How to Write the Stanford Roommate Note “Essay”

Who should read this post: anybody applying to Stanford in 2019-2020. I will look at the writing situation of this oddly tricky prompt and summarize the approaches taken by three successful applicants as I wrap up this post. Read on for more.

Ah, the Stanford Roommate letter, excuse me, note, back for another year. It’s one of the three Stanford prompts, and it’s framed as an informal self-introduction to your roommate. But it’s still a supplemental “essay.” Go figure.

When you compare all of the other things Stanford wants you to explain, introducing yourself to your future roommate seems kind of lightweight, particularly given that it is one of three key supplemental essays Stanford requires. So why is this roommate prompt back for yet another year? Because somehow it works. For Stanford.

As the most difficult college application in the country, with an acceptance rate that will drop below 4% within three years, based on current trends, Stanford, has a big problem: tens of thousands of applications with grades in the solidly 3.9 and 4.0 range, unweighted, most with stellar test scores and a thicket of activities. The Letter to Your Roommate clearly helps them separate applicants, from one simple fact–this prompt has been on the docket at Stanford for over a decade. And it is a particularly tricky kind of “essay.”

It’s so good in fact that they have barely even changed the wording on this prompt since it launched, way before Barack Obama started a run for President. Here it is:

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.

Your Audience and Writing Situation for the Stanford Roommate Essay

Let’s get one thing out of the way now: While Stanford does suggest that you can swap letters to your roommate when you first show up at your dorm to see who you will be sharing your living space with, your real audience is obviously not your roommate. It’s your application readers.

So a big challenge is how “formal” to be. Trying to write as if this really were just to a fellow student who by happenstance becomes your roommate is a mistake. But so is writing as if you are practicing a speech in front of a middle-aged judge.

To clarify your audience, most of my clients who have gotten into Stanford have had the opportunity to read their roommate’s letter, and they have also universally treated this as a bit of a joke, a slightly embarrassing moment that they quickly leave behind. For the obvious reason that one of the first things your roomie sees is part of your ploy to get Stanford admissions. It’s a “So that’s how you pulled it off” moment. They, like you, were casting about for some kind of “humanizing” details and some humor that would help them pick the lock to Stanford admissions. And then you maybe have to laugh off some personal quirk you decided to put upfront in your letter.

The best essays have some serious ideas in them, but framed and carried by some level of humor. A recent winner ended with a promise to have a My Little Pony decorative party. No doubt this was laughed off when the letter was read. And of course you can be too informal. For example, the language itself is not really the place to put to much informality, Dude. You get my drift, Bro?

So instead of thinking about this as really being to your roommate, think about it being to a hipster landlord who perhaps middle-aged but still sort of with it, and this landlord tis trying to find the smartest and most interesting people to pair up as roommates. In addition to offering some sense that you have an interesting personality and are maybe going places in a hurry, you also need to remember that part of this is what you want to share about yourself as a (prospective) roommate. If you want to discuss your frequent bouts of inspiration and in the process explain that these times tend to come late at night and that they simply must be accompanied by blasting music to drive your manic creativity, you may come across more as a self-absorbed jerk with no respect for your roommate’s peace, quiet or sleep than as a quirky and interesting artistic savant.

Seriously. I get this look at how enthusiastic/quirky stuff all the time in Stanford Roommate Letters, then have to ask the young author, Hey, how would you feel if your roommate blasted, say, some Bach organ music at 110 decibels at any hour of the day or night? Of course, I also see these very serious letters. Some are good, but few are great. After all, the performance here is about writing to somebody your age (with a chaperone) and that really, really serious take may not work out. You don’t want to come across as Stuart Smalley, for reals, folks. So if you are not someone like Greta Thunberg, with street cred like hers, try at least a bit of humor.

Feeling stumped? Let’s look at some successful examples, summarized.

Essay Ideas that Worked

So what kind of Roommate Letter does get one into Stanford? These three worked:

Essay Number One: Breakfast Cereal

I am not posting these essays in full, but here is a summary of each–please keep in mind that copying these ideas is a bad idea. These are just a representative examples of the range of ideas that I have seen be successful. Your own ideas need to be germane to you, but these may give you permission to write about things you had not considered . . . You can and should share these essays with a range of people, and dial it back, or pump it up, as necessary.

Stanford Roommate Essay 1–This successful applicant decided to write on his approach to breakfast, specifically, his experimental approach to breakfast cereal, for which he uses two bowls. He alluded to his friends’ view that his cereal obsession is truly eccentric by offering a somewhat tongue-in-cheek explanation of his drive to constantly experiment. Why should be accept cereal that is too mushy or too crunchy, and what happens if you combine a constantly evolving range of cereals? Into this approach, he was also able to drop references to digitizing information for a student-run organization at school to improve it, and doing lab experiments on polymers . . . which were successful. His refusal to accept mediocre cereal became a platform to suggest he experiments to improve everything. Obviously, this could become just a little too cute, but the applicant had a sense of seriousness as well as a sense of humor in this only slightly tongue-in-cheek essay.

Stanford Roommate Essay 2–This essay started with a homage to the refresh button on a web browser; by the end of the opening paragraph, this opening discussion of the refresh button had expanded to a kind of philosophy for life itself–his motto: refresh, renew and start over with a new perspective whenever you face a roadblock or feel a lack of inspiration in life. In paragraph two, he segued to his passion for scheduling and calendaring software. By now you are perhaps thinking, as you read this, that this is too mundane and, indeed, lame for a Roommate essay, but this applicant went on to explain how he runs a calendar for real events that are fixed to specific dates, which allows him to get tasks done on time, but that he also has an aspirational calendar, in which he imagines things he will do, and by doing so, and putting them on the calendar, makes them happen. That he in fact has several hundred calendars devoted to dreams and aspirations.

And some of these had already become successful at the time he wrote his Stanford essays, and he was able to name-drop things, like the a nonprofit he launched, bringing sports to underprivileged youth, and the trip he pulled off, solo, to Peru and the internship he landed at a financial advising firm for which he continued to work for years. And all of these activities were the subjects of other essays, so he was able to reinforce some of his activities and parts of the Common App main essay he wrote . . . gentle reminders for the reader are always a good thing. Imagine your poor college application reader in, say, hour 8 of reading data, activities, essays . . . and assigning a ranking, all in about 15 minutes. Or ten. You never want to repeat activities verbatim on your essays, but a bit of a reminder never hurts.

Stanford Roommate Essay 3–This applicant wrote about . . .rapping. And this for a prospective business major and entrepreneur who has no plans to go into the music industry. At this point.

Interestingly, rapping is very much a minor activity for this applicant, who has not really composed all that many raps. But the essay had authenticity, because this applicant had done some rapping, genuinely loves the genre, and got together with a friend to write a rap aimed at deflating tension between the applicant’s school and a cross-town rival, then made a video in which the applicant and friend visited the cross-town rival “sharing the love” as they rapped about making peace. They posted it and got some support online.

This is the background of the essay, which talks more about liking to rap and the process of creativity. This applies to the roommate essay because of rap as a private-hours activity, engaged with at home, and the activity in this case was altered on my advice from blasting rap at all hours to having a set of Beats headphones constantly on the applicant’s ears or around the applicant’s neck, ready to use at any time. . . in the dorm room. It also quoted from that peace rap in a couple of places, and the focus overall was on an interest in creative engagement with social justice topics, which allowed the applicant to bring in a mixed-race background.

You don’t have to be constantly engaged with an activity for it to work in an essay; you just need some level of authenticity, which this had. And as a person whose identity is not totally tied up in Rap or Hip-Hop, this essay also skirted the kind of insider-war about who’s the best, what is legit and what is not in the realm of Hip Hop and Rap. . .Passion is welcome, but avoid editorial content that is not lightened with humor and a sense of perspective.

And don’t forget, for high octane and battle–tested essay development and editing, Contact Me.

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

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 in mid-June that they will be using the same essay prompts as last year. And they have now posted them, as I show, below.

In addition to the three, 250-word supplemental essays, Stanford features a series of short answers, which I will also discuss below the 250-word essay prompts. 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, the only change this year being that you are now writing a “note” rather than a letter (slightly less formal, for a prompt that already tended to pretty informal). 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).

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– 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 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 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.

How To Get Into College: Or, How To Write The Essay That Will Get You There, Including Essay Examples

Oh, and what not to do.  For starters, don’t try to imitate too closely (and definitely do not copy) your older sibling/friend/acquaintance/college essay guidebook’s foolproof example essay.  Have a look at them, sure, but for true inspiration, we’ll go to the pros.  More on that in a moment.

Because, before I get to essay examples, I want to share a “must hear” link to help you out.  Read on for more.


To begin with,  I’d like to say that the title of this post is a nod to one of the Great American Things, a little radio show called This American Life.  Created by and featuring Mr. Ira Glass and company, one of TAL’s recent shows was entitled, How I Got Into Collegeand, at the least, you should listen to the prologue and Act One (linked below).   In it,  an admissions officer talk about dumb things people do as they try to get into college, including dumb things that are done with essays (like using the same essay for multiple schools, but not getting the school names right on each essay . . . ).

Topics addressed include parental support/intervention/obnoxious interference in e-mails and elsewhere, demonstrated interest,  and,  most important for our purposes, the admissions officer talks specifically about why most admissions essays he reads are boring.  The admissions director talks about  the same problems I talk about (e.g., the same basic essay, over and over, as in the My Mission to South America, essay).  This admissions officer also admits that he and his colleagues are part of the problem; he does not, however, specifically discuss the repetitive and self-focused essay questions that are required, again and again (Common App, I’m lookin’ at you )  or why this has come to pass, something I explain here:  Common App.

So I recommend that you go to my link to TAL’s  College App show, and listen before you read on.  After listening, you can continue reading to find links to examples of good essays, below.  More on that later; for now, here it is:  This American Life:  How I Got Into College.

Before moving on, I would suggest listening to the whole thing by continuing with Act Two–for a number of reasons.  First among these, it may put the troubles in your own life into perspective.  Second, as you embark on a journey to write about your own life, it is a fascinating study of the malleability of memory . . . as the  protagonist of the rest of this TAL episode, Emir Kamenica, who escaped the Bosnian genocide and is now a rising star at the Booth School of Business, at the University of Chicago, tells his story . . . then hears a different version of things.

As a follow-up to this show, a listener wrote a hilarious Worst College Essay Ever (my title for it). Read it here:  Prank Admissions Essay


Welcome back, and now we move on to some essay examples.

By now you all know about the Common Application essay prompts, which are all 1st person, Let Me Tell You About Myself essays.  The Common App has dumped the open question and eliminated the possibility of writing directly about a book or intellectual experience.

So my first advice for the Common App is this:  Find the Unexpected ; do the Unexpected.  (I capitalize Unexpected by way of emphasis, not to imitate German capitalization conventions.)  This does not really require anything radical or crazy.  It’s all about how you look at things, even the mundane.

The next point I’d like to make is this:  none of my essay examples below will be student examples.  The reasons are multiple, but two will do as an explanation:  if you want to learn something, from chess to tennis to football to whatever, you don’t usually go study, well, your peers.  You pick out somebody you think is outstanding, if not the best in their field.  Somebody with proven chops.   It’s in that spirit that I offer the examples below, where  I will offer essays by people I admire or essays which I think are really good.  Note that, as examples, most are also too long for our purposes, but you should not be reading to copy exactly–you should read to find ideas, phrases and structures.  My caveat:  you can imitate, borrow, riff off of . . . but do not copy anything more than a quote.  Thanks.  Now on with the show.

Essay Examples

After the first example you will find an annotated list with links; this post is planned as one of those that expands over the course of the app season, so check back–I will add material and links as I find them.  I also have plenty of examples with earlier posts, incorporated into discussions of specific topics and topic types, so browse the archive for material that looks like a fit for your topics.

Okay, here we go:  to show you what I mean about finding the unexpected, as well as how to look for examples, I will start with a link to an essay and then will give you a little editing exercise that will cut this essay down from being about three times the length of a Common App essay to being about 40 words too long, which is a minor overrun, in my world.  I am very serious about the editing exercise–it is short but will teach you a lot about how to look for examples, and how to take apart a longer piece of writing and put it back together–a very educational  exercise in how to read as well as how to edit.

So go to this  long essay about a young immigrant who found a home, of sorts, in the uber-suburban show The Wonder Years.  Read the whole essay first, then come back for this exercise, below.  The exercise doesn’t take much time and will show you something important about the art of the cut in editing, as well as how to read and how to look for material and ideas that might be useful to you in writing an application or any other essay; here is your link:  My Wonder Years.

And here is your brief and painless editing exercise:  copy the essay, splice it into a document, then number the paragraphs.  After you number the paragraphs, delete all paragraphs except these paragraphs: 1, 4, 6, 9, 11, 12 and 18.  Yep, all the rest of the essay is deleted.  Then delete the first word in paragraph 12 and capitalize the next word.   Then read this “compact edition” as an essay in itself, which it is.

You have a very different essay, of course–this shorter version leaves out an important focus in Ms. Nguyen’s  original essay, but notice how it does show her own sense of being an outsider in the United States, as well as her “place” of comfort and connection, a virtual world reached through a television screen.  Yes indeed,  a  nice example of a place you feel comfortable topic.  And this is, in its full form or in my shortened edit, another good example of the Unexpected.

Example 2: Cooking is Freedom–About a middle school rebellion against sexism and its reverse, by a boy who wasn’t quite fitting the stereotypes of his time and place.  The problem our essayist faces is very much a problem of the early ’70’s, but he writes in a clear and charming way and he absolutely challenges an idea–and he writes  with humor, which is an awfully good thing to have  in an essay that might be number one hundred and ten, on a Wednesday afternoon, for a tired and cranky app reader.

Example 3: Why Department Stores Are Vital  This essay would also be a great fit for the prompt on a place that you feel comfortable–Here   the author take a place which has most often been used to show what is wrong with America and argues for it not only as a place where she feels comfortable but which she thinks is necessary for our culture–another  great example of the Unexpected, in point of view  and attitude.  The topic is an old one, but the picture we get from the author surprises and charms.

Example 4: An Essay by M. Allen Cunningham, on the theme of how the Oregon landscape has influenced his work–this is a superb, rambling essay and another essay on place, which also examines the influence of technology in an interesting way and excerpts from the author’s own novels as it develops.  The first two sections could stand as essays by themselves, with a tweak or two, so keep in mind my little editing exercise from Titi Nguyen’s essay, above.  Or just  skip to section #2, for an essay within an essay on place, perception and much more.  Good stuff.

Example 5 (Multiple Examples): This I BelieveThis link will actually take you to a page with multiple essays.  The writing quality is not always exceptional–I would rate them from excellent to decent in their prose quality–but all have something interesting to say about beliefs and acting based on beliefs, or about how their beliefs developed–and they fit any of three of the current Common App topics.  The beliefs here are from the full spectrum–for a taster, this selection includes an opening essay by Penn Gillette, the magican/performer, on why he is an atheist, and if you look further down the page, has an essay under the title My Brother’s Keeper, which starts as the author leaves Sunday school with his kids.  The latter essay is both humanistic and religious, and both the atheist and the believer are sincere and trenchant in discussing their own beliefs.

I do have one warning for this collection:  this specific  essay topic became really popular in the last decade, primarily because of the This I Believe  project, which was frequently featured on National Public Radio.  So if you write an essay on belief, please don’t start with the clauses I believe in x, or  This I believe: x.  An app reader or officer may start rolling his or her eyes, (Not this again). But even with that caveat, this page, and at least a few of these essays, are definitely worth a visit and may inspire great ideas, even if you do not use any of them now.  Oh, and be sure to be good to the pizza guy.

As noted above, I plan to expand on this list over the coming months, so you might want to check back on this post in  few weeks, scroll down, and see what is new down here.  Thanks for dropping by.

And remember:  Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but copying somebody else and claiming that the work is yours is  . . . theft.  Just say no, or this may happen to you, a la Dante:  Wages of Sin.  Hey, man, don’t mess with the Dante.