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How to Write the Stanford University Application Essay Prompts for 2019-2020: Ready or Not, Here They Are–

In Essay About a Problem, Stanford Application Essays on June 22, 2019 at 9:25 am

Who should read this post: Anybody who is applying to Stanford in 2019-2020, with a bonus focus on the Problem Essay which appears in multiple Ivy League and other elite college applications.

I confirmed with Stanford yesterday that they will be using the same essay prompts as last year. In addition to the three, 250-word supplemental essays, Stanford features a series of short answers, which I will also discuss below. In addition, I will offer a preliminary comparison of selected essay prompts from elite schools to suggest how you can begin reusing essays in whole or part–or reusing ideas. Here are the Stanford supplemental essays for this year:

Stanford Short Essay Questions for 2019-2020

Please write a short essay in response to each of the below three essay topics. There is a 100-word minimum and a 250-word maximum for each essay.

  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.
  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—know you better.
  3. Tell us about something that is meaningful to you, and why.

The first thing that I would point out is that these prompts have not really changed for years. To see what I mean, take a look at the Stanford shorts from seven years ago: Stanford Short Essays, 2012-2013.

This year’s “deeply curious” prompt 1 was in 2012 the prompt 1 “intellectual vitality” prompt, which asked for an idea or experience that fascinated you. The only real difference is in the wording. The roommate question has remained basically the same for a decade, and the only change in prompt 3 has been to alter “what matters to you” to “something that is meaningful to you.” With that in mind, let me suggest that you read all of that post to the 2012-2013 prompt that I link above. Most of what I say there still applies.

I have another analysis of the Stanford prompts in the next link; scroll down this linked post to see additional links to ideas for approaching these prompts, including writing about intellectual interests: Stanford. But keep in mind that constrained, 250-word limit.

So little change over so much time–What does this mean? It means that Stanford feels it has found the best essay prompts possible. But I think it is also tied to the length of the Stanford essays. Having assisted with editing these for the last twenty years, I can say that this is a truly fiendish wordcount–just long enough to be an essay, but too short to allow for anything extraneous. Getting a good Stanford essay down to 250 words can be a hellish exercise in compressing meaning through changes in word choice and syntax pruning. Or just cutting a paragraph you thought was great but which is not necessary, comparatively speaking. In short, you can write an essay with a clear, bright “flavor” but not many layers. I add that the short essay and short answer prompts together do force you to respond in a personal way.

Speaking of short answers, in addition to the three, 250-word essays, Stanford also has a series of short responses most with a 50-word limit. Here is last year’s Stanford short answers, with word counts:

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

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

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

4) What five words best describe you? (Max 10 words [!])

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

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

7) Imagine you had an extra hour in the day — how would you spend that time? (50 word limit).

8) Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (50-150 words)

For this post, I am going to limit myself to looking at short response #1. Here’s why: a number of elite colleges will use longer essay prompts this year that allow you to focus on a problem you’d like to solve, or help solve, or that just concerns you. I address this basic kind of question under the idea of the “problem essay” which I have discussed in multiple posts in the past, and will be writing about again soon. Here is an earlier example: Writing the Problem Essay. Think of this short response as a chance to come up with a great hook for an essay of 300-500 words. If your Stanford 50-word response is well done, use it as the opener for a longer essay on another elite college application. Nothing wrong with doubling down, with one caveat–Turnitin.com will find it. But borrowing from yourself is not a crime, and I assume you will write a great essay that develops from that hook–which itself can also be expanded as you fit it to a different word count.

As I write this, I still await confirmation on Ivy League prompts, but from last year, here are some examples that tie in with the problem essay topic:

Dartmouth, 2018-2019

  • In the aftermath of World War II, Dartmouth President John Sloane Dickey, Class of 1929, proclaimed, “The world’s troubles are your troubles…and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.” Which of the world’s “troubles” inspires you to act? How might your course of study at Dartmouth prepare you to address it?

Georgetown, Walsh School of Foreign Service Question, 2018-2019

APPLICANTS TO THE WALSH SCHOOL OF FOREIGN SERVICE: Briefly discuss a current global issue, indicating why you consider it important and what you suggest should be done to deal with it.

While Princeton in 2018-2019 defines its problem essay as a social essay:

  • “One of the great challenges of our time is that the disparities we face today have more complex causes and point less straightforwardly to solutions.” Omar Wasow, assistant professor of politics, Princeton University; founder of Blackplanet.com. This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University.

Keep in mind that some of these prompts I list just above may change this year, but on the other hand, most won’t, and you can get started on a problem essay by writing a nice, 50-word definition that has plenty of “hook.” Also be aware that many colleges are using Turnitin.com and will notice not that you are plagiarizing but that you are reusing essays. This could impact how the view your Demonstrated Interest or Interest Quotient. More on that later.

That’s it for now. Among other things I will be posting about how to write a problem essay soon, so come back for that, if it applies. In the meantime, start writing your 250-word essays.

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