Stanford Intellectual Vitality Essay Sample



Like many institutions, Stanford requires applicants to answer several short essays and questions. Unlike single-prompt supplements, supplements with multiple short prompts require you to utilize several different topics. Thematically, you should not write all of your essays about the same thing, whether that’s an extracurricular passion or a particular facet of your personality that you wish to highlight.


Instead, your essays should work like a portfolio, each one acting to highlight a different portion of your application or personality, with a collective effect that conveys what you want. The short answer questions should also fit into this portfolio, as they allow you to reinforce key themes from your essay or introduce additional components of your life or personality.


The Rapid Fire Questions


Briefly respond to the following seven inquiries so we can get to know you better. Do not feel compelled to use complete sentences.

Name your favorite books, authors, films, and/or artists. (50 word limit)

What newspapers, magazines, and/or websites do you enjoy?
(50 word limit)

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

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

What were your favorite events (e.g., performances, exhibits, competitions, conferences, etc.) in recent years? (50 word limit)

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

What five words best describe you?


These short answer questions are nice in that they don’t necessarily have any wrong answers. For the most part, it’s okay to answer these questions truthfully, so long as you avoid potentially controversial or offensive responses. These questions are designed to give admissions officers a brief look at your personality, and each answer reflects a different portion of your personality or application.


For the most part, your answers can be very straightforward. For example, if you said that you wish you could have witnessed W.E.B Dubois’ “Talented Tenth” speech, then the Stanford admissions counselors will know that you are interested in history and questions related to race and racial relations. Normally with short answer questions, you might want to avoid writing an extremely advanced work of literature or erudite publication down as your “favorite.”


However, because you have 50 words to work with, you can afford to list several different books, publications, and the like. If possible, try to strike a balance between things that are pure enjoyment and things that are educational. Also, if you decide to feature a particular theme for your application, you should try to make sure that some of your answers to these questions reinforce that theme.


Princeton’s app has a similar rapid-fire section — for further tips, check out the CollegeVine blog post How to Write the Princeton University Supplement Essays 2015-2016.


Briefly elaborate on one of your ECs…


Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 word limit)


This essay is similar to the extracurricular prompt that used to be on the Common Application. One option for writing this essay is to choose the most meaningful or in-depth extracurricular on your application and then write about that. However, if your Common Application essay significantly addresses this activity, you should try to move on to another on your resume. You can choose almost any activity; however, you shouldn’t be writing about a superficial experience just because it fits with your major – focus on something more meaningful.


With regards to the content of the essay, your focus is on specificity. Don’t just recount your accomplishments in that activity (that belongs on a resume); instead, focus either on what you learned from it, what it says about you, or a specific event or project within that activity that illustrates your ability to execute key projects or your ability to work well with others.


Another option is to write a descriptive anecdote about a particular moment or accomplishment during one of your extracurricular activities. This option doesn’t offer as much in the way of highlighting your accomplishment or skills, but instead allows you to show off your writing prowess.


The Intellectual Vitality Prompt


Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development. (100 to 250 words)


The focus of this essay should be how and why the idea impacted you, not necessarily discussion and explanation of the idea itself. If possible, you should spend maybe 50 words discussing the idea and then the remainder of the essay analyzing its impact on your intellectual development. And with regards to the latter aspect, you should either discuss how the process gave you an important skill, or how it made you fall in love with a field (ideally one that’s tied to your major).


For example, you could discuss the idea of quantitative easing (a monetary policy tool, or more broadly an economics idea) to either discuss how it gave one the ability to be analytical or how it made you fall in love with economics (your major). Your idea need not be so academic. The term “intellectual development” can be applied loosely to almost anything you like. For example, you could talk about a type of dance move, and how your persistent perusal of the internet looking for tips on successfully performing said dance move inspired you to become a music major. 


A Letter to Your Roommate


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 to 250 words)


This essay is as much about what not to say as about what you should say. The key thing to avoid in this essay: anything that could disqualify you in the eyes of the admissions committee. While you don’t want to write something that’s bland and clichéd, you should avoid discussing illegal or unsavory activities.


Conversely, you shouldn’t be afraid to explore your quirky side. Good topics are always unique hobbies or interesting personality quirks, and it’s perfectly fine to get a little weird. You can also talk about your favorite experiences with friends and how you’d enjoy similar experiences with a hypothetical roommate.


But you should probably stay away from things like politics. You can say you’re politically motivated if you are, but don’t indicate which party or ideology you tend to support. Also, try not to talk about specific political issues, especially if you hold a conservative viewpoint. It’s very easy to offend someone with politics.


What matters to you, and why?


What matters to you, and why? (100 to 250 words)


While it may seem as though this essay is asking you to discuss a social justice cause or some sort of “problem” with the world, the actual prompt is a lot broader. Basically, Stanford wants to know what’s at your core and the things that take up the majority of your mental desire.


The focus of this essay should be on the “why” portion of the essay. The “what” is important, but your explanation of the “why” is ultimately what will convey something new about you. Pretty much any topic, so long as you can legitimately describe why it matters to you, is fair game.


When writing about potentially controversial topics such as religion and politics, your focus should be explicitly on yourself. It’s okay to discuss how Christianity, for example, helped you gain a new appreciation for the value of personal discipline, but you shouldn’t discuss your deep-held desire to convert others to Christianity, because the idea of religious conversion could be offensive or controversial to some.


With these tips, you should be well on your way to writing the perfect Stanford Supplement. Best of luck from the CollegeVine team!


Want to get your admissions essay reviewed in less than 24 hours? Submit your essay today or reach out to work 1-on-1 with one of CollegeVine’s Stanford essay specialists.


Candidates respond to all three essay topics. (250 word limit for each essay.)

First, let’s briefly get a sense of what 250 words means. It’s two average paragraphs, or three lean paragraphs. Also known as: not a ton of space! The burden is on you to think about the meatiest point you need to make, and then to build your surrounding elements strategically, so that they help you deliver that point with maximum impact, concisely. It’s not as easy as it may sound. For our analysis, we’re mostly going to dig into the “meat” aspect.

Topic 1: Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.

Let’s hold a magnifying glass over that word “development.” It’s the key. When something develops, it evolves from one thing to something else. It may grow in size. It may grow in complexity. It may shrink. It may go from solid to liquid. Don’t focus on the result. Focus instead on the “change” aspect. The “X to Y” evolution, transformation. The morphing. The … “development.”

Here, we’re focused on your intellect. So before we search for great candidates for ideas or experiences that have played a part in developing our intellects, we need to define it first and make sure we understand what it means. What is your intellect? Take a stab, close your eyes, and try to define it, see what you come up with. In a nutshell, intellect refers to your ability to reason. Your mental horsepower. Think of it like RAM. Computers loaded with RAM are able to do a lot of complicated things, simultaneously. Folks at Stanford tend to have a lot of RAM. Their brains can handle complicated ideas, even those that are incongruous. And because they have mighty intellects, they’re able to grapple with those ideas.

Here’s a silly example. Imagine teaching a 4 year old about “lying.” It may be too complicated to suggest that sometimes it’s okay to lie, but generally it’s not advisable. The four-year old brain (compared to a freshman’s at Stanford) doesn’t have quite as much RAM. Maybe the four year old brain can only process this idea: that “lying is bad.” Always? “Yes, always.” When they’re older, maybe they can deal with exceptions that don’t bust the rule, necessarily, but make it a touch more complicated.

The more “intellect” you have (not that it’s a quantity, but here you can think of it that way if you’d like), the more you’re able to grapple with conflicting ideas, understand nuance, comprehend challenging concepts. What we want to get a sense of here is not a measure of your intellect, but rather, some self-awareness for a time when your intellect CHANGED (advanced) from one state to another.

Here are some examples (there are an infinite number of possibilities here, this is purely meant to help you kickstart the brainstorming process):

  • Was there a time you realized you were WRONG about something you were 100% sure you were right about?
  • Was there a time you learned that there was simply another (equally valid) way of looking at something? Say, through a different cultural lens. Or a different gender. Or religious world view. Or class perspective.
  • Was there ever some person (could be a historical figure, an athlete, an artist, a politician, a writer, an uncle) who espoused ideas, or excelled at something, in a way that changed the way you understood or saw things?
  • Was there an experience that inspired you to APPROACH things differently? Say for example you were always a trusting person but an experience caused a shift where you subsequently approached things more cautiously? Or vice versa, whereas you’d always been suspicious and cautious of the unknown, an experience caused you to relax your guard and approach things differently?

Notice in all these examples, we’re hammering the idea of “difference” and “change.” It’s all about the delta. In order to crush this essay, you need to help us understand how an idea or experience somehow transformed your intellect from starting point A to new point B.

Topic 2: 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.

Classic Stanford undergrad question. The mistake we see 95% of the time on first drafts is the impulse to try to “slip in” resume highlights. As if, this is a veiled attempt by Stanford to want to be IMPRESSED. The way to impress Stanford here is through honesty, and charm. But mostly honesty.

Indulge us here and take two swings at this. On the first attempt, get it out of your system, whatever letter you want to write, just take a crack and then file it away for the time being.

On your second attempt, go with us on a little journey. Start by creating a roommate, leaving everything to chance (the same way it’ll more or less work out when you’re actually assigned a roommate in your freshman dorm). For starters, your roommate will almost certainly be the same gender. Now, generate a bunch of parameters, like ethnicity, height, weight, athletic/ musical/etc., liberal/conservative, east coast/southern/west-coast/etc., affable/surly, cool/not-so-cool, American/foreign-born/etc…. Don’t spend too much time, because it doesn’t really matter much. Give this guy or gal a name. Again, don’t get stuck on this, the idea is to paint a vague picture. But once you have this picture, commit to it for a second. Imagine a real person on the other end.

Now, you’re gonna address a fresh new letter to this person. But if the open-ended-ness of the Stanford prompt leaves you stuck, consider some of the following ideas. Write the letter using one of the following:

  • What if your roommate just confided in you, and told you an incredible secret. Something that leaves your roommate in an extremely vulnerable emotional state having just put him/herself on the line. What might you reveal about YOURSELF in response? “Hey, so here’s something most people don’t know about ME…” (what might follow that up?)
  • Treat it as though it were a “” profile. What kinds of preferences would you reveal about yourself that might give the BEST clues about what you’re all about? Think about quirks and specificity here. If you were to say “I like Chinese food” it doesn’t say all that much since so many different types of people would fall under that category. If, however, you were to say you absolutely HATE the HBO show “The Wire” that would have the opposite effect since “everyone loves that show.” Can you stack up a few such preferences that, when summed, may help someone get a sense for what you’re all about, and even better, become more curious to get to know you better?
  • You know that classic question “if you were stuck on a desert island forever, what album would you bring?” … You can put a twist on it here. Name a few KEY possessions you’re gonna bring that’ll be essential to your comfort. Forget bland necessities like “a toothbrush” (since everyone will be packing one of those). More like, the “sounds of the rainforest” you use to lull yourself to sleep every night. Stuff like that. And possibly even suggest a few things you DON’T have that your roommate may bring to complete the set for total roommate symbiosis. You don’t need to follow this conceit exactly, but maybe this gives you an idea from which you can springboard to help show us something about who you are exactly, and what makes you … you.

Topic 3: What matters to you, and why?

Ha, in 250 words… you’re asked to grapple with one of life’s more challenging questions. A fitting test from a place like Stanford. Let’s start with what NOT to do.

Extinguish the desire with every ounce of effort in you to imagine what Stanford wants to hear. If you pen a response that you BELIEVE will put you in good stead because you think it shows maturity, or emotional intelligence, or whatever else… you are in for a crash landing. Or, tell you what, let’s a make a deal. Write that version, and keep it handy. Now write ANOTHER version that may never ever see the light of day. Think of this as a private diary entry. An exercise that may lead to something. But take the pressure away that someone might read it, so be more honest than you might want to be otherwise.

For this version, imagine you’re addressing a crowd (like the Pope, or MLK), and it’s a crowd of people who… aren’t really contributing all that positively to society. Maybe they’re lazy. Maybe they’re irresponsible. Maybe they’re disaffected. Maybe they’re dangerous. Let’s just call them the folks who aren’t model citizens of the world.

What might you say to inspire these folks? Think about it. If you were to say something obvious, wouldn’t it run the risk of not having much of an impact? Make it less about you (just for a second), and instead think about what you might say to inspire this crowd. If you were to say “say no to drugs” or “do unto others…” or “cherish each day as though it were your last” … hasn’t everyone heard it already? If they haven’t internalized those ideas, they’re certainly not gonna do so just because YOU said it, right? But they might if they hear something NEW, something fresh about what matters, in a way that may cause them to re-evaluate things or see things through a new lens.

Obviously, you won’t want to write about something trivial, like “driving a nice car matters because the value of a smooth ride is more pleasing than a bumpy one.” Unless it’s a cracking metaphor, something like that might make your message seem like you didn’t give it a whole lot of thought, or, worse, someone who’s so privileged that that type of material comfort is truly something that matters more than deeper, cooler things. So, it probably will have to do with human interaction, or a way of approaching things, or a state of being, or the like. Think about where others are going wrong. What are others MISSING, in a way that leads to irresponsible behavior, actions, attitudes, etc.? What matters to YOU that makes you feel like your compass is pointed in a better direction?

This conceit (of addressing a crowd) is meant to unlock ideas, not for you to embrace the idea too literally of proselytizing. So, if it helps, use your imagination of the crowd to help the ideation process, and then if you find a neat germ of an idea, you can build on it and then personalize it and develop it in a form that’s more suitable for this 250-word space.

Above all, be interesting here. If you write something that you think someone else might ALSO say, torch it. Do it over. Keep doing it until you’re convinced that no one else will be writing about this idea. Or, writing about a common idea in an uncommon way. Push yourself here, and avoid “predictable.”

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