How to Write the Stanford Short Answer Questions Supplement 2019-2020

Stanford is thought of as one of the best schools in the world. It’s so good that they decided that publishing their astonishingly low acceptance rate isn’t even worth it. The last acceptance rate that we have was for the Class of 2022, and it was a measly 4.7%. We feel confident in saying that it hasn’t gone up since. Are we saying this to try to discourage you from applying? No. But we do want you to be fully aware that you are vying to be one of four-in-a-hundred. 

In order to make applying to Stanford make sense, you have to have two things:  

  1. You have to want to go to Stanford for reasons that go far beyond it being highly ranked, and you should know those reasons in-and-out because you obsess over them.

  2. You need to have the numbers. If your test scores and grades are not out of this world, this isn’t worth it.

Every year, we have students who what to take a swing at Stanford because, they say, “why not?” If Stanford had a short and easy supplement, we might agree — but it’s not. Their behemoth of a supplement is so long that we break it into two blog posts. This means that it takes a lot of time and energy — time and energy that you could be putting into schools that are a better fit. If you are not going to get into Stanford, wasting your time applying could actually hurt your chances of getting into the school that is perfect for you. 

Stanford is using the same questions as last year, but that doesn’t mean we are copy-and-pasting our advice. A new year means some new thoughts on how to ace this supplement.  

While you are deciding whether to apply, map out the key points that you want to hit on every application. With 11 questions in total, there is no excuse for repeats, so it’s essential to go in with a list and a plan. Then, start with the activities question. This question is tucked away under the Activities tab of their college-specific section. It’s easy to miss until the last minute, so make sure that you do it first.  

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

The most critical part of this question is that it doesn’t end after “activities.” Whereas most schools specify that they want to hear about a stereotypical extracurricular, Stanford offers students to share their other responsibilities with the team in admissions. By doing this, they are saying that they are equally weighted in their esteem and, we’d venture, answers to the second two are actually what they are most interested in. This is an amazing opportunity, so don’t take the easy route by writing about a club. Focus on a job you’ve had (something we encourage all of our students to get!) or a family responsibility. Whatever you choose, be sure to share a piece of your real life with the reader.  

Short Questions

When you go into the official supplement for Stanford, the first section is comprised of short questions. Each answer is limited to 50 words. A 50 word limit is very short and can be hard to work with if you’re not used to trimming yourself down. But that’s why we are here to help! 

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

One of the themes you are going to notice in our “how to write x supplement” posts (if you haven’t already) is that we want you to get specific. This is even more important when you’re working in a tight space. For this question, you should decide on a major issue first. The first things that pop into our minds are climate change, the global refugee crisis, superbugs, and sustainable food supply. Most people will stop there and start writing, but not you! After you’ve picked your big issue, it’s time to go deep and look local. You’re probably interested in the big issue because it impacts your local community in some way. If you live in Brooklyn, you may be drawn to focusing on medical problems thanks to the recent measles outbreaks. If so, use the resurgence of measles in your area as a way to illustrate the local-ness of the global challenge. If you can’t specify how the challenge you chose impacts your community, pick a different one.

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

This is not a trick question. All you have to do is to answer it simply, succinctly, and you better talk about both summers. Last year, a student sent us her Stanford supplement after finding this website (PLEASE DO NOT DO THIS) and asked for feedback on her answers. When it came to this question, she said she only wrote about the most recent summer because there wasn’t enough space. This is, to put it shortly, not cool. They want to know about two summers in 50 words. Yes, it isn’t easy, but use the space they give you, be succinct, and make it happen. 

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

We love and hate this question. It’s fun, but it’s also a bit of a trap. There are too many over-used events (don’t say the March on Washington), and it’s too easy to pick something you may be interested in, but that doesn’t tell the reader anything about who you are. So what’s the key? Stop trying so hard. Think about events that you loved learning about in school or that are important to your family, nix any that are morbid, and focus in on one that you truly connect with. The question doesn’t ask for you to clarify why, but why you are picking this particular event should be clear in how you answer it. 

What five words best describe you?

Keep. This. Simple. Text three or four of your friends. Ask them for five words each. Pick the ones that you like the best, and make sure that they are varied. Don’t use both nice and kind, or both smart and clever. Be honest, be playful, and let your friends help you out. 

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

You should be honest in every single piece of your college applications, but these are the types of questions that seem designed to prompt fibbing. At the same time, you should curate the things you do read, listen to, and watch into a cohesive list that makes sense. The best way to do this is to either have all three things fall into the same subject area or have each of them be very different. For example, don’t write that you read business books, watch Shark Tank, but listen to the Lion King soundtrack. Either go all in or make it as diverse as you can. 

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

Before you say “smart people,” pause. Smart people exist literally everywhere. What you put here needs to be something that exists at Stanford and nowhere else. It should also be at least academically adjacent if not specifically related to your areas of academic interest. Remember, you’re applying to college, not summer camp. If you can’t think of a specific, academically-focused reason why Stanford is for you, it’s not for you.  

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

Before diving into how to answer this question, we want to rule out a few common answers. Do not say that you would sleep an extra hour. In fact, don’t mention your bedroom in any way. Also, do not say that you would spend the spare time on schoolwork or volunteering. Even if you enjoy both, that isn’t very exciting, and it actually doesn’t tell the reader much more about you than that you are trying to impress them. Instead, focus on a passion. Do you love to cook? Are you trying to learn a new skateboard trick? Do you wish you could spend more time just sitting in the grass with your dog watching the clouds go by? Instead of trying to be clever or even funny, let yourself be earnest. Earnest, honest, and simple will always win out when it comes to this question. 

Now you’re through the short answer questions! For help with the short essay questions (we know, more?!?) check out our other post on the Stanford supplement.

At TKG, we work with students and families to create realistic school lists and help kids through every step of the process. Contact us here if you want to work with someone directly.