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Sample Stanford Roommate Essay

Dear Parent:

Before we talk about the "Stanford roommate essay," let’s talk about Stanford. You know the overall acceptance rate is just under 5%. It’s probably closer to 10% for kids with hooks; common hooks include being a recruited athlete, a legacy student, a member of the first generation in one’s family to attend college, an underrepresented minority, a development case (connection to a big donor), or an exceptional talent (significant contribution or state/national recognition). That means the acceptance rate is a bit under 5% for kids without hooks. Whether or not your child has a hook, we can say one thing for sure: Stanford is a low-probability “reach school.”

You need to think about applying to Stanford or any other selective school the same way you might think about playing blackjack. On the rare occasions I sit down to play blackjack, I don’t expect to win because I know the odds are against me. But just because the odds are against me doesn’t mean there is nothing I can do to improve my odds. Actually, there are two things I can do, one easy and one hard.

Overview: Basic Strategy & Advanced Strategy

The easy thing is basic strategy. Basic strategy tells me, depending on my hand and the dealer’s up card, whether I should hit or stand. For example, if I have a 13 and the dealer’s up card is a 2, then I should stand. The hard thing, which I cannot do, is the advanced strategy counting cards. If I know when the deck has a high ratio of face cards, I can adjust my bets to increase my returns.

I’m talking about blackjack because it carries such a close parallel with the writing process, especially for the Stanford roommate essay. For the Stanford roommate essay, there is a “basic strategy” that we use to avoid dumb mistakes, and there is an “advanced strategy” that we use to improve our returns. Following these strategies doesn’t guarantee a win, but it ensures we’ve done everything possible to improve our odds.

Stanford Roommate Essay: Basic Strategy

Basic strategy for the Stanford roommate essay involves avoiding two common but entirely avoidable mistakes. First, don’t write broad statements about what kind of roommate you’ll be. I’m very neat. I’m very messy. I go to bed early. I go to bed late. I wake up early. I wake up late. But don’t worry -- I’m sure we’ll get along great! OMG. No. If I’ve seen dozens of these and similar statements in first drafts I’ve come across, I feel sorry for the admission officers who have seen thousands. So stay away from these broad descriptions of who you are.

Second, don’t write about all the typical college or Stanford experiences you anticipate having with your roommate. I look forward to grabbing a late-night snack with you. I look forward to making it through our first all-nighter. I look forward to 2:00 am discussions about the Meaning of Life and Our Purpose on Earth. I look forward to fountain-hopping. I look forward to Big Game. These were all part of Stanford life when I was there, and I’m sure they still are. The problem is, again, that if I’ve seen dozens of these types of statements, I’m sure admission officers have seen thousands. And if that’s the case, writing these statements won’t help you stand out.

Stanford Roommate Essay: Advanced Strategy

In a nutshell, basic strategy for the Stanford roommate essay means not writing about what kind of roommate you’ll be and not writing about generic college experiences you hope to share with your roommate. If you can help your child avoid these two mistakes, her essay will automatically improve. But what about advanced strategy? Advanced strategy isn’t that tricky. It comes down to one word: intimacy.

Intimacy is secret knowledge. It includes knowledge of a person’s dreams, fears, insecurities, contradictions, quirks, or eccentricities. To count as intimacy, this knowledge has to relate to something only someone who has spent a lot of time with us might have observed. For example, my wife, Christa, does not fully close any container, whether it’s tupperware for leftovers or the cap to a gallon of milk, a bottle of water, or a tube of toothpaste. I have no idea why. When I order fries from the drive-thru, I know I won’t eat them with ketchup because I am going to devour them as I drive while they are still hot -- but I still always say yes to ketchup when the server asks me. It makes no sense.

The examples above -- lids on containers, unused ketchup -- are solitary intimacies. But intimacies extend to other people, too. What secret habits or traditions do you have with your close friends? Why are those meaningful? How have they affected you? These interpersonal intimacies help the reader understand what it feels like to hang out with you.

How to Apply Advanced Strategy

The easiest way to apply advanced strategy to the Stanford roommate essay is to freewrite based on this idea: “Most people don’t know this about me, but my family and close friends all know __________.” If your child can come up with 5-10 of these intimacies, chances are she’ll have enough material for this 250-word essay. Will that answer the prompt, though? Let’s see what it asks us:

“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)”

My answer is yes, writing those intimacies will answer the prompt. No matter whether we are looking at the Common App essay, the “why this college” essay, the Stanford roommate essay, or any other application essay, the topic is the same: you. This prompt’s purpose is clear; Stanford wants to get to know you better.

Recap: 3 Tips to Improve the Stanford Roommate Essay

To recap, here are three ideas to keep in mind while you’re helping your child along with the Stanford roommate essay:

  1. Basic Strategy, Part 1: Forget using general terms (neat, messy, goes to bed early, goes to bed late, gets up early, gets up late) to describe yourself.
  2. Basic Strategy, Part 2: Forget emphasizing generic college or Stanford experiences (late night snacks, all-nighters, late-night conversations, fountain-hopping, Big Game).
  3. Advanced Strategy: Write about intimacies -- specific idiosyncrasies or specific habits or routines you share with family and close friends -- that would not be apparent to someone who doesn’t know you well.

By following the basic strategy, your child will avoid wasting space saying things that thousands of other applicants are saying. By following the advanced strategy, your child will pinpoint unique experiences, traits, and habits. If your child can write with intimacy, then you and your child will both have peace of mind. You’ll know you have done everything possible with this essay to improve the odds of admission. Good luck!

Jon

P.S. If you have questions about how to handle the Stanford roommate essay (or any other application essay), please email or call us about working together, or join our free private Facebook group for parents. Talk to you soon!

In keeping with CollegeVine’s goal of democratizing the admissions process, we’ll be sharing real essays sourced from our consultants’ applications that demonstrate effective storytelling strategies, major mistakes to avoid, and compelling essay topics. You’ll learn the difference between the essay of a rejected student and that of an admitted student, and you can pick up some valuable tricks that you can use in your own essays along the way.

In this essay, the student is responding to a prompt from Stanford University, to which they were accepted:

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.

The Essay

Hello, Future Roommate! Before we settle in together, there are a few things you should know about me. I am an only child. I often stay up late to watch the Daily Show with Jon Stewart or SNL. I’m Jewish and Cuban, which makes me Jewban. I wear contacts and glasses, sometimes at the same time. I double dip my chips, twice. I use self-deprecating humor but I always do a really bad job at it. I render Mark Twain’s realism absurd and then realize the absurdity of Edgar Allan Poe’s romanticism. I make book adaptations for movies. A small brigade of tigers carries my luggage to and from the airport. I listen to Arctic Monkeys while watching In the Heat of the Night. I plan to eradicate all forms of procrastination at some point in my life. My teeth shine like Sirius. I perform without audiences and still receive standing ovations. The water I drink is made from the finest hydrogen and oxygen money can buy. I have often been accused of excessive swag. My dog likes long walks on the beach, the rush of wind in her hair, and kisses. I flash mob by myself. I have never once planked. I can grow a gnarly beard. My profile pictures are pictures of my face in profile. I like thinking about how nostalgic I was when I was 12. I skimmed Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama, researched Audacity to Win by David Plouffe, and had the audacity to read neither in their entirety. I can count my ABC’s and spell all the way up to one million. I believe in evolution. I have more friends on Facebook than digits in pi. I have a chain mail Snuggie. I watched all of Bambi and did not cry. I have been an extra in every zombie movie ever made. All of my ideas are made in America. I also have a sense of humor.

 

What the author does well

 

In this essay, the author does a great job of using humor and self-deprecation to illustrate different aspects of his life. Jokes like “A small bridge of tigers carries my luggage to and from the airport” and “I have a chain mail Snuggie” grab the reader’s attention and are both unique and witty, conveying that the author does not take himself too seriously.

The prompt itself calls for a somewhat more playful tone than some other college essay prompts might, and the author has responded in kind. Likewise, he has done so in a compelling way that sets him apart from other candidates. He also includes plenty of details, which are very important when you are describing yourself to an admissions committee that needs to understand what differentiates you from thousands of other applicants.

The response called for a short answer, and given the limited space requirement, the author has managed to fit a lot of different facts about himself in a short paragraph. He also strikes a balance between not taking himself too seriously and avoiding coming across as overly confident—which, as we examine in “Mastering the Personal Statement: How to Be Confident Without Being Overconfident”, is essential in your college essay. Remember: this is not a place to brag about your academic accomplishments or list your extracurricular activities; admissions committees will be able to find that information in other parts of your application. Instead, your essay is a space to showcase your creativity and allow colleges to get to know you as a person. Of course, as we note in “5 DIY Tips for Editing Your Own College Essays,” it is important to capture a positive reflection of yourself. If you are overly critical of yourself, colleges will wonder why they should accept you at all. So be sure to demonstrate confidence without coming across as arrogant, as the author has done in this essay.

What the author could improve

This applicant has written a well-crafted, humorous essay, but his personality does not come through as much as it could. While he offers various statements about his likes and dislikes, he doesn’t really connect them to himself or how they influence him as a person.

You don’t need to have exceptionally rare qualities or have had anything particularly dramatic happen to you to write a compelling essay (although you can certainly write about these qualities if you do). As we discuss in the CollegeVine post, “What if I Don’t Have Anything Interesting to Write About in My College Essay?” what is most important is that your essay is well-written and unique and that it allows your personality to shine through. In this sample essay, the author has done a great job of responding to the prompt in a unique way, using wit and humor to illustrate different facets of his life, but does not describe his personal qualities as much as he lists different things he likes and does. While what you do does define who you are to an extent, an essay shouldn’t leave readers guessing; clearly connecting your hobbies and interests to your personal traits and experiences is key.

 

You’ve probably heard the advice “show, don’t tell” countless times in your English classes. This essay is an excellent example of an instance in which the author needs to do a little more in the way of showing. While he makes a series of statements about different aspects of himself, he doesn’t really illustrate them or describe how they are evidenced in his personality. As we discuss in “Mastering the Personal Statement: How to Be Confident Without Being Overconfident” showing rather than telling is key to making your personality come through.

For instance, the author starts by stating, “I am an only child,” but doesn’t elaborate any further. Given that being an only child is not an aspect of his personality—it is merely a fact—he needs to explain why this is important for him to mention. How does it affect his personality? He might offer some examples or anecdotes to illustrate how being an only child has shaped him and how it will define his experience at Stanford.

How to Address the Critique

Given the lack of space available, it might be difficult to address some of the issues with the essay without adding a substantial number of words to the total count. So the author would need to free up some space in order to better showcase his personality and add examples and anecdotes to successfully illustrate it.

One way to do this is to remove some of the more confusing jokes or those that don’t really do much in the way of showcasing the author’s personality. For instance, “I can count my ABC’s and spell all the way up to one million” and “The water I drink is made from the finest hydrogen and oxygen money can buy”, while humorous, don’t really help the reader get a sense of who the author is. Likewise, while “I wear contacts and glasses, sometimes at the same time” is funny, it may confuse the reader, since it really just begs the question, “But why?”—and that’s not the reaction you want from the admissions committee. While including lines like this can help set a quirky tone that can charm admissions committees, striking an appropriate balance is crucial.

If the author manages to free up some space by eliminating lines that are overly confusing or not necessary to the overall essay, he can add more illustrations of his personality, better grounding the otherwise fun and playful elements of himself, and allow the reader to get a better sense of who he is.

Need help writing your college essays? CollegeVine’s Essay Editing Program is here to help. Submit your essay online and receive comprehensive edits within 24-48 hours, or sign up for our complete program work with one of our elite essay specialists one-on-one.

For general tips and advice on writing your college essays, check out some of the posts below.

How to Write the Common App Essays 2016-2017

How Important is the College Essay?

How to Answer Rapid Fire Essay Questions

Mastering the Personal Statement: How to Be Confident Without Being Overconfident

How to Write the “Why Us” College Essay

Where to Begin? 3 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises

5 DIY Tips for Editing Your Own College Essays

How to Write Fewer College Essays

What If I Don’t Have Anything Interesting to Write About in My College Essay?

Whom Should I Ask for Help with My College Essay?

Looking for help on essays for specific colleges? Read our essay breakdowns for tips on responding to prompts from individual schools.

 

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine

Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in publishing. She also writes, dreams of owning a dog, and routinely brags about the health of her orchid.

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