly (on ideas) and as a result the essay feels abstract and swimmy. (Yes, that’s a technical term.)

If you need some inspiration, check out this Excel document with almost every single TEDTalk ever given.

Here’s a nice example essay for this prompt: 

What’s more probable: dying from a shark attack, or dying from falling airplane parts? Surprisingly, the answer is falling airplane parts. But why does our intuition point us towards shark attacks?   

The answer lies in the availability heuristic, or the WYSIATI (“what you see is all there is”) rule, which describes how our minds evaluate decisions based on how easily we can think of examples to support both sides. From Jaws to YouTube surfer videos, we have all likely heard of a horrific shark attack, and by WYSIATI, the ease with which we conjure up that memory leads us to assign greater probability.

Learning about WYSIATI evolved the way I communicate my ideas. When I first started debate, I over-focused on comparing statistics at the expense of clearly communicating larger arguments. WYSIATI taught me that a more effective approach involves weaving in memorable images like that of a horrific shark attack. 

This past summer, when debating whether labeling environmental activists as “eco-terrorists” is justified, my opponents cited dozens of crimes associated with activists from 1995-2002. With my knowledge of WYSIATI, I looked past the numbers and searched for more memorable, image-based examples and discovered that most of the so-called terrorist acts were actually “pie-ings”: environmental groups throwing pies to protest. So, instead of responding with only numbers, I declared that “the only thing that could make pie-ings terrorist acts is if the activists didn’t know how to make a good key lime pie!” 

Much clearer. And perhaps, a little bit funnier.

Nice, right?

How to Write the Stanford Supplemental Essay #10 + Example

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. (250 words)

I actually have an entire separate blog post on this.

Check it out here.

Here’s a nice example essay for the Stanford roommate essay: 

3:13AM 

Hiya roomie! Please forgive the email at this late hour—my energy levels are directly proportional to how late it gets. 

I figured I’d introduce myself before we meet at NSO. Here are some cool (I hope) things about me: 

First off, true to my mountainous heritage, I’m quite outdoorsy, having spent many weekends trekking around state parks. I can’t wait to explore these uncharted waters—wanna join me on a trip later this week to SLAC? 

I should warn you beforehand: I explore at an unusually zippy pace and tend to perk up at minor disturbances. That’s because a bluebird day in my state can change into a roaring thunderstorm within just a few minutes, turning Fourteener hikers into lightning rods, so I’ve learned to always be on the lookout. 

Oh, and no matter what I’m doing, there’s always music in the background. You’ll notice that I have profound kinetic responses to melodies, which come in the form of flailing my arms during the climactic moments of symphonies. I guess music really does move me! 

What kind of songs do you like? I love to recreate radio music with my violin—feel free to request a song anytime, and I promise I’ll give it my best effort!

Lastly, I must share that there are things I will miss as I leave home. Most of all, I will miss biking with my sister around the neighborhood. So, hopefully you won’t mind my daily family FaceTimes after each day’s festivities!

See you soon! :) 

How to Write the Stanford Supplemental Essay #11 + Example

Tell us about something that is meaningful to you and why. (250 words)

Here’s your chance to show your heart. Maybe it’s a value you hold dear (see example below), or something you’ve not yet gone deep on elsewhere in your application. But make sure you say really specifically what the Thing is that’s meaningful to you. I’ll often see students keep the Thing vague (as with the “intellectual idea” essay above) and I feel foggy as I read it.

You can pinpoint the thing at the beginning, middle, or end, but my favorite essays are ones that I can come away from and say, “Oh, X is meaningful to this student.” 

Here’s a nice example essay for this prompt: 

 As a child, I was a Monopoly Champion. After all, I did as I was taught—use every tactic possible to bankrupt my opponents into surrender. 

Granted, Monopoly is a game whose ostensible purpose is to create and hold monopolies, but I have realized through my experiences in the Texas mathematical community that life is a bit more complex.

A significant issue for mathematical competitions is asymmetric access to study resources. Schools do not share study materials so that they can preserve their competitive edge. This behavior carries serious implications including student discouragement. After another school swept regionals when I was in sixth grade, many of my peers, seeing the shiny study booklets in the hands of the winning team, quit the activity. Asymmetrical access to resources turns the original goal of fostering interest in mathematics on its head by discouraging students, ultimately having toxic effects for the community.

Since ninth grade, I have worked to combat this problem by co-founding the San Antonio Math Club, a non-profit organization that works to provide equal access to resources by holding free monthly meetings where students from all over the state can get together and discuss challenging problems. 

Don’t get me wrong—I love to win. But I believe that some players can’t begin with $8000 while other players begin with $1500, and through endeavors like the San Antonio Math Club, I strive to maintain the sustainability of the game so that everyone will play again without fear of bankruptcy. 

Because to me, equity matters.


WANT HELP writing YOUR PERSONAL STATEMENT? CHECK OUT A FREE TRIAL OF MY STEP-BY-STEP VIDEO COURSE HERE!

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