Expert guidance for all your college essays

Prompt’s Essay Specialists share tips to help you write better essays in less time

Get fresh essay tips in your inbox

All Posts

How to Write Outstanding Stanford Essays 2019-2020

Stanford gives you the rare opportunity to show off the full spectrum of your identity and personality. Don’t be daunted by the sheer number of supplements required. This guide will show you how to write Stanford essays that stand out from the crowd.

(Update: Stanford's prompts have changed slightly this year — there are actually fewer required essays. Check out our updated advice for 2020-2021.)

Before you sit down to write, take 10 minutes to reflect on what you want the reader to know about you. Take out a sheet of paper and write your name in a big bubble in the center. Next, draw some slightly smaller, connecting bubbles for various aspects of your identity, such as your culture, your family, your professional goals, your extra-curricular activities, and your niche interests. From there, you can elaborate on each aspect of your identity, adding additional bubbles for formative experiences or memories.

When you’re done, your bubble map may look something like this:

Doc Apr 11, 2019, 12_30-1


As you begin writing the shorter Stanford essays, you’ll want to ensure that each of your responses touches on a different aspect of your identity. You can use your bubble map to make sure that the reader gains a kaleidoscopic understanding of who you are.


Umbrella #1: How You Spend Your Time

Each of the prompts under this umbrella invites you to share how you spend your free time (real or hypothetical).

  • When the choice is yours, what do you read, listen to, or watch? (50 words)
  • Imagine you had an extra hour in the day — how would you spend that time? (50 words)
  • How did you spend your last two summers? (50 words)
  • 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. (100 to 250 words)
  • What five words best describe you? (10 word limit)
  • Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford. (50 word limit)
  • Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 words)

Questions to Consider: How does your choice of entertainment reflect your personality or passions? How could you use an extra hour to further a niche interest? What memories from your summers do you value most? How have you grown as a person during your time off from school?

Helpful Hints: College is less structured than high school, and you’ll have unprecedented freedom. Your answers to these questions will indicate to the reader how you make use of “down time.” Answer honestly, but make sure you give the reader an implicit understanding of your interests and values!


Umbrella #2: Personal Values

The prompts under this umbrella allow you to show the reader what matters to you.

  • What is the most significant challenge that society faces today? (50 words)
  • What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? (50 words)
  • Tell us about something that is meaningful to you and why. (100 to 250 words)

Questions to Consider: Which world problem breaks your heart or keeps you up at night? Why does this issue matter to you? How might it be solved? Which events in history do you have a personal connection to? When in your life do you feel most connected to a broader community? What cultural works (songs, books, poems, etc.) resonate with you? Why?

Helpful Hints: These prompts pose big questions, but there’s no “right” answer. The reader wants to get a sense of what matters to you and see how you relate to the world. It’s okay to start with a broad societal challenge, but push yourself to get specific in your response. For example, a student who is passionate about the environment could write about the environmental impact of the shipping industry and propose regulation.


Umbrella #3: Personality

These prompts aren’t quite as serious as the other Stanford essays. In your responses, you can show the reader your fun side!

Questions to Consider: How would your friends and family describe you? What strange or goofy habits do you exhibit? What kind of relationship do you want to have with your roommate? What silly traditions or hobbies are you excited to share with them?

Helpful Hints: Feel free to bring a sense of humor to your Stanford roommate essay! You can write in a more conversational tone and use a free-flowing structure.


Grab Bag Prompts

The remaining Stanford essay prompts don’t fit neatly under an umbrella, but they’ll help you round out your application.


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

Questions to Consider: Is there a specific academic class you’re excited to take? Did you learn about any campus traditions that really speak to you? How does your interest in this future experience reflect your personality, values, or goals?

Helpful Hints: Be mindful of how your response fits within the rest of your application. For example, if you’ve talked about an academic passion elsewhere, you might use this essay to focus on something more lighthearted. If you do focus on a well-known campus tradition, such as fountain hopping, you’ll need to explain why this tradition resonates with your personal values to make sure your response stands out.


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

Questions to Consider: What activities or work experiences have taught you the most valuable lessons? How did this activity change you or contribute to your personal growth?

Helpful Hints: You don’t need to pick the most impressive activity on your résumé; instead, write about the activity that is most personally meaningful to you.


  • 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. (100 to 250 words)

Questions to Consider: Can you think of a time when you followed your curiosity and learned something on your own? What is your academic passion? How have you pursued this passion outside the classroom? What did you find fulfilling about this experience?

Helpful Hints: You have a lot of space for this essay, so craft a response that tells your story and invites the reader to share your excitement!


After writing these Stanford supplemental essays, you’ll have a strong application that gives the reader a holistic sense of your personality, values, and ambitions. On your mark, get set… go!


Click here for our guide to writing the Common App Essay

Prompt’s Essay Specialists reviewed 13,000 admissions essays in 2018, helping thousands of students submit their applications with confidence.

Get Your Essay Reviewed

Related Posts

How to Write All of the University of Michigan Essays for 2020-21

To get your education in Ann Arbor, you'll need to tackle two supplemental University of Michigan essays....
Lauren Oct 13, 2020 2:22:17 PM

How to Write a Super UIUC Essay for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for 2020-21

  The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has it all. Not only is UIUC a Big Ten school, but it also ...
Bex Oct 13, 2020 1:57:50 PM

How to Write the Penn State Schreyer Honor College Essays 2020-21: Show Off Your Critical Thinking Skills

The Penn State Schreyer Honors College essays gives you the chance to share not just your unique worldvie...
Lauren Oct 13, 2020 12:47:45 PM