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!

23 thoughts on “How to get into Stanford”

  1. I am really insipired by your comments about the Stanford. Also, I would like to know more about the college and it’s admission requirements. I know that I should consult a professional, but I want a personal advice from you,as you have been graduated from there and know about the enviornment and academics very well.

  2. This article is really good.i am from GPA is 7. What are the procedure to get a MS (computer Science) admission in Stanford? . How much GRE score needed?
    Please help me.

  3. Hey,
    I’m a senior in high school. I’m from India.
    I dont think my extra curriculurs are particularly great. Though the social work I’ve one is very unique.
    My SAT scores definitely fall in range.
    So, for someone like me, are the essays that which will make or break my application?

  4. hey

    I am a sophmore at notre dame academy and have a gpa of 3.5. Ok that is the worse part. Notre dame is one of the hardest high schools in the state. A religous school. I am in tennis, fencing,and the ski club. I am soon to be an eagle scout, and am 50% Peruvian even though I don’t look like it. Also I am in the most difficult classes in school and will be taking international bachaloriate (IB) junior and sinor year. My dad went there as a student and he met my mom a secritary at stanford. Do I have what it takes to get in to stanford?? Sorry about any mistakes, this was typed on my iPod touch.


  5. hey, first of all, thanks for the post, that was really helpful, I’m french and even though the system here is very different than in the usa, it’s my dream to study in an Ivy League university, preferably Stanford. I’m in Première S (“scientific 1 grade” with option engineering and spanish), i have very good marks (average of 17/20). I play the piano and tennis and I’ve been class representative for 4 years. do you think it is possible for me to study in Stanford?

  6. Hi, thank you so much for the helpful post.

    I’m a freshman currently. I was wondering if it is direly necessary to receive all A’s in high school. I got two B’s last semester (both in honors classes). How big of an effect is it? Do I still have a chance if I show improvement and take challenging courses?

    Also, does Stanford not accept weighted GPA’s?

    1. There’s no specific grade/GPA requirement. There is a general pattern, so you should review the profile of accepted students at As they say though, they consider an applicant’s entire application when considering so admission, so you shouldn’t judge your chances of being accepted only on grades, test scores or any singular criterion.

      As for weighted GPAs, I believe Stanford does accepted them, although they may ask for both weighted and un-weighted. (In the end, the thing to remember is that they do take into account whether your high school course load was challenging.) Of course, to be sure and for more details, you should contact the admissions office.

  7. i did bad freshman year, i got a 3.5 sophmore year, and i am now a junior taking two honors classes. i am in three clubs and do wrestling.i go to a very challenging catholic highschool that is well known. what are my chances of acceptance to stanford. i am also a minority

    1. It sounds like you are on the right track, working towards improving your grades, your courseload and extracurriculars.

      As I said in my post, there’s no minimum requirements necessarily and I can’t exactly tell you what your chances are, but again, check out the profile of admitted freshmen and transfers: I don’t know why they don’t advertise this page more, but it will help with many of your questions. If you look at the profile for the Freshmen Class 2009, you’ll see that the number of applications has now risen to over 30,000 and the acceptance rate has dropped to 7.9%. Based on these numbers, I do think that it has become more competitive than when I originally wrote this post in 2005.

  8. How could one find out what high schools Stanford looks highly upon?

    Would it be better for me to attend a public high school that offers the IB program, or a private Catholic high school? (The exact decision I will have to make this coming spring.)

    Thanks for your input.

  9. I go to a poorly-funded public school that has literally no extracurricular activities. I am taking all Honors and hard classes and making good grades and I volunteer at the zoo. Is there anything else I can do to help with extracurriculars?

  10. Hi, thanks for the good info. I am trying my very best to get into stanford. i know about all the extracurricular activities, teacher recs, and essays (all the uniqueness), including my SAT score. Beside all that, for now, i am only concerned about my grades. My average GPA is 4.1. i have taken many A.P. classes (mainly junior and senior year), my freshmen year grades were fine, and my junior and senior grades were all A’s. However….once i look at my sophomore grades (first semester) i had 2 C’s and mostly B’s except for my electives. That semester, my gpa ended up being a 3.0. Second semester wasn’t a problem, i got all A’s. I’m guessing this shows progress, however my concern is that once stanford looks over my application, then my transcript, once they see those 2 C’s, will their reaction be negative and throw my application aside?

  11. Kids, kids, kids. Read what Sindy has to say. She wrote it so nicely, and so many of you are just not listening to her. If you can’t write an articulate, coherent post on this blog without half a dozen errors, you certainly can’t write a compelling enough essay to get in. If you’ve gotten a few B’s and C’s in high school, you are not going to get in. If you are not a STANDOUT in your extra-curricular activities, you are not going to get in. And if your SAT scores are not above 2200, you are not going to get in. Thanks for a good writeup Sindy.

  12. Hi, I came across this while I was googling. Thanks so much for the article, it helped me a lot and I realized I might have to start worrying now. I’m a sophomore, and I have a 4.3 GPA so far (4.5 scale). Do I need to pull it up even higher? I take 1 AP class and 3 honors classes. I’m in MUN, Key Club, and two other clubs that focus on helping middle school kids learn English & fit in at school. I go to a very competitive American international school in Asia. What are my chances of acceptance into Stanford? A week from now I’ll have to decide if I want to be involved in the IB diploma program or the AP. I’ve heard that many American universities do not yet recognize (or give full credit for) the IB diploma. Is this true for Stanford as well?

  13. Hi, I came across this while I was googling. Thanks so much for the article, it helped me a lot and I realized I might have to start worrying now. I’m a sophomore, and I have a 4.3 GPA so far (4.5 scale). Do I need to pull it up even higher? I take 1 AP class and 3 honors classes. I’m in MUN, Key Club, and two other clubs that focus on helping middle school kids learn English & fit in at school. I go to a very competitive American international school in Asia. What are my chances of acceptance into Stanford? A week from now I’ll have to decide if I want to be involved in the IB diploma program or the AP. I’ve heard that many American universities do not yet recognize (or give full credit for) the IB diploma. Is this true for Stanford as well?

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