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A Visit to Stanford


Today I spent a couple of hours at Stanford University.  It was my first visit to the campus, and I was part of an organized tour for college counselors.  We were given a brief professional overview of the admissions process, and then we went on a student-led tour.

Here’s a brief overview of what I learned from DeAngela Burns-Wallace, an assistant dean of admission (and, I may add, an excellent spokesperson for Stanford).

This was a record year for applications to Stanford.  The office of admission received 31,000 applications for admission, a whopping 22% increase over last year’s numbers.  Ms. Burns-Wallace speculated that many factors led to this increase, including the economic turmoil, continued demographic shifts, the changes in early admissions policies at some of its peer institutions, and the fact that Stanford has very rich financial aid packages, especially for those students from families of modest means.  In addition, Mr. Burns-Wallace credited the Dean of Admission, for ramping up Stanford’s recruiting efforts to attract more and more outstanding applicants.Stanford University on a gray April day.

Of these 31,000 applications, Stanford admitted only 2300, for an admissions rate of 7.6%–a figure that nearly identical to Harvard’s admit rate in 2008.  Of these 2300, Stanford is aiming for a class of 1700 first year students.

Applications at Stanford are read first by territory, and then at least one or maybe two other individual readers examine each and every file.  Then the file moves to a committee of at least four admissions officers, and depending on where the applicant falls in the process, the file may even come to a committee of the entire staff.

Stanford has a “restricted early action” admission program for those students who are certain that Stanford is their first choice.  Nine percent of early applicant were admitted, making it slightly easier (statistically speaking!) to be admitted early.  But the admissions crew was very cautious in admitted students early, in part because of the difficulty of predicting eventual numbers of applications in the regular admissions pool.  Stanford doesn’t hesitate to reject applications outright in the early pool, and 14% of early applications were deferred to the regular admissions pool.  Of those who were deferred, 10% of those were offered admission.  Ms. Burns-Wallace stressed that if an applicant is deferred to spring, it is because the admissions office feels that the candidate is a viable applicant with many strengths.

During the Question and Answer period, many of the counselors asked good questions that elicited helpful information from Ms. Burns-Wallace, and from an undergraduate student who was on hand to provide the student perspective.  Here is a rundown of the questions and the answers.

Questions and Answers

  1. One counselor asked a rumor she had heard that Stanford was somehow required to admit a certain percentage of applicants from the state of Califonia.  The answer is no.  Ms. Burns-Wallace explained that 40% of the applicant pool is from California, so naturally a relatively large percentage (33% this year) of accepted students were also from California.  Obviously this is a big state, Stanford is in California, and as with other colleges, the home state of accepted students reflects the composition of the applicant pool.

    Stanford University Library2.    Another counselor asked which programs are strongest.  The answer is that all are top notch.  Ms. Burns-Wallace stressed that the advising system at Stanford is also quite strong, so every student has the opportunity to explore a variety of different disciplines during their undergraduate program.  However, the student piped up to say that three programs, in particular, have grown in popularity in recent years:  human biology, product design, and earth systems.

    3.    In response to a question about international admissions, Ms. Burns-Wallace (herself a former Foreign Service Officer in Beijing) highlighted the deep collective international experience of the admissions officers.  Several of the admissions officers have strong overseas experience, and several have been reading international application for years.  In addition, there is an committee dedicated to international admissions.  The only difference in the process is that international applications are read with an eye to the student’s ability to pay:  international admissions is not need blind.  Few international students (about 30 this year) receive any financial assistance to attend.  It’s important to note, however, that American citizens living abroad and permanent resident aliens are considered within the “regular,” need blind admissions pool, and are not really considered “international” students.Bikes at Stanford University

    4.    The Stanford supplemental questions to the Common Application are super important in the admissions process.  The admissions committee is best able to discern one’s true interest in Stanford in the answers to these questions.  in addition, they are able to get a strong sense of how the student thinks.  What is important with most of these questions (as in most essay questions offered up by just about any college) is to explain not the “what” of the question, but the “why.”  Thus the committee is not looking for “right” answers to the questions.  They are looking for genuine, creative, interesting, and revealing answers that give the reader a sense of the writer.  They seek students who have original ideas, whose minds are burbling with curiosity—and the wherewithal to turn that curiosity into questions—and answers.  Stanford does not seek out intellectuals who are purely theoretical thinkers. Stanford searchers for doers, people who will relentlessly pursue solutions to problems of whatever sort.

    5.    In this vein, both the admissions officer and the student representative stressed the “entrepreneurial spirit” of Stanford.  The focus, again, is on seeking solutions, not on sitting around in contemplation of how many angels dance on heads of pins.   Stanford students are not geeks: they are smart folks who want to solve problems and create stuff.

    zi6_03476.    Our hosts stressed that Stanford’s campus is big.  Huge, in fact.  Eight thousand acres.  Getting from place to place on foot can take sometime.  So having a bike on campus is key—everyone’s favorite mode of transport.  Biking is so common that lanes have been painted on the walkways and bikeways, and even a traffic circle has been installed in at least one busy biking intersection to cut down on accidents and frustration.  And this was borne out on our tour—bikers zipped in and out and around our group.  Being a pedestrian on this campus can be a bit unnerving, because everyone seems to be mounted upon a two-wheeled conveyance.

All in all, I enjoyed my visit to Stanford, and feel fortunate to have finally been able to see this renowned campus for myself.

Mark Montgomery
College Counselor


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