How to get into Stanford

So, we’ve just finished ushering in the Class of 2009, reunion homecoming weekend has come and gone, and the Class of 2010 is starting the college admissions process. This is also about the time I start getting asked occasionally, “How do I get into Stanford?” Obviously, there’s no sure fire way of getting into Stanford or any other university, but nevertheless, there are plenty of people who will try to sell you books and other materials full of tips. The Admissions Office will answer your questions about the recommended high school curriculum and the application process and taking a quick look at their Web site, they have a pretty good overview of what they’re looking for and how you should approach the application process. But at the end of the day, admissions is a recruiting business and not about giving you a personal assessment on your chances of admission. Their road show is about telling you how great Stanford is and why you should come here. So, here’s my spiel on what it takes to get into Stanford.

Of course, let me remind you that I don’t work in the Admissions Office nor do I affect admissions in any way, shape or form. This is all just based on what I’ve gleaned after getting into Stanford, getting my degree, and working here for the last four years. So, here it is:

Now, (again) there’s no clear answer on how to get into Stanford and even after hearing all of your qualifications, there’s still no clear way to know if you’ll get in. Your application is assessed in its entirety and in the context of the others in the application pool. But there are certain hurdles that you will probably have to get over and certain things you should remember to be competitive:

First, your high school coursework, GPA, and SAT scores. Yes, yes, no university’s admissions office will tell you that there’s a minimum number of AP courses, a minimum GPA or a minimum SAT score. But let’s face it: the profile of students accepted at Stanford and other universities at this level is pretty consistent. Of course, there are exceptions to the following guidelines, but when you look at the distribution, you want to shoot for the center or higher to be safe. So, you should have a challenging high school courseload (and if you’re from an unheard of high school in the middle of nowhere, it should probably be the most challenging possible) and a pretty high GPA, somewhere between 3.7 to 4.0 (not taking into account weighting and normalized on a 4.0 scale). You should be at least in the top 20% of your class, 10% is better. As for your SAT scores, you should be breaking 1300 (based on the original 2-part test’s verbal and math scores). The higher the better of course, but what can you really say about the difference between someone who scores a 1490 and a 1520? Your standardized test scores, whether for the SAT or the AP, only really serve to validate your transcript– it provides a way to get an idea of whether you have a 4.0 because you went to an easy school or because you can compete with students who have just as good grades from some of the best and most challenging schools in the country.

A note about SAT classes: I know parents love to send their kids to these classes, thinking that they will help their kids get that “edge,” thinking if they just score a little higher on the SAT, it will give them a better chance of getting into whatever school of their choice. To be honest, the only thing these courses teach you is how to take the test better. If you’re a bad test taker, the class might be worth it, but I would suggest working with the books and studying on your own first. Even if you take the classes, your score will probably only go up by a few hundred points and if you don’t have a competitive starting score already, that’s not going to help you that much. If you need the classes to make you study for the SAT, then you should be worried about whether you have the discipline to go to such a competitive school and trust me, you’re going to need the discipline.

After the grades and test scores, the next issue is extracurricular activities. I’ll be honest: Stanford students are extremely talented students inside and outside of the classroom. There’s a reason we win the Sears Director’s Cup every year. So, you should be involved in extracurricular activities. You should be good at them. You don’t have to be a concert pianist and you shouldn’t spread yourself too thin being the president of every single club, but your extracurricular activities should show that you’re well-rounded and that you are passionate, committed and hard-working.

Now, the essay. Let’s face it: if you’re applying to Stanford, you probably have already taken a challenging courseload, have really good grades, scored well on the SATs, and are involved in extracurricular activities. At the end of the day, the essay is your real opportunity to show who you are as a person and make yourself stick out.

Every college application essay prompt is a little different, but they all get at the same thing: a personal statement. Discuss what unique perspective and experiences you will bring to the table. It’s your opportunity to show why the university should invest in you and what you will contribute back to the university and your fellow students. This may be blunt, but Stanford gets over 20,000 applications for about 1,600 spots; it’s your job to sell yourself. But remember: be honest, be genuine. You may think you’re being slick, but it’s pretty easy to see through fluff or double-talk. They’ve been doing this a lot longer than you have.

And that’s really it. At the end of the day, we’re looking for students who excel inside and outside of the classroom and who will bring unique perspectives and interesting experiences. There’s really not much mystery and it’s pretty straightforward– it’s just that there’s a lot of people in the world and there are only so many spots. And even if you’re the best of the best, it’s still kind of a crap shoot in the end: why do some people get into Stanford, but not Harvard, or Harvard, but not Stanford, or both? It’s a numbers game at some point and that’s just the way it is at some point.

The most important thing to remember though is that of course it’s important to go to a good school, but it’s also important to go to a school that’s a good fit for you and where you’ll be happy. When I applied to schools, I applied to Stanford on a whim, never thinking I would actually go out all the way to California, and Harvard was my end-all, be-all first choice and when I was waitlisted, I hoped and hoped that I would still be able to go. Thank God I didn’t. I cut my losses early, decided on Stanford, and couldn’t have been happier with my choice. Stanford was an incredible fit for me and I wouldn’t still be here as a staff member if I didn’t love my experience here as a student, didn’t want to continue to be a part of the institution, and didn’t want to continue to contribute to its future. So, don’t apply to Stanford just for the name, but apply because you think it will be a good fit for you because no reputation will make up being miserable for four years in the prime of your life. And make sure you remember that picking a college is about more than academics– it’s about the culture, the atmosphere, the people, the location, etc.

So look onward, Class of 2010! Good luck on your applications and get ready for one of the best times of your life!