writing college essays

By Abigail Anderson

Stanford University has one of the longest and most time-intensive supplements in American college admissions and, if their application numbers are any indication, this has done nothing to dissuade nearly 50,000 students from applying just last year. Stanford’s reputation as an intellectual, competitive, entrepreneurial, quirky California powerhouse—in academics and athletics—can make these essays feel even more challenging than they ought to be. The short and sweet version of our advice? Be yourself. You’ll find that an open, honest response bears much more fruit than a manufactured answer that targets what you think the reader wants to see.

(For those who are interested in an audio rundown, my colleagues Steve Brennan and Elizabeth Heaton discussed the Stanford supplements on Getting In: A College Coach Conversation at the end of last month.)

To begin, understand that Stanford asks for eleven supplements:

  • One 150 word “activities essay.”
  • Seven short responses of no more than 50 words
  • Three short essays limited to 250 words each

The activities essay should be similar to what you would write for any other college. In fact, it replaces a short essay that used to be a required part of the Common App. See it as an opportunity to add extra dimension to your file (don’t retread ground you covered in your personal statement!) and stick to one activity or experience that is most meaningful to you. This week, we’ll dive deeply into the short responses. Join us next week as we discuss tips for the short essays.

Lists & Short Responses

These seven questions are really all over the place, and I think they create the most nervousness and anxiety among the students I work with. Half of them can be answered with lists, the other half will require a short response. The list questions are the following:

  • Name your favorite books, authors, films, and/or artists.
  • What newspapers, magazines, and/or websites do you enjoy?
  • What were your favorite events (e.g., performances, exhibits, competitions, conferences, etc.) in recent years?
  • What five words best describe you?

These ought to be pretty simple. Answer them clearly and plainly. Be honest. Consider the full range of your tastes. If you read WIRED and Pitchfork, include them both; don’t be afraid to cop to a love of Twilight or that amazing experience you had at the Taylor Swift show this year. These responses are little nuggets that shine some light on your personality and how you spend your free time. Be yourself!

When choosing the five words that best describe you, try to think of words that are true but less common. Your recommendation letters will probably describe you as diligent, thoughtful, intelligent, or honest. Don’t rehash all of those here. Instead, think about what most captures your personality: whimsical; heuristic; silly; engaged; tenacious. You can’t cover your whole self here, but you can introduce a nice flavor.

For the rest of the 50-word responses, you’ll need a sentence or two to craft your answer:

  • What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?
  • How did you spend your last two summers?
  • What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?

Again, the objective here is to share your personality and interest. Don’t worry about a “right” answer for any of these—there is no right answer. Instead, think about what gets you excited. What moment in time would you most want to travel to? Try to avoid common answers (birth of Christ, moon landing, signing of the Declaration of Independence) and zero in on something you just think would be cool to see. Similarly, ask what matters to you, when you think about challenges to our society. You needn’t solve the world’s problems—just tell me what you think our biggest challenge. All you have to do with these three responses is show that you’re aware of the world beyond your immediate sphere of influence—that you think about the big picture.

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Written by Abigail Anderson
Abigail Anderson is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Abigail received her bachelor’s in sociology from Colby College. Prior to joining College Coach, Abigail worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College and Emma Willard School. Visit our website to learn more about Abigail Anderson.