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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, Problem Essay, Stanford Application, 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.

College Application Success: The Seven Rules

In college admissions, college application, common application, Common Application Essays, Harvard Application Essay, Researching Colleges, Stanford Application, UC Santa Cruz Application, University of California Application, university rankings on March 29, 2012 at 11:46 am

College App Jungle’s  Rules of College Admissions:

1. There are no secrets to admissions though each university does have priorities which shape admissions. Beyond looking at the information colleges provide about how they evaluate applications, spending time trying to figure out if there is a “secret handshake” which will give you admittance is a waste of time.

This doesn’t mean that all things are equal and no strategy is necessary.  I strongly recommend that you carefully research universities and craft your application to match the schools which you want to attend–more about this below.  But those who spend hour after hour on the chat threads on College Confidential, hoping to find something guaranteeing them an acceptance letter from their favorite school,  should instead spend the time working on their essays.

Maybe you know a guy who knows a guy who knows that U.C. Berkeley is looking for engineering students who are the first in their families to go to college, but . . . so what?   Even if this is true (and it was recently) this kind of “fact” changes each year. Every university has dozens of priorities for admissions, priorities which are revised both before and during the admissions process each year; as students are admitted and categories fill, numbers  like the SAT average and ethnicity  for applications and admits also change.  Early on, the college may be looking for students who fit a particular profile, but once that fills or starts to fill, they can shift the priority to a different category .

Why?  The universities have one eye on you and another eye on things like their ranking in the U.S. News and World Report.  The take away is that you can’t spend time worrying about things which will change even as apps arrive at the college.

As an example of an admissions priority which is changing, San Jose State is currently embroiled in a controversy over giving preference to students coming from Santa Clara County, where the university is located.  For this year, they have backed off from eliminating this preference, but facing 60 million dollars in budget cuts right now, they are likely, within another year or so, to eliminate it.  Why? You could say that,  to be fair to all applicants in a statewide university system,  they can’t act like a local school, but more realistically  this move seems designed to allow more space for students who will pay more–foreign and out-of-state students, for example.  This will also increase their selectivity and so tend to improve their national ranking.

And this is only one of many preferences facing evaluation and possible revision this year for San Jose State alone, which like the rest of the Cal State schools  uses the supposedly simple objective admissions process; add to this the priorities assigned to various schools and majors within the university,  and you have some idea of how complex the calculus is for every school.  Do the same for a holistic admissions university and it’s even more complex.

See my last post for more information on how universities assess applications and what a holistic versus objective evaluation entails, and look below for my link to the U.C. Santa Cruz evaluation to see a detailed list of factors considered–keep in mind that these vary to some degree from school to school, even within the U.C. system.

2. Grades and test scores are the most important factors in evaluations of college applicants.

You can count on grades and scores to be the first but not only consideration as your application is evaluated.   If you are a top student in a good school, if you have excellent SAT/ACT scores, a broad set of activities and a clear area of specific excellence  and passion, you will be admitted to most schools you apply to.  If you do not fit this description, you may have fewer options, but fear not:  there is a college with a spot for every student in the country with decent grades and test scores.  You may have to go further afield, of course, but you are not forever doomed by a few C’s and B’s.  As for GPA, it’s your unweighted average that is directly compared and which is used in the averages the universities publish with their profiles of admitted students; your weighted average does matter as it establishes your class rank, and can be used as an additional factor in direct comparisons, but the unweighted GPA is the first thing assessed, along with SAT/ACT test scores.

3. Some things do trump grades and test scores, but these tend to be very specific and very obvious exceptions.

Your favorite university is, in fact, looking for you if  you show a clear ability or potential to excel at something of value to the institution– if you are a recognized musical talent with decent grades or a mathematical prodigy or a 6’4″ All-CIF high school linebacker running a 4.5 second 40 yard dash and bench pressing 350 lbs, for example.  But even with exceptional skills in some area, such as tackling other large, fast people, you must still show that you have the academic chops to survive as a student at the specific school, though some entities, like athletic departments, may supply assistance in the form of tutoring.

If you want this quantified further, a 2008 study showed that players on top 25 football and basketball teams had SAT scores 220 points below the average for the rest of the student body at these schools.  Obviously elite athletic programs get priority at many schools.

Unfair, you say?  Not from the institution’s point of view.  It has its own priorities, with money and reputation near or at the top of the list, and sports are important both to boosters and to most students.   So are many other talents.  If you doubt my claims, see my entry about admissions stats for early 2012 and scroll down to my discussion of Stanford for further details on the importance of athletics.  It seems that the football team is important even at an intellectual paragon like Stanford.

The next rule is for the vast majority who  do not fit the exceptional niches that most universities set aside and who do not have a perfect academic record.

4. It’s okay to be human.  A few B’s and a  C will not kill your chances of admission to any but the most competitive universities, especially if you show a desire to push your limits by taking challenging classes in which you are not always perfect.  As you create your application portfolio, your  essays and extracurriculars can  reveal important and valuable aspects of you that can offset relative weaknesses in your grades or test scores.  Good recommendations are also important.  For an example of a the kinds of additional factors, see the U.C. Santa Cruz website, where they list fourteen factors used in making evaluations–they are, for example, giving  California residents preference (at least as of this year’s applicants), something that other U.C.’s  are moving away from (as I pointed out above, they get more money from a nonresident. . . )

My advice:  Try to keep things in perspective as you prepare for college.  I have known a few Valedictorians who were really living miserable lives in order to “win” academic honors.  I think it’s better to be less than perfect and to enjoy your life rather than to live in torment over every grade point.  There are many schools you have not heard of where you could be perfectly happy and be well educated.  If you are a resident of a western state, see my post here for more information on finding a good university in the West and potentially saving a lot of money as an extra boon.

5. The college application process starts early.  In fact, it should begin no later than the Sophomore year in high school.  Even the Freshman year in high school is increasingly important, if not as part of your GPA, then as part of your overall academic trajectory (they want to see increasing difficulty and challenge in your class selection from year to year). I think this is unfair and unwise–many people struggle to adjust in the first year or two of high school, and there are myriad examples of successful people who did not excel early–but this is the way things are going as competition for admission to selective universities increases.

On the other hand . . . a student who stumbled early should not give up.  The holistic schools will look at other aspects of your application that may explain or offset some academic    shortcomings.

You should make a serious effort to establish relationships with counselors and cultivate relationships with teachers, for you will need recommendations.  Try to develop these relationships early and in a sincere way, which requires something from you as well as from them.  When dealing with teachers, show interest and be helpful when possible–and show an interest in the academic subject of the teacher,  not just in yourself and your opinions.

By your Junior year, you want your counselor to know your face, your name and your important interests.  If you are a Junior and haven’t talked to your counselor, there is no time like the present.

Be straightforward about your desire to work with your counselor as part of your application process.  Ask them for their advice–they are usually knowledgeable  if not expert, and people like to share what they know, so let your counselor talk.  If your counselor seems less than eager, on the other hand, it might have to do with budget cuts that have loaded them with 500–or more–students.  Be polite and persistent.

6. Essays are Important and can separate you from your competitors.  And in the essays, as in your activities, authenticity matters.  Your application self and your real self need to have a clear relationship.  If your verbal score on the SAT was 550 but your essays read like Zadie Smith wrote them,  your app will not do well, even if your SAT math score was perfect.  Most experienced admissions readers can predict your SAT verbal from reading your essays, and if you farmed your essays out to one of the ghost writers offering their services on the internet, you are most likely doomed,  not just for a lack of academic skill, but more importantly because you lack integrity.  Getting editing help and reader input on your essay is fine; faking it is not.

This can be a gray area when you seek editing–as an example, I do detailed, line-by-line editing and suggest better phrasing as well as offering more holistic evaluations of essays, but ultimately my client’s essays are theirs.  My job as an editor is to give them ways to reshape the clay that they provide, but the essays are and must be student material.  Any editing help provided must be both sensible and sensitive as well as honest.

For a holistic school, like all of the Common Application schools, authenticity means more than your test scores and class rank.  In general, the admissions readers genuinely try to construct a full picture of you from your materials, from grades through essays.  Many students try to create a false self in their essays, just as these same students may be dabbling in many activities just to get them on the “resume.” Find a way to say something authentic in your essays–this can take time and will involve reading for some of the recent prompts for supplemental essays.

7. Activities are important, especially those that show a long-term interest and commitment, but for authentic intellectual development, reading widely is the best approach.     Reading is one of the best ways to add authentically to your general knowledge and to deepen your understanding of the world, and many college applications recognize this in their essay prompts, which either ask for or allow books as topics.  This does not mean that you should start reading the most serious possible literature immediately.  In fact,  I link you here to an excellent essay by Michael Chabon, one of our best contemporary writers,  on his love for comic books, with a vigorous defense of their value. Yes, reading comic books is –oh, excuse me, I mean reading graphic novels– is intellectually respectable, or at least it can be.    So go ahead and start with the supposedly lightweight, but be sure to move onward and outward from there.  You might try going from comics to Chabon’s The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, for example, or from Neil Gaiman’s graphic novels to his, well, novels, like American Gods.

In addition to being generally useful, a good reading program will pay off in the application essays.  Your life will most likely have a few important episodes that might work in an autobiographical essay, but the number of experiences available to you through books is relatively limitless.  With the Common App and most holistic universities using essay prompts which directly address books or for which books are a good topic, reading is a good place to put in some time.

I have previously discussed writing about books, and will be addressing this again in future posts, but you can’t do a good job writing about books if you do not start reading early.

If you are already a Junior, and don’t read  beyond what is assigned in school, it’s a bit late but not too late.  I will have some suggestions for reading programs over the summer for all types of students in a later post.

Those are my rules, or guidelines, if you will.  Look for more posts in the near future on writing about books and other application matters.

The Stanford Supplement Essays For 2011-2012

In Autobiographical Essay, college essay, Essay on an Important Experience, Essay on Intellectual Development, Essay on What Matters to You, Stanford Application, Stanford Essay on October 7, 2011 at 11:14 pm

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 wordguild@gmail.com 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.

Update as of July 8th, 2015–Stanford has been using the same three short answer prompts since 2011, but this is no absolute guarantee that they will not change one or more of them this year.  Feel free to read my posts on Stanford, but remember that until they go live officially ca. August 1st, with the opening of the Common App website for 2015-2016.   Until then, or until I can confirm and post this year’s prompts separately, you should tread carefully.  The Common App and other current prompts offer enough to do without risking wasted time in the event that, say, the Cardinal drops its letter to a roomate prompt.  Okay, you have been warned–read on and click away to your heart’s content.

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.

  1. Stanford students possess intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.
  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. What matters to you, and why?

Let’s compare these to the Common App prompts Notethese 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.