How to Write the Stanford University Application Essays

Founded just over 150 years ago, Stanford University is a private institution located in the gorgeous heart of the California Bay Area. The exciting buzz of start-up opportunities and entrepreneurial spirit permeates student life on campus, with the university being more STEM-focused than most east coast Ivy schools while still offering excellent humanities majors.

Stanford has become America’s most selective university, with an admissions rate of 4.29% for the most recent class of 2022. Other defining aspects include its status as the second largest campus in the world with over 8,000 acres, its undergraduate enrollment of 7,000 students, and its ranking as #3 in the nation by Forbes in 2018.

Stanford’s freshman application asks students to respond to 7 different short questions and 4 relatively longer essay questions as part of their admissions process.


Short Response Questions:

  • What is the most significant challenge that society faces today? (50 words)
  • How did you spend your last two summers? (50 words)
  • What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? (50 words)
  • What five words best describe you? (50 words)
  • When the choice is yours, what do you read, listen to, or watch? (50 words)
  • Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford. (50 words)
  • Imagine you had an extra hour in the day — how would you spend that time? (50 words)


Brief Extracurricular Elaboration:

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

Before we divide into the specifics of how to answer each of these short prompts, remember that limiting your responses to only 50 words requires writing answers that are straightforward and direct. Be honest with what you write, but also think critically about the different aspects of your personality you are highlighting with each answer. Try to vary the responses so that they don’t all cluster around only one or two activities or themes.

While these answers won’t make your application, they could break it if you use any inappropriate content; be mindful of your audience by choosing tasteful responses. However, over analyzing what you think the admissions officers want you to write misses the point of showcasing your individuality.


Let’s discuss each question individually.

What is the most significant challenge that society faces today? (50 words)

For this significant challenge question, you might decide to go with a traditional answer but still put a creative spin on it. Avoid picking an obscure or arbitrary topic that is not actually a significant challenge. For example, you could write about one of the more commonly publicized issues that we face, like gender parity, aging populations, skills development, or global warming, but be careful since those topics have the potential to become trite depending on how you address them.

Writing simply about the fact that the challenge exists is less interesting than if you wrote something along the lines of how you believe the greatest challenge will be spreading actionable awareness of the issue to overcome our current apathy, with a brief suggestion on how that could be attained. Doing so would make your answer stand out more than just speaking too generally about something like poverty or sustainability. For example, if you talked about gender inequality, and suggested focusing on addressing the gender gap within STEM fields more specifically, you would be showing that you think proactively about trying to solve the issue without oversimplifying it.

How did you spend your last two summers? (50 words)

Writing about how you spent your last two summers should be pretty direct­­­ — anything you have been involved in is fair game, and showing a variety of interests is again advisable. For example, you could write out a list of the disparate activities like:

This mix of activities allows them to see that you participated in some resume boosters, but also had fun and didn’t just completely restate your activities list section. You could also choose to hone in on just a couple of activities and give them each a bit more explanation instead of solely listing activities. For example:

What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? (50 words)

If no historical events come to mind after thinking about this prompt for a few minutes, and you’re starting to question whether you learned anything at all in your high school history classes, doing a quick google search of top 100 historical moments is not a terrible idea. However, since many of your peers will likely employ the same strategy to identify their historical event, you should strive to select one that makes sense considering your unique profile and current interests.

For example, if you want to indicate your interest in the techy Silicon Valley, you could write about witnessing the process Hewlett and Packard went through starting their business from their garage because you loved tinkering through your own projects throughout high school. Or if you are interested in history or politics, this is a good place to easily select one of the thousands of moments to tie into your interest. For instance, you could write about the time when Washington rallied his troops and convinced them not to abandon the Continental Army late in 1776, even when things looked just about as bleak as they could get.

The specific moment you choose isn’t extremely relevant, but again remember that if you pick something obscure, it might not qualify as a “historical moment” and may need more than 50 words to describe and add a brief explanation. Here’s an example of incorporating a potential major interest in engineering while going for something out of the box:

You don’t need to directly connect it to a personal reason or specific explanation like this example did, but noting why you picked this moment allows your response to make more sense and ultimately feel more memorable.

What five words best describe you? (50 words)

The five-words prompt tends to consume a large amount of time and cause consternation because it feels too simple, but try not to overanalyze again here. If you want to create some sort of hidden code (Bold, Retentive, Authentic, Vigilant, Energetic), alliteration (clever, charismatic, confident, committed, caring), or sentence (tolerance still trumps all hate) from them, feel free to use some creativity here (maybe just don’t use the word creativity). Avoid stacking similar or simplistic words and consider asking parents or friends if you feel genuinely stuck on coming up with these.

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

This year’s media prompt changed slightly. In the past, two prompts were given that read: “Name your favorite books, authors, films, and/or artists” and “What newspapers, magazines, and/or websites do you enjoy?” This revised prompt feels more open-ended in the sense that no specific types of material were referenced. Again, you have the option of listing for all 50 words or picking a few and elaborating. However, you might want to avoid writing an extremely advanced work of literature or erudite publication down as your “favorite” (unless it really is the case!). If possible, try to strike a balance between things that are pure enjoyment and things that are educational.

Going for listing on this prompt could look something like this:

(This format is just an example. You can structure yours in any way you choose with bullets, paragraphs, numbering, etc.)

You can learn a lot about a person from this essay prompt, so don’t shy away from listing just because you think you need to explain every choice for them to become meaningful. It will balance your short answers to feature some of both tactics (listing and explaining) throughout the different questions.

Imagine you had an extra hour in the day — how would you spend that time? (50 words)

On this last short answer, go through what you have already written and see what would complement the other responses without feeling boring or redundant. Try to avoid some of the more obvious examples like writing about wishing for more sleep, since this prompt offers room for so many different types of responses. You could even use the space to (carefully) write about a flaw or lack of something by addressing that you could spend extra time on an artistic skill or personal relationship you’d love to work on.

For example, if you have mentioned somewhere in the application that you want to study comparative literature and that you have a love for children’s books, you could write something like:

While using a quote (like that last reference to Alice in Wonderland) can sometimes be risky since they reduce your word count, this example shows a relatable flaw (running late) and ties it back to something mentioned previously in the application. After you write your answer, if you have that bubbly feeling that you want to go read it to your mom or your best friend, then you know it’s good.

Because these prompts are so short, admissions officers will probably go through your answers somewhat quickly, and you don’t need to agonize over crafting the perfect set of responses. However, it’s still important to show that you put a good deal of thought into them. Also, if you decide to feature a particular theme for your application, you should try to make sure that some of your answers to these short questions reinforce that theme.

Brief Extracurricular Elaboration:

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