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What It Takes

How does Stanford's undergraduate admissions staff decide who gets accepted? Short answer: It's complicated.

Ashton Worthington

By Ivan Maisel

THE GOAL OF THIS PIECE is to demystify college admissions at Stanford, because explaining nuclear physics is just too simple. Clarifying Middle East politics, solving the Riemann hypothesis, defining love—anyone can do that. Let's tackle a subject with some heft to it.

As my late grandmother would say, "Oy."

Few topics invite more analysis, envy, code-breaking, speculation and hope than college admissions. Across the United States, applications to elite universities have mushroomed. More than 35,000 students applied to Harvard last academic year, vying for 1,664 spots. Princeton handled 26,498 applications to fill a class of 1,291. At Stanford, applicants totaled 38,828, an all-time high; 2,210 were accepted, or slightly less than 1 in 17. In the coming years, the odds, like afternoon shadows on the Quad, will only lengthen.

A generation ago, college admissions boiled down to a teenager, a pen-on-paper application and a 13-cent stamp. Oh, for the soothing presence of Dean Fred Hargadon, Stanford's own Lincoln, the towering presence who dispensed cracker-barrel wisdom and fat envelopes to the parents of the current legacy applicants.

Dean Fred is nearing 80 years old and hasn't been employed at Stanford since 1984. When he spoke in Dinkelspiel Auditorium at my 25th reunion, in 2006, he bemoaned the state of admissions then.

"I was lucky to be in admissions the years I was in it," Hargadon said. "I mean, 10,000 or 15,000 applications is plenty. I think Stanford had almost 23,000 last year. I don't know how you get your arms around that."

It took about 30 years for the number of Stanford applications to double, from 10,000 in the mid-1970s to 20,000 in 2005. It took only seven years for the number of applicants to nearly double again.

Admissions Graph

That growth has many mothers. Brand consciousness and a belief (not shared by Stanford admissions people) that success is measured by entry to one of a handful of elite schools is part of the cause. The rising cost of college—and concerns about the value of a degree—has hastened this phenomenon as families gravitate toward well-known schools with strong reputations. The emphasis on rankings such as those compiled annually by U.S. News & World Report exacerbates the fallacy, says dean of admission Richard Shaw, "that if you don't get into a top 25 school, you're doomed."

Whereas applying to multiple schools once required separate applications and processes, students today can apply to as many schools as they like (assuming they can pay each school's application fee) with the push of a button. And robust financial aid programs have made it possible for students from lower- and middle-class families to aspire to the very best private universities in the country, with out-of-pocket expenses below what they would pay at a public institution, Shaw notes. That means the larger applicant pools are also more diverse than ever, creating more competition among all cohorts.

The Stanford admissions office is no longer a small group of officers discussing each applicant. In the last academic year, the University employed a staff of 52—dean, assistant deans, admissions officers and part-time readers—to cull through all those applications, each of which includes several essays, recommendations and a transcript. That averages to slightly more than 746 applications per reader. Officers are responsible for territories defined by state boundaries, countries or zip codes. (Los Angeles, for example, has five admissions officers dedicated to it, in addition to officers working in Ventura and Orange counties.)

If you ever have doubts about the future of mankind, apply for a job reading applications to the Farm. You will be awash in intelligent, directed teenagers doing outstanding work. Shaw estimates that 80 percent of the applicants are capable of handling the academic load on the Farm.

Assuming 15 minutes for a standard application review, admissions readers collectively spend a minimum of 9,700 hours evaluating 38,800 student hopefuls. Add 30 minutes or more to absorb each of the most complex files. It used to be that every application would be read twice. Now, only one reading is guaranteed, although—thanks, Mom and Dad—every legacy application still gets two sets of eyes. "In the Fred days," says assistant dean of admission Debra von Bargen referring to Hargadon, "one person could read everything or at least read it after everyone else had gone through. You can't do that anymore. It's impossible."

The process is the same in each of the two admissions cycles—restrictive early-action (November 1-December 15), and regular (January 1-April 1). Admissions officers do their reading, making notes in the time-tested Stanford method of mnemonics; CPE, for instance, means "See Personal Essay." In the latter half of the cycle, reading gives way to decision making. Committees composed of admissions officers (typically three or more) and either the dean or an assistant dean, who serves as chair, convene to hear officers present their candidates and field questions. Then there's a vote. If a majority agrees, the candidate is admitted; otherwise he or she is denied, put on the waitlist or moved to a larger committee for further review.

The committee system is a means of quality control, Shaw says, a hedge against bias that may creep into individual officers' perspectives. "I don't massage the results," he says. "Our people do the important work on the front end to really understand who these kids are, and at the end of the day I feel very strongly that the kids we identify are really exceptional."

The typical university today is "not really able to think about what the class is like," says Ralph Figueroa, '87, director of college guidance at Albuquerque Academy. "It has to be thinking about what the class appears to be like statistically." But Shaw says differentiating among thousands of high achievers is more nuanced than looking at numbers and correlating ability.

"I go all over the country and the world and everybody wants to know the formula," Shaw says. "Especially in other parts of the world. Their systems are very formulaic. If you do this, if you get this national score, the odds are really extraordinary [that you will be accepted]."

Here is where the black and white melds into gray. Here is where Shaw uses phrases such as "intellectual vitality" when describing what Stanford looks for in an applicant. "It's a holistic evaluation," Shaw says. "Of course academic credentials are important, but we're also looking for evidence that this young person has a passion, that he or she will bring something to our community that is unique. We want to hear a 'voice'—that's a critical component.

"There is no formula," Shaw says. For the alumni of a school that resides on the forward boundary of the digital frontier, where arrays of 1s and 0s have transformed life as we know it, this is unsettling. Even perfect test scores don't guarantee admission. Far from it: 69 percent of Stanford's applicants over the past five years with SATs of 2400—the highest score possible—didn't get in.

Moreover, applicants aren't just competing against other stellar scholars. They're also competing against circumstances. "Whether or not one young person gets in is not necessarily determined by what they've done and what their characteristics are and their abilities and so on," says Provost John Etchemendy, to whom Shaw reports. "It also depends on the overall mix of people who have applied that year and bubbled to the top. So one year, being a tuba player might be really important. And another year, well, there are already these five even better tuba players and we don't need another."

Cardinal head football coach David Shaw, '94, doesn't sign quarterbacks only. He tries to build a team. So, too, does Rick Shaw. That's where the word "holistic" comes in. Stanford, in addition to wanting superior scholars, also wants to bring in a pre-built community populated by kids from every stop on the geographic, socioeconomic and talent spectrums.

"When [Stanford] takes students," says Figueroa, who, as an admissions officer at Wesleyan University was profiled in The Gatekeepers (2002), "you can often see they are not taking just a number. They are taking the personality, the talent. They are taking the contributions that aren't always obvious at first glance. I see it firsthand with my own students who apply—who gets admitted and who doesn't."

Shaw acknowledges that part of the evaluation is subjective, which makes a denial of a superior candidate all the harder to accept. "We leave behind extraordinary young people. There's not a constituency that isn't upset. That's not only true for alumni children. My consolation prize is that I know those kids are going to be fine. They may be disappointed for a while, but they will wind up at very good schools and do very well."

MARIE BIGHAM IS DIRECTOR OF COLLEGE COUNSELING at the Greenhill School in Dallas. On the wall in her office is a large map of the United States. "One of the things I always remind families," Bigham says, "is that we are one great school in one city in one country. I try to really paint the picture of the vastness and the talent in a Stanford admissions pool."

She points to the map.

"I say, 'OK, let's assume there are approximately 10,000 high schools in the United States, just the United States,'" Bigham says. "'Let's assume the very best students from only half of those high schools all apply to Stanford. That's 5,000 of these very best kids, just in one country. Stanford can only take half of those kids, because they don't have the space. They don't have the beds.'"

Bigham reminds her parents that when a university gets done filling its institutional priorities, be they linebackers or physicists, goalkeepers or astronomers, there are even fewer spots.

One of Stanford's biggest priorities, as it is at most universities, is the bond of legacy. The percentage of alumni children admitted to Stanford is roughly three times the overall percentage of acceptance: somewhere in the mid to high teens. Nevertheless, there are many more 'no's' than 'yesses' each year. It is, says Stanford Alumni Association President Howard Wolf, '80, "the point at which the University is most vulnerable in its relationship with its alumni."

Shaw is a strong advocate for considering legacy status in the overall student assessment, but emphasizes that it is only relevant if the student is competitive in all other aspects. Yet he and his colleagues understand that no amount of explanation, no description of the rigor and meticulous attention given to evaluating prospects will console the family of a talented student who is denied entry, especially if Mom or Dad is a Stanford alum. "There will always be a desire for clarity, and that desire will often be thwarted," notes von Bargen.

Parents, Etchemendy feels your pain. The provost was a legacy who got the thin envelope from the Farm.

"My hopes were set on Stanford," Etchemendy, PhD '82, says. "My mother was a Stanford graduate; there were all these reasons I thought I was going to get in. And I didn't get in. It was a crushing experience. I feel very acutely what these kids feel like when they don't get in. I'm very sensitive to that."

I AM IN THE MIDDLE OF THAT STAGE IN MY LIFE where I am very interested in admissions. I have two children in college and one in high school. For many American parents with teenage children, the college decision looms like a signal moment that will help shape their kids' lives.

Three years ago, I wrote an essay for this magazine on the feelings I experienced as our daughter, Sarah, applied, got accepted and enrolled at Stanford. The gratification that I felt as a parent and alumnus came with a side order of unease. The fat envelope—or, in today's parlance, the magic email—now arrived with an aura. It felt like a commodity, like a home on the Cape or flying private.

My generation of parents gets wrapped up in our children's applications, the way we wrap ourselves in everything they do. Yet, when it comes to the biggest decision of our children's lives, we must stand aside.

Sarah's experience has been her experience; that is, she has gone through the ups and downs that all of us endured, emotionally and otherwise, in college. And we as parents have whiplashed through them with her. But I can't pretend otherwise: Her presence at Stanford has been an enormous gift to me.

It has rekindled my love of the University and revived memories long dormant, both good and bad. I have restored the autopilot that used to direct me from History Corner to Tresidder without thinking. I have reconnected with the Stanford Daily, where as a student I spent as many as 40 hours a week. The food at the Dutch Goose is as good as it was 33 years ago; the beer just as quaffable.

And I have taken it all for granted. Sarah applied, and she got in, and I never gave another thought to what might have been. Not until I spoke to my '81 classmate Bill Shirley did I understand the emotional wallop of a Stanford denial.

I didn't meet Bill until after we left Stanford. We live within an hour of one another in the commuting suburbs of New York. We married women who didn't attend Stanford and we both have three children. We made annual donations to the Stanford Fund of a similar amount for many years.

Bill is a passionate guy, and with every ounce of passion he could muster he wanted his middle child, Oliver, to enroll at Stanford. In the fall of Oliver's senior year of high school, Bill and Oliver flew across the country to see the Farm.

"I was completely and utterly shameless in promoting the place," Bill says. "I was conscious of it. I said, 'Look, Oliver, you may not get in here. You may not want to come here. But I'm not going to pretend.' And this was in the convertible I rented as we drove [highway 280] and dropped down into campus with XM radio tuned into the Grateful Dead, the top down and a beautiful day.

"I said, 'I am so thrilled to have a son that can genuinely throw his name in the hat. I am so thrilled,'" Bill went on. "That certainly translated into some kind of pressure. He knew I would be very upset if he didn't get in. Not because of anything he did or didn't do but because I so wanted the opportunity for him. But what I tried to do to mitigate it was to emphasize how thrilled I was to even be there with a child of mine, particularly since this is in the context of his older brother, who is autistic and very below average functioning on that spectrum."

Oliver is a year younger than my daughter Sarah; he had better SAT scores and more extracurricular activities. Sarah applied early action and got accepted. Oliver applied early action and got deferred and, four months later, denied.

"I was so bitter," Bill recalls. "I wasn't angry, but very bitter and upset. I came away knowing I was at a fork in the road. I had a very good friend and colleague who went to Princeton who went through a similar process with his children. He said to me one day, 'You know, Bill, Princeton is dead to me.' I realized I was at a point where I could slowly let Stanford die for me or I could try to re-engage and figure out a new relationship to the place."

Von Bargen, the assistant dean, is the point person for dealing with alumni. When an applicant indicates that he or she is a legacy, the admissions office checks with the Alumni Association, which responds not only with a yes or no but also an indication of whether the alum in question has maintained his or her connection to the school. Shaw sends a letter to the alum with von Bargen's contact info.

"Sometimes people say, 'Do you know I've given money? Do you know I've led (this committee)?'" von Bargen says. "We really don't. We know which people are engaged. But exactly what they do, how much they give, we have no idea."

After the decisions are disseminated, von Bargen gets plenty of contact.

"I never hear from anybody [whose child] is admitted," she says. "When they're unhappy, they'll have somebody to listen. We do not change decisions, but we will listen and sympathize. A lot of it is trying to say, 'we care. Yes, you are special, and it would have been great'. . . . And some people won't let it go for years."

Bill called von Bargen. He wrote a long, agonized letter to Shaw, laying out Oliver's credentials and asking for an explanation. Shaw answers every letter, bending over backward to explain the difficulties of admission and slipping in a line that there are no appeals.

Bill seethed, and he obsessed, and he wondered how his school could do this to him. That fall, as Oliver began his college life at Pomona, Bill returned to Stanford for his 30th reunion. He had dreamed of standing with his college buddies, having a glass of wine in the Rodin Sculpture Garden before the seated Dinner on the Quad, and having Oliver stop by to say hello. He had actually thought of that.

The alumni sat on the Quad on a typically wonderful autumn night, the weather that Stanford students eventually take for granted. President Hennessy spoke to the alumni who had gathered from all over the world, from the Class of '41, celebrating its 70th year since graduation, to the Class of '06, returning for its first official reunion.

"He talked about his vision of the University being an agent for change in the world," Bill says.

As Hennessy spoke, Bill began to reorient his vision of Stanford. The more he considered it, the more he understood that it wasn't the right fit for his son. And eventually he came to terms with it. "I certainly understand why Oliver isn't there.

"I'm pretty much at peace with Stanford—I don't love it as I once did: unabashedly," Bill says. "But I'm still proud of the institution and of my being an alum."

There is one more thing.

Five years ago, as Stanford intensified its search for high school seniors with intellectual vitality, the admissions office began what was then a pilot program of alumni interviews, aimed at providing one more data set when evaluating prospects. In 2011, shortly after he returned from his reunion, Bill Shirley began interviewing Stanford applicants in the metropolitan New York City area.

Ivan Maisel, '81, is a senior writer at ESPN.

More from Stanford

First lines from the application essays of Stanford's Class of 2012 (published 2008)

To judge from its first decade, Stanford admissions always set a high bar (published 2012)

Roommate Roulette (published 2003)

Comments (10)

  • Mr. Ken Whitney

    Nice article Ivan.  If my daughter decides to apply to Stanford, I'm hoping by then the school will have implemented a wise strategy of accepting every Class of '81 legacy.

    Posted by Mr. Ken Whitney on Nov 1, 2013 8:27 PM

  • Mr. Alex Kline

    Repeat after me: "Never get your hopes up for admission to a school that admits less than ten percent of its applicants."

    Perhaps Stanford should post a Hall-of-Fame of extremely well-qualified legacy applicants who were denied.  Names not included of course. There could be matrices of such factors as amounts donated by parents (six, seven, or eight figures), astronomical GPAs and SATs , extraordinary extra-curricular accomplishments: "She was a concert violinist-circus-contortionist who won a MacArthur Award!"

    Fortunately, in the end it doesn't matter much.  The kids who "should have" been admitted but end up at some other extraordinary school will be just fine.  Mom 'n Dad might get misty-eyed about Alma Mater, but as our Brave New World marches on, junior will stumble onward too, without the gilded crest of a sheepskin from the Farm.  And the planets will continue in their eternal solar circumnavigations.

    Posted by Mr. Alex Kline on Nov 2, 2013 1:54 AM

  • Ram S. Duriseti, M.D.

    An excellent article overall, but some of the claims don't seem quite accurate.  Clearly the admissions office knows "who is who".  The children of a tenure track faculty members clearly get preferential consideration -- as do the children of 7-figure donors.  In fact Mr. Maisel, your relative prominence may have benefited your daughter quite a bit.  I wonder if your friend Bill has ever touched on this possibility ...

    Posted by Ram S. Duriseti, M.D. on Nov 2, 2013 2:25 PM

  • Katherine J. Ludington, M.D.

    Great article!  Thank you.  As the mother of a Sarah who will be applying in a few years as well, I too hold out the hope of her success in this intense process.  There is nothing more we can do as parents but wish the best for our children and cry with them when something goes awry.  

    Posted by Katherine J. Ludington, M.D. on Nov 2, 2013 4:22 PM

  • Mr. Sanjay Arora

    Thank you for providing some clarity to an otherwise totally mystifying process!

    Posted by Mr. Sanjay Arora on Nov 5, 2013 3:07 AM

  • Ms. Thuthuy C. Nguyen

    We thought we knew how difficult it is to get admitted to Stanford but we did not know it is that challenging and competitive.  We feel so blessed that our son was admitted to Stanford Graduate School of Chemistry in 2009.  We are amazed of Stanford's vision and leadership.  Stanford excels in everything it does.  Yes.  The best school deserves the best students.

    Posted by Ms. Thuthuy C. Nguyen on Nov 5, 2013 9:16 AM

  • Ms. Lusijah Sutherland Rott

    I appreciate seeing this topic addressed. I have been a staff member for 25 years, in support of the research mission of Stanford. My daughter was denied admittance first and then was admitted after her second application.  I am profoundly grateful that she is at Stanford. I can also say that I have no real understanding about the basis of the two decisions. After the first application, I was broken hearted by the institution that I deeply admire and have been privileged to serve because of the unfathomable admissions process and how this impacted my daughter.

    I am happy to hear Provost Etchemendy acknowledge injury to young people.  It does do this.  To think these young people will no doubt find a place at another institution misses something important.  What is the message given to outstanding high school students when there is a non-visible set of criteria that give preference to factors having nothing to do with achievement? Yes, children of faculty, coaches, very wealthy, politicians, and of course alumni get a better shake. Meeting the aspirations of high school students applying to Stanford is an unseen, unequal playing field.

    I have thought about how the admissions process might be different, less personally damaging to those very deserving students who are denied admission while at the same time acknowledging that there is a sizable group of applicants whose achievement merits admission.  The Stanford admissions is about making it personal, this was the message to incoming freshmen.  Stanford chose you. Why not make it less personal? Why not have a group of applicants whom are deemed worthy of admission to Stanford, a pool certainly larger than Stanford can accommodate and have the final decision done by lottery?  

    Posted by Ms. Lusijah Sutherland Rott on Nov 7, 2013 11:09 AM

  • Mr. Douglas Edwards

    Interesting read and helpful in understanding the admission process. However, it omits one key consideration. The admission office claims it is not influenced by the wealth of applicants, including children of alumni. To be more specific, they state they do not know how much individuals have given. That may be literally true, but is perhaps a bit misleading.

    I spent a year as an admission officer for Brown in 1981. We also claimed to be uninfluenced by the wealth of applicants. However, we received lists from the University's development office ranking their interest in certain candidates from 1 to 6. Candidates at the high end were given special consideration, and if academically unsuited for immediate admission, could still be admitted mid-year after a semester of additional college prep work. No one pays attention to mid-year admissions, so they tend to be more politically palatable to high schools from which stellar students have been rejected.

    When my son applied to Stanford a few years back, I was disappointed, but not surprised, that he and several of his academically outstanding friends were not admitted. I knew there were myriad considerations when building a class. I was surprised, however, when one of the few applicants Stanford did accept was a classmate who had not made a mark on the school in any obvious way. With one exception. His family had donated more than a million dollars to the high school's capital campaign. I'm guessing that if Stanford's development office has a wish list, this student would have been near the top.

    Thirty years later, it seems, money does still play a role in the selection process, and it's still the one thing that college admission offices refuse to admit.

    Posted by Mr. Douglas Edwards on Nov 7, 2013 6:49 PM

  • Ms. Joan Elizabeth Trusty

    There was a piece of data that wasn't mentioned here... how many admitted students are from California?  It would seem Californians have an edge for admission as well.

    The story seems to support what I had heard --- that much of a candidate's success is dependent upon the ability of the application reader to successfully represent and advocate for the students whose applications were assigned to the reader. The article said that officers "present" their candidates, so a candidate is essentially relying upon the effectiveness of that officer, not just on the strength of the application.  If the applications represented by certain readers are not accepted at a level equivalent to other readers, maybe there is a problem.  Parents in my area of the US have been told that "our reader" was seldom effective in presenting candidates from our region, and so students were actively discouraged from applying to Stanford as a result.  We were also told that our reader was baised towards certain high schools in the region.  While Mr. Shaw said the process was very rigorous and thorough, it still seems to have at its foundation, one reader who is the gatekeeper for any given application; a biased or ineffective reader essentially stops the process for a student.  

    Posted by Ms. Joan Elizabeth Trusty on Nov 13, 2013 11:55 AM

  • Mr. NY Signage

    Interesting article!

    Ken K.
    Signs Visual
    Tel. 212-945-8706

    Posted by Mr. NY Signage on Jul 3, 2015 9:18 PM


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