Tips for Stanford University applicants: you need a little panache

Today, I'm offering up advice for our 30th and final college of "30 Colleges, 30 Collegewise Guides to Getting In."  And I want to end strong.  I want to go out with some flair.   A little verve, if you will.  So let me ask you this.

Have you ever seen the Stanford band perform? 

If you have, you remember them.  It's hard to forget a band that sometimes performs with their collective pants down.  I wouldn't go as far as to suggest that they are representative of the entire student body at Stanford University, but they are an extreme example of something on which Stanford prides itself–it's a school filled with a lot of really smart people who are anything but boring.  They've got some panache.

Stanford's supplement to the Common Application is evidence of this.  You've got the opportunity to talk about what you find intellectually exciting.  That's for your smart side. But you've also got the chance to be playful and have a little fun.  That's where your personality comes in.  Here are some tips to help you do both.

Profile Questions

Please respond to the following questions so we can get to know you better. Respond in two lines or less, and do not feel compelled to answer using complete sentences.

The more you agonize over what's going to sound good, the more likely you are to write something that sounds like you're trying too hard, something that sounds the same as everybody else.  And that's not going to get you anywhere in an applicant pool like Stanford sees.

Here's an example of an applicant who's trying too hard:

Name your favorite books, authors, films, and/or musical artists.

Brave New World, Tale of Two Cities, Shakespeare, the dictionary, The Godfather

What newspapers, magazines, and/or websites do you enjoy?

The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Newsweek, various literary magazines,

What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?

Ending world hunger

How did you spend your last two summers?

I enrolled in a calculus course at my local community college and volunteered for over 150 hours at my local hospital. 

What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?

The signing of the Declaration of Independence

What five words best describe you?

Diligent, determined, focused, compassionate, trustworthy

I need to be clear here.  There is nothing inherently wrong with these answers.  But he doesn't have one single example of anything from his life that isn't educational and serious.  Do you know anyone who's like that about everything?  These answers have no personality at all.  No panache.  

What if this same applicant loosened up just a little bit and told the truth.  Notice how not all the responses change, but now he just seems more likeable and real.

Name your favorite books, authors, films, and/or musical artists.

Brave New World, Freakonomics, Superbad, Jay-Z, the occasional country music artist, and I've been known to read the dictionary from time to time. 

What newspapers, magazines, and/or websites do you enjoy?

New York Times, Newsweek, Facebook,,

What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?

Closing the widening gap between those with money and those who are impoverished.

How did you spend your last two summers?

Took calculus 2C at my local community college, volunteered at the local hospital, worked at In-N-Out Burger, tanned/burned, read while tanning/burning

What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?

The Beatles' last concert on the rooftop of Abby Road

What five words best describe you?

Pale, quirky, mathematical, self-effacing, sarcastic

Same applicant–and many of the same responses.  But doesn't he just seem more interesting and likeable now?  These responses aren't inherently better (or worse) than those in the first example.  But the fact that they just seem more honest makes this kid more likeable. 

Here's a good way to think about this.  For every answer you list that's less than 100% truthful, or anything you list that is technically true but not as true as something else that you're hesitant to list for fear it won't be as impressive, pretend that Stanford is going deduct 40 points from your SAT score (the horror!). 

Don't overthink these.  Just be yourself and tell the truth.

Short essays

Here are the directions for the short-answers, followed by some tips for each. 

In addition to your Common Application essay, please respond to the following three questions. Your responses must be at least 250 words but should not exceed the space provided.

Stanford students are widely known to possess a sense of intellectual vitality. Tell us about an idea or an experience you have had that you find intellectually engaging.

I'm going to be honest and tell you something that might not seem that nice; this question exposes the kids who don't have the intellectual depth to really succeed and be happy at a place like Stanford.  None of the students we've ever worked with who got into Stanford struggled with this question.  They didn't look at us and ask, "What should I say?"  They had an immediate answer about something that genuinely interested them, something that showed their intellectual curiosity and love of learning.  They didn't write, "I like math because there's always a right answer" or "history is so interesting, which is why I watch the History Channel."  I know that seems snarky to put it that way, but it's the truth. 

The truth is that every kid with perfect grades and test scores is obviously smart, but not all of them are necessarily intellectuals.  Intellectuals enjoy learning.  They're inherently curious.  They read, discuss and learn on their own, without concern for how or if those activities will help them get into a selective college.  They're motivated more by their curiosity and interest in learning, not by a sense of competition.  Those insatiable learners are what Stanford's looking for here.

So for this prompt, think about a subject that fascinates you, something you enjoy wrapping your mind around, something for which you'd be excited to meet and talk with other students who share this interest.  It doesn't have to be purely academic (like math or science).  It could be the engineering behind electric cars, or the newest technology used in electric guitars, or what you learned working on computers at your part time job, or how much more interesting your books in AP English were when you and your friends started a weekend book club to study together.  The common theme needs to be one of intellectual curiosity, followed by the desire and effort to satisfy it.  

Virtually all of Stanford's undergraduates live on campus. What would you want your future roommate to know about you? Tell us something about you that will help your future roommate — and us — know you better.

Honesty wins here.  If you were actually going to send this to your future roommate, would you really tell him how dedicated you are to your academics, or that you volunteer at the soup kitchen, or that you were very pleased to be named a National Merit Finalist (wow–please don't say that)?  Probably not. 

You'd probably talk about how much you love to play the drums, or how you're a Lakers fanatic, or how you won a karaoke contest last year, or about how much you love Tommy's Burgers even though you're fairly certain the chili has caused permanent damage to your internal organs.

So just be a real person and tell the truth here.

Tell us what makes Stanford a good place for you.

As is the case when any college asks you this question, the two very worst things you can do are to:

1)  Rattle off generalities that could be true for dozens of colleges, like "You have a strong reputation, a beautiful campus and top professors." Or…

2) To compose a list of factoids about Stanford that you obviously went and looked up on the website immediately before composing your answer to this question. 

Neither of those approaches addresses the prompt, which asks why Stanford is a good place for you.  To answer that, you're going to have to talk about yourself, not just Stanford.  To do this, you're going to have to give Stanford some insight into what was hopefully a thoughtful college search process. 

When you envision yourself in college, what do you see yourself doing?  What are your expectations for your college experience?  How are you hoping to change while you're there?  Are you excited for college?  Why?  What parts of college make you wish you were there right now?  Are all of these answers the same as they were when you started your college search, or have they changed along the way?

That's the "you" part of this response.

Then, tie your answers to Stanford.  What is it about Stanford that makes you think it's the right place to meet all of those expectations? 

And while you shouldn't compose a long list of facts about Stanford, you should be describing a connection that couldn't necessarily be found at lots of other schools.

So don't hide behind safe answers that are designed to impress.  Give Stanford what they want–the real you, with all your smarts, personality and a little panache thrown in.

Note:  Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our "How to" guide here: Download HowToUse30Guides

And if you have other questions about essays, applications, interviews or financial aid, visit our online store.  We’ve got books, videos and downloadable guides to help you.  Or you could speak with one of our online college counselors.


  1. CMoney says

    Thank you for sharing this! This guide clarified most of the questions I had about the Stanford Essays.

  2. Kevin says

    Alan- This wasn’t a real applicant. I wrote the responses as an example so we wouldn’t be sharing a real applicant’s private work. But the strategy I’m sharing here is what we teach all of our Collegewise students to do. And those who’ve applied to–and were qualified for–Stanford have done very well.

  3. Shane says

    Thank you! This gave good insight into the reason the questions were being asked and helped me focus my essays.

  4. says

    It’s never a good idea to be flippant. But given the nature of these particular questions, I don’t think the responses are flippant. Everybody’s responses will have a different tone. But the key is to be honest and not try so hard to impress them that you lose your personality and voice.

  5. Mashka says

    Thank you!! I wasn’t sure whether the answers I had brainstormed would work but this helped me a lot!

  6. Jacob says

    Wow, the guy who wrote this is absolutely genius! if EVERYONE followed his advice, I’ll have no trouble at all getting accepted.
    this is the biggest bs i’ve ever read. Stanford is not looking for the guy who watches “Super Bad” or enjoys “”. Stanford is not a community college full of junkies, it’s a place of intellectuals who are serious about learning.

  7. ben says

    Can you update this post to address the new 3rd essay prompt? “What matters to you and why?” THANKS!

  8. StanfordStudent says

    To Jacob, who appears to be so knowledgeable so as to think that colleges like Stanford only want one-faceted individuals.
    I am a student at Stanford, and the advice given by this author is very sound advice. I would argue that, with all due respect (which isn’t much), that you, Jacob, are actually full of BS.
    The kind of kids who are actually serious about learning and care about their schooling will all have some sort of personality. They can choose to appear as though they are searching for the right answers, or as though they can answer honestly with both the “intellectual” answers as well as the fun ones. Do you honestly think a student with brains as smart as people at stanford would not have a personality that perhaps sheds a better light on who they are, how they learn, and what they really enjoy in life? To me, that’s what makes the best apps shine.
    But I guess if you want to try to get in with your stock, overused answers … go ahead.