Supplemental essay questions help an admissions officer uncover the voice, personality and identity of an applicant through writing. Each short essay presents the unique challenge of delivering a concise response to questions that appear to warrant long-winded answers. Here are some quick tips to help jog your own brainstorm for the Stanford supplement:

Short questions:

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

This is a loaded question, so tread carefully and avoid having your answer go in several different directions. Focus on one issue alone. Remember, the question doesn’t ask you to solve the issue, but simply describe what you believe it is. But that’s only part of the equation: you need to connect your response to you. Why are you choosing this particular challenge that society faces? For example, perhaps you describe global warming as the most pressing challenge. That makes sense if you’re interested in studying environmental science at Stanford. Or perhaps you consider gun control a major challenge – if you want to study public policy, government or public health, this topic would make sense.

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

Whether it was volunteer work, internships, research, reading or traveling abroad, admissions officers want to learn about the summer after your sophomore and junior years – they are especially interested in any activities that give an indication of your academic and non-academic interests. (This question serves as a helpful reminder to younger students – your summer activities do in fact matter!)

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

Another loaded question, but only 50 words with which to answer it. Admissions officers are trying to gain insight into who you are as a person and what fuels you intellectually, socially and (perhaps) politically. While there are many famous events that are easy to come up with, try to dig a bit deeper. Recent history counts just the same! Tie it back to you – Stanford wants to know why you chose this one particular event out of (literally) thousands of events.

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

This is an opportunity to expand on one of your favorite extracurricular activities (that you haven’t already touched on) or name something that hasn’t been mentioned yet in your application. Do you spend your time after school watching your younger sibling? Or are you in charge of making dinner for your family every night? Think about things that you wouldn’t necessarily list on your college application and then describe why they are important.

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

Show off what you know about Stanford. Draw on your personal experience visiting the campus or talking to an alumnus. Specifics are key! Don’t just say: “I want to go to school in California” – instead, describe something that drew you to apply to the school in the first place. If you find answer this question to be extraordinarily difficult, perhaps you should rethink applying to Stanford.

Short essays:

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. (100 to 250 words)

For this prompt, think about something that intrigues you, something which you’d be able to articulate and reflect upon. Though discussing something related to your core classes and future major can be important, an interesting topic could come from learning different languages, understanding different cultural behaviors or joining a local organization.

Make sure you’re answering the question asked, and take some time to really reflect on the evolution of your own intellectual interests and what experience(s) helped get you to where you are today. The word “development” indicates an ongoing and dynamic process. Use this essay to explain how this experience will benefit you during your time in college and possibly tie it to your proposed major.

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 — get to know you better. (100 to 250 words)

Think about something that has yet to be uncovered throughout the rest of your application. What about you is still unknown to an admissions officer? Important details like this can come in all sizes – from a quirky habit to an everyday hobby. The important thing here is to let your voice and true self shine through. Think about your note from the perspective of your roommate – what would make him or her most excited to meet you?

3. Tell us about something that is meaningful to you and why. (100 to 250 words)

This deceptively simple question can actually be very difficult to answer. Stanford’s admissions officers are looking for sophisticated, intellectual answers from inquisitive students. To help you get started, remember that the broader the question, the more specific your answer should be. As you start brainstorming, here are some questions you could ask yourself: What is one thing you hope to accomplish after four years at Stanford? What is one idea, topic or situation that keeps you up at night? What is something you care about that makes you unique and special?

Essay questions are not supposed to be easy, and remember that strong responses don’t just happen in one sitting. Be willing to make changes and stay open to constructive criticism from people you trust.

About the author
Marc Zawel

As author of Untangling the Ivy League, Marc literally wrote the book on gaining admission to highly selective colleges. He earned a BA from Cornell University – where he met AcceptU’s co-founder – and an MBA from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Marc chaired the admissions advisory board; he has also conducted alumni interviews for Cornell for more than fifteen years.

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