In this post, after an opening discussion on how to approach any supplement with both short answer and essay responses, including advice on dealing with electronic submissions, I will begin analyzing the individual prompts in Stanford’s supplement for 2012-2013. I will include all of the Stanford prompts, both for short responses and essays. Keep in mind that this post applies to this year’s prompts, since they are not changed, but some details in this and other linked posts are aimed at what was happening last year.
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The Stanford supplement requires a series of short answers–a couple of lines, in most cases–followed by a series of short essays. When I say short, the range will be from at least 250 words up to 2,000 characters. I would suggest writing rough drafts of 300 to 350 words. You could possibly fit in as many as 380-390 words and be under the 2,000 character limit, but I always advise having a safe margin–one of the most difficult editing tasks is to take a tightly written essay and knock fifty words off of it.
There is a saying, attributed variously to Faulkner and other writers, that, In writing, you must kill your darlings. This applies to you insofar as you need to step back to look at each essay as a unit and to look at that unit as part of the larger package you will hand over to the application readers. Anything that doesn’t help the whole package needs to go. You have to be prepared to throw out even the greatest sentence you’ve ever written if it doesn’t fit the essay, or if it somehow contradicts something you’ve said elsewhere. And you may need to throw out even some great sentences that do fit the essay if you are over the word or character count. (Do what I do and write the poor, discarded sentence down in a notebook for possible use elsewhere before deleting it from your essay–limbo is better than annihilation and you may be able to reincarnate it in another essay.)
I also advise–nay, remonstrate–that you should write, rewrite and further revise all of your responses to the questions ahead of time, not just the essays, and that, when you have typed in a response (typing from one of your already polished drafts) you then take the extra step of printing and reading a hard copy before submitting.
If you have a problem with the preview function, simply copy the text into a new document, then print it and reread the hard copy carefully and make any necessary changes before submitting it. I ask my clients to do this with all responses, from a sentence in length to an essay. It is generally easier to see mistakes on a piece of paper than it is on a screen. Of course this also takes more time than simply sitting down and banging out your answers, which may seem awful given the amount of time you are going to be spending on college apps, but you will find that a response that seemed brilliant yesterday may seem ho-hum or even ill advised today. You should have spent days or weeks polishing your responses before finally you sit down to fill in those boxes and submit. Think of it as two years of English class compressed into a few months, and keep in mind the potential payoff if you feel like screaming.
Need I say that you also need to check that all of your short answers and your essays present a consistent picture that coincides with everything else you present to the university? You may come up with something witty or interesting to say in a short answer, but it needs to be thrown away if it contradicts the rest of your material or otherwise may cause you trouble, by being offensive, for example, or simply. . . not fitting in well. When using humor, check yourself to see if you are coming off as flippant or sarcastic. If in doubt, show your answers to at least two other people you trust to get their opinions. Remind them to think like an admissions officer. Be sure at least one of them is an adult who is not afraid to be critical.
And now, on to Stanford, beginning with the short answer responses:
Stanford Short Answer Prompts for 2012-2013
Please respond to the following questions so we can get to know you better. Respond in two lines or less, and do not feel compelled to answer using complete sentences. 300 characters each.
- Name your favorite books, authors, films, and/or musical artists.
- What newspapers, magazines, and/or websites do you enjoy?
- What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?
- How did you spend your last two summers?
- What were your favorite events (e.g., performances, exhibits, sporting events, etc.) this past year?
- What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?
- What five words best describe you? (My note: you have some characters left after the five words. Find a pithy way to elaborate. X because of y, for example.
Please respond to the following essay topics using at least 250 words, but not exceeding the space provided. (I would shoot for around 350 words here; this will put you under 2,000 characters, which is their limit.)
Please print preview before submitting to make sure your responses fit into the space provided.
- Stanford students possess an 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?
Prompt Analysis and Advice
I begin with caveats and advisories. As I pointed out in recent posts, Stanford, like many other schools, is using much of the same material they used last year. An overhaul of the Common Application site is planned for next year, which may explain why so many schools are using retread prompts this year–I assume that they are waiting to roll out a bunch of new stuff with the new app portal, or maybe they just think they’ve found the perfect prompts. I’ll know more about that next year, though you won’t have to worry about it, having already written brilliant essays and gained admissions to multiple excellent universities.
What you do have to worry about is coming up with good ideas for your essays. And since there is all this material just lying around from last year, and in some cases from the last several years, it seems like a no-brainer to approach older friends or siblings who still have app essays, or to look online. And I do encourage looking around so long as you are simply picking up good ideas. If you do know people who applied in the last couple of years, surveying them for their opinions is a good idea. In particular, I would ask them what they would throw away or do differently as well as asking what ideas or essays they thought worked best for them.
The caveat here is that you should be seeking inspiration rather than direct imitation. While there is a long and colorful history of authors “borrowing” from each other, directly copying or barely reshuffling somebody else’s app essay is a bad idea, in a number of ways. I would say that first among these is your own knowledge that somehow you cheated; within the exultation you might feel when you got that acceptance e-mail or envelope would be a grain of regret, a sense that somehow you are a phony. And that sense may never go away, may still pop into your mind years later. Who needs that?
A second problem in relying on close imitation is what I would call the cul-de-sac problem. If you focus on specific examples, you can end up in a mental dead-end. If you are too specifically inspired by somebody else’s essay, you may find yourself stuck, unable to find a new direction when the idea–their idea–goes nowhere for you. So if you are going to look at examples, look at many examples before you start to write. And don’t look for ideas by simply searching for successful application essays to Stanford or to any other university you want to attend. Figure out how to create categories for different approaches to the questions and search–and think– along those lines.
For example, when looking at the intellectual experience prompt, instead of starting by typing “intellectual experience, Stanford,” into a browser and spending hours going through page after page looking for examples online, switch off the machine for awhile and spend some time thinking of all the things you’ve read and done in school or elsewhere that represent an intellectual experience. And don’t limit yourself to experiences with teachers or books or experiments. Especially remember things that truly sparked your interest instead of things that simply seem stereotypically “intellectual.” I’ll get into this in more detail below, when I address the intellectual experience prompt directly.
A third problem with imitating too closely is the fact that data won’t die until civilization collapses. That essay your friend Jimmy sent to Stanford last year is still out there somewhere, and electronic submissions have made it easy to check essays for plagiarism. So if you borrow an idea, reshape it so that you own it. Entire genres of literature and drama are based on loving mockery or sincere imitation that moves into new territory (and this isn’t limited to parody and burlesque). Write in that spirit. When imitating, you want to be like that artist who finds a bunch of junk and makes a brilliant new sculpture which incorporates old stuff made by others, but which is at the same time one-of-a-kind. If you cheat, Big Brother is likely to catch you.
So let’s move on to the intellectual vitality prompt. As I pointed out last year, this overlaps with the Common App prompt about an intellectual experience. The possible range of topics here is wide, but whatever your choice, do not forget that you are the real topic and the hidden form of the essay is that of the argument–your argument being that you should be admitted to the university.
Let’s start with classes, which could include anything from science and lab classes through your humanities and arts classes. But don’t limit your brainstorming to school or classes. Einstein found inspiration as a child by looking closely at the structure of individual leaves. Think broadly as you start brainstorming. Maybe you started studying strategy because of your interest in a team sport . . . or for a game . . . sounds intellectual to me.
While an entire area of study may inspire you, you will want to identify a single experience or episode or unit in order to create a focus, a source of specific, descriptive detail. Being able to show the reader some of your experience through specific detail is almost always a good idea.
But it is not enough simply to describe an experiment or a poem or a chapter on Gettysburg or a technique for moving up a level in a challenging game or for finding a weakness in an opposing defense. Imagine your reader constantly asking the question “Why is this important? And what does this show about this kid?” You need to show them that, which means you need to show your passion or show why the topic is more generally important.
This means you need to give some thought to the whole idea of intellectual experience and growth. I would suggest that a sense of wonder, of excitement is necessary to all real intellectual growth and achievement. Maybe a particular moment in a chemistry class, watching the seemingly magical transformation of matter, gave you that sense of wonder. If it did, then show it. Maybe a biology or geography unit suddenly transformed your sense of time as you learned to look underfoot for that ocean that no longer exists. Maybe it was the time the fourth grade teacher gave different kids different objects from peas to marbles to a basketball and taught you about the vast distances in the solar system by having kids run further and further apart across the practice fields, Neptune or Pluto way out there across the campus, an invisible pea held up by an arm that seemed tiny from where you stood holding the basketball that was the sun . . . If you start with an early experience, go on to show how the experience amplified and echoed through your life, is still visible in your pursuits and interests.
Also consider the examples offered by the greats in the sciences and the arts. Inspiration or growth which may seem sudden most often comes from long labor, repetition, tedium, failure. As you start thinking about this topic, don’t be afraid to consider the role of failure and the importance of determination and discipline. Fiddling with tubes and beakers or reading and rereading to figure out meaning are part of the deal and you should not be afraid to talk about these things. Your essay isn’t a movie trailer full of explosions and leaps from tall buildings, nor does it need to be about awards received and competitions won. Try to keep coming back to those things that made and make you feel wonder.
It’s wonder and joy that kept Kepler, Newton, Einstein, Leonardo, Beethoven and Matisse going, the desire to capture what is seen, to know more deeply. The intellect isn’t some stuffy dude with patches on the elbows of his jackets. You are an embodied mind and anything requiring thought may be considered intellectual. I’ll come back to the intellectual experience essay again, but for now let’s cut to a few links.
First, to get the synapses going and to help you broaden your thinking, here is a post I wrote earlier this year on an interesting intellectual experience essay that is on a topic that seems anything but intellectual: comic books.
See this post: Secret Skin.
As you read this, look at how the author engages intellectually with the questions posed to him, how he works out his own way of seeing things. Whether it is in an experiment in biology or an argument if favor of graphic novels, you need to own the experience you describe. You need to be able to make and stand behind your own judgements.
Next, have a look at my entry on Stanford for last year, where I discuss and link information on the essay topics:
Then get out a piece of paper and start scribbling down times you were both learning and excited by what you were learning. Work from these to describe single incidents or experiences, including periods of trial and error. You can work out how to frame an essay and create a complete narration later. Start with topic ideas and scenes.
I will return to the Stanford supplement and its essay prompts again soon. Check my site again in the next week. I also expect to post soon on some of the Ivies who have yet to put up their supplements. I guess they’ve extended their vacations over there at Dartmouth, et al.