Friday, October 25, 2013

A Freshman's Stanford Plan

Just over two years ago, my father received an email from a colleague who lives in Southern California regarding their son's desire to attend Stanford. This in itself was rather amusing as the only two connections I could surmise my father had with Stanford is that he would "do rounds" with medical interns on a semi-regular basis and that he works and lives close to the Stanford campus. My father, in turn, forwarded the email to my wife (a middle school counselor in the Bay Area) and myself, asking for advice.

The email from my father's colleague began by introducing their son, then a 9th grader at a talented Southern California high school, and the groundwork they had discussed previously to reach the goal of enrollment into Stanford Undergrad. Perhaps half serious, the parent suggested that his son would need to aim for a 5.0 GPA, score 2400 on his SAT's, and to be the best or one of the best at something, such as golf, acting, or science. Their plan was to map out the 9th grader's classes, activities, sports, community service and other involvements over the next four years to solidify the son's resume for entrance into Stanford in 2015. 

What I responded with was a thousand word rant on how their mindset would destroy what should be four of the best years of his colleague's son's life with recommendations on how they should approach the college enrollment acceptance process.

Below is a modified version of the email, edited for privacy concerns and spelling errors contained in the original diatribe. 

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Dad,

I will ask around to see if anyone has any recommendations for someone with expertise in college (and specifically Stanford) admissions. That said, I can't think of anyone off-hand. 

To be somewhat blunt, if you're just now in 9th grade trying to figure out what you need to do to get into Stanford, it's probably too late and the wrong course of action. Most of the kids I've seen getting into Stanford (athletes not included) as well as some of my friends from high school who attended Stanford back in the day all have many of the following characteristics in common:

1) They are sickly smart. They don't just have great grades (which they do) but they just are smart. They process amazingly fast, spend their weekends thinking of Internet start up concepts, and just comprehend difficult, out-of-this-world concepts with ease.

2) They are very personable and social. While this doesn't hold true for every Stanford attendee, I believe that many of them are very outgoing, socially aware, interview very well, and are very inclusive with most they meet.

3) Their parents are heavily connected to Stanford. Perhaps their mother attended Stanford 30 years ago. It's possible that their grandfather donated a significant sum of money to the athletics program. While these are rare cases, it is very helpful for one's entrance into Stanford to have these connections.

4) They are involved in high school or private team athletics and did very well therein. In fact, I often see these students outperforming expectations based on their actual physical abilities, something I suspect made possible by their innate intelligence and willingness to try harder and practice longer than the students they're competing against. 

5) They are involved in the school newspaper, school yearbook, or ASB, almost always as an editor in chief or additional leadership role. Three of the four Editor In Chiefs from my high school newspaper attended Stanford, the fourth Berkeley. Also, not only do they participate in these student groups, but their efforts often win awards and are recognized on a local, state, or even national stage.

6) They clean up nicely and socialize well. These are students who combine business etiquette with a solid EQ (emotional intelligence). Essentially, they're very well rounded, driven, and able to mix well in most situations. 

7) Activities... they participate in more than just a few activities and also take a leadership role in most of these student groups. They don't join these groups to pad their resume. They join because they want to make a difference. Many of the students who joined every club and completed lots of community service just for their college application weren't accepted into the college of their choice. I feel like college admission offices see through the differences between these two types of students. The kids I know who got in to their first choice actually like to participate, enjoy volunteering, and seem to lead these efforts for non-extraneous reasons.

8) Lots of Advance Placement class. I'm guessing at least PreCalc, English, US History, Psych, Econ, and Bio, at a bare minimum. Knowing a language and travel overseas to that locale is always beneficial as well. Not only do students need to enroll in these classes, but they should be performing near the top of their class and taking the exams in May as well. 

9) I can't speak to all of the applications, but the "letter of introductions" I've read from students and my friends who did as well as those who didn't get in feel substantially different. It makes a huge difference in the story you tell as many of the students who apply have all of the above characteristics. Here, you're able to set yourself ahead of the other applicants. Students who got into the college of their choice definitely had the better letters. I found them to be mature, but not necessarily adult-esque. Their introductions would tell a story that somehow communicated their achievements and obstacles without cliques or bragging. The letters also didn't seem forced nor too far outside of the box. The successful applications often talked about life challenges, perseverance, and a mindset for growth.

(At this point, I segued into the numbers game of gaining acceptance into an Ivy League / Stanford-type school - Todd, 2013)

And beyond all of the above, approximately only 7.2% of applicants get accepted into Stanford (for 2013, this number has fallen to 5.69%). If we were to assume that 20% of the applicants really aren't "Stanford material" (i.e. do not have the grades to make the "first pass" through admission), that's really less 10% of qualified kids getting into the school. Having worked with many students at the high school level who applied to Stanford, I was amazed at who did and didn't get in. I'd go as far as to say I was stunned by some of the rejections; these students could not have done anything more to improve their candidacy. On the flip side, one of the students who did get in had every characteristic listed above, a complete set of numbers 1-9.

(Now, I switch the email tone to best influence my father's colleague's mindset on how they should approach his son's four years in high school - Todd, 2013)

So my best advice for your friend and his son would be something different than what they're requesting... Instead, I'd suggest the following:

Enjoy high school. Try your best. Be ok and willing to fail. Take a few calculated risks. Don't settle for the "easy A" and always balance your schedule with electives you're going to enjoy and grow your passion therein. Have a love of learning, a positive mindset that encourages you to improve, and participate in things you enjoy, but do so only for your enjoyment and not for your resume. Spend time with your friends. Get to know everyone you can. Be nice to everyone you meet. And here's the big one: Don't start freshman year with a plan to go to Stanford. Even if you manage to get in, you'd have wasted four of the best years of your life for something that is not going to define you as a person and honestly, probably isn't the best college for you anyway. There are thousands and thousands of colleges, many of which you may not have heard of, and the differences between them are slim. Spend your time traveling around the United States and get to know where you want to place roots for the four years after high school. Lots of kids go to the "name" school and then find themselves home after year 1, refusing to go back. As an educator, we see way too many students (and parents on behalf of their kids) say they want to go to Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Duke... To pigeon hole yourself with these kinds of thoughts isn't healthy for the short nor long term, in my honest opinion. His son is 14 and needs to be 14. It's all going to work itself out, one way or another. It's ok to have a goal in mind, but to be an entering 9th grader and have your heart set on one school is just not a good idea. As an educator and hopefully a future parent, I'd want to counsel my child on a better growth mindset that involves a love for learning and a sense of peace and acceptance to be at the college that's best for them, not just because it is Stanford, Harvard, etc.

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My father forwarded my email to his colleague who was very gracious in receipt. They remarked that my thoughts allowed their family to have a frank conversation about their motivation for wanting the Ivy League / Stanford education. Truthfully, my sense is that my words did not detour their path, which is ok. I hope to receive an update in 18 months to see what school their son will be attending for college. I wish them the best and hope that high school has been and will continue to be a rewarding experience.


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