A guide to one of the trickiest college supplemental essays, with a full-length example
If your child is applying to Stanford, you’ve probably heard about Stanford’s well-known roommate essay, one of three supplemental essays required to apply. The roommate essay is notorious for its unusual premise—write a letter to your future roommate—that many applicants find difficult to tackle.
One reason the roommate essay inspires uncertainty amidst Stanford hopefuls is that it’s completely unlike the majority of essays that college applicants are usually asked to write, including the Common App Essay. Instead of discussing the typical meaningful challenge or extracurricular activity, the roommate essay provides space for applicants to talk about more daily or “normal” aspects of their lives.
That’s precisely why we think it’s a uniquely valuable opportunity for your child to reveal something about their personality and interests that goes beyond the usual resume-building fare.
In this article, we’ll go over what qualities make a Stanford roommate essay stand out as well as cover what your child will want to avoid. We’ll also show you a successful essay from one of our own students, break down exactly why it works, and help you understand what lessons your child can take away from this example.
What is Stanford looking for in the roommate essay?
With an acceptance rate under 5 percent, it’s safe to say that Stanford has their pick of incredibly qualified applicants. By including the roommate essay prompt, Stanford is looking to see what qualities besides excellent academics and extracurriculars your child will bring to campus: in other words, how they will contribute and fit into student life. In framing the essay as a note between roommates, Stanford is asking who your child is at the end of the day when they’re unwinding by themselves or hanging out with friends.
Because it’s ostensibly directed towards a peer, it’s more than fine to use a casual, fun tone in writing this essay. This is a great space to inject offbeat elements or humor—but only if they’re part of your child’s personality. We don’t recommend forcing quirkiness; more than anything, your child should sound like themselves. Stanford even states on their website, “We want to hear your individual voice in your writing. Write essays that reflect who you are and write in a natural style.”
We also want to caution your child against writing only about what kind of roommate they would be. While it might seem easy to spend 250 words describing their sleep schedule or organizational habits, we guarantee that this kind of essay is a sign that they’ve taken the prompt too literally.
Remember that Stanford is signaling something about itself, as an institution, even as it asks your child to do the same. It’s saying: community matters here, and people matter. Social skills matter. Who are you, and why should we let you not only into the school, but also into the club?
Similarly, writing about how your child can’t wait to share typical Stanford experiences like lazing about beneath the California sunshine with their roommate doesn’t reveal much about your child other than…well, that they want to go to Stanford or get away from their Midwestern winter. As such, we recommend staying away from platitudes like “I can’t wait to sit together at football games” or “I look forward to studying for finals together.”
Instead, to write a standout roommate essay, we recommend that your child focus on personal, intimate details about themselves. Think: what would your child’s close friends and family members know about them that other people wouldn’t?
For example, maybe your child is a total coffee nerd and brews their own pour-over every morning. Maybe they sneak out of their room at night, after you’ve gone to sleep, to tinker with a homemade electronic skateboard in the garage. (Maybe you don’t even know this until they write it down!) Or maybe your child can’t go to bed without laying out their clothes for the next day—and perhaps they have a uniform of sorts that they’re known for among their friends. These are the kind of details that are less likely to make it into the usual personal statement but are nonetheless revealing glimpses into your child’s personality.
Here are some questions to help your child brainstorm what those details might look like:
What about you would surprise other people? This could take the form of an interest, a habit, or a goal.
What’s in your room that no one knows about? (And is it something appropriate to share on a college application?!)
What daily routines do you have? Is there something you can’t go without in the morning or evening?
What do you like to do for fun or to relax (other than extracurricular activities)?
Do you have a secret or unique way of talking to your friends?
What are your favorite inside jokes?
Where do you and your friends go to blow off steam?
What are you most excited about sharing with a new friend or roommate?
How do you know when you’ve really clicked with someone? What’s the sign that you two are now true friends?
Once your child has brainstormed a handful of compelling personal details, they should then spend some time writing out the motivations or reasons behind these habits. In other words, your child’s roommate essay should not only give Stanford a sense of what they’re like in their day-to-day life but should also provide a larger framework or context that explains what those details say about them.
Oh, and parents should always give their children distance when letting them compose their college essays, but particularly here. This is a colloquial, social topic. A parent breathing down a teenager’s neck is going to result in a stiff, awkward, and terribly uncool essay. Make sure your child feels equipped to get feedback by encouraging them to have older friends, a counselor, admissions advisor, or favorite teacher read the essay. But this might be one where you need to step away in order to let their personality shine.
Stanford Roommate Essay Example
Now we’ll take a look at a real-life example of a successful roommate essay to give you an idea of how these concepts can be applied.
First, here’s the actual essay prompt from Stanford:
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. (100–250 words)
Here’s what our student, Angelica, wrote:
Dear Future Roommate,
Most people, when first meeting me, describe me as “quiet.” I’m glad I have this chance to tell you that this isn’t really the case. Don’t get me wrong: I know how to relax by myself with a good book and a cup of tea and—don’t worry—I always wear headphones when I study. My family and close friends will tell you, though, that once you get to know me, I have plenty to say.
As an aspiring psychology and philosophy double major, long analytical conversations are truly my jam. People fascinate me, so I love to talk with my friends about what everything from our favorite cereals to our phobias say about us (by the way, that would be Rice Krispies and spiders—any interpretations?). If you don’t feel like sharing, though, it’s cool. I make sure to journal every night before bed and write down my dreams when I wake up.
You could say I’m a sucker for human expression. If you ever want to go to a museum or take a poetry class together, I would be delighted. I’m looking to try new things in college though, so if you’d rather bond by going rock climbing or to a comedy night (or whatever you’re into), I’m game.
I look forward to learning about what makes you you.
What works about Angelica’s essay? Let’s break it down:
Paragraph 1: Angelica’s essay begins by immediately laying down a hook: strangers think she’s quiet, but it isn’t really the case. Not only does this grab the reader’s attention and entice them to keep reading, it also sets up the rest of the essay by creating a framework for Angelica to explain how she’s not what she seems. Notice how she also manages to sneak in a few specific details of things she enjoys.
Paragraph 2: Now we really start to get a sense of who Angelica is. Though she does choose to write about how she enjoys something fairly common—long conversations with friends—she makes it unique to her by grounding the activity in her interests in psychology and philosophy. By also writing about her daily habits of journaling and recording her dreams, we totally get a picture of her as someone who naturally loves analysis and interpretation, even outside the scope of academic work.
Note: though we’ve explained why the roommate essay is a valuable space to discuss interests other than academic or extracurricular ones, if your child can manage to tie such interests or activities to their personality in a way that seems completely natural, as Angelica did, it’s totally fine. In fact, it’s proof that their intellectual passions are organically related to their personal and private lives.
Paragraph 3: In this paragraph, Angelica does a great job of moving seamlessly through a sequence of ideas. First, she expands even further upon why she loves long analytical conversations: she is interested in human expression. Not only does this first sentence help explain the previous paragraph, it also sets up space for her to discuss other subjects and activities she enjoys like art and creative writing. In turn, by framing these interests as possible activities to do with her future roommate, Angelica is able to then naturally write about how she hopes college will be a place to try new things.
Paragraph 4: Though this might seem like a rather standard one-line closer, because Angelica has already demonstrated that she’s keenly interested in learning about other people, this sentence actually seems completely sincere and in line with what she’s already shown us about herself.
Why it works
Angelica’s essay succeeds because she uses intimate personal details to create a larger story about who she is. She gives the reader a sense of not only what she likes to do but also of why these things matter to her. Through this, we come to understand her personal qualities. In reading Angelica’s essay, we get a sense of her as someone who is initially reserved but ultimately chatty, interested in other people, analytical, creative, and open-minded.
Angelica uses an easy, conversational tone with the occasional dash of light humor. As such, her essay doesn’t read like it’s trying too hard to be something it’s not and instead just sounds totally genuine.
She also takes advantage of the prompt to show humility and friendliness. Her parentheticals show a sweet but not put-on awareness that it won’t just be her interests and proclivities that drive the new roommate relationship.
Angelica’s essay also shows us that writing a compelling roommate essay doesn’t have to involve detailing a super obscure or quirky interest or activity (though that’s lovely too). Rather, it demonstrates that something ordinary can be interesting so long as your child is able to show why that topic reveals something important about who they are.
The roommate essay provides a unique opportunity for your child to demonstrate that they will bring more than just a great resume to Stanford. Though many applicants initially find the roommate essay challenging, our students often report that, once they’ve finished writing it, it’s among their favorite college essays. With lots of brainstorming, self-reflection, and attention to detail, your child is also sure to find something distinctive to say.