How do you get into Stanford University?

First of all, there is no magic formula that can guarantee your admission to a school like Stanford. The admissions office receives applications from the absolute best students in the world, and all of them have stellar grades, astronomical test scores, pages of extracurricular activities, glowing teacher recommendations, and essays they've slaved over for months. The Stanford Office of Undergraduate Admissions says that about 80% of students have the grades and SAT scores for admission and the rest is up to activities, recommendations, essays, and the like. So, the question is, how do you whittle down that 80% of qualified students to the 9% who are admitted?

Many people are surprised when someone who has a seemingly stellar resume is rejected, like a friend of mine who was valedictorian, class president, NHS president, an intern for a corporate attorney, had 1000s of volunteer hours, perfect SAT score, teachers who called her the best student they've ever had, and a double legacy (her father went to Stanford for undergrad and grad, a huge plus for admissions). Nonetheless, she was rejected.

What people don't think about is that Stanford's admissions is a competition on a worldwide level. There are 36,000 high schools in America. That means 36,000 valedictorians, 36,000 class presidents, and so on. So, those trappings on her resume are wholly unspectacular, because everyone has them. You have to have things that no one in the world has, otherwise, to Stanford, you are wholly unspectacular.

Also, you should realize that Stanford isn't looking for the best students: they're looking for the best people, the people who will be the most successful in life, the people who will become rich and famous, and uphold and enhance the Stanford name. I know people who were admitted with 1700 SATs and GPAs that barely but them in the top quartile of their class - and no, they were not legacies or minorities. The reason they were admitted is that Stanford realized that they will become great, while many of their perfect-scoring valedictorian peers are destined for a life of anonymity.

So, you ask, who are these people who are admitted? Well, one girl I know is the national fencing champion and a biomedical researcher. Another is the 20th ranked junior tennis player in the world and has been recruited for tennis at Stanford. Another guy started a photography business to take care of his impoverished family and wrote a fantastic essay about the obstacles he has overcome. Another won first place in the National Chemistry Olympiad and developed an educational computer program that her high school will use for years to come. Another girl was her state violin champion, a chemistry researcher, and a Juilliard professor said her violin playing was possibly the best he'd ever heard from a high school student. Another wrote 3 books in 3 different languages and ran a fashion show to raise money to bring clean water to rural India.

Can there really be 2,400 people who have that sort of resume? No. Some are accepted with slightly less amazing stories if they are an underrepresented minority (black, Hispanic, or Native American) or they are a legacy (one of their parents went to Stanford). And some , like me, feel like the admissions officer must've accidentally put us in the admit pile when we should've been rejected. But really, what I think happened with people like me - people who didn't win any national championships, write any books, make any breakthrough research discoveries, overcome severe economic obstacles, or run half-million-dollar fundraisers - is that Stanford saw something in all those recommendations, essays, and short answers a sign of untapped greatness; there was something that made the admissions officers think that we are capable of doing something amazing if given the resources of an institution like Stanford. I can only hope that I fulfill their speculations.

All in all, its practically impossible to predict your chances at admission to a school like Stanford. My best advice is to get out and do something. If you come up with an idea for a new gadget, or you see something you'd like to change about the world, or there is some skill or art that you excel at and that you love, get out and do it! Starting building that gadget, start that fundraiser or protest, practice at that skill. Then, when first semester of senior year rolls around, pour your heart and soul into that Stanford application, and maybe, just maybe, an admissions officer pouring through piles of essays, transcripts, and recommendations will stop at your application and think, This kid is destined for greatness: this kid is a Stanford kid.

More input

While I respect the opinions above, please keep in mind that there ARE specific things you can do to have a great shot at Stanford beyond simply working hard.

It all comes down to the application itself and how you TELL YOUR STORY. Essays, short answers, supplemental materials, and teacher recs are all critical pieces of that story.

At the end of the day, any machine can score 2400 on the SAT and 5's on ten AP tests. But very few can really sound like a unique individual with distinct passions and specific goals in life. Get those messages across and you'll stand a great chance.

Even More Input

I am a senior at Stanford majoring in Economics, and I whole heartedly second (third?) the opinions above. I got in on a 1350 SAT (old score), 30 ACT and a 4.2 GPA (Salutatorian in HS class). I was also a two sport All-League Varsity athlete from a medium sized public school in California. The Stanford coaches knew who I was but I was not officially recruited, although I eventually ended up on the varsity team.

As you can see, my "numbers" were well below many of those who applied. From what I've gathered from the admissions office, the numbers are the deal breakers, the essays and recommendations are the deal makers. Stanford gets plenty of valedictorians and 2400's on the SATs. What I mean by this is that the average kid applying to Stanford has amazing grades, tests scores and extra-curriculars. The biggest thing is that its about your expressed ambitions, experiences, and recommendations, rather than your metrics. Ultimately, its not about how many hours you put in to community service, but rather what it taught you and how you hope to apply to those lessons to your future goals. It's not about how many clubs you're in, it's about which club inspired you to do something great while you were a sophomore in high school. Quality and depth are definitely better than quantity and a unique experience is definitely better than many generic extra-curriculars (NHS, volunteering, etc.). For you HS freshman and sophomores out there, I promise that you will be much better off, both in terms of college admissions and personal satisfaction, if you dedicate yourselves to a few core areas (grades, sports, businesses, non-profit, etc.) rather than trying to spread yourselves too thin. For you HS juniors and seniors, it's never too late.

Stanford (and for that matter Princeton, Harvard, MIT, etc...) are all looking for the future leaders of the world, and they are looking for signals that show them that you are this kind of material. Grades and test scores don't show them enough; plenty of hard-working kids can do that. You have to show them intelligence + hardworking + leadership material. There were many of my peers that had many more "bullet points" on their transcripts. I got in because I was able to express, through my essays, the fact that my problems as a high school senior were trivial compared to the challenges my parents had faced as a college dropout and a two time cancer survivor, respectively.

Finally, I want to emphasize that a dedicated student will do great things at whichever college they attend. If you do not get into your top choices, don't worry. Motivation and hard work count for much more in the real world (and grad school) than the crap shoot that is undergraduate admissions. Keep working hard and commit to doing great things.