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How to get into Stanford – the value of being a maverick and playing sports

by John

Stanford admissions help and advice for high school students

Okay so now let’s talk about Stanford.

Stanford is unique in that it’s technically not an Ivy League school and yet it’s at the caliber of probably the best Ivy League schools in the country.

Stanford is different as well in that it’s the only school of its caliber on the West Coast and in addition has a rich history of fostering entrepreneurship, risk taking, and has a close affiliation with Silicon Valley.

Unlike many of the Ivy League schools, Stanford was built later – thus its institutions are not quite as old and established, but at the same time that’s whats encouraged a lot of the innovation and maverick attitudes that you’ll notice there (both in its administration policy as well as its student body).

It’s always hard to say exactly what a specific college or university is looking for but there are definitely things that you can do to help yourself stand out.

At Stanford the three big areas I would encourage you to look into are:

1. Athletics

Because Stanford has an amazing athletic program across a bunch of different sports. In fact they won the Sears cup, which is given to the college with the around highest performing athletic program in the country, for a ridiculous seven or eight years in a row – it might be even more now!

Stanford has won the Sears Cup for I don’t know how many years now as the nation’s top Division 1A overall sports program – while its’ football and basketball teams may not be AP Top 25 year after year, the school wins a ton of championships across all sorts of sports, from lacrosse to soccer, from swimming to golf.

Not only that, but the university has a very strong club sports and intramural program. Most undergrads (and a lot of grad students) participate in all sorts of sports from ultimate frisbee to kickball.

2. Entrepreneurship and risk-taking

Again, Stanford has a very close affiliation with Silicon Valley. It’s also well known for breeding successful entrepreneurs and that reputation for excellence in startups, for excellence in innovation, and for excellence in initiative-taking has really been a boon for Stanford in both college admissions as well as business school admissions

President John Hennessy was himself a former advisor to Google and tech entrepreneur, having made millions back in the day. Famous names that were Cardinal grads include Google’s Sergey and Larry, Yahoo’s Jerry and David Filo, the founders of Hewlett Packard, and numerous consumer web and mobile startups today.

If you’re looking to start a company, this is the place to be. Sand HIll road is just down the street from campus, and has basically a who’s who of top venture capital firms looking to fund the next Facebook – from Kleiner Perkins to Sequoia.

3. Finally I fervently believe that Stanford really encourages a student spirit of independence and somewhat of a maverick personality

So now that we know the three things that the Stanford admissions committee likes: athleticism, entrepreneurialism, and independence:

What can you do as a high school student to maximize your chances of getting into Stanford?

Number one, you need to play sports.

I would encourage you get started early well before high school.

If you can’t then try your best to make a varsity team in high school. Great ones include track and offbeat sports like wrestling/judo because they can be easier to join (depending on the school and program, of course)! By getting a few varsity letters you’ll really help boost your “student-athlete” profile which is something Stanford really respects and looks for in its accepted students.

Even if you’re junior varsity, that’s ok! What AdComs are really looking for is a track record of upward progress, commitment, and passion. In particular, leadership roles on these teams is doubly impressive.

After having spent 4 years as a Stanford undergraduate, I can comfortably confirm with you that many, many students (easily more than half) had varsity high school sports experience in some form, and many were far better than that!

Number two, you need to work at a startup or try to start a company of your own. The second is clearly preferable because you’ll gain an incredible amount of experience and respect for even attempting such a task.

It’s not easy – and again, you can really boost your chances by getting the help of your parents. The smartest thing to do is to figure out the areas where you’re really passionate about – if it’s model car building, consider starting a blog about model cars and then selling model cars via the internet.

If it’s ballet, consider providing ballet lessons to elementary school students for free and start a “teaching company” off of that by renting space at a local dance studio.

These are the types of things that are very innovative and different, and by doing them and then “telling those stories” extremely well, you really put yourself ahead of the pack in Stanford admissions.

At the very least, you can do something as simple as starting a blog that talks about your passions and experiences. If you went to Boys State, blog about it! If you did a summer at Research Science Institute (RSI), talk about that experience and why you’re passionate about biology/chemistry/physics research! If you did a Telluride Association Summer Program (TASP), talk about that and how it’s affected your outlook!

Basically, what I’m saying is don’t just upload Facebook photos and Tweet out pointless updates. Really build a written track record online of your interests and extracurriculars.

Finally, number three is independence and “maverick-ness”. I know it’s vague, but these are more personality qualities than they are specific criteria.

To make it practical, I would suggest that in at least one of your essays, really talk about how you made a hard decision, took a principled stand, or did something where you had almost no support from family or friends but you did it because you believed passionately in it. This could be that you run for student council president when no one thought you could be elected. It could be the story of when you started your ballet teaching company and everyone thought you would fail.

Really telling that story – of how you independently pursued your dreams against the criticisms of others – is something that Stanford admires as a spirit in its students, and is something that every high school student has demonstrated at one point or another. The secret is to make that come out in at least one of your essays.

Feedback is critical. You have immensely smart people around you – from community college professors to your AP teachers to admissions counselors to your friends and family. Get their feedback on your Common App essays and short stories as much as you can.

AdComs and admissions readers will notice and appreciate higher quality work – and part of that is knowing that you’re not going to be the best writer in the world and could use some help. Just be smart about what feedback to take, and what to ignore.

One thing to remember is that just because you are waitlisted does not mean the end of your journey. Although Ivy League schools often encourage students not to submit additional materials beyond a midyear update, I think its PERFECTLY ok to send additional information and updates if you’re serious about getting off the waitlist.

Now there is a balance to strike – don’t send something new every week. But it’s ok every month if you have something IMPORTANT to report (like a new scholarship or national honor, or a major new piece of artwork/music composition you’ve put together). Make clear that you’re committed to the school.

Honestly, what you can do is really limited – AdComs typically pick people off waitlists based on composition of the student body – basically, as an example, if a lot of technical/strong-math students don’t take Stanford’s offer and decide to go to MIT/CalTech, they may admit more students off the waiting list that got high scores on SAT Subject tests in Math II or scored a 5 on the Calculus BC AP test. Be patient.

And now that Stanford does alumni admissions interviews – I’d bring it up there too! You can bet that one of the questions you’ll be asked is exactly when you’ve “bucked the trend” to do something independent and entrepreneurial. Be ready for it.

Common questions asked during Stanford’s alumni interviews include:

-Tell me your story – spend no more than 2 minutes talking about your high school, your extracurriculars, your summer activities. Focus on your biggest accomplishments and why Stanford is a great fit for you. Bring up a campus visit if you made one

-Describe your biggest accomplishment – here’s where you discuss that Westinghouse Science Fair award you won, or the year you were all-regional on the gymnastics team, or when you won a prestigious literary/writing prize

-Why is Stanford a good fit for you? This is where you bring up the campus visit, the discussions you’ve had with current students, the stuff you’ve read on College Confidential or College Prowler, and how that fits in with your personality. You can re-use material from your Common App essays and short answers

In a future post, I’ll write about all the different admissions interview questions and best ways to respond.

Applying to Ivy League schools? Learn how average students can get into Stanford.

Want to attend Ivy League schools? Check out my insider’s course and guide to getting into Harvard, even with a 1360 SAT from a public high school.

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