How to Write the First Stanford Short Essay 2020-2021 – "Reflect on an idea or experience that makes you genuinely excited about learning."
"Welcome to paradise!" the Stanford band blasted across the quad my first night of freshman orientation.
They were right: Stanford is a paradise. But the Stanford application... can feel like hell.
Of all the schools you apply to, Stanford probably requires the most writing -- and a lot of the questions just seem weird.
Today, I'm going to walk you through the purpose of the first short essay. I will tell you why they ask it and give you some examples of how to approach it.
The full prompt is:
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)
Fun fact: for many years, a very similar prompt appeared on the application -- though the old prompt asked specifically about your "intellectual vitality."
They ended up changing the phrasing because it was too confusing.
But this is still the "intellectual vitality" essay.
What is intellectual vitality?
Stanford wants students who are curious and passionate. They want students who will ask questions no one has ever asked before and propose hypotheses no one else would ever think of. There are students who work hard and get good grades. There is a place for them -- but it's not Stanford.
Stanford is a place where you will have access to endless resources that will help you discover knowledge and find truth. If all you want to do is study and get good grades, you don't need Stanford. You just need a computer with an internet connection.
To show that you care more about grades, you need to show your thought process. You need to show that you're doing what you're doing for a reason. (Don't say, "I've been doing robotics since 4th grade." SHOW/TELL ME WHY you've been doing robotics since 4th grade.)
Moreover, you need to show that you have gone above and beyond what was expected of you in the classroom -- that you do not limit yourself to acing the test or completing the school assignment. (Don't say, "I was getting a B in Spanish, but I went to my teacher to get extra credit work so I could bring my grade up to an A." That shows all you care about is your grade, and all you're willing to do is what it takes to get an A.)
Finally, you need to show that you are resourceful, mature, and self-directed. At Stanford, you will be surrounded by so many opportunities that it's almost like... Have you ever been to a jungle? In the jungle, there is so much life, all around you, that you can be six feet from a leopard and not even know it.
Stanford is the same way.
That's why the admissions team wants proof that you have played an active role in and taken responsibility for your own learning.
Because, sure, you will have an advisor at Stanford. Several, actually. You'll have an undergraduate advisor, an overseas studies advisor, a major advisor, peer mentors, project advisors, and athletic-academic advisors, to name a few.
But at the end of the day, the only thing limiting what you will get out of Stanford... is you.
So, going back to the jungle analogy.
Stanford doesn't want the student who went on a cool jungle hike because his parents paid for someone to take him on a cool jungle hike.
Stanford wants the student who fell in love with the jungle, then researched and networked until she found a great opportunity in the jungle.
Stanford wants the student who -- sure, maybe her parents paid for her to go on the hike. But she took the initiative to order fauna guides and download plant identification apps and learn to identify different species' calls, so when she arrived in the jungle, she already knew what beetles lived on what ferns. She already knew at which level of vegetation to point the binoculars only she thought to bring on the hike when she heard the call of a rare bird she could already identify by sound.
Stanford wants the student who went on the same hike as 100 other applicants, but was the only one to see the leopard.
And that is what you need to show with this essay.
However, curiosity, passion, and maturity are not enough.
For this essay to really make an impact, you need to demonstrate, too, that you are remarkable.
You need to show a high level of accomplishment and commitment. (Another reason "I brought my grade up to an A"-type essays won't work. They don't want to see that you applied yourself for two or four weeks. Anyone could do that -- and anyone could catch up to you in two to four weeks, so what do you even bring to the table that someone else couldn't?)
Whatever it is you're writing about -- research, volunteer work, a job, a hobby, and internship -- you need to show serious dedication. Don't ever tell them something changed you forever. Prove it by showing them exactly how.
With this in mind, you can start to narrow down the list of ideas you've brainstormed for this essay. (If it were me, I would try to come up with at least great three ideas before I started writing.)
You've already filled out your activities and short answers section, so the reader knows what extracurriculars you do -- and possibly what awards you've won and what your role is in your various groups/teams/communities.
Don't reiterate that here.
Instead, focus on why you do what you do; how it has changed you; what about it you found the most meaningful. Prove that you are the student who saw the leopard.
Your first draft should be way over the word limit. This will allow you to consider which ideas and examples are the most important and tell your best story.
It's better to start with too many ideas and narrow it down to the best ones... than to submit a boring essay.
Let's say I want to write about my teen travel trip to Italy. (Don't listen to people who say to avoid certain essay topics. There are no bad essay topics -- there are only bad essays.) My intended college major is Economics and one of my favorite classes was AP Econ.
Here's my first draft:
It all started--as many great quests do--with pizza.
Obviously this draft is over the word limit -- which is perfect. That gives me a chance to think about which ideas are the most important and say the most about me. One way to start cutting words, as I mentioned, is to think about what awards and activities you will already have mentioned in your application and resume. Another is to look at the Short Questions. Is there something in this essay that you could say in one of those? For example:
When the choice is yours, what do you read, listen to, or watch? (50 word limit)
This could be a good place to mention some of the readings I've done outside of AP Econ.
Or, for another example, the detail about how my honor was reserved for only two California applicants? Maybe I can delete that, because I'll include that in my Awards/Activities section, so they'll already know what a huge deal that is.
If you're a senior, use this post as a guide to writing your essay -- and obviously check out my services and pricing and then contact me if you're interested in working together on your application.
If you're a junior or younger, use this guide to plan out how you want to spend your next year or two. What do you want to be able to say in your intellectual vitality essay, and what can you do now to get there? You might also want to check out CRUCIAL Advice for Students Whose Summer Plans Were Disrupted by COVID-19 and How High School Juniors Can Begin Preparing for College Applications in the Spring.
Eva Glasrud completed her B.A. and M.A. at Stanford. She is now a college counselor and life coach for gifted youth.