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.

The Usual Suspects: Admissions Resultsfor the Ivy League and West Coast Favorites

Who should read this article:  Anybody interested in applying to an Ivy League or U.C. school, oh yes, and Stanford.   I also include my opening discussion for the class of 2021 on brand, status and the Tesla test.

How many Teslas have you seen with college stickers on the back window?

Me neither, and I drive the highways  in the most Tesla-dense region in the country as I visit area clients.  I’ll get back to that after we get to some data, below.

So how bad was the application season?  Depends on where you applied.  Applications to the Ivies, Stanford, and some of their analogues and safety schools, which will be the topic of this post,  were very, very difficult.  Your leading example is Stanford, which dropped below a 5% admissions rate for the first time this year–and was the first university to do this. Applying to Stanford increasingly resembles playing the lottery for most applicants. Applications to hundreds of non-name brands and international options, not so much. Food for thought, and a topic I will discuss again soon.

Onward, to some of this year’s data:

University . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Number of Applicants / %Accepted*

Stanford University . . . . . . . .43,997/4.69

Harvard University . . . . . . . . .39,041/5.2%

Columbia University . . . . . . . .36,292/6.04%

Yale University . . . . . . . . . . . .31,455/6.27%

Princeton University . . . . . . . 29,303/6.46%

Duke University . . . . . . . . . . .28,600/8.7%

Brown University . . . . . . . . . . .32,380/9.0%

University of Pennsylvania  . . 39,918/9.4%

Dartmouth College . . . . . . . . . .20,675/10.525

Northwestern University . . . . .35,099/10.7%

Cornell University . . . . . . . . . .44,966/13.96%

U.C. Berkeley . . . . . . . . . . . . . .82,558 (frosh)/14.8%

U.C.L.A. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .97,064(frosh),119,326(ttl) No data on % yet.


Not a very friendly collection of numbers, is it?  The problem, as usual, is that classic  supply and demand equation in market theory.


Sure, there is a long-term structural problem in our economy, and yes, the elite universities offer superb educational opportunities, not to mention the prestige of an Ivy or Stanford sticker on the back windshield, and yes, your college friends can be part of a great network . . . . but the next Mark Zuckerberg is not going to come from a new social media platform at Harvard.   Sure, if you are admitted, go to Harvard (as long as the financials work).  But don’t go just to have the brand, especially if you know of a lesser place with a better deal for you, educationally and financially (is Harvard really the best place to go for software design/engineering?)

One of the most important things I do with college advising clients is help them  develop a wider list of options.  My mantra on target schools is this:  You should always have three tiers of schools in your application list, with the bottom tier being schools for whom your data puts you above the 75th percentile of admissions, the middle tier with schools for which your data makes you an “average” admit, and your reach schools making up the third tier–where your data is at 25% or below, though I add that if your data is below or near the bottom of a college’s admit data, it’s not likely to be worth the time to write the app essays, much less pay the app fee.  The chances of admission always have to be weighed against the strength of your dream, of course, and maybe that fusion reactor you are constructing in your garage will do the trick . . .

I have written about strategy and creating a good college list before, and will write about it again in relation to this year’s application season in the coming months, so look for that.

Much of the overcrowding in the world of college apps  is a result of what an economist would refer to as market distortion–in this case rooted in the growing fear many people have about their economic future and the chances for their children to have a life as prosperous as their own.  This sense of decline in economic prospects is well-documented, as is the reality that fuels these fears, and along with  a focus on a narrow range of well-known brands, you can see the  problem with the information in this particular “market.”

The brand advantage does have a real effect on income when you are first hired in a range of industries, but that effect fades quickly–mid-range income is an indicator of job performance, and job performance comes from an alloy of factors, including how good your education actually was, your motivation, and decision-making on the job.  Which brings me back to that Tesla.

I have not seen a college sticker on the back window of a Tesla.  Well, okay, I have seen a couple, but those were on the back windows of Tesla 3’s   Yep, we already have truckloads of those loose in my part of the world.  The thing about a Tesla, and a college sticker, is two-fold: first both are a statement of status.  Second, both affiliate you with a group of people.

But a Tesla is a status symbol that speaks for itself, environmentally friendly, elegant in design, superb in execution and performance . . . and the one person I currently know who is driving a Tesla Model S went to Humboldt State University (not the Humboldt U in Germany–the Cal State in Northern California, an area more known for certain herbal products than tech).  This person started as an art major, moved to graphic arts and from there focused more and more on Computers . . . and now runs his own medium-sized digital arts company now–a success story showing the power of education and curiosity.

The car he owns because, a, he likes it, and b, he thinks that environmentalism can only succeed if it is not just moral but enjoyable.  His mid-career income is excellent, he loves what he is doing, and he came out of a college that does not get much notice even as a regional school–ranked only 57th as a regional university (West) by U.S. News and World Report.  Something to keep in mind as you churn through rankings and discard schools that are not getting brand recognition.







College Admissions Data from 2014-2015 and What It Means for You in 2015-2016

Warning for those used to reading only 140 characters at a time: 

This post has analysis and data on Ivy League applications for the last five years, as well as on the most popular U.C. campuses and a couple of interesting alternative schools (particularly for tech and engineering students).  It may feel like reading War and Peace for those of you whose reading does not generally extend beyond Twitter and text messages. On the other hand, for the labor, you will get a good overview on the trends in elite Ivy and U.C. schools, as well as free advice for saving yourself a lot of application misery–which starts with looking at the data on schools and on yourself.  For more, read on. 

For some things, the past is no longer such a great predictor of the future–the weather, for example.  I just came back from ten days in the Sierra Nevada and the weather reminded me of the monsoon:  thunder, lightning and rain daily, with green grass in the arid ghost town of Bodie–in July.  Go figure.

For other things, the past is still a good predictor of the future–take college applications as an example, in which the forecast is for admissions to be incrementally tougher every year–if you are going to the most competitive schools.  If you are not, relax and enjoy the application process (As much as possible.  Think about it as a challenge, as an opportunity for growth, as . . . a lot of work).

Some Examples That Show the Trends (and Why Averages are not Necessarily for the Average Applicant)

Turning to some specifics for this year, the tale is pretty much the same as it has been for over a decade:  if you want to go to one of the super select colleges, the going is tough and tougher.  Stanford, for example, came close to breaking into the 4% admit range this year, dropping to an all-time low of 5.05% of applicants admitted.  Of course, they do have a relatively small undergraduate population and are a worldwide brand pretty much on par with Disneyland, which means that your average 4.0 GPA can expect to be rejected, but . . . it’s even worse when you look at their average GPA and test scores and realize that they have under 8,000 undergrads and a very full and vibrant athletic program, among other things, which means for the average student, the GPA and test scores listed are not really averages for the average applicant.

Why?   Because those average numbers are skewed by hundreds of athletes, many of whom (but not all, for sure) have somewhat lower GPA and test scores.  And special categories for admits are not just for athletes.  For those who are upset at this, I believe this is actually fair–for one simple reason:  no money, no university.  Universities need to build a happy alumni and athletics are a big part of brand and of donations, and these donations and the happy supporters with their fond memories of tailgating, et al,  pay for all kinds of things, including new facilities, scholarships athletic and otherwise . . . and not only that, many kids who excel athletically but are somewhat underperforming academically for admission to the elite schools they get to attend will still go on to to exceptional work as adults.

And  special admits are not just for jocks.  A math prodigy who is mediocre at other things (yep, they exist) may also jump past an accomplished generalist when it comes to admits.   And a high performing kid from a rough neighborhood may also get a boost–which is okay by me.  It’s fair play for universities to have special categories for everything from athletic branding to social justice. Their game, their rules.  This is true in many areas of life.  Your task is to decide whose game to play.

So getting back go forecasting and data for this year, one easy prediction for your application experience is this:  if you are less concerned with brand and just want a good education,  you have no worries–last year I had multiple clients with C+ averages make it into multiple universities, and clients in the solid B range doing very well with multiple accepts to multiple well-known brands–not in the Ivies or Stanford of course, but getting accepted into a broad range of good schools, public and private.

It’s all about finding a broad range of colleges that will allow you to fulfill your ultimate ends and settling on a good list for your final applications, then having good supplemental materials.  Turning to one of the other popular options in California as a more sane option than Stanford, U.C. Berkeley had roughly a 17% acceptance rate for fall 2015 (still bad, but compared to the Cardinal, this looks very reasonable).

(For more insights into how college applications are evaluated and some thoughts on strategy, have a look at how applications are evaluated and my secrets to college application success.)

Your Takeaway in Only 633 Characters:

Before I get to this year’s data but let me give you my takeaway for this whole post now:

To avoid misery, create good goals and keep those goals in mind when planning for factors that you cannot control (like what the colleges are looking for to fill specific categories this year), without obsessing about fairness.  And be sure that you do not focus only on getting into HYPSM.  These are great schools and offer unique opportunities for their students, but so do most respectable colleges.    And finally, use the CollegeAppJungle cushion formula when creating your college list:  for every Stanford or top Ivy on your list, have one school for which you are average and one school for which you are above average.  You then can reach for your dreams, with a safety net.

Admissions Data for 2015 and Beyond

Okay, that’s enough of the preparatory remarks already; here’s quick rundown of some recent admissions data:

Pretty Scary Data:  Ivy League Results for the 2014-2015 application season (these students will be enrolling for fall semester, 2015-in a couple of months, in other words).


30,397 applied; 8.5% admitted

(2013-2014 data:  30,291 applications; 8.6% admitted–see what I mean by incrementally more difficult each year–this is pretty consistent throughout what follows.)


36,250 applied; 6.1% admitted

(2013-2014: 32,952 applications; 6.94% admitted)


41,907 applied; 14.9% admitted

(2013-2014 data: 43,041 applications; 15.2% admitted)


20,504 applied; 10.3% admitted

(2013-2014 data: 19,235 applications; 11.5% admitted)


37,307 applied; 5.3% admitted

(2013-2014 data: 34,295 applications; 5.9% admitted)


37,267 applied; 9.9% admitted

(2013-2014 data: 35,788 applications; 9.9% admitted)


27,290 applied; 6.99% admitted

(2013-2014 data: 26,641 applications; 7.28% admitted)


30,237 applied; 6.49% admitted–making Yale a bit of an outlier as their numbers softened slightly this year.

(2013-2014 data:  30,932 applications; 6.25% admitted)

And for you uber-STEMers, here is M.I.T:

18,306 applied; 8% admitted

(2013-2014 data:  18,356 applied; 7.9% admitted)

The numbers above could be described as ranging from tough to terrifying, if you are obsessed with the Ivy League and M.I.T.  But keep in mind that there are up to a thousand decent to superb colleges in the Americas, particularly if you break them down by schools or majors (e.g. Colorado College of Mines, the University of Toronto and the University of Michigan, among others, Oh Engineers).  Also be aware when assessing data that all colleges must estimate how many of their admits will actually choose to attend, which affects their admits–this is called yield, and I have written about this here: Why Yield Still Matters.  Ivy League colleges have very high yield, relatively speaking, and so have an even lower level of admits compared to schools with lower yield.

Of course, if you are not totally obsessed with the Ivy League, this data is merely interesting, and using it, along with, say,  a scattergram from Naviance, you can do a cost-benefit analysis based on your chances of admission.  I say, Go for it, given that your average app costs only 50-75 dollars, but have a healthy list of non-super-selective colleges, guided by a healthy perspective on why you want to go to college and what you expect to get from it.

Compare the last two years’ data to a three year trend that takes us from 2013 back to 2011:

Brown–2011: 8.70%; 2012: 9.60%; 2013: 9.16%

Columbia– 2011: 6.93%; 2012: 7.42%; 2013:  6.89%

Cornell–2011: 17.95; 2012: 16.2%; 2013: 15.15%

Dartmouth–2011: 10.14%; 2012: 9.79; 2013: 10.05

Harvard– 2011: 6.17%; 2012: 5.92%; 2013: 5.79%

Princeton–2011: 8.39%; 2012:  7.86%; 2013: 7.29%

U Penn–2011:  12.26%; 2012: 12.32; 2013:10.05

Yale–2011: 7.35%; 2012: 6.81%; 2013: 6.72%

And here is data for M.I.T: 2011: 9.6%; 2012: 8.9%; 2013:8.2%; 2014: 7.7%

M.I.T’s West Coast competitor, Cal Tech, had 11% admitted in 2013, 8% for 2014, for you STEMers who need another point of comparison.  I will update with this year’s data for CT when I get it.

The trend is clear:  steadily down for the most competitive schools, and the seeming upward trend in a couple of cases may be due to the fact that they admit more because more students use them for a backup school,  choosing to attend another school after admissions offers go out–universities  have to calculate this into the admits, much like an airline figuring out how to slightly overbook flights–the difference being that, if a school misses their admit/yield target, they either lose money when they under enroll, or have to find a way to house and provide classes to their excess new students–U.C. Berkeley had a bit of a fiasco with yield some years back and had freshman students living off of cots in rec rooms and hallways of dorms for quite awhile.   See my post on Yield, above, for more on yield.

If the current trend continues, the top three  Ivies will all be under a 5% admit rate a year or so before the next Winter Olympics roll around.  Fear not, however, for I will conclude with some recommendations for dealing with this in a moment–but before I do . . . . let’s get to this:

Getting back to REALLY Scary Data:  Stanford

Stanford–2011:  7.10%; 2012: 6.61%; 2013: 5.69% 2014:  42,167 applicants; 5.07% admitted–and in 2015, only 5.05%, or 2,144 out of 42,487 applicants were admitted.

As I said, really close to that 4% barrier and really likely to break it this year,  based on the trend.  They could decide to forestall this by adjusting and making some space for a slightly larger freshman class, but nothing currently suggest this will happen.  Stanford is the go-to destination for today’s Future Masters of the Universe, really–anybody who wants to launch a good STEM career has Stanford at or near the top of their college list.  So expect yield at Stanford to stay high, and for the Cardinal to drop below 5% during your application season as Stanford  turns down many students who look perfect in terms of numbers.  Other factors, like essays and extracurriculars will play in important role in application results here.  So will institutional needs.

Inconsistent Admission Results

I did have six of my clients be admitted to Stanford in 2013-2014, which was a new high for me, but two of them were outstanding female athletes as well as good students, and the others were nearly perfect, with outstanding essays and interesting backgrounds. This year, so far three have reported admissions, but I have only had formal reports back from about 70% of my clients as of July, so I hold out hope for those who may still be too giddy to respond to my June e-mail request for results and decisions.

I also had other clients who did not get into Stanford, some of whom were admitted into places like Harvard and Yale, and of course those who had admits to both/and.  My  Stanford admits were not admitted to some of the Ivy League schools on their list while being admitted to others.  The upshot on this is simple:  you cannot count on admission to any specific school in the usual short list of top universities–so you should widen your application list.  Do some deep breathing.  Remember that life is not about what college sticker you put on your car.

Have a Good Backup Plan

Let’s start with what West Coast applicants applying to the Ivy League think of as “backup schools:”  U.C. Berkeley and U.C.L.A. (Personally I find the idea that the U.C.’s are somehow second-rate to be hilarious.  Berkeley has been ranked as the top school in the world overall by some ratings systems–not that I am all that impressed by ratings, which usually focus on incomes of graduates and a bunch of less clear metrics, none of which guarantee a good outcome for any individual.  But back to our topic . . .)

U. C. Berkeley–2011:  25.54%; 201221.13%; 2013: 20.83%; 2014: 17.3% admit rate, with 12,795 admitted for fall 2014 out of 73,771 applicants; of these, 65.6% were California residents and 4,401 were out-of-state students; this year’s admits had a weighted average GPA of 4.18, ACT composite average of 31 and SAT reading of 677, Math of 703 and Writing of 691.

Berkeley Update for fall 2015 enrollment:  78,918 freshman/1st year applicants, 13,321 admitted for a 16.9% admit rate, a new low. Yes, a large, “state” school with many applicants and an incrementally more difficult admissions rate, but a much better admit rate than in the Ivies.  Llike the Ivies, the trend is toward tougher admissions, and the drop  in admits at Berkeley is even steeper over recent years than at most other schools–a result of the Ivies, et al, having such low rates of admission that more and more students are dropping out of the Ivy League app race and going straight for the great public universities.  The average unweighted GPA for these admits was 3.91 with an average ACT of 31 and an average SAT of 2093.  For transfers, Berkeley had 17,239 applicants, 93% of whom came from California community/junior colleges; 3,763 or 21.8% were offered admissions this year; compare that to about 23% transfer admits last year and the theme of incrementally increasing difficulty reappears here as well.

U. C. L. A.–2011:  25.28%; 2012: 21.27%; 2013: 21.10; 2014:  18.23% admit rate, with 15,778 admitted out of 86,537 applicants–4,110 of these admits coming from out-of-state. Weighted average GPA for U.C.L.A. in 2014 was 3.94.  For  a complete look at U.C.L.A.’s test average (SAT/ACT) and other data up through 2014, which is rendered in more detail than Berkeley, see this:  U.C.L.A. Averages.

U.C.L.A. Fall 2015 Update:  17.3% admitted, including 16,027 freshman admits out of 92,722 applicants.  This is a pretty good jump downward in admits and upward in applicants for U.C.L.A.  U.C.L. A. also admitted 4,905 out of 20,063 transfer students (mostly J.C. transfers).  Again, you see a relatively easier admissions challenge relative to the Ivies, but also  a relatively steep decline in admits in recent years.

Some Other Schools to Look At

This will be more focused on STEM majors, not because I think STEM is the only way to go (far from it), but rather because so many want a STEM major, and it provides an easy way to focus on a small selection of the thousands of colleges in North America and beyond.

University of Washington

Why not, STEMmers and others?  For you STEM folks who think that Berkeley or Stanford are the only way to go to get a foot in the door of the West Coast Tech Industry, you might have heard of those guys at Amazon and Microsoft up there in the Seattle area (Of the latter, I know, I know, so Old School, but still–one of the biggest and most important tech companies in the world.)  Not to mention those biotech companies and internet companies like Zillow, Expedia, et al and so forth.  Specifically of interest to you computer science and programming folks, U.W.’s Comp Sci school has a truly fantastic new building and a large degree of protected funding dedicated to Computer disciplines–a good thing in today’s challenging  world of educational finances.  For more on that, look here: U Washington Computer Sciences.

Here’s a quick look at UW data:

2012: 26,138 applications, 16,679 offered (55% acceptance rate) with a yield of 6.225; 2013:  30,200 applications, 16,679 accepted (59% acceptance rate) and a yield of 6,049; 2014–Applied 31,611, Accepted 17,451 (55%) Yield 6,361 or 36.4%.

2015 data is pending as of July, 2015–a relaxed approach from a university that is pretty relaxed compared to the Ivies and Berkeley.

Looks doable, doesn’t it?  Of course, some majors will be far more challenging to get into–like those in the computer disciplines–but still not even nearly as tough as the Ivies, Stanford, or the U.C.’s, especially Berkeley, if you are a STEMmer. Of course, there is some rain, but the good coffee and access to excellent salmon offset that . . .

Harvey Mudd

If you haven’t heard of this place, they know it well in Silicon Valley.  And while it is tougher than Berkeley and far tougher than Washington, its data shows that it is a good alternative school for those convinced that the Ivies are the Cat’s Pajamas.  Here some data:

2013:  3,539 applicants; 18% admitted;  2014:  3,678 applicants; 524 admitted (14.2% admit rate);  as of July, I am still waiting for HM to report stats for fall, 2015 enrollment.  One additional point–more than two men apply for every woman who applies to HM  (2,588 men for fall 2014 vs. 1,090 women), but the number of women who were admitted in the last available class (fall 2014) was 255 vs. 269 for the men.  So the advantage is to you ladies.  Though the admit total is admittedly small in both cases.

H.M is a beautiful, small school in a Southern California setting (807 undergraduate students last year), and while both private and expensive, has pretty generous financial aid (32,000 has been the average aid package in recent years, according to HM, apparently an upgrade from the old HM 25 k package).  If you can pay for an out-of-state public school, you can likely afford HM.  The steep recent decline in admits does suggest that HM has been discovered, with a rising rate of out-of-state applicants, but still:  worth adding if you have some space on your target school list and are interested in a small school.

Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo

One of my favorite, small, public colleges and also a favorite of Silicon Valley employers, as well as companies like Bechtel, Webcor, Kiewit, et al. Look em’ up, if you are curious, Oh engineering types.  The school is well-known for programs ranging from Architecture to Electrical Engineering, has a highly ranked business school and a number of very strong humanities programs.  Here’s some CPSLO data:

2013: 40,402 applications, 13,939 accepted (35% accepted) with an average wieghted GPA of 3.96, ACT composite average of 29 and SAT 1 average of 1311.  2014: 51,707 applicants, 14,749 admitted (28%-this is a record low for CPSLO), with a weighted GPA of 3.97 on average and SAT Reading and Math of 1318–the ACT composite was 29.  Fall 2015 Update: 46,799 applied; 14,386 admitted; 4.0 GPA average (weighted); ACT average of 30; SAT Reading and Math average of 1332.

Cal Poly has (finally) started to offer more detailed information on student data by fields of study–click here for information by school:  Cal Poly Data Breakdown.

Your Takeaway:  Diversity, Diversity, Diversity–and a somewhat longer list than the old “10 is the max” standard.

As in recent years, the takeaway for this is to develop a longer list of target schools and add some diversity.  I suggest 12-15 as a minimum on your target list, not the old ten maximum list.

After all, it’s the 21st Century, Friends, and as you can see, the admit rates at my alternate schools are also declining, a trickle-down effect of both increased expenses at some of the more popular schools and the very low likelihood of admissions to the most competitive schools–students and parents are getting the message and are looking for the hidden gem or overlooked schools like the few I showed you in this post.

So look for the overlooked, look across borders and over the sea, as well as in your backyard.  Don’t limit your search to the United States.

As in recent years, I strongly encourage students to look at Canada–the University of British Columbia, U of Toronto and McGill come immediately to mind, and are cheaper on average than going out of state within the U.S.  A West-Coast flight to Vancouver, or an East Coast flight to Toronto is actually pretty affordable, so parents can visit with ease, if necessary, and Canada is on average a safer place to live than the U.S., even if they do have more guns per capita.  Must be that relaxed and friendly attitude.

And don’t take the various university rankings too seriously, even if you are a STEM person, which some  of the best known university rankings weight over other factors (money being the other dominant metric).  Nobody knows how to measure the real value of an education, and there is a degree to which the Ivies, particularly Yale, Harvard and Princeton, demonstrate a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to income–income and some other stuff that is used to rank universities does not necessarily reflect the quality of your undergrad education.   Having said that, you might want to check out international rankings for British and Irish universities, and check out some specialty programs, like the accelerated medical degree at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland–an example only if you want to be a surgeon, of course.

Moving back to the role income plays in university rankings, a school from a western state, particularly if it has a smaller population, will obviously have folks with lower incomes–it’s cheaper to live there and more of the students from, say University of Washington or Oregon will be from those states and likely continue to live in the Northwest, which has a great standard of living, but lower average incomes than, say, New York or Mass.  If you went to school in Seattle, but took a job in Cupertino, your income would reflect that.

Keep that in mind and ask what you want from your college experience–a good job is huge, but a good experience is as well, and it starts with having a good list of backup schools to ease the stress of applications.  Good luck and come back soon.

College Admissions Data for 2013: A Look at Yield and Some Sympathy for the Devil

For many years, yield was vital to college rankings.   Universities tried not only to attract far more qualified applicants than they could possibly admit, they also tried to get a very high yield.  From the point of view of applicants, this was, well, a bit devilish.  The universities, of course, have a different point of view, and it’s worth considering their perspective as you begin the process of applying.

For those of you who are not up on the inside game of college admissions and its terminology (yet), yield is the  number of admitted students who then also actually enroll in the school instead of, say, turning down the school to enroll in their “other” first choice.  Yield was for many years important due to the U.S. News and World Report’s use of yield in its rankings of colleges, a practice they gave up years back. But yield remains, as a kind of ghost hanging around the theatre of college applications, influencing the general perception about how in demand a college is.  The psychology is not so dissimilar to that of the fashion industry in some ways, if you step back and squint your eyes a bit—or maybe not.  Too scary to visualize.

In any case,   universities today still  share their yield info with applicants; those universities with high yields share the information as a sales point (simply everybody, or at least  a supermajority of our admits wants to go to our school, etc.) and the others share presumably either so they won’t seem like they have something to hide or because they really are perfectly fine accepting students who were ranked in a top decile but who were not in the tiny cohort of the  top 1 to 3% of those who actually gain admissions to an elite Ivy or Stanford.

As a side note, for those of you who are already feeling the butterflies as you consider the odds of getting into, say, Princeton or Stanford, look:  You will find a surprising number of really excellent schools that accept the top 10-15% of students, and many people in fact get a great education for less debt at public schools with even “lower” standards.  Some of these less competitive schools have specific programs that compete with anybody.  Once you look beyond the same 10-15 schools that everybody else knows about and wants to apply to, you can find all kinds of hidden gems.  So breathe deep and relax as I present the admissions facts as they are, and I will, in upcoming posts, also help you look outside the envelope everybody else is staring into, including looking at cheaper and less well-known but still excellent domestic options, as well as looking outside the country. If you can expand your horizon beyond the same 12-15 schools everyone else is applying to, you can find some real gems, colleges that may suit you and your needs better than many marquee universities.

With this preamble, let’s first take a look at the data I gathered on some of the most competitive colleges in the United States—yes, these are some of the schools everybody has heard of:

Three-Year Yield Data on Über-Competitve schools

Brown2013 (class of 2017): 59.9% ;  2012:ca 57%; 2011 55.8% (None from wait list this year)

Columbia2013 (class of 2017): 61%; 2012: 61%; 2011: 61% (Very consistent to 2008, which was 60%)

Dartmouth–2013 (class of 2017): 48.5%; 2012: 49.5%; 2011: 52%

Harvard2013 (class of 2017): 82%; 2012: 80.2%; 2011: ca 77% (46 from wait list this year)

Princeton2013 (class of 2017): 68.7%; 2012 66.7%; 2011: 56.99% (Princeton Admissions Page stats claim 65% for 2012/2016 class; this appears to be an inaccurate early number)

Stanford2013 (class of 2017): 76.7%; 2012 72.84%; 2011: 70.05%

University of Chicago2013 (class of 2017): 54.98%: 2012: 47%; 2011: 39.88%

UPenn-2013 (class of 2017): 64.25%; 2012: 64.88%; 2011: 62.92%

Yale2013 (class of 2017): Yield not available as of 6/19; 2012: 68.4%; 2011: 65.2%

Compare the yield rates for the elite schools, above, with the overall category averages below, which come from the most recent NACAC (National Association of College and Career Counselors) report, with data up through 2011; these are averages for the entire public/private categories:

Yield Rates for Public and Private 4-Year Colleges


































The story that my data on the super selective schools and the data in this categorical chart tells  is clear:  the most elite schools have been pretty well sheltered from the big drop in yields in recent years, but many others have been, therefore, disproportionately affected.

Why?  Well, demand, largely.  And the demand is driven by certain realities—the famous profs, the famous alums, the data they issue about how smart their applicants are, the data about how few of those applicants they let in, the data about how high their yield rate is of those they did admit . . . oh, wait, it looks like we are discussing, well, marketing, and therefore, Dear Applicant, we are discussing you. Or your perceptions both personally and aggregated with your peers across the country and world.  Take your pick.

As you consider your own perceptions, we should also consider the plight of that demonic realm known as the Admissions Department. You might want to cue some Rolling Stones (Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste) as you think about those dark empires into which all your personal information will disappear, leaving you to wait for months to find out if you are one of the blessed or one of the damned when the envelopes are mailed or the e-mails sent next spring.  But here’s the thing:  they have problems, too.

You are in a race to be admitted; they are in a contest to improve their rankings, or if they are near the top, to maintain their position.   Changes in college rankings mean big money and can make or break campuses and careers.   In some cases,  the suffering of admissions deans may even surpass that of those applying.   A large part of a dean’s problem is hitting the sweet spot where most of those admitted actually attend.  All heck can break loose if 400 extra freshmen admits appear who weren’t expected.

Yes, screwing up on your yield can wreak some serious havoc, with 18-year olds sleeping on cots in hallways, irate parents calling,  news vans prowling campus.   Worse even than that  is a big drop in yield,  when dorm rooms are empty because the admissions people didn’t get enough new faces to show up.  Instead of simply bad PR, which they can deal with, they lose real money and their prestige takes a hit.  That’s a scary, nay a terrifying thing for university administrators, even with the economy appearing to recover. Have a little compassion for those admissions types who are not really devils anyhow.  They are your fellows in the suffering created by our crazy college applications market.

And here is one more thing to consider:  You will do a better job at creating a strategy for college admissions if you better understand the problems facing your admissions officers, because you will also know more about your own  challenges when you apply.  And when you turn to writing your application essays, your audience should be one of your first considerations.

Of course, in the long run, the more of you who do a better job understanding those problems, the (paradoxically) larger problems those same admissions officers will face, at least in the long run.  For one thing, you  will follow my advice and continue to apply to more schools, and you will also continue to demonstrate more interest in more schools, using persistence and discipline to evade their attempts to measure just how committed you are as they, for their part,  try to get more apps, admit fewer people and have a higher yield.

With that, let’s say the game is afoot, and may the best applicants win.  Read my earlier post on how applications are evaluated while you start to plan your moves, and I will have more about all this strategy stuff in later posts. Speaking of which, some of these posts will be protected and you will need to pay me a very small subscription fee for full access to all my posts on my private blog.  Contact me at for more information.  See you soon.

Comparative Ivy League (And Other) Admissions Statistics For This Year And Beyond

In my last post, I took a look at trends in admissions–finding, most notably, that admission rates at the most competitive schools are continuing to trend downward in the single digits.  This post will give three year results for all of the Ivy League universities, below, as well as results on other universities that were popular with my clients this year.  (This data changes from early in the year until late spring; I update as I get new numbers but not necessarily immediately.)  Some schools are holding steady, others are seeing decreasing rates of admissions, while  a few saw a slight increase in admits.

I also made some suggestions in the last post about looking outside the usual suspects, i.e, the 12 or so big names that always come up when constructing a college list, something I have been discussing for years.  I will repost and link the relevant posts  in the coming days and weeks.

In addition to broadening your college search and making a longer target list, the supplementary work that you do in applying to college this year will  be even more important for the selective schools.  Essays are always the center of this effort, which is why I spend so much time addressing them in by blog posts, and essay development and editing is central to my business and my work with applicants.  My first recommendation on essays is to get started now.

It’s true that most new prompts will not be up until July or later, but this is a good time to find a small notebook and carry it around so you can jot down ideas when they come to you–I am serious about this; you will need a bit of focus for your thoughts, so have a look at my post on this year’s Common Application Prompts, then get that notebook, carry it with you, and take the time to scribble an idea down when it comes to you.  You will find that good ideas can fade and be lost as quickly as you forget your dreams–if you don’t write them down.  A notebook is best for this because it is really good only for making notes, and so tends to work better for this task than does that most distracting platform called a smart phone.

Check the admissions trends below;   but for a comparison, before you do check our trends in the U. S., here is the most recent data from the University of Edinburgh:

University of Edinburgh

2012-2013 Total Number of Applications: 47,076; 18,155 offers; 5,457 accepted; Offer rate 38.6%.  The offer rate does vary by “programme”.

Note that a single applicant can make multiple applications to the university, to different programs, so the acceptance rate is a bit exaggerated–but still . . . compare this to the Ivy League three-year returns, below:

Three Year Admissions Results, Ivy League (these numbers represent the total percent of applicants who were offered admission)

Brown–2011: 8.70%; 2012: 9.60%; 2013: 9.16%

Columbia– 2011: 6.93%; 2012: 7.42%; 2013:  6.89%

Cornell–2011: 17.95; 2012: 16.2%; 2013: 15.15%

Dartmouth–2011: 10.14%; 2012: 9.79; 2013: 10.05

Harvard– 2011: 6.17%; 2012: 5.92%; 2013: 5.79%

Princeton–2011: 8.39%; 2012:  7.86%; 2013: 7.29%

U Penn–2011:  12.26%; 2012: 12.32; 2013:10.05

Yale–2011: 7.35%; 2012: 6.81%; 2013: 6.72%

Three Year Results, Other Universities

Cal Tech–2011: 12.99; 2012: 11.76; 2013: 10.55%

M. I. T. —2011: 10.07%; 2012: 8.9%; 2013: 10.2% (pending final number)

Georgetown–2011:  16.8%; 2012: 16.5%; 2013: 16.6%

Northwestern– 2011: 18.03%;  2012: 15.27%; 2013: 13.90%

Stanford–2011:  7.10%; 2012: 6.61%; 2013: 5.69%

U. C. Berkeley–2011:  25.54%; 201221.13%; 2013: 20.83%

U. C. L. A.–2011:  25.28%; 2012: 21.27%; 2013: 21.10

University of Chicago–2011: 16.29%; 201213.24%; 2013: 8.81%

As I said in the last post, apply to the university of your dreams, even if your stats make an admit unlikely, but then look around for more fallback and sure thing choices.  And start thinking of yourself as an internationalist as well.  There are many fine anglophone schools, abroad, and not just in Canada.  The University of Edinburgh, for example . . .

The Stanford Supplement for 2012-2013: It’s Deja Vu All Over Again

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.

My links to more in-depth discussions include protected material which is  only available in full to my subscribers and clients.  My client services include everything from a full range of college advising and application support to editing on  a single essay.  Contact me for more information at:  I will book up rapidly from mid-August into September so don’t wait too long to contact me–I offer inspirational help to those dealing with writer’s block, as well as editorial help on existing app essays.

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.


Essay Responses

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:

Stanford 2011-2012.

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.

The Stanford Supplement Essays For 2011-2012

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 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.

Early College Admissions Data for 2011 and What This Means for You

Some early data is rolling in on this year’s college admissions, and all the news is up for those institutions known as “selective” universities–up meaning turned down for even more applicants this year. To wit: Stanford saw the number of applicants rise from 32,022 for 2010 to 34,000 in 2011, an increase of over 6%; across the Bay, U. C. Berkeley went from 50,312 to 52,920, an increase just north of 5%; and across the continent, Harvard saw an increase from 30,489 applicants last year to 35,000 this year

The wide net cast by many–if not most–of the schools who have risen to the top of U.S. News and World Report’s heap of illusions is well known by now. This includes promos and invitations sent with more frequency than credit card offers to the homes of high school students, many of whom have a snowball’s chance in a pizza oven of being admitted.

Also widely reported is the effect that these tens of thousands of what I call “prejects” have on the bottom line of these same selective universities. Thirty thousand admissions fees paid by kids (okay, parents of kids) who will under no circumstances ever tread the halls is a tidy sum reaped by a university for a very inexpensive data collections system. An admissions officer can screen dozens of applications a day, most electronic, and let’s face it, the first step is an algorithmic gate–at or below GPA x, no admit. At GPA y, maybe. If I were cynical, I would argue that the universities have found a way of making rejects pay for the system that screens their students.

It is still true that the sweat and tears of applicants does matter, but only for those already near the top. So be realistic. If you don’t have a 4.0, or a 3.75 with a tremendous story to tell, don’t waste your time with the “selective” schools. If you do, go for it–and put plenty of time into your essay if you are going to be a Senior in September.