How to Get Into Stanford Undergrad: Essays and Strategies That Worked

Learn how hard it is to get into Stanford, admissions requirements, and read successful essay examples

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Introduction

Perhaps you’ve begun the endless research and campus tours that comprise so many parents’ lives as their high schoolers apply to college. If you’re the parent of a high-achieving teen, you’re likely visiting Ivy League universities. 

Have you also planned a trip to perhaps the most famous of the “Ivy Plus” schools, Stanford University, in the Bay Area, California?

While their highly ranked Ivy League colleagues like Harvard and Yale boast of being the oldest or among the oldest universities in the country, Stanford lays claim to being forward-looking and cutting-edge. 

Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, a stone’s throw from the corporate headquarters of Apple, Google, and Facebook, Stanford students enjoy a cozy relationship with the booming tech world, often earning top internships at such companies and even going on to found their own, drawing on Stanford’s extensive network of technologists and venture capitalists. It’s been called “the billionaire factory.”

But Stanford isn’t just an auxiliary for the Valley. Stanford undergrads might also research in a world-famous medical center’s laboratories, or attend readings with Pulitzer Prize winning novelists. 

Your child might find her calling in the Asian American Studies or the Chicano/Latino Studies programs, where she can engage with California’s rich history of migration. She might combine an interest in technology and the canon by pursuing a minor in Digital Humanities.

Or, your child might be taken with the prestigious programs in Economics or International Relations, perhaps in Stanford’s unique interdisciplinary International Security Studies or Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law paths, while sharing a campus with Condoleezza Rice. 

The point is this: Stanford’s reputation for innovation may come from its connection to the tech world, but a creative approach to intellectual pursuits can be seen across disciplines.

If your child finds themselves walking beneath the rolling red Mediterranean-style roofs of Stanford, they’ll have much to look forward to, from a bustling residential life in the dorms and co-ops to evenings spent cheering on the nationally competitive basketball team to many days studying beneath palm trees.

Stanford University ranking

Stanford is always near the top of all major university rankings, breathing down Harvard’s neck.

  • Forbes: 2

  • Niche: 2

  • US News and World Report: 6

  • Wall Street Journal: 7

Where is Stanford?

Stanford is technically located in Stanford, CA, but most people call its home Palo Alto. Just north of Mountain View (home to Google) and Cupertino (home to Apple), Palo Alto is clean, safe, and home to many posh restaurants, yoga studios, and boutiques.

Setting

Suburban. Palo Alto’s population is ~60,000 people, but because towns bleed into one another in the Bay Area, that 60,000 can feel quite big. Palo Alto fills up during the day with workers commuting to tech companies.

Much of Palo Alto’s University Avenue offerings are expensive and beyond the standard student budget, but Palo Alto connects via Caltrain to San Francisco, where students might grab a cheap, delicious burrito or check out museums and theater. With some effort on public transit or with a car, students can also make their way to San Jose, or to Berkeley or Oakland, for more exploration.

Undergrad population

7,056

Grad and professional school population

9,368

Stanford acceptance rate

4.8% overall 

Stanford has stopped reporting its early acceptance rates and will stop reporting all acceptance rates in three years, in an effort to keep from discouraging potential applicants.

(Suggested reading: Ivy League acceptance rates)

Cost of attendance per year (i.e., tuition, room, board, and fees)

$74,570

Average financial aid award

$50,313 

Who gets into Stanford?

  • 96% of Stanford students ranked in the top 10% of their high school class. 100% ranked in the top 20%.

  • Average GPA: Stanford doesn’t publish its students’ average high school GPA and emphasizes its holistic admissions process. 

  • Test scores: Stanford publishes ACT and SAT ranges

    • Stanford ACT ranges

      • 25th percentile: 32

      • 75th percentile: 35

    • Stanford SAT Evidence Based Reading and Writing ranges

      • 25th percentile: 700

      • 7th percentile: 770

    • Stanford SAT Math ranges

      • 25th percentile: 720

      • 75th percentile: 800

  • International students: 11.4%

  • Public school: 61%

  • Stanford is 30% white, 20% Asian, 17% Latinx, and 6% African American

  • First generation college students: 17.5%

Stanford admissions requirements

Stanford doesn’t expect its freshmen to have completed a set amount of coursework before matriculating, but most successful applicants have four years of English and math, and three or more years of science/lab science, social studies/history, and a foreign language. 

Like many of its peer schools, Stanford’s is a holistic admissions process. Committees will not simply count up your child’s AP or IB courses, or the hours spent in extracurricular activities

Rather, Stanford hopes to see your child regularly challenge themselves academically, taking advantage of the intellectual resources available to them at their school — which might mean taking eight APs, or two and a community college class.

In addition to all that, here’s what else your child will need in order to apply. Stanford accepts the Common Application and the Coalition application.

  • Common App Essay

  • ACT or SAT test scores. (Writing is optional.) Stanford will review the highest test scores in each section.

  • Optional: SAT subject tests

  • Optional: IB, AP, or AICE test results

  • 2 teacher evaluations

  • 1 counselor letter of recommendation (from the school college or guidance counselor)

  • School transcripts and midyear transcript

  • Optional arts portfolio for highly accomplished students in art practice, dance, music, or theater and performance (note that arts applicants have a separate deadline to meet)

Applying to Stanford early action vs. regular decision

Students can apply to Stanford via restrictive early action, submitting all material by November 1st. 

Your child can also apply to Stanford regular decision. The Stanford regular decision deadline is January 2.

Should my child apply to Stanford early?

If Stanford is your child’s top choice or close to their top choice and they don’t need or want to apply to another university through restrictive early action or binding early decision, then applying early to Stanford might be a good choice. 

Remember that though we don’t have access to Stanford’s comparative early/regular decision data, most schools that practice restrictive early action tend to have higher acceptance rates during the early round than in the late round. 

This is not because those schools are practicing preferential admissions for early applicants, but rather because those applicants applying early tend to be highly qualified and well-prepared, hence their ability to apply before November 1st.

Recommended reading: Early Action vs. Early Decision: Pros and Cons and What Your Child Should Do

Stanford supplemental essay prompts 2019-2020, and how to answer them (examples included)

(Note: While this section covers Stanford’s admissions essays specifically, we encourage you to view additional successful college essay examples.)

In addition to the Common App essay, Stanford applicants will answer a series of short answer questions as well as write several supplemental essays

The short answer questions on the 2019-2020 Common App are:

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

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

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

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

  5. What five words best describe you? 

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

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

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

All of these short answer prompts are a chance for your child to show off some aspect of themselves that might have otherwise been stifled by the rest of the application process. 

That really is how they should think of it: what about me—not about my resume or my transcript, but about me—have I not had the chance to display yet?

Here are a few examples of mini-essays that work well for these prompts, which are not unlike Yale’s short answers. They’re pulled from the following students, who are composites of the many applicants we’ve worked with over 15+ years in the admissions advising world.

  • Jane grew up in semi-rural Oregon and will be the second person in her family to attend college, after her sister. She’s interested in medicine.

  • Olga identifies has Eastern European parents who settled in Paris and raised her trilingual before sending her to an East Coast boarding school. At Stanford, she’d love to pursue one of the international relations programs.

  • Marcus’s father is a pastor in Baltimore. He’s considered ministry himself, but is also drawn to technology and architecture.

  • Deepak was born and raised in Cupertino, California. He’s worked on his school paper and been a star on the speech and debate team. He has no idea what he’d like to major in.

Here’s how some of these students tackled the short answers.

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

Marcus wrote:

My father’s church doesn’t have pews or a pulpit. That’s how he puts it, anyway. He doesn’t need them. Sure, he preaches in a brick-and-mortar building—a church the way you’re probably picturing it—on Sundays. But the rest of the week, he carries the church around with him, and for a lot of my childhood, I came, too. When a congregant needed my father’s counsel or time, he’d often bring me along. If it was a private meeting, I’d sit with a book or my homework, looking around at our community member’s living room or backyard. My life is still marked by the marriages and passings and births and growths of our congregation.

Deepak wrote:

My high school debate team is like a laboratory for ideas. In our squad room, you can dissect a policy paper the way you’d dissect a frog in formaldehyde, or you can test the chemical bonds between two components of the argument. If you fiddle with the argument, does the chemistry of your point change? When I tell my parents I’m not going to be home from school until five p.m. because I’m “at debate practice,” I don’t tell them this. But maybe I should. There’s so much more magic to this activity than the descriptor allows.

Marcus answered the question from the “family responsibilities” side while Deepak tackled it from the “extracurricular activities side.” Here’s what they each did well: 

  • Marcus’s answer is a lovely way to offer the admissions committee more insight into his family life and some of the seemingly immaterial components of what that family life entails.

    In this case, Marcus has already given some background on his father’s profession because he wrote his essay about his own doubts about God’s existence. 

  • Deepak, on the other hand, took this as an opportunity to write about an activity he thinks the Stanford admissions committee might presume they understand. Of course, he doesn’t say: “You might think you know what debate is.” Instead, he uses his parents as the stand-in for other people who think they know what it means.

  • Both Marcus and Deepak do a wonderful job of offering specific images—young Marcus sitting in a congregant’s home, waiting while his father gives counsel; a frog in formaldehyde. An image does a lot in a small space.

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

Olga wrote:

We are at risk of eliminating heterodoxical discourse. As our attention spans get shorter and our appetite for information greater, we have less tolerance for substantive public discussion. I think about this every month as I lay out our newspaper’s opinion page. ‘Are we missing something here?’ I ask myself.

  • Olga gives her “challenge” a name. (Hers is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s tempered by the clear language surrounding it.) By naming the issue—the elimination of heterodoxical discourse—she signals to the Stanford admissions committee that she has read and thought enough about the issue to encapsulate it.

  • Olga also brings the “challenge” back to her personal story. The newspaper is a minor extracurricular for her. But by swinging back to the room where she sits once a month thinking about public opinion, she assures us that there’s a reason she thinks about this issue.

    Olga’s approach is better than simply writing, “The climate is changing” or “Nuclear weapons are bad”—both of which might in fact be larger issues than Olga’s choice but which she has less personal, direct experience with.

    Remember: this prompt is not an invitation to write a policy paper in 50 words. It’s a chance for your child to talk about something that feels urgent to them, intellectually, spiritually, politically, etc. 

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

Jane wrote:

What if the world were made of blueberries? How far away are stars? How much force does a slug exert on a scrunchie? I answered these burning questions at Oregon State with other female scientists (aka The Hidden Figures), the only people who ask as many questions as I do.

Olga wrote:

I have spent the last two summers at several programs oriented around global issues, including a Model UN camp, an International Relations Conference at Yale, and a course in International Law at Stanford. I have also returned home to Paris to spend time with family.

Jane and Olga took differing approaches to the question. Jane used it as an opportunity to write a mini essay on why she loves her OSU science camp so much, while Olga wanted to make sure she communicated a diversity and breadth of activities. 

Either approach is fine!

  • If your child is doing it Jane’s way, they should commit, and choose one activity that truly feels like it’s defined those past two summers. It doesn’t mean it’s the only thing they did, but it’s a chance for them to surface it.

    Again, you can think of it the way Deepak thought of debate in the first answer, as something the admissions committees might think they understand, but which can be colored in a lot more.

  • If your child is doing it Olga’s way, they shouldn’t simply list out the activities they did. Note that Olga maintained control over her list of activities by clearly articulating the throughline that held them all together: she pursued programs that had to do with her interests in global affairs.

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

Deepak wrote:

I wish I could have been in the room on August 6, 1991, the day the World Wide Web first quietly flickered to life. Our entire reality as we know it was born that day, and only a few people alive then grasped the magnitude of the possible change.

  • Deepak doesn’t just say he wishes he’d seen the beginning of the Internet. He imagines a specific event: the moment of the Web “flicker[ing] to life.” He puts us in a scene and in a story.

  • Note that Deepak has never expressed an interest in technology or becoming a computer programmer in his application. He doesn’t need to tie this question to his future plans, though doing so if he did become a technologist later would be wise. 

  1. What five words best describe you? 

Jane wrote: Driven, humble, resilient, compassionate, tall (I’m 5’ 10”!)

Olga wrote: Inquisitive, enthusiastic, passionate, global, witty

  • There’s no secret or trick to this question! A bit of a joke or a pop of color, like Jane’s mention of her height, is just fine. Encourage your child not to list five synonymous words (e.g. smart, bright, intelligent, quick-witted, academic), or overtly brag (the prior list is a no-no). If they need help, encourage them to ask their friends and teachers what words best describe them. 

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

Marcus wrote: 

The high school English curriculum isn’t always inclusive. I’ve had to go out on my own to read some of my favorite novels: Go Tell it On the Mountain by James Baldwin, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, and There, There by Tommy Orange. 

Jane wrote:

Listening: Radiolab, Invisibilia, and TED Talks!

Watching: every Netflix rom-com, whether it’s “good” or not, with the occasional documentary thrown in. I cried during Blackfish.

Reading: news outlets like the New York Times. I also love to flip through National Geographic at my school library.

  • As in short answer #3, you can see two approaches to the question here. Jane had a number of things she wanted to cover, so she cherry picked across the options given to her for listening, watching, reading, etc.

    Marcus had a specific matter on his mind—a literary curriculum that bored him, and which required him to go outside of it in order to read more fully. 

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

Olga wrote:

During my Stanford summer, I often imagined myself walking through the palm trees to class—a far cry from my snowy school. But what I most look forward to is the people I’ll make those walks with—brilliant compatriots with ambitious visions for the world, and how to change it.

  • Olga’s done an incredibly neat job of handling the famously tricky “why us” question. Instead of simply listing out a class or two she wants to take—which would occupy a significant chunk of the 50 permitted words—she gets at the very spirit of the question.

    She tells Stanford she knows there are endless qualities to admire about the institution—it’s Stanford, after all. By treating Stanford’s excellence as a given, she’s able to cut to the community the institution makes possible.

  • It is fine for your child to list out courses or majors they’re particularly drawn to or mention faculty whom they’d love to work with. But that takes up precious word real estate, and must be coupled with something warm and thoughtful, like Olga’s response.

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

Olga writes:

I would learn Arabic. I love language learning, having grown up around English, Hungarian, and French. I’ve since studied Chinese and hope to be fluent in the next decade. But I haven’t turned to Arabic, and I’m aching to. Everything from the mellifluous script to its ancient roots compels me.

Deepak writes:

I would sit in silence more, alone and with others. While visiting family in India, I’ve noticed how my brown relatives just sit around without saying much. When I got back to the U.S., I actually found myself conversationally overstimulated, and wish for more boredom sometimes.

  • Olga’s approach is probably exactly what most Stanford applicants think they’re supposed to do in response to this prompt: talk about more learning. And Olga pulls off her answer well.

    By connecting her desire to learn Arabic to the languages she already speaks, she’s simply drawing a fuller picture of herself, augmenting what the admissions committee has already gathered by now.

  • Deepak’s answer, though, offers another way to think about prompts like this. Your child doesn’t need to prove that they have a millionth item on their to do list. It’s fine for them to talk about sleeping more, or learning to cook, or hanging out with friends—as long as they write about it with the same sense of story and personality that Deepak manages.

    He makes his point about boredom by tying it to a specific moment in his personal history and biography. He doesn’t just say “I’d sit around more” or “I wish I could learn how to meditate.”

    He gives us the image of his family all sitting around without talking much, and then he calls us back to it, even laughing at his own instinct to “miss” being bored.

On top of those short answers, applicants must respond to several supplemental essay prompts. For 2019-2020, the Common App Stanford supplemental essays are as follows:

We ask applicants to write a short essay on each of the following three 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.

  1. 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—get to know you better.

  1. Tell us about something that is meaningful to you, and why?

We’ll walk through how to answer prompt #1 and prompt #3 here. We have a separate guide to answering prompt #2, the infamous Stanford roommate essay.

First, #1: let’s call it the Intellectual Vitality Essay.

Through the years, we’ve seen students write about a number of types of topics in response to this prompt. Here it is again:

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.

  • Coursework: Some students pick their favorite class or a favorite subject area and discuss what they love about it. It’s a great strategy to elaborate on something already visible in your application, as long as you’re not simply saying that you have studied Spanish for five years. More interesting is a discussion of that time you fell in love with Don Quixote, and why. 

  • Extracurriculars: Similarly, many students choose to elaborate on some extracurricular activity or job that means a lot to them. Deepak’s short answer on debate above is a good example of how to make this approach. Your child should never simply summarize what’s already visible or intuited from their application. They must always add a story to what’s already visible, by providing specific examples, images, anecdotes, and takeaways.

  • Autodidactic pursuits: If your child is a tinkerer, a maker, a self-taught coder or linguist or musician or writer, then they can use this chance to talk about something that’s not on their application at all. This is a great way to add a whole new dimension.

  • Personal, emotional, or otherwise internal pursuits: Is your child particularly emotionally intelligent, intuitive, or interested in personal growth? Self-improvement is another way into this topic. We’ve seen students write about learning resilience through grief or persistence through athletics. 

Two more things are worth noting about this prompt. Students can choose between an IDEA and an EXPERIENCE. 

In order to write a foolproof essay, we strongly recommend building around an experience in some form, even if it’s only a slight connection. Remember that your child is not being asked to write a paper about, say, phenomenology, even if that’s the idea that gets them psyched about learning. 

Encourage them to connect that idea to their personal biography for a sentence or a paragraph. When did they first encounter said idea? What caused the spark or the Eureka moment? Was there another person who helped introduce them to that idea? Who are they? 

Experiences contain in them characters, rooms, scenes, images, and above all, specificity. Your child’s essay is very likely to come across as vague rather than insightful and philosophical if it does not contain some link to experience.

Here’s Jane’s essay:

A lot of people mention measles in the same breath as scarlet fever or polio. It’s supposed to be obsolete. But that’s not the case in Oregon, where I’m from, and where some of my own relatives have what they feel is a healthy suspicion of vaccination. 

The summer I first went to an intensive program for female and minority STEM teenagers at Oregon State was also the summer I spent a week with some family members who are extremely skeptical of vaccinations. It was strange to leave OSU and land up at a dinner table where my uncle was decrying not only shots but also climate change and other issues the liberal science geeks I’d just spent four weeks with hold dear. 

At first, I wanted to point out how wrong my family was, but when I started to listen, I realized that they’d read a lot—they just weren’t reading the sources I’d been taught to trust, and they weren’t following scientific methods of inquiry. 

I still don’t know how to reconcile those two worlds, but I know someone has to try. I dream of being a doctor because someone has to learn about not only the science but also the society the science is meant to help, and I plan to do both.

Jane’s essay could sort of fall under the extracurricular pursuit category, and it might also fall under the internal pursuit category. But it’s so strong because it actually transcends all of the above “types.” 

She manages to interweave the personal and the intellectual clearly and compellingly while also displaying an emotional maturity—Jane doesn’t call her family members foolish, but in fact demonstrates her empathy and willingness to take on their point of view.

Here’s what else Jane does well:

  • She doesn’t spend too much time explaining the extracurricular activity to which her story is linked. She knows the Stanford admissions committee will have her resumé on hand, and she knows she doesn’t have to brag about, say, how selective her program was. Instead she gets right to the business of elaboration.

  • Her essay includes characters other than herself (her family members, and specifically her uncle; her classmates at the program). She doesn’t spend much time describing them, which is fine. What’s important is that each small detail helps ground the idea in an experience.

  • Jane makes her way to a clear thesis by the end of the essay, a thesis which also spins her essay forward: she wants to become a doctor in part to address misunderstandings about science. We could call her “idea” something like scientific literacy or public health education. 

Now, #3: let’s call it the Meaning Making Essay.

Here it is again:

Tell us about something that is meaningful to you, and why?

Here are some routes students have taken into this essay:

  • Coursework and extracurriculars: Just as with the Intellectual Vitality essay, your child can certainly discuss something that’s already on their application if they have a deep and passionate personal connection to it.

    A student who’s been playing the cello for fifteen years but who does so by rote or out of habit probably shouldn’t try to churn out an essay on music for the sake of it. But an applicant who desperately loves musical theater might write a lovely essay on the time they played Munkustrap in Cats at their summer theater program.

  • Family and friends: This prompt is ideal for applicants who want to discuss relationships in some form. We suggest focusing on family and friends rather than romantic relationships or breakups. It’s possible to do the latter well, but we tend to advise against it.

  • Moments of personal change or epiphany: While many applicants feel like they’ve used up their big Aha! moment in their Common App personal statement, we’ve found that most teenagers can pinpoint a few moments when something about their worldview changed. This may or may not have anything to do with what’s already on their resumé.

    Encourage your child to go back to their possible Common App topics if they feel stuck on this prompt; they might resurrect something they initially tossed aside.

Here’s what Marcus wrote:

My grandmother looked so small. She’d always been the biggest personality I knew. She had a voice that belted more than spoke and a laugh that resounded like big clanging bells. Even the way she served food or sunk into a chair was big: she was all bangs and sighs and she never, ever held her tongue. If she thought you were wrong, she’d tell you in a minute. Most of all, I loved hearing her sing absent-mindedly while she cooked or drove. 

But she looked so small near the end. I still think about her tired face and her eyes that didn’t seem to see me even though I was standing right next to her in her hospital bed.

My grandmother lived through a lot. She lost her loving husband young and raised my father and his siblings with the help of a wider network of family and friends. She didn’t get to finish school but she was always hungry for knowledge, reading and watching the news, even when it meant looking at ugly or difficult things. I wish I’d gotten more time with her. But she’ll never stop taking up space in my heart.

The death of a grandparent is one of those things many students are told not to write about. Admissions officers do see these kinds of stories frequently, so there’s a high risk of cliché. But Marcus’s choice works well here for a few reasons:

  • He’s specific. We’re not reading about the passing of a grandmother. We’re reading about the passing of Marcus’s grandmother. By offering up particular details about his grandmother’s voice, her habits, and how she looked near the end of her life, Marcus conveys meaning naturally. Of course his grandmother is meaningful to him—the attention he paid her is the proof.

    He also chooses a mini-scene to begin the essay with. Many students have a tendency to start with something like, “My grandmother meant a lot to me. She died four years ago and I miss her every day.” This is not incorrect, and it does technically answer the prompt. But the reader doesn’t feel the intensity of this writer’s connection to the subject matter the way we can feel Marcus’s intensity. 

  • Some students have a tendency to write about something without ascribing it meaning. In this case, Marcus defines his grandmother’s importance to him at the very end of the essay, and he does so gently, by noting that she continues to “take up space in [his] heart.”

    The essay could function without that final line, but it’s stronger with it, because it confirms that Marcus read the prompt and isn’t just recycling an old essay.

Conclusion

Stanford is a reach school for every applicant, regardless of how qualified they are. But if your child can engage fully and passionately with the Stanford application, especially its school-specific supplemental questions, they’ll become a far more compelling applicant, and may indeed find themselves roaming the sunny California campus one day.