Former Stanford Admissions Officer Answers Your Hardest Questions - ASK ME ANYTHING!

Michael Colin Short is a former Stanford admissions officer, attorney, and educator who’s coached students applying to college for the past decade. When Covid-19 hit, he founded Admitium and created a YouTube channel to offer his expert college admissions advice to anyone who wants it—regardless of your zip code.

Students shouldn’t have to seek out college admission advice. Schools should be transparent about exactly how they rate and review your application. But too often their advice is unhelpful because it’s too general. They say things like, “Be yourself.” But what does it mean to be yourself in a college application? And how do you be yourself in such a compelling way, that some stranger wants to pull you out of a super-competitive pool and advocate for you to attend their school?

@MichaelCShort is here to help you figure it out. Ask him anything!

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As an admissions officer were you suspicious of highly polished application essays that you read ?

Good morning and thank you for being here. My DS has top stats (4.0 UW/4.7W, 1570 sat) and very good ECs (varsity sports, leadership, lots of service). My question for you is about the importance of rank for the Ivy and Ivy-like schools. DS is #1 now of 450 at respected public HS, but will likely get first B in a high level college science course through dual enrollment typically only taken by engineering students. He’s undecided on major, but it’s not engineering. How will the B affect admissions when reporting first semester grades?

How do you gauge test scores from different parts of the country or even within sections of a large city where certain populations (affluent) are far more prone to access coaching, practice, etc?

How do AOs evaluate homeschooled applicants? Is there an underlying assumption of lack of rigor?..thinking primarily of those schooled by parents, vs. enrolled in high quality online schools/programs.

Do you recommend homeschooled applicants take more standardized tests, such as APs and SAT subject tests?

Are homeschooled applicants at a disadvantage in highly selective college admissions?

Can baller ECs and a URM tag make up for a 3.5 GPA at T20s?

Does Stanford take into account geographic diversity within the United States? For example, if one were to apply from a public school in a small, extremely underrepresented state, and was just as qualified/compelling of an applicant as someone from, say, the Bay Area, would geography be a difference maker here?

@Publisher I usually wasn’t. When I presented students to committee for consideration, I almost always read one of their best lines of writing. But some admission officers were suspicious. For example, I remember raving about one student’s writing, and the Dean asked me a form of your question: How do you know it’s their writing?

You don’t know. If the writing is terrific, it’s terrific.

But sometimes you do spot an indication in the file that the writing shouldn’t be that good. For example a low writing score or something mentioned in a rec. letter. And we did audit a few random applications when I worked at Stanford.

When I was suspicious, it was usually due to inconsistent writing: A student’s personal essay sounded like Twain, but the writing describing their activities or addressing a short popcorn question (“Favorite historical moment?”) looked much different.
–MCS

how much does the interview matter for Stanford? If we receive an interview, does this mean Stanford is giving extra consideration to the application or that we passed an “academic baseline”? Or is it truly random… Thanks!

In your honest opinion do you think that students applying “test-optional” with no SAT/ACT score will be disadvantaged compared to those who apply with strong test scores? Are colleges going to favor students with scores over those with no scores?

Stanford gets a lot of economics majors. How do applicants stand out from the crowd in a popular major like this?

@NChopeful21

First, I’m guessing your son applied Early. If he earns an acceptance, I don’t see that B changing anything. But even for Regular, I don’t think it will hurt him too much. It sounds like an advanced engineering course and he has plenty of academic firepower to put people at ease that he’s prepared for difficult courses. And I’ve made versions of your point when I advocated for a student who had a bad grade: “She has a B in calculus but she’s coming here to major in creative writing.”

Often, when you earn a B or C in a high school class, it’s helpful to take an SAT II, AP, or college course in that subject and earn a top score or grade. That arms your admission reader with another helpful piece of data to put committee members at ease that the student is academically squared away. Something for you to consider, but I bet your son has top scores in math and science already.

A few more general thoughts on rank and rigor:

-Rank is really shorthand for talking about grades. At the best schools, more than one semester B can be hard to overcome. That said, some of my favorite admits had one or two Bs, even a C, so it’s not a hard rule.

-Rank also comes up in another way: Most readers review applications by school, and if possible, sort by rank or GPA and read the top students first. But we read to find the most compelling students–and numbers are the most uninteresting thing about students. So I had no problem (and Stanford had no problem) taking a kid ranked 15 if they had a more compelling application.

-If you have mostly As, rigor is more important than rank. For the very best schools, students must be taking the most demanding schedule available to them. The operating rule at the top schools is that if you want to take Stanford or Harvard-level classes, then you need to earn As in an AP or community college-level class. (Of course, in reality there’s major grade inflation at most top colleges and most smart students would be fine taking most Stanford or Harvard classes.)

Being first in your class does get mentioned in committee. But when there’s around 40,000 high schools in the US alone, there are at least 40,000 valedictorians every year. And schools like Stanford and Harvard can only take around 2,000 students. So rank, testing, grades–they are necessary but not sufficient. No one ever got admitted to top schools because of their numbers. Right now, I would focus as much as possible on what your son can control: his writing and maybe adding a new activity that supports his academic interests.

–MCS

@MichaelCShort: Thank you for your thorough & candid response to my question.

P.S. I wrote this myself.

How do you feel about the FERPA policies that allowed some Stanford students a couple years ago to view parts of their admission files? I sometimes think it would be an interesting thing to see, but other times I wonder if seeing a “judgement” would change how I see myself for the negative.

When dealing with undecided major applicants how are they viewed? I knew what I did not want to do applying to schools, but not what I did want to do. I wish there had been a way to specify “I don’t want to do these super-impacted things” and undecided. I’m pretty happy with my degree choices now being in college, but still have little idea of what I’d like to do after graduation.

@rickle1 There’s one standard for evaluating testing. If an admission officer advocates for a student with lower test scores, sometimes they will make an argument like the one you allude to: the scores are more a reflection of access to test prep than an accurate measure of the student’s academic abilities. That analysis turns on an individual review of the file more than what part of the country the student comes from. But admission officers know the schools they read and take into account how a high school in the Central Valley differs from Exeter–and, ideally, they want a student body that comes from both places.

Admission offices are filled with folks who care about access to education. So they’re well aware of the issues you raise with testing. That gets discussed and considered. But at the top schools, you usually need top scores. The applicant pool is just too competitive–dream up a student profile, and there are students out their with that profile who also have top testing.

This year, however, if your school is test optional, don’t submit scores unless you love them. There’s no chance admission offices will disadvantage a student who doesn’t submit scores this year.

–MCS

@Mwfan1921 The same standards apply. But in practice, your questions are concerns shared by admission officers: We are already highly skeptical readers–a student with all As from Mom gives us pause.

So yes: a high quality online school or program is preferable to a parent. And for a homeschooled applicant, we’re going to have to give more attention to scores. I would recommend that the student take as many APs and SAT subject tests as they can.

And no: I don’t think they’re disadvantaged. A homeschooled student is rare, so they stand out and will get looked at closer just based on having an unusual profile. But the student will want to add any other evidence to their file to convince us they are academically prepared for a top school. For example, a letter from someone they’re doing research with, winning a writing competition, placing in a Science Olympiad.

–MCS

@bigdreamsnowork It’s possible but rare. Consider a school like UCLA ranked #20. Last I checked, their Profile of Admitted Freshman showed more than 100,000 students applied and they took 14%. For admitted students, only a quarter had unweighted GPAs under a 3.92 based on their 10th and 11th grades. In other words, only a quarter of admitted UCLA students had one semester-B on their transcript.

Hi! My 11th-grade DS has been a standout stem student (A in multivar in UCB math dept at 16, qualified for Regeneron ISEF which was then cancelled, admitted to COSMOS which was then cancelled, USACO silver level, has won an international Codewars contest). He is also a fine English and History student, and was a NSLI-Y Mandarin scholar last summer. Effect of 8-months of covid isolation or just natural evolution of a teen, DS is now less interested in anything stem and more concerned with long walks in wilderness, meditation and history class, and is starting a (necessarily on-line) meditation club at school. How will this change of focus in junior year seem to the AO’s at Stanford or other similar schools? And what are some extracurricular outlets for a deep interest in history that you might suggest? (Apologies if I have posted this twice – new to CC and just learning how it works!)

@squ1rrel There was no formal training on geography as I recall. Our marching orders were always: find the most compelling students. I read most of Silicon Valley, most of the Northeast, and parts of the Central Valley. I’d present my best students, and we would vote. Those students were in. Then my colleague who read, let’s say Washington, would present their students and we’d vote. Procedurally, there was never a comparison moment–like, “wait, let’s go with the student from that small town in Washington over Mike’s student we previously admitted from Boston.”

Your suggestion makes sense though: All things being equal, schools want diversity in all its forms–including geographic. So I’d imagine that if the class is missing someone from North Dakota, a student from that state would get the edge for that reason. But that type of geographic consideration didn’t come up in my committees and was above my pay grade–something the Dean might deal with in reviewing the whole class.

–MCS

@stanman1112 When I was at Stanford, our interview process was relatively new. But in my experience, the interview was often more of a screener to catch students with red flags. (For example, a student who presents as arrogant or rude.)

Interviewers don’t get the same training as admission officers and since they’re not exposed to the pool of applicants, often they don’t have a sense for how competitive a 4% acceptance rate really is. So they usually write reports that sound like most recommendation letters: they’re standard positive and not that helpful.

But just like those unusual recommendation letters where a teacher calls a student the best in their career, an unusually good interview report can be a helpful addition to your file. (Based on my review of materials from the Harvard lawsuit, interviews seem to matter more in their process.)

But the interview isn’t an indication of passing an academic baseline or anything. They’re just offered based on availability.

–MCS