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!


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!