About once a month, I get an email from a student in high school (and sometimes middle school) who wants advice about how to get accepted at Stanford.
They want to know what they should be doing to prepare for college applications – what clubs they should join, what sports they should play, and what activities they should get involved in. They want to learn the “secrets” that will make themselves appealing to admissions officers.
There is No Silver Bullet
The truth is that there are no “secrets” that will get you instantly accepted at your dream college, be it Stanford or any other college. The college admissions process is really, really random. I have friends who got into incredibly good schools but were rejected from much “easier” schools. College admissions depend on lots of details and circumstances that are just really out of your control.
However, all is not lost. I have a few tips (they are really just patterns that I’ve noticed) that should increase your chances of getting accepted at Stanford.
Stanford Admission Tips
It’s hard to say exactly what Stanford is looking for, but I’ve noticed that most Stanford students (especially techies and engineers) have several traits in common.
Love of learning. Every Stanford student I know loves learning for the sake of learning. That is, they want to learn stuff not to make money, not to get a good job, not to impress teachers, but because they genuinely enjoy learning new things.
Curiosity. If you don’t understand something, do you just accept it and move on? Or do you insist on finding out the answer, researching it online, and trying to teach yourself if necessary?
Risk-taking and Entrepreneurial. Have you ever attempted something which seemed impossible? Or, have you put a substantial amount of time into a personal project that had a significant chance of failing? Even if your project ultimately fails, the fact that you frequently take risks and try to do stuff that’s innovative puts you in a whole different category than most people.
Independent. Stanford students are generally independent thinkers. They read broadly and form their own opinions about politics, philosophy, and life. They aren’t bothered when their opinion differs from the majority’s. In fact, they often go out of their way to learn about the other sides' arguments.
Passionate. What do you love to do? When I was in middle school, I wanted to know how websites and the Internet worked. So, I decided to teach myself. I learned by reading articles online, skimming chapters from programming books at Borders whenever my parents visited the store, and through trial-and-error. I got hooked. I’ve been obsessed with the Internet ever since. You should find a passion and become an expert at it.
Highly motivated. It’s not enough to “want to change the world” or “bring about world peace” or whatever other lofty goals you can come up with. You have to actually do stuff. What have you done so far? If you’re an engineer, you should build stuff — websites, games, tech demos — on your own or at school.
Athletic. You need to play sports. It’s okay if you’re not the next Michael Jordan or Steve Prefontaine. As long as you’re committed, passionate, and improving your game (or track times), then you’re a student-athlete, which means you can balance multiple commitments and manage your time well.
You can make yourself stand out by trying to develop these personality characteristics, or if you already have them, by emphasizing them in your application.
The best advice I can give you about essays is to let your voice shine through in the essay. Don’t let your parents, teachers, or whoever else you get to proofread your essay edit out your personality. You want to be a little bit risky and edgy. Don’t try to be overly formal and academic.
Remember to make it interesting. You need to tell a story about your life. It should be compelling and genuine. The admissions officers need to feel like you are a real person that they would want to meet and even hang out with.
In my own essay, I talked about how I’ve always been fascinated by technology and computers ever since I was a kid. I give a lot of credit to my parents and talk a little bit about my childhood. I also talked about my goals and dreams.
Be careful here, though. If you spend too much time talking about your goals and dreams without justifying how you’ve already started taking steps to achieve these dreams, then you’ll seem like you’re all talk. For example, I wouldn’t say “I want to end world hunger and poverty” unless you’ve already done stuff in high school that works towards achieving these goals. If you’ve got the goods to back what you’re saying, then you’re in good shape.
What are my chances?
Lots of people I know thought that it would be impossible to get into Stanford — that they were not good enough, or that they wouldn’t be able to afford the tuition even if they got in, or lots of other excuses that they invented. So they didn’t apply.
It’s true, Stanford is really difficult to get into (the latest stats say that 7.2% of applicants get accepted – it was 9.5% when I applied). But that’s why it’s worth trying for!
You Miss 100% of the Shots You Don’t Take
Like I said before, the admissions process is really, really random. It’s worth applying just because of that fact alone. You’ll never know if you don’t apply.
In addition, a lot of the other issues like unaffordable tuition isn’t an issue anymore, because financial aid is so great these days. Stanford meets 100% of your “calculated need” — which is really awesome. 87% of Stanford students receive some type of financial aid.
Long story short, definitely apply.
So that’s it. Those are my Stanford admissions tips and other assorted ramblings. I wish you the best of luck in the admissions process. I know how scary this time can be, but it all works out in the end. Good luck!
Now that I’ve written this up, I’ll finally have a page to point people at when they ask for Stanford tips.
(If you liked this, you might like Travels in Japan.)