It May Not Be What You Think.
"I don't want to apply to Stanford mom; I'll never get in."
- Senior in high school
"My daughter wants to do more and more because she wants to get into Stanford. When is it ever going to end?"
- Parent of high school sophomore
"You don't have a chance at Stanford. You'll never get in."
- My own principal in high school hearing of my desire to attend
It seems like everyone has a preconceived notion of what does or does not "work" to get the coveted congratulatory email from Stanford University. And in my business of college counseling, it seems like many, many parents and students want to go to Stanford because of what the university represents: a symbol of success, opened doors, unparalleled opportunities, and access to some of the smartest people in the world.
As with any coveted brand, I believe there is some truth and some fiction to peoples’ preconceived ideas about them. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder which, to me, means that there isn't a right or a wrong way to think about Stanford. I have a particularly unique insight into the university, having both attended and helped many students get through high school, prepare their Stanford applications, and elatedly scream when they get in (upon opening the acceptance email in front of his family, one of my students yelled and proceeded to run outside and down the street in his socks).
As a result, I have seen both the intense pressure students put on themselves (and, sometimes, the pressure parents put on their children) in order to somehow stand out among the approximately 50,000 applicants vying for the 2,000 or so spaces (4.7% acceptance rate). I personally had an incredibly amazing time at Stanford--one in which my eyes were opened to new possibilities that I hadn't ever imagined. Being the first in my family to attend college and the third from my urban, public high school to ever get accepted, I thought Stanford was like some kind of Shangri-La when I first stepped on campus.
Never had I ever, nor I have I since, interacted with such smart, interesting, and funny people. At the same time, looking back, the truth is that I never spent so much time sleeping and playing Frisbee in my life. This is not to say I didn't work hard; it's just that the reality of attending didn't magically give me a golden ticket to riches and happiness in life--no, I was (and am still) responsible for achieving those things myself.
I also wish that when I was 17, I knew what I know now, so I wouldn't have stressed out so damn much when I was in high school: Stanford is not the end all be all of life, and Stanford doesn't only accept "perfect" students.
A couple of years ago, I had a student get accepted with a 4.1 GPA and a 32 ACT score. Now if you don't know what this means, it sounds pretty damn impressive, and to be fair, it is. However, there were students in his grade with 4.5 GPAs and 36s on the ACT who didn't get in that year. In fact, he was one of only two in his class to get accepted and people couldn't understand how it was possible. "He wasn't an Olympian, a minority, or a trust fund baby," someone remarked to me after they had heard the news.
Dig a little deeper, however, and you can see just why he got accepted and how Stanford evaluates its applicants.
At first glance, he might seem pretty typical--he played in his school orchestra and volunteered at several Special Olympic events each year. He seemed so typical, actually, that his school counselor told me that me that "He really doesn't stand a chance of getting into Stanford, especially given the competition he is up against in his class." What his counselor didn't know, however, was what this boy did in his spare time.
He collected fish from around the world. In middle school, he thought chess sounded interesting and started to read books on it and play as much as he could with anyone who would play him until he got ranked. He had taken his musical background and taught himself how to play several more instruments via YouTube videos and began making his own songs on his computer. He became interested in sustainable farming and created a garden in his backyard.
Now, interestingly, he didn't win the Intel Science fair or build an orphanage during his summers. What he did do was pursue authentic interests simply because he was…wait for it…interested in them. He didn't do any of them to "look good" for college. He didn't join clubs to put them on his resume. Instead, he wrote his personal statement about how he loved being an autodidact and talked about how he met some of the most interesting people thanks to his hobbies (even the fish collecting).
This student might not have been the top student in his class. However, he was genuinely interesting. In other words, while many people look for an angle, the secret to standing out, he was just himself. When you are an admissions officer and you read 1,000 applications from students who (while impressive) are trying to sound impressive, it is refreshing to read about someone who is just real, who wants to learn for learning's sake, and who is willing to be vulnerable--someone to write about who they really are in their application. If you talked to this boy, you would probably like him, and this is the way his application came across. I'd want him on my campus because I believed he would be someone to bring others together and someone who would take advantage of what Stanford has to offer.
While the boy also got into other top schools, it was Stanford that shocked everyone. However, if you look at Stanford's application questions, it becomes even more clear that the university--more than many of the other top schools--is looking for something more than just smart and accomplished. After all, while a school like Cornell has only one supplemental essay question, Stanford requires 11 pieces of writing. This just goes to show that they want to see many sides of a student beyond grades and test scores.
So while your child may not play an instrument or want to study chess, this is okay. I have many other students who weren't such self-starters who also got accepted. The commonality among all of them, however, is that they tried things they were interested in and organized their time in order to explore opportunities (even if they played sports, acted in theater, or were school president).
The bottom line is that it doesn't take perfection to get accepted into Stanford, it just takes some curiosity and some gumption to follow through where most others do not. And the best news? If a student goes through high school looking for authentic interests, they will most likely end up becoming more interesting people…regardless of where they attend college.