Of all the creative college application supplements out there, perhaps the most deceptively simple is this infamous prompt from Stanford University:

“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—get to know you better. (100–250 words)”

Many students interpret this as a straightforward assignment and write something generic, missing the larger opportunity to strengthen their application. To help you brainstorm for this essay, let’s break down the prompt into what it's not vs. what it is.

What the Roommate Essay is NOT:

It's not A roommate preference survey

Many colleges and universities will send their matriculating students a roommate preference survey to help Student Services make more optimal roommate pairings. This survey includes questions like, “What time do you like to wake up and go to sleep?,” “What is your preferred studying environment in your room?,” and “How often will you be in your room during the day?” Using the Roommate Essay to share your cohabitation ground rules and preferences is probably the most common way students misinterpret this question! In general, the responses to these questions will be generic and non-specific - we want to make sure that the Roommate Essay highlights your unique personality and interests. 

it's not An actual note to your future roommate

To dispel a common misconception, your future roommate will never see this essay (unless you show it to them!) if you end up matriculating at Stanford. Your audience for this essay is the admissions committee, not a fellow high school senior.

What the Roommate Essay IS:

This essay is a chance to share something new about yourself.

College essays are like mini-interview questions, and you only get so many chances to showcase what makes you special. Though academic rigor is obviously important for Stanford admissions, almost equal importance is placed on selecting students who will thrive in and enhance Stanford’s unique campus culture. Many students have unique interests, hobbies, and experiences that don’t fit elsewhere in their college applications, but are still important for the admissions committee to get a holistic picture of that student. The Roommate Essay provides a rare chance to show the committee who you are (beyond your grades and test scores) and how you’ll be a valuable contributor to the Stanford community.

But how do you fit all of that into just 100-250 words? First, you want to pick out which of your awesome traits you want to highlight. Think about the following questions to kick start your brainstorming:

  • What would your friends and family say makes you special?
  • If you had a completely free day, how would you spend it?
  • What habits, rituals, or quirks do you have?
  • Do you have a “life motto” or words you live by?
  • What kind of things do you have on your walls/your desk at home?
  • What could you give a talk about for 20 minutes, without any preparation?

The framing of your unique trait/experience/habit is the crucial difference between a generic essay and one that helps your application come alive, even with the exact same initial topic. For example, if the only thing Student A can say about their habit of waking up early is that they have to do it to be on time for school, the most we can say about them is that they are punctual for their commitments. On the other hand, if Student B writes about how they leap out of bed every day at 5:30am to catch a glimpse of the rare owl species that lives in the tree behind their apartment complex, we suddenly have a vibrant picture of a bird-loving individual who is so motivated by their passions that they are willing to wake up at odd hours. Think back to your personal statement - how did you use storytelling to convey the message you were trying to communicate?

Next, think about why it’s important for someone to know this fact about you. Do you enjoy sharing your early morning adventures with others? Does this example represent a larger joy of exploring your surroundings that you look forward to continuing at Stanford? The key is to relate this trait to how you will engage with your fellow students and the Stanford community.

Finally, it’s time to structure this unique part of your personality in the form of a letter. Common ways to start and end this essay include “Dear Roommate,” and “Sincerely, (your name),” but don’t be afraid to show off some personality in the salutations! Keep the body of the letter concise (remember your word limit), and don’t forget to address your roommate from time to time using the second person point of view (at least one of the pronouns “you,” “we,” or “us” should appear in your essay). 

Done correctly, the Roommate Essay is a unique opportunity to show the Stanford admissions committee who you are at heart - don’t be afraid to share your true self!

Samantha attended Stanford University, where she explored the role of synaptic proteins in visual system development for her honors thesis research. She graduated with a BS in Biology conferred with honors and with distinction. She is currently pursuing a combined MD/PhD at Harvard Medical School and MIT in the Health Sciences and Technology program.

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