Stanford uses both the Common Application essays and what it calls The Stanford Supplement. If you are reading this, you probably already knew that. Bear with me while I establish the basic rules of the Stanford game for this year. I will then expand by analyzing the specifics of the prompts. When you have one or more drafts ready for feedback, you can send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a sample edit; this is risk-free for you; in return I ask for only serious inquiries, please. Your work and information remain confidential.
Here are the prompts that Stanford adds to the Common App:
The Stanford Supplement Short Essays
Candidates respond to all three essay topics using at least 250 words, but not exceeding the space provided.
- Stanford students possess intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.
- 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.
- What matters to you, and why?
Let’s compare these to the Common App prompts Note: these are no longer the Common App prompts, but what I wrote about these and the Stanford prompts will still apply for the 2013-2014 app season; you will find, however, a some anachronisms along with my nuggets of wisdom. Read carefully, Thx.)
1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
4.Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you and describe that influence.
5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
6. Topic of your choice.
If you are thinking that there is a considerable overlap between Stanford’s prompts and the (old) Common App prompts, I agree. This is amplified by the fact that such a large percentage of young people share both the archetypal experiences of high school and a certain homogeneity that comes from growing up in suburbs and bedroom communities. This may not apply to you, but the majority of my clients are technically or effectively suburbanites.
The prompts themselves further heighten the chances that students will write similar essays. Take a look at prompt 1 of the Common App–Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development. Given that so much of a young person’s intellectual development takes place at a school or in a relationship with a teacher figure outside of school, certain essay topics, such as how Coach Smith changed my life, or how my piano teacher inspired me, appear again and again.
What to do. One approach is not to worry about it. If you care about your topic, it will show in your essay, so write about what you are passionate about, then polish, polish, polish.
If your passions are very focused–on a particular intellectual pursuit, or on a sport, for example–consider how to write some related essays but have them touch edges, so to speak, rather than overlap. You could, for example, write about an English teacher who inspired you as you address either Common App prompt 3 or Stanford App prompt 1–the teacher would be the person who influenced you for the Common App, while in the Stanford prompt, the class is the intellectual experience. You could then, in a second essay, write about a character in a novel–say Tom Joad or Scout Finch–and turn the focus to a specific novel and individual in that novel, without mentioning the teacher. Or a novel could have inspired you to care about social issues (Stanford Prompt 3) and of course Common App Prompt 4 asks directly that you write about a fictional character or work of art (Keep in mind that a novel is a work of art).
There are other ways the topics suggested by the different application prompts can overlap–in telling your roommate about yourself, for example, you might be discussing issues of local, national or international significance which you are passionate about. Most engaged and curious applicants to a place like Stanford are interested in politics and world events.
So my most important advice to you is this: write what you know and care about. Try to write multiple essays for some of the prompts. Then choose the best from these; if they overlap, work on revising them to separate them as much as possible. If you are going to Stanford and you want to major in science, and you write one essay about scientific thinking as the thing that matters to you and you write a second essay on a specific science project as a significant experience . . . and its impact on you, the similarities of the essays may help you more than hinder you.
How much you care and how hard you work at the essays will be more important than their similarities.
I will be writing again to address issues raised by the Stanford App this year, but will end this post now by pointing out a specific problem with Stanford Supplemental Prompt 2: you are writing a note, not an e-mail or a tweet. The fact that this old-fashioned mode of communication–WTH? Paper?– is your model should caution you to avoid too many colloquialisms and–OMG!–watch the use of abbreviations and acronyms. You might work some in for humor, but use caution and consider your audience. We old geezers may not get it.
Remember: always consider your audience and purpose. Your roommate is not the real audience for this essay/letter. An admissions officer is. See my Welcome to the Jungle post for links to general posts on addressing audience.