How to Get Into Stanford....By Someone Who Didn't


I wanted to go to Stanford since I was eleven years old. Since the day I set foot on Stanford’s campus, I studied my butt off in high school, did what I was passionate about, wrote and edited my Stanford essays years before I even applied, did killer extracurricular activities, and burned myself getting good standardized test scores. I read every blog possible and watched every YouTube video about how to get into Stanford. I was confident I would also get in, but not too confident, because I knew the acceptance rate.

I never really thought about getting a rejection letter.

For years, I compiled my thoughts about applying to Stanford into several Google Docs. After my rejection, I’ve been reviewing what worked, what didn’t, and how I would’ve changed my application to get in. I’m a lot wiser now, a lot more aware about the things I should’ve done, and less blind to what accepted Stanford students told me I needed to do.

Standardized Testing: the Thing that Matters Least

I knew this even while applying, but for some applicants it really hasn’t hit them yet. Tests don’t matter. Nor do they in life. As long as you have 700+s in each section of the SAT, or subject SAT, you’re fine. If you have high 600s, you’ll be okay if you’re low-income or a minority (black, hispanic, or an underrepresented Asian like Vietnamese). You’ll notice that accepted students on the internet who post “Got Into Stanford With Low _____” are a minority. And that’s OK. Stanford and schools in general need diversity, and historically minorities have been oppressed so they can’t pay to get top-notch levels of education or retake SATs to get higher scores. But I’m speaking the truth and the reality: you need above 700s if you’re not a minority to be accepted. Very, very, very rare circumstances may be otherwise.

If you’re wondering what my scores were, you really shouldn’t be concerned. Because again, all were above 700s. But, for those who care a bit too much: 1520 SAT (770M/750R), 780 Molecular Biology. On my application, I wrote that my race was White (Middle Eastern). If you were rejected and all your scores were above 700s, then you were rejected for a reason other than your scores…

Being Interesting: the Thing that Matters Most and the Reason You’ll Get Rejected

We like to think when you’re rejected from a school, especially a top school, it was because of any or some of the following: a low SAT/ACT score, a low GPA, a low class-rank, or extracurricular activities that don’t reach the state/national/international level.

But we often forget another thing entirely: we simply weren’t interesting enough. Before you call the cops on me, let me explain:

Since the beginning of high school, most of us (who are inevitably rejected) treat college as something pre-determined for us. We know we’re going to college, we just want to get into the most highly ranked school so that we get oos and aahs from other people. So then we tailor our extracurriculars to things that we like doing that we also think colleges want to see. We start a business, because we’re passionate about business… but also because we think colleges will love to see that we started one. Perhaps we start a cosmetic business, because we like makeup but also because starting a business is impressive…to colleges. We join clubs. We do laboratory research, because we like science and also because it yields tangible results that colleges will be impressed by. Perhaps we create nanoparticles and culture cancer cells.

But imagine if you never thought about college in your choice of extracurriculars at all? Would you pursue what you actually, truly love? Like…horse-back riding? Hiking? Would you binge-watch Korean dramas, only to inevitably teach yourself the Korean language? Would you repeatedly try to learn how to cook the perfect egg? Would you go to Washington D.C. and protest for human rights, and then get tear-gassed by the police?

The reason you were rejected was because of three things, which are all tied together: (1) to some degree or another, you think about college when you decide what to pursue, (2) you or your story isn’t interesting enough, and (3) you haven’t fully realized yourself. Let me explain:

When you start to think about college, you won’t pursue things like horse-back riding or protesting, perhaps because you think that its not “academic” or impressive enough. You won’t try over and over again to try to cook the perfect egg. Because you don’t pursue what interests you in the moment, you become bland. In your essays, you’ll talk about how how you made $1000 from your cosmetic business and how that was really hard to achieve, instead of laughing over how you fell down in front of 1000 people at a human rights protest. Instead of talking about how you love Korean dramas and taught yourself the language, you’ll write about how fascinated you are with Persian art…when truly, deeply, and literally…you’re not that fascinated with it. And now matter how much you embellish your essays with “it sparked my curiosity” and “I delved into the intricacies of _____ and found myself lost and amazed”, you’ll seem bland and uninteresting. And then, because you didn’t pursue the wilderness called life, you won’t fully realize yourself. You won’t see your vulnerabilities. You won’t see your flaws. You’ll become sheltered and blind to your faults and your strengths because you stay indoors all day. You’ll write essays that don’t reveal much about you, simply because you don’t know much about yourself. Your teachers will write recommendations that will commend you, but they’ll describe you in a way that won’t differentiate you from other bland, sheltered applicants.

You’ll think that you’ll seem interesting to the admissions committee, because you started, say, a cosmetic business (and you know no other applicant has done that), but AdCom won’t see it that way. They want people who are truly, really, literally, fully human. They want humans who are mature beyond their years, because they’ve been through narratives in life that seem so rare these days and perhaps a bit outdated. They want humans who can reveal their flaws, their faults, their insecurities, who are okay with admitting about the time they were racist or homophobic or unjustifiably angry, and who don’t care what others think of them. They’ve grown from their teenage angst or their ableist mindset, and become a better person. They’re not proud of what they did or maybe who they used to be. But instead of comparing themselves to another person today, like some other accepted Stanford applicant, they compared themselves to who they were yesterday. And they grew. They matured. They became unique, interesting, memorable, and impressive.
You weren’t rejected because you had low stats or bad extracurriculars. You were rejected because you were…boring.


Authenticity = Acceptance? Kinda.

Let’s face it. Some people’s authentic selves are simply boring. My “authentic” self is 99% composed of pedagogical philosophy. Bleh. If I was my “authentic” self on my application, I’d be reciting the words of Kant and Nietzsche all over my essays, over and over again. I would, without a doubt, be like the annoying little girl who bores her friends to death by talking about her crush over and over again.

I watched a couple of YouTube videos before and while I was applying, and there was a unanimous theme to them: be authentic. So that’s what I did. In my essays, I talked about how fascinated I was with art and philosophy and introspection. But my application became…boring. Yes, I was fascinated with philosophy. Yes, I was being my authentic self. But it didn’t make me memorable or interesting. And because I was too sheltered, too naive to truly reflect on my flaws and weaknesses, I became even more boring.

My common application essay I sent to Stanford was about walking. About what I think about when I walk for thirty minutes every day, and used it as a metaphor for destination. I realized after my rejection letter that almost my whole application-- especially my common application essay-- was so freaking serious. Other than the roommate essay, I never cracked a joke or laughed or cursed or did the things that made me funny or interesting. After my rejection, I ended up rewriting my entire common application essay…on bread. Yes. Bread. I cracked three jokes in that essay. For my Princeton application, I wrote a poem about my Dad’s love of Drake. I did indeed utter the word “ass” in that poem.

So by April 1st, I’ll edit this post to update you guys if my new insight helped me get into Harvard, Princeton, Yale, or Dartmouth. If I got into some of them, we’ll know for sure that interesting > authenticity.

Now I know that all of you are going to say: what the hell, Robab! You’re supposed to be honest in your application! Authenticity matters more than being interesting!

Well, duh. I’m not saying lie or be fake. I’m saying highlight the small, teeny endearing parts of you that make you interesting. Ask yourself: what do you talk about with your group of friends that makes your friends laugh? What makes them deeply interested in what you have to say? In other words, talk about your love of Korean television instead of your love of Immanuel Kant. No one is really that interested in hearing you talk about the latter.

The Importance of Specificity

So here’s my advice: to be interesting, first you have to stop caring about college, do the wild things that actually, genuinely interest you, and be a bit daring. Curse if that’s who you are. Reveal your flaws and vulnerabilities. But after you do those things, the next best lesson is to be specific. Things that are interesting are inherently specific. If a Stanford interviewer asks you, “What do you like to do on your free time?” and you say “read books”…um okay…yeah maybe, but that’s not specific. Everyone freaking likes to read. What if instead you said: “I like to read books about the theory of justice” or “I like to read books about the economic effects on Russia caused by crippling deforestation”. Now…we’re getting interesting. If an essay asks you, “what do you care about and why”, don’t say “memes”. Freaking everyone likes memes. Instead, what about “Kermit the frog memes, especially those where he’s drinking Lipton tea”?

Okay, but now you’re asking: Robab, how the freak do I be specific. I’m not that interesting. I slouch on my couch and chew bubble gum all day.

Uhhhhhhhh. Can you maybe chill???

Here’s how to be a specific self-reflector in five minutes: copy paste the questions down below into a word document, set a timer for 5 minutes, and answer each question in 5 minutes. The Rules? Don’t delete or backspace anything you type (even spelling errors) and type as much as you possibly can under the time limit.

Describe your room. Why did you design it this way?
Describe why you like what you wear.
Describe what you eat for dinner.
Describe why you watch what you watch on YouTube.
Describe why you like your favorite book.
Describe why you like your favorite subject.

Then when you’re done answering all the questions, review your answers. Does anything seem like it’s so unique to you? For instance, on question 1, I wrote “my black Michael Kors purse sits atop my black Ikea table next to a white bed and white dresser”. For question 3, I wrote “I eat salmon and carrots and rice nearly every dinner and I like it because its healthy”. Now I know two broad things about myself: I love chic black/white design and healthy foods. Then I can specify in my supplements or essays why these things are unique to me: my whole room is filled with only black or white objects, and I eat “salmon and carrots” literally every day. These little details make me memorable. In fact, if you asked my friends to describe me, they’d say I’m a health freak and that if you wanted to spot me in a crowd of a hundred people, to look for the girl with the black Michael Kors purse and red coat. Because that’s literally what I wear every. single. day.

And again: AdComs want people with interesting stories that make them human. Simply saying “I value health and fashion” or “I love design and draw sketches of cars” is too broad and describes many people. It’s the small things that are descriptive and make you, you.

The Interview

In your interview, be specific. When the interviewer asks, “what would you do with 1 million dollars” most people say something like “donate to charity”. This is amazing, but, what charity? Why that charity? What makes you want to donate to charity instead of start a hedge fund? Furthermore, when they ask “if you were to teach a class, what would you teach?” don’t say “math” or “science”. Be very specific, like: “I would teach a class on how transindividual power relations in a society change people’s behavior”. Again, these small details make you memorable, complex, and human.

Teacher Reccomendations

You want to pick teachers that fulfill as many of these characteristics as possible:

-They’ve known you really well. They even know the quirky, kinda awkward side of you. You should have talked to them for over two years in highschool and have gotten to know each other.
-They’ve written recommendations that get their students into great colleges, such as Stanford.
-They’re known to be a fantastic writer (typically an English teacher is a phenomenal writer)
-They’re a deep, thoughtful, and even possibly a philosophical and abstract individual, at least compared to your other teachers.

Here’s why:
-If they know you well, they will validate what you say on your application. This is great, since Stanford probably ranks applicants on how well they reflect their personality by matching what they say about themselves to what others say about themselves.
-Recommendations that get kids into Stanford are usually a great indicator that the teacher is a strong recommender.
-If they like you and are a great writer, they will be a strong recommender.
-Deep, thoughtful teachers can probably see things inside you that you aren’t be able to see within yourself. They add dimensionality and complexities to your application that make you seem more…alive.

Don’t pick teachers simply because:
-You’ve known them the longest
-You have the best grade in their class
-They teach the field you want to major in, and you’re afraid that if you pick a teacher who didn’t teach you for a field you’re passionate about it will look badly and incongruous in your application.

AP Scores

I’d employ either one of two strategies in reporting your AP scores: (1) report all of the ones you got either a 3, 4, or 5 on, or (2) report only the AP subjects that matter to you. Here’s why only reporting 5s is a bad idea: if you’re the typical kid like me with a good mix of 3s, 4s, and 5s, you may end up realizing that you got 5s on tests that didn’t matter to you and 3s on tests that mattered a lot to you. For me, for example, I could have cared less about the Calculus (5), Psychology (5), and Statistics (4) classes/scores but I really valued my English Language (3) and World History (4) classes/scores (in fact, I was getting teacher recommendations from my English Lang and World History teachers). If I just ended up reporting Psychology and Calculus, admit officers could have been confused as to what classes and scores I actually valued. So I encourage you to either be brave and submit all your scores, like I did, or send the ones that matter to you.
There’s also a super easy way to study for AP tests. It’s called Anki. People freak out about AP exams but if they have the right materials and the right mindset, they’ll be okay. You need a focused mindset to study for AP exams, but you also need good materials. Anki is the best material you can ever have to study for anything. Not Barrons. Not Princeton Review. Not Kaplan.

Anki is a flashcard software you can download into your computer. It’s based on cognitive science, and designed to maximize long-term memorization of information.

Listen: the reason most people do badly on exams is not necessarily because they didn’t study, it’s because they can’t remember. Ever studied for ten hours for a test, or crammed three hours the night before, and still got an F? That’s because you can’t remember the information well enough to recall it during the exam.

To use Anki, you type up your flashcards for a specific topic, and then you go through them. After every flashcard, you “rate” how easy/hard it was to recall the information on the flashcard. Depending on how you rate it, Anki will then repeat the flashcard to you some variable time later. It keeps repeating it until recalling the information on the flashcard gets easier and easier. And once it gets easier and easier, you retain the information on the cards for longer and longer, up to several years if you study them often. If you use Anki, there’s no doubt you can recall the information needed on AP exams, and will get 5s on them, no matter what prep book you use.

My experience with Anki? It took me from 3s and 4s on my exams to 5s. It took me from a 670 on my SAT Molecular Biology test to a 780 in two months. It brought my grades sophomore year from 6 As and 2Bs (taking 1 AP and 7 honors) to all 3A+s and 5As junior year (taking 6 APs and 2 honors).

The prep-book wasn’t what I needed. It was Anki.

And lastly: the GPA.

Your parents are gonna say it. Your teachers are gonna say it. You’re gonna say it. The whole world says it. But it’s wrong.
You don’t need a 4.billion GPA to get into an Ivy League.

Now admittedly, you do need a high class rank, most preferably the top 2%. Of course, class rank is not the best measurement for admit officers to see how much you can offer to a college, because every high school is different, and every class of seniors is different. So what you do need is a weighted GPA of above 4.0, an unweighted GPA of at or above 3.75, and a class rank in the top 5-10%. And that’s it.

Also, FYI: Stanford recalculates your GPA into their own scale called the SU6. Essentially the SU6:
-considers only academic (not PE!) courses and
-courses taken after freshman year.
-To calculate the new GPA: A+=A=A-=4.0, B+=B-=B=3.0, etc. Sum all them up and divide by the number of courses.

This SU6 helps admit officers calibrate all their candidates on the same scale, because some schools do 100.00 GPAs, some 5.00 GPAs, etc.

What GPAs did I have, you ask?
Unweighted: 3.86
Weighted: 4.29
Class rank: 11% (like…50/450 something people?)
Stanford’s SU6: 3.91

Thanks guys! Hope you can glean a lot of information from this post. But always remember: if you stop caring so much about getting into college, and you start caring about things you actually like doing, you will get into the college of your dreams and be the best person you can be.

Peace be upon all of you. Good luck.


@cuteraspberries first of all, i’d Like to say you are an amazing person who will succeed no matter what college you end up at. Your healthy lifestyle, intellectual curiosity and go-getter attitude will get you further in life than any college degree.

I am a mom to a junior who hasn’t been rejected from Stanford but might be in a year as well. But she will apply and take her chances next year. Whether or not she gets in probably won’t change my opinion of what Stanford is looking for, since my daughter is an “average excellent” kid who is not exceptional in the eyes of AO’s and her chances will depend on whether her essays and extra-curriculars appeal to Stanford or not. But I’d like to expand your thread and start a discussion for HS freshmen and their parents who are trying to figure out what to do during high school years if they’d like to play the Stanford admission lottery.

I agree with you about the test scores, they matter the least and once you reach a certain threshold, there is no sense perfecting that 35 on the ACT to 36. For the AP’s, I’d probably recommend reporting all 5’s and 4’s, but most importantly - choosing AP classes carefully in the first place. Just like in everything else, quality should always come before quantity, and while rigor is important, the overall narrative is more critical. Someone who has taken all AP’s offered by their HS but no fun electives might be less interesting who took a rigorous enough course load in their area on concentration, say STEM, and photography or ceramics classes. Anyway, HS curriculum is a huge topic fit for another thread, but to summarize, not just your GPA and course rigor matter, but which classes you take matter as well.

I would disagree with you on essays somewhat - the first rule should be “do no harm”. While it typically helps your cause to admit an endearing idiosyncrasy, flaw or even shortcoming, I would certainly stay away from topics of racism, homophobia, plagiarism, etc. Even mental health issues should probably be avoided if you can help it and don’t need to explain grades dip, etc.

Each college wants to see its students to succeed before and after graduation, bring the good kind of notoriety and of course express gratitude to their alma mater financially upon reaching that success. Stanford is no different. They want smart kids who can think outside the box, contribute to student life during studies and to bigger community upon graduation. So kids have two challenges - becoming the type Stanford wants, and then proving that they are indeed the type :slight_smile:

@cuteraspberries Read your post was amazing and very helpful.
Thank’s for share.
I know you’ll find a great place for you.
Good luck.


I’ve seen your posts for a long time and it was clear how much you wanted to get admitted to Stanford. Frankly, I was a little surprised you didn’t. I enjoyed reading your take on the process; you make some great points.

But let me say this: you are too hard on yourself. For one thing, you are obviously not boring. But mostly, you are leaving out of one of the most important reasons you did not get accepted. In a word, it’s “RANDOMNESS”. First of all, you have 47,000 applicants for 2000 positions. Secondly, and perhaps even more important, Stanford - and every selective school - is trying to construct a class consisting of a wide variety of students. They want students of different backgrounds, different interests, different approaches to life etc. etc. So in other words, there isn’t a single “formula” or “something Stanford is looking for”. You were more than qualified, and in another year or with another constellation of random factors you could well have been admitted. Though your guidelines are valid, ultimately a successful application to Stanford (unless you are an Intel winner, child of a very major donor, or a recruited athlete) is going to be part lottery winner, part dumb luck.

By the way, you’re going to be fine.

“you are leaving out of one of the most important reasons you did not get accepted. In a word, it’s “RANDOMNESS”.”

I did get accepted to Stanford for graduate school. To be honest I have never known why I was accepted while other great students were rejected. I have always assumed that I was helped by geographic diversity, strong GRE scores, and strong references (I had been working and got along very well with my boss). However, my undergrad grades were marginal for Stanford, and other strong students, including some with higher undergrad GPAs, are turned down all the time.

I do think that it is at best very hard to predict who will get accepted, and not fully possible to know why any particular person was accepted or rejected. Stanford or another equal sized school could fill an entire freshman class with very strong students who had been rejected by Stanford and have a class which is academically just as strong as the actual freshman class at Stanford. The same could be said of other top US schools.

Robab, you’re obviously a very interesting person. Unfortunately, there are many interesting kids with great grades and the whole shebang, more than Stanford can accept. I hope you get into a great school but I’m sure you’ll do just fine wherever you end up. Good luck!

It’s not random. They know the sorts they want and who leaves them lukewarm, at best. Kids could stand to understand what that is, not guess.

OP doesn’t know why she/he didn’t get in.

“If you were rejected and all your scores were above 700s, then you were rejected for a reason other than your scores…” Duh. There’s a full app and challenging supp. Not just a report of grades, ECs, whatever you feel like writing. Not just wanting them since lower school (as if that proves snything.)

Of course it’s not completely random. What I’m saying is that there is a significant element of randomness given the enormous number of applicants and the imperfection of the system, as well as the fact that AO’s are human beings with emotions and biases like everyone else. I mean, think about it, an AO is not some godlike creature: s/he is a modestly paid midlevel employee of Stanford who did not even necessarily attend college there. Because of that, I hate to see kids beating themselves up trying to figure out what was wrong with them that they got rejected. Sometimes you can do everything right, and still not get picked. There is simply no magic formula. (And btw, my kid got in.)

I found this a fun and interesting read, with much imbedded truth. Based on the few kids who have gotten in out of the dozens I’ve interviewed, there was indeed a sense of authenticity. But who is going to read this who is authentic? If you are on CC, you are trying hard to get in, thus not authentic. But you’re pretty damn close. Good luck to you.

Your post is important. You can still do everything right, and NOT be admitted to your first choice. It happens a lot. The colleges are looking who to give their golden ticket to. They have lots of buckets of “types” of students. The one who got picked ahead of you may have been in the same bucket, and they didn’t need another so soon.
Don’t beat yourself up. All you can do is work hard, and be yourself, and pray for a little luck. The good news is success is not dependent on the name of your college.

This applies to all hard to get into schools. The essays need to be unique, personal and interesting. They should create a sticky for your posts. Lots of good information.

Unless you have a specific HOOK (which includes, legacy, URM, being a great athlete, a big donation etc.), aside from very good objective data, you simply somehow have to make the ADCOM reviewer CARE about you. You have to somehow get the teachers who write LoRs for you to present you as a real person that they like, not just a student who is an awesome student.

Now, here’s the clincher: even if you do all of the above, you still might not get in because others did better jobs than you. It can hurt your ego to admit this, but some people probably did better job at connecting with the ADCOM reviewer due to their effort and some luck. It happens. You can’t be great at everything.

Now, here’s another, even bigger clincher. Even if you don’t get in and you end up going to other options, i.e., Honors College with merits, your state school with cheaper state tuition etc., you have no disadvantage in pursuing what you wanted to do at Stanford and being very successful at it, if you are really motivated.

What’s really important is your attitude and your dedication. You are the same you no matter which school you attended.

Case in point: A kid with very high stats (near perfect GPA, 1550+SAT and NMF) didn’t get into any top college and went to a mid level UC. He did very well in CS there, got a great job in cyber security with a top govt agency, a job many kids at top colleges would love to get.

To everyone who read this thread:

I know from school, she is one of my dearest friends and I just found this post!!!

In my opinion, she freaking deserved to get into Stanford! I was so shocked when she didn’t. If you knew her IRL, you would see how precious this human being is.

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Stanford is overrated, lol.
I hope writing this thread is cathartic for you OP. There are so many wonderful places out there that you can thrive, be productive, and be happy. Stanford just happens not to be one of them. Their loss.
Good luck.

The Stanford alumni magazine had an article about admissions:

The feedback in the following magazine issue was interesting also,