How to Get Into Stanford: 3 Actionable Tips


How to Get Into Stanford: 3 Actionable Tips

Whenever I tell people I went to Stanford, they usually congratulate me. I’ll respond with an awkward, “thanks” and move on. But while that validation feels great, I’m many times left asking the “why me” question. What’s the trick on how to get into Stanford?

For every top university, there are tens of thousands of applicants, thousands of straight-A students, and hundreds of valedictorians who don’t get in. And the gap between applicants and admits is only growing.

In 2016, Stanford topped the list as the most selective school in the United States. It only accepted 4.69% of applicants. So what’s the trick? How do you get a golden ticket to America’s most selective school? What's the answer to how to get into Stanford? 

The answer is: there is no answer.

There’s no formula or perfect common app activities list or GPA or test score or even amount of donated money that can guarantee admissions—at any top school. To hit home this point, Stanford’s Alumni Magazine wrote that “69 percent of Stanford’s applicants of the past five years with SATs of 2400 - the highest score possible - didn’t get in.” Sixty-nine percent! So, if students with perfect scores can’t figure out how to get into Stanford, where does that leave the rest of us?

First, let's ask: What is so great about Stanford?

We should tackle the why Stanford before the how to get into Stanford. What’s so great about Stanford? The 2017 US News and World Report college rankings placed Stanford as number 5. It is not the “top ranked” school and actually moved down in the rankings from the previous year - although, the US News rankings methodology is different than other sources. The inaugural Wall Street Journal and Times Higher Education Best Colleges rankings recently put Stanford at the number one spot.

But regardless of any rankings, Stanford is the most selective school. This data point is completely objective and perhaps the most important one to applicants.

In 2015, 42,487 students applied to Stanford - the largest applicant pool in school history. Out of those applicants, only 2,144 were admitted, leading to the largest freshman class in school history. Even if the Class of 2019 is larger than ever, the most recent admissions rate is still only 4.69%, making Stanford the most selective undergraduate school in the United States. Ever.

Again, why do so many students want to go to Stanford?

Its location in Silicon Valley is certainly a factor. Stanford’s relationship with Silicon Valley and the postgraduate opportunities this relationship presents students are unparalleled. UC Berkeley would be the next closest school, and it’s certainly similar to Stanford in terms of providing these opportunities. But nothing quite parallels Stanford’s draw from Silicon Valley. And when more and more students are interested in STEM programs or even the tech industry more generally, Stanford is the most appealing school.

Another aspect is Stanford’s Ivy-League caliber academics. What sets it apart from the actual Ivies though, is its location on the West Coast. This difference creates an entirely unique campus culture and atmosphere. Students looking for top schools on the East Coast have almost too many good schools to choose from. So, for students looking for the best academic school in the West, it leaves them asking: how to get into Stanford.

And while Stanford is drawing in these high caliber students, it is also drawing in the best athletes. The Stanford Cardinal have won the Director’s Cup (the award for best overall athletic school) for over twenty years in a row. At least one Stanford athletic team has won a national championship for forty years in a row as well. And in Rio in 2016, Stanford had the most American Olympians compared to any other college. Those are pretty incredible records, and they go to show that Stanford has perfected striking a balance between incredible academics and winning athletics. This balance is what draws in the best athletes, but this mentality is also what draws the best researchers or entrepreneurs or pianists or humanitarians. The school’s strive for “the best” in every capacity is pretty unparalleled.

Stanford boasts some of the best programs in the world - from Computer Science to Creative Writing. And while there is perhaps more interest on the part of the student body to major in the “techie” fields versus the “fuzzy” fields, it does not mean that one department is always better than the other. The faculty “includes 20 living Nobel laureates, 4 Pulitzer Prize winners, 18 National Medal of Science winners, 163 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 287 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 107 members of the National Academy of Engineering, and 29 members of the National Academy of Education.”

The strive for excellence is alive within each and every department, in every lab, on all of the sports fields. In any area, Stanford is drawing the best professors and faculty, which leads it to look for the best applicants to match.

Now that you’re dying to go, here are a few tips on how to get into Stanford.

1. Do Something Incredible

I know this sounds vague, but it is maybe the best way to get accepted, and it can be interpreted in any way that is of interest to you personally.

We can look at the hallway of my freshman dorm as an example case. On just my hallway of about thirty students, we had:

  • A NASA scientist who already had a job offer as a freshman
  • A published author who had two other book deals by graduation
  • The second Macedonian student Stanford ever admitted
  • A girl who started her own business that was featured on Shark Tank
  • A top-tier baseball recruit who was also drafted by the MLB out of high school

…and these are just some people on my hallway.

2. Play a Sport

Let’s take the last one as an example case of how to get into Stanford. This student turned down an offer to make a lot of money to instead get one of the best college educations out there. Personally, I think that tradeoff is worth it, and an admissions office would agree.

In terms of admissions, athletes may seem to have an easy way in, but that is not necessarily the case. Stanford is notorious in the recruiting world for turning down some of the best athletes in the US because their applications are not compelling or they do not qualify academically. The athletes who know how to get into Stanford are the ones like that freshman baseball player. Their athletic excellence is matched in the classroom, and they bring the hard work-ethic that top tier schools require.

Stanford also boasts a uniquely high concentration of athletes—about one in every eight undergraduate students participates in a varsity sport. This means that the school is admitting more athletes than most. So, yes, being an athlete helps.  

3. Create a Compelling Persona

To bring it back to the dorm example, if you look at these students, every one of them was hard-working and accomplished. But most of all, each student was unique. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to do something as incredible as “be a NASA scientist” when you're trying to figure out how to get into Stanford.

But you do need to stand out.

Think about your application in terms of the way an admissions reader will view it. The person reading your application needs to be able to remember you and advocate for you to the other admissions officers. A Former Admissions Officer from Stanford once said, "Stanford prefers lopsided candidates to well-rounded students." So, if you're wondering how to get into Stanford, think about what makes you angular or "lopsided" - don't fall into the trap of being well-rounded.

Create an application persona, or a theme, about who you are, why you’re unique, and what you can add to the school. You should build the best honors and activities list that will line up in theme with your essays and your letters of recommendation.

Good scores and a good GPA are always important when applying to top schools. But when you ask the question about “how to get into Stanford,” you need to answer it with a compelling, unique story.

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