So you want to go to Stanford. You've made a 4.0 grade-point average. You've shown yourself to be a well-rounded person with your exhaustive list of extracurricular activities. You've submitted your application to the admissions office, including a creative essay that reflects your exceptional skills.
There are 16,135 applicants for the 2,500 freshman slots at the West Coast's most prestigious university. And there are more than 2,500 applicants who also have a 4.0 grade-point average plus an equally impressive record of social, athletic and creative activities. What to do?
Give it your best shot and try to understand that admissions is an "emotional roller coaster" and an "imperfect art," said Stanford University admissions dean Jean Fetter, who spoke last week at Laguna Beach High School to students from local Gifted and Talented Education programs and their parents.
The messages they received were: "start early," "take as many difficult courses as possible" and "do what you want to do," not just what you feel you have to do to get into college, said some of the three dozen parents and students--some as young as 14--who came to obtain Fetter's insights on her own career and what might give them an edge in the "subjective process" of college admissions.
Grade-point averages of 4.0 increase an applicant's chances, but by no means guarantee admission, Fetter told the group. "A 4.0 at School A is not the same as a 4.0 at School B or a 4.0 at School C," she explained.
Also, she said, admissions officers at Stanford recompute grade averages of applicants by tossing out electives and counting only the solid subjects, she said. They also rely on high school counselors to determine if the students took advantage of the most rigorous courses available at their particular high school.
Although no one with less than a 3.6 grade-point average is admitted to Stanford, Fetter said, it is equally important to show evidence of "personal achievement outside the classroom" such as in athletics, art, music or drama. For instance, some successful applicants have taken a year out of high school to organize a political campaign or train for athletic championships, she said.
The chair of the Stanford drama department auditions applicants interested in drama and places an evaluation in their admissions folders, she said. Others submit tapes of their music or portfolios of their art.
Applicants also are asked to submit essays on topics that are different each year. For example, one topic was, "Whom would you most like to spend a day with and why?" The most popular answers were: "my grandfather," "Jesus Christ" and "myself." Others included "a typical Russian teen-ager," "my mother" and "the admissions director," Fetter said.
This year, the question was, "If you could authorize a new holiday, what would it be and why?" One applicant suggested "National Release of Aggression Day." Another suggested Nov. 20 as a day of "mourning and remembrance" for the loss of an important Stanford football game.
Fetter shared a poignant two-page essay submitted as an addendum by one obviously exhausted, desperate applicant. The girl wrote she was "spoiled" and had "goofed off" a lot in her high school career.
"I have no excuse," she wrote, "nor will I attempt to offer any justification for my shortcomings. . . . I would dearly love to go to your school, and I will sink everything I have into it if admitted, but I will no longer affect pretensions of unsullied scholarly sainthood, of being the ideal bright, well-rounded, well-grounded, multifaceted, focused, dedicated, productive, creative, warm, energetic, motivated, cooperative, hard-working, friendly, active and especially 'unique' student.
"I am only a person, a 16-year-old person, dog paddling along in the proverbially and oh-so-cliched river of life. . . . "
The writer, Fetter said, was admitted.
Quotes from Emerson
Another successful applicant included on his application his idea of success as expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."
The Stanford admissions office received another letter from a frantic applicant begging school officials to disregard her math scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test because she had mismarked the answer sheets by one space consistently throughout the test. As it turned out, however, her math score was 730 out of 800. "Then, we really didn't know what to do--what if she had marked it right?" Fetter said with a laugh.
After Fetter spoke, one young man hesitantly zeroed in on a basic issue: "What's the advantage of going to a prestigious college?" he asked.