Our friend Ethan Sawyer knows a thing or two about college essays. After all, he is "The College Essay Guy." Stanford University asks students to write letters to their future roommates, and Sawyer has some excellent advice for crafting the perfect roommate essay. Best of all, his tips can also be applied to all of the personal essays you may have to write throughout the college application process.
Okay, this is not the only way to write your Stanford (or Harvard) roommate essay, but it is a good way, and it’s based on an essay that I think is great. First, read the example essay, then we’ll talk about why it’s great and how she did it.
"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."
Everybody has peculiarities that most people don’t know about. For example, I have a habit of pinching ear lobes. I also pour milk into my cereal, only to drain it out after soaking the cereal for a bit. Is that strange? Well, there’s more:
I have -2.75 vision but I hate wearing glasses because I feel confined and limited in my freedom to think. So you’ll see me squint quite often, trying to overcome my astigmatism—it’s not a death glare, I promise.
I’m also extremely tactile. I like to run my fingers over laser printing because I am amazed by my fingers’ ability to detect subtle impressions. This is why I hate wearing socks on carpet: my feet lose sensitivity. So I hope you don’t mind bare feet.
I have a fetish for things that smell nice, so I like to bury myself under fresh laundry just wheeled back from laundry room 8 (the one closest to our unit). I also alternate between three different shampoos just for the smell of it. So don’t be surprised if I ask to share our toiletry items; I’m just looking for variety.
Driving calms my nerves. Sometimes, my family and I go on midnight highway cruises during which we discuss weighty issues such as the reason people in our society can so adamantly advertise items like Snuggies. So I apologize if I keep you up late at night asking you to ponder the complex mysteries of our world.
Also, in my home, we have an open door policy—literally. Every door, excluding those of an occupied bathroom and the fridge, is always open. I hope you and I will be comfortable enough with each other—and with those around us—that we feel no need to hide behind bedroom doors.
Finally, I love shelves. They organize many different items under a unified structure and I find value in this kind of integrated diversity. And I love them as a metaphor: there is a place for everything, including even the quirkiest of our traits. That’s why no one should feel left out no matter how strange or odd they might think they are.
So, what are you like?
Why I like this essay
I learn so much about the writer. I learn (in order, by paragraph) that she:
- Is confident enough to admit she’s a little weird
- Values her freedom to think
- Is observant and sensitive to life’s small details
- Is great with wordplay
- Is ironic and self-deprecating even while pondering life’s mysteries
- Is willing to be emotionally open
- Values making order from chaos (and she’s smart enough to write an essay that actually creates order out of chaos—so her form matches her content)
How she wrote this essay
- She began with chaos. She brainstormed a list of 21 random details about herself using this exercise.
- Then she created order. She organized the details into paragraphs by theme. She found, in other words, a way to connect the random facts—to put them on different “shelves” (each “shelf” = one paragraph).
- Once she understood what she was doing, she cutsome of the details that were less-revealing or extraneous and replacedthem with better details that were more synecdochic. What’s a synecdoche? When a small part represents the whole. Kinda’ like an essence object. Look it up.
Remember: I ain’t saying this is the only way to write your roommate essay, but it’s a pretty good way. And, if you want to get into Stanford, your roommate essay—like your main Common App essay—should demonstrate these three things:
- Are you an interesting and intelligent person?
- Will you bring something of value to the campus?
- Can you write?
This student showed all three of those things and she got into Stanford.
(That, along with her 2300 SAT and perfect grades. Plus she was first-generation. #BTW.)
Stay tuned next week for Part II, in which Sawyer will discuss how to improve an existing draft of your essay.
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It’s likely that you’ve met someone who’s raved about their roommate experience and another person who’s moaned and groaned about theirs. Although your life will get busy and you may spend plenty of time away from your apartment or house, you’ll always retreat back to the comforts of your own home. So finding the perfect roommate will have a direct effect on your level of comfortability at home, the time you spend at home, and your level of overall happiness. Here are 10 steps every college student seeking a roommate should take in order to have the most positive college experience possible.
Decide if having a roommate is right for you
Some people prefer to live alone and have a quiet place to retreat to after a long day. If this sounds like you, be sure to take whether or not your budget allows you to live without a roommate before signing off on that one bedroom lease. Others need a companion and someone to walk through life with. Another consideration is that having a roommate could save you money by splitting the rent.
Know what you want
Figure out what traits you are looking for in a roommate. Determine what your “deal breakers” are– the things you absolutely cannot live with (smokers, someone who is messy, pets, etc.). Understand your own living arrangements and habits. For instance, do you prefer the lights on while you sleep? Do you prefer silence or loud music? Are you a night owl or an early riser? It’s important to understand these things about yourself so that you can best determine what kind of person is the best roommate for you.
Be as specific as possible
Communicate to prospective roommates exactly what you are looking for. Consider seeking someone who is adaptable and also comfortable not having everything go their way. You may also want to seek someone who is considerate of your thoughts and belongings or maybe someone who describes themselves as neat or organized. Consider casting a strategic and smart net rather than a large net. Having a large pool of mediocre candidates is not as great as having a small pool of exceptional candidates. Don’t forget to utilize your network (friends, work colleagues, etc) to find a mutual friend as a possible roommate contender.
Know where to look
Today, there are more options than ever for finding your perfect roommate. Consider websites such as Roomsurf, Symbi, Roomie Match, Diggz, Roomster, and Roomi. But try not to shack up with just anyone. Research proves that your roommate can have an influence on your mood and mental health. Also, avoid any sketchy roommate posts on Craigslist. If a post looks too good to be true (extremely cheap rent for example), it probably is.
Try to not rush this process
Giving yourself adequate time to do the necessary research is important in order to create a happy and functional roommate situation. In order to have adequate time, planning is essential. Consider beginning your search months before the lease needs to be signed. The planning process needs to include selecting a pool of candidates, interviewing potential candidates, and the final selection process. You simply can’t afford until the last minute to get started; if you do, who knows who you’ll end up living with.
Arrange an in-person meeting
People can portray themselves differently on the phone or through text, so it’s important to set up and in-person chat. Set the initial meeting in a safe and public place. Have a list of questions prepared to ask and learn about important details. Have a candid discussion and do not be afraid to be upfront. It’s better to have an awkward first conversation rather than live in a miserable situation. If someone is not receptive to your conversation and does not seem like a good fit, move on. However, if the person seems to vibe with you well, keep in contact and continue to nurture the relationship.
Talk about the financial situation
Communicate with each other when and how the living expenses will be paid. Have the money conversation early on to avoid any confusion. Write down the financial agreements to add another level of security. Money problems can strain an otherwise happy roommate situation. Make sure all sides fully know and understand the budget to avoid money arguments.
Ask for references and consider doing a background check
Be hesitant to instill trust in someone you’ve just met, even a mutual friend. Consider doing a background check or asking for a few references.Although it may come off cold or petty, any reasonable person can understand your hesitation to live with someone you know little about. When checking the references, look out for any red flags in your conversations.
Set ground rules
Consider ground rules such as, how many friends can be over at once, designated quiet time, and allowing a boyfriend/girlfriend stay the night. Also, contemplate creating a weekly checklist of around the house chores and communicate openly how they will be completed and by whom. The weekly checklist idea is used to hold yourself and others accountable to their duties. Consider alternating duties each week to keep a healthy balance.
Another important ground rule is to never use the last of something without replacing it on your own dime. It may avoid a steamy conversation when your roommate uses the restroom only to find out there is no toilet paper left. Communicate these rules during the interview process to make sure they are on board. Setting ground rules is not only important to avoid any confusion, but to ensure everyone is being held accountable for their actions and to keep a healthy and positive environment.
Find the right space
Apartments tend to work well because autonomy is possible. Having separate bedrooms to retreat to tend to work best in roommate situations. Also consider looking for a place in a safe and convenient location, keeping in mind access to public transportation and commute time for both you and your roommate. Another consideration is the availability of amenities and community services. Perhaps having a gym or fitness area at your apartment complex is a must.
Also published on Medium.