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How to Get Into Stanford (by an Accepted Student)

Posted by Dr. Fred Zhang | Feb 9, 2020 8:00:00 AM

College Admissions

 

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Many students want to get into Stanford, one of the most prestigious undergraduate institutions in the United States. While getting into Stanford is very tough, there are definite rules to Stanford admissions. Using these rules to your advantage will greatly increase your chances of getting in.

Note: The following advice also works for admission to UC Berkeley and Cornell University. Though Cornell and Berkeley are not the same as Stanford, they are both very highly ranked colleges with a slight engineering tilt.

Stanford University is one of the most difficult colleges to get into, with an acceptance rate of only 4%. It is consistently ranked in US News' top 10—often top five—universities. Stanford is the top choice of many students whose focuses coincide with what Stanford offers (e.g., a West Coast life or a large research institution with a slight engineer lean). Stanford is also by far the top US News-ranked school west of the Mississippi (the second is Caltech, which attracts a very different crowd).

Stanford follows certain rules when it comes to admissions. And, no, these rules are not as simple as "focus all your time on academics" or "be as well rounded as possible." (In fact, those phrases are the two biggest myths about admissions here!) Knowing the rules won't guarantee you admission, but you'll have a heck of a better chance than if you were applying in the dark.

I'll go over everything you need to know to get into Stanford, whether you're a humanities or STEM major. I'll also explain which admissions strategies are false and could seriously impact your chances of getting accepted if you follow them.

 

Getting Into Stanford: Why Listen to Me?

There are lots of writers out there giving admissions advice without any personal experience. Most journalists writing articles on Stanford admissions just spend a few hours doing research on the school (or a few days at most) in order to meet their article quota.

However, I've personally spent weeks, if not months, thinking about Stanford admissions. I must have spent more than 100 hours explicitly on Stanford admissions—and I ultimately got in:

 

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A letter from my admissions officer to me after I was accepted to Stanford discussing the admitted-student weekend details. This letter has been modified to summarize meaning and protect privacy.

 

More than just getting accepted, I actually spent a substantial amount of time thinking about what Stanford was looking for and crafting an application specifically for Stanford. To me, Stanford was one of the top two schools I was interested in, so I took the application very seriously. I visited the campus twice before even applying, attended admissions sessions where I asked dozens of questions about what they were looking for, searched online and in bookstores, wrote an entirely separate essay for the Stanford application, and used a separate admissions strategy for Stanford alone.

I'm not saying this to brag; I'm just letting you know that I have some unique qualifications that allow me to help you the most. That I was accepted, and that I spent tremendous energy thinking about Stanford, means my advice can (hopefully) help you substantially as you prep for the SAT or ACT and apply to Stanford.

 

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The 3 Truths and 2 Myths About Stanford Acceptance

In this section, I'm going to tell you the critical three truths and two myths you absolutely need to know in order to get into Stanford. The first ones are relatively well known, but the final ones are less common knowledge and will help you get that extra boost in your application!

Note: If you've read our article on Harvard admissions, note that I will be covering similar material here. You might want to skim this section, but do pay attention to the differences between the application processes at Harvard and Stanford. Also, make sure to keep reading after this section as I'll be talking about Stanford-specific aspects.

 

Truth 1: You Need Strong Academics

The first truth is that Stanford is, first and foremost, an academic institution, so you need to have spectacular academics to get in. The 25th percentile SAT/ACT score of admitted students is as high as 1420 on the SAT or 32 on the ACT. This means that the vast majority (75%) of Stanford students get above these scores, and those attending with scores lower than these are superstars who make up for their scores in other (highly impressive!) ways.

If your scores are below these numbers, the most effective step you can take to raise your chances of admission is to study more for the SAT/ACT since the primary reason Stanford will reject you is based on scores alone. The 75th percentile for Stanford is currently 1570 on the SAT and 35 on the ACT. If you're above these, you can assume your test scores are sufficient.

 

Myth 1: All You Need Are Good Grades

The first and most naive myth is that Stanford only cares about grades. Like most myths, this one results from taking the truth too far. Many people think that since Stanford is an academic institution, it must care only about academics. After all, if you were trying out for the football team, the coaches wouldn't measure your skills in baseball, right?

The truth, however, is that while Stanford of course cares deeply about academics, it also cares about qualities beyond academics. Stanford isn't just admitting students with the highest GPAs and the highest SAT/ACT scores—they want a lot more than that!

 

Truth 2: You Should Excel in Multiple Areas

So why isn't Stanford just looking for students with the highest test scores?

The first reason is basic numbers: there are simply too many students with stellar academics. The average ACT score for a Stanford student is 33; thus, Stanford considers this score (or higher) stellar.

Yet a 33 still puts about 1% of the high school population above you. With 3.7 million high school seniors a year, this is about 37,000 students—many times larger than the roughly 2,100 students Stanford accepts each year. Consequently, top colleges such as Stanford need to look beyond academic scores to distinguish between these equally high-achieving students.

The second reason is the understanding that many top colleges, including Stanford, are looking for students who can have a significant and positive impact on the world. Stanford believes that non-academic factors, in addition to top academics, help predict who will have a positive impact in the future. These non-academic factors (often known under the umbrella term "extracurriculars") include participation in clubs or sports and a dedication to helping others.

As a result, we can replace the first myth with our second truth: top colleges care about far more than just academics and want to see strengths in many areas, including GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and community service.

In reality, the above truth of multi-area admissions is actually well known to people who have done even a minimal amount of college admissions research. The myth of pure academics is more of a non-myth: it's a myth that lots of people love to bash, but not many people actually believe. In fact, over-bashing this first myth leads to the second myth below, which is even more insidious than the first.

 

Myth 2: You Should Be Well Rounded

This second myth—and by far the biggest and most harmful myth—is that Stanford cares about students being well rounded in the sense that they should be equally excellent in all areas. This myth is the most pernicious because so many people blindly believe it.

From many personal surveys, I have found that even well-researched students and parents fall prey to this myth. In fact, I myself during my early years of high school believed in this horrible assumption, even though I'd already done hundreds of hours of research at that point.

Because so many educated people believe it, and because it has the potential to steer you wrong, I personally think that this myth is the most damaging of any.

The "well-rounded" myth goes like this: Stanford wants you to be well rounded, so it's best to perform excellently in all areas. In other words, aim for that high seat in your school orchestra. Be number one or number two on your school debate team. Run for student council and become the treasurer. Get a score in the 95th percentile or higher on your SAT or ACT. Earn at least an A- in all your classes.

The mythical implication here is that the "Stanford scorecard" grades you based on your weakest area, so you want to eliminate all weaknesses. Under this myth, you should focus all your time on your weakest area to eliminate it and become as well rounded as possible. Then, at the end of the day, you end up with a mythical optimal application that proves you're (nearly) equally great at everything.

Unfortunately, college admissions are much more like an unstable boat: being too well rounded will ultimately sink you.

The truth is that Stanford sees being very well rounded as too boring. Everyone who is well rounded looks the same: they're very good (but not earth-shattering) at everything. There's nothing to set you apart. Not to mention that dilly-dallying in a big number of areas will make you look like a dilettante.

 

Truth 3: You Should Have a "Spike" in One Area

The third and final truth is that Stanford would much rather see a candidate who is OK at most things but really great in one specific area. That area is your "spike," and it can be in almost anything: conducting microbiology research, publishing short stories, starting a small business, etc.

Your spike makes you a strong candidate because it's unlikely that many other students will have the exact same spike as you. In short, it helps set you apart and makes you unique. Admitting lots of students with different spikes allows Stanford to create the diverse student body it desires.

Furthermore, Stanford is looking for students who will succeed in the future. In our modern world, specialization is the key to success. Think about it: if you break a bone, you want to see a doctor who's great at resetting bones, right? Not a doctor who's pretty good at setting bones and also pretty good at diagnosing the type of flu you have and pretty good at recommending a diet to keep you healthy.

It's OK to be lopsided—in fact, it's even desirable! The point is that you should aim to develop one area in which you're super strong. In this area, or spike, you should try your best to be nationally or state-ranked, or accomplish a goal that's rare for a high school student. Think top-100 football player in California, or top-1,000 math competition student in the United States. Think getting a pilot's license at age 12.

In all other areas, it suffices to be in the 99th or even 90th percentile. A moderately good score in your English class will do. A few dozen hours of volunteering is fine. But in your spike, you want to be the best of the best.

 

Recap: Truths and Myths About Stanford Admissions

The most naive and prevalent myth is that getting into Stanford is all about academics. In reality, admitting applicants based only on academics leads to an uninteresting community. Stanford cares about extracurriculars, too, and doing well in just one area of school (or even all of school) isn't enough.

Unfortunately, an overly reactionary response to the above generates the worst myth. Myth 2 is that you should be well rounded and great (but not necessarily excellent) in every field. But the truth is that being too well rounded makes you look the same as others who are just as well rounded as you; it also makes you look like someone without any direction.

Ultimately, you want to be OK in every field but especially accomplished in one particular field.

 


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We can help. PrepScholar Admissions is the world's best admissions consulting service. We combine world-class admissions counselors with our data-driven, proprietary admissions strategies. We've overseen thousands of students get into their top choice schools, from state colleges to the Ivy League.

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What These Stanford Truths and Myths Mean for You

Based on the above information, your first goal should be to ensure you have strong academics. Get good grades in high school, and make sure you're in at least the 50th percentile (for Stanford or whatever school you're applying to) on the SAT/ACT.

Even if you're above the 50th percentile, if you haven't prepped at least a few dozen hours yet, you should aim for the 75th percentile to strengthen your application. SAT/ACT prep is one of the most time-efficient ways to raise your score and thus your chances of admission.

After you're above the 50th percentile, get to work on overcoming the first myth (which claims that grades are everything). Stanford cares about far more than just academics, so try to squeeze in some good extracurriculars and volunteer experience.

Once you have a sufficient set of baseline activities, it's time to overcome the second myth by understanding that Stanford is not all about being diversified and well rounded. You want one area to stand out above and beyond all the others; this spike will be one of the most important parts of your application.

Now that we've gone over the biggest myths and facts about Stanford admissions, let's take a look at another part of the highly prestigious university: its emphasis on STEM and what this means for you, whether you're into STEM or not.

 

How Stanford's Tilt Toward STEM Affects Admissions Chances

One difference between Stanford (and Cornell and UC Berkeley) and some of the other top-10 colleges is that Stanford is not a pure liberal arts college; instead, Stanford is a liberal arts college with a significant STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) tilt.

This means that—all else being equal—if your interests learn more toward engineering, you'll get a slight boost in your admission chances. For your base diversity of extracurriculars, it helps to focus more on engineering and/or math; it also helps if your spike is in engineering or math. So if one student were a top-100 young writer and another were a top-100 math competitor, it's likely that the latter would have a slightly better chance of getting into Stanford.

Don't just take my word for it, though—you can Google it yourself. You'll see that Stanford is in the US News' top-ranked engineering schools, while Harvard and Yale are nowhere near the top 10. Part of this, however, is a self-fulfilling prophecy: because good engineering-type undergrads come here, it becomes an ideal place for similarly minded students.

Despite this clear STEM tilt, Stanford is certainly not a STEM-only school (which other top-ranked schools such as MIT, Caltech, and Carnegie Mellon essentially are). As a result, math-related classes and extracurriculars are not the only things that matter when applying to Stanford.

The next two sections will give you advice based on which subjects you plan to study in college. If you're less into STEM, read the next section. But if you're already focusing on a STEM area and plan on continuing to do so, skip on ahead to the section after for my most helpful tips.

 

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Do you plan on majoring in a humanities or similar subject? Then this section is for you!

 

How to Get Into Stanford If You're Less Interested in STEM

Just because Stanford leans more toward engineering, that doesn't mean that the only way to get in is to be an engineer. You don't even need to be interested in STEM in general; Stanford is not MIT or Caltech! While the school has a fantastic engineering program, it's also incredibly strong in non-STEM fields, such as economics and literature.

Your application can be completely bereft of engineering aspirations, and you can still do well. In fact, I am quite sure that any humanities-heavy application that would do well at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton would do equally well, if not better, at Stanford.

Nevertheless, don't forget the fact that Stanford likes baseline diversity. Your spike doesn't need to be related to STEM, but you should still be strong in quantitative subjects as a whole. Even if your subject of interest is Prussian history, you should be cautious about getting a B in AP Calculus AB, taking the easiest math classes, or getting as "low" as a 650 on the SAT Math section.

Because Stanford has a large number of applicants, they have enough humanities-spike applicants who can at least get the basic A or A- in the hardest math and science classes. You should take care to put enough effort into these subjects so you don't drop down to the middle of the pack. Stanford doesn't take the excuse "I'm just not a math person" (and, in fact, they're probably against the culture that makes such a phrase commonly acceptable in the first place).

So what's a good enough baseline in SAT or ACT Math? I'd say something in the 720-800 range on the SAT Math section or 32-36 on ACT Math will do. The SAT/ACT is not competitive math—doing well on this section doesn't mean you're nationally ranked in math. In fact, the SAT/ACT Math sections are designed to test only the most basic common-denominator areas covered in high school math classes across the United States.

As such, scoring substantially below a perfect score on the SAT/ACT does actually signal to Stanford a lack of understanding of some rather standard areas of math. Once you get below a 700 on SAT Math or a 30 on ACT Math, Stanford will know you don't have a full command of standard concepts in math, such as factorizing variables or applying the Pythagorean theorem.

The good news is that you can improve quickly and consistently to the 700+ level on the SAT. All it requires is mastering baseline content of math and understanding the highest-gain SAT Math strategies. You can study on your own by reviewing and mastering math content first while focusing lightly on math strategy. If you're studying with PrepScholar, we will automatically detect your situation and give you the right study material for this improvement.

Students whose forte isn't engineering should know that Stanford is welcoming of interdisciplinary study. Indeed, the school would love to see you talk not just about the humanities, but also how your expertise in the humanities uses areas such as computer science or math to help refine your analysis.

Assuming you are truly interested, it will help your application if you mention an aspiration to use some amount of engineering in your future studies. For example, if you're into religious studies with a focus on the Old Testament, you might talk about how you'd like to use statistical analysis to refine the documentary hypothesis.

As for your spike, since your natural strength is outside STEM, I wouldn't go for a STEM-type spike. Usually, spikes are much easier if done in a field with natural talent and that you thoroughly enjoy. A STEM spike would make much less sense for you, not to mention that it'd be a lot less pleasant to accomplish.

Consider competitions for speech, debate, writing, essays, and so forth. For example, for enthusiasts of debate-type activities, there's Model UN, Junior State of America, governor's school, mock-trial, and nationwide debate.

Competitions provide a direct way for admissions officers to see how good you are, but you can also do other tasks that qualitatively seem similarly accomplished. For example, if you started a theater club that has an impressive number of audience members or consistently do journal-quality academic research on Victorian English literature, you'd be well positioned for your spike.

To learn more about working on your spike for college, check out our guide on how to get into the Ivy League (search for "Part 2" and scroll down to #4).

 

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How to Get Into Stanford If You're Strong in STEM: 4 Tips

If your strong point is quantitative, then that's a great advantage. After all, Stanford is engineering tilted! Even more to your advantage, I personally got into Stanford following this path, so I will have much more refined strategies for you here, including naming specific programs to try.

Below are my top four tips for getting into Stanford if you're strong in STEM.

 

#1: Make Sure You Have Academic Excellence in STEM Fields

Since you consider yourself a strong STEM candidate, it's important to be absolutely amazing in STEM as a whole. That means earning an A or A+ in every one of your STEM courses, with only the very occasional A-.

You should also be taking the most difficult STEM courses offered at your school. In other words, take APs when they are available and, within APs, try to choose the harder option (Calculus BC instead of AB, for example). For the AP exams, aim for a 5 in each of these fields.

If you're naturally talented at STEM and are taking the hardest courses, there's a high probability you'll get great grades; however, you want to turn that high probability into a certainty.

The biggest reason that naturally talented STEM students perform at just a mediocre level in STEM courses is a lack of diligence. Many students who are strong in STEM want to focus on only what they're interested in at that moment. It's important to see the benefits to your STEM education that are possible if you get into Stanford, and to convince yourself it's worthwhile to put in the grind that's often necessary to get good grades in school.

To illustrate this point more clearly, let me tell you the real story of my high school classmate. Let's call him Kevin. Kevin was intensely bright, would score at the top of intelligence tests, and was into battle bots. He would literally put all his time into building these robots, often skipping English classes, physics classes, and even sleep to spend time on this intense passion he had.

In the end, he earned Ds in English and Cs in Physics (which he was otherwise great in). Sadly, when it came to admissions time, Kevin wasn't able to get into any college ranked within the top 50. With his intelligence, he could have easily swept the US News top 50 if he'd put even a modicum of diligence into his schoolwork.

The takeaway? Don't be like Kevin.

 

#2: Develop a Good Academic Baseline Outside of STEM

The next step is to ensure your academics outside of STEM meet at least some baseline of quality. This doesn't mean you have to be great in the humanities, but it does mean you'll want to keep the Bs in the humanities to a minimum. While you don't need to take any AP classes in the humanities (I didn't!), taking them and getting a 4 or 5 on the AP tests and an A/A- in the class will definitely benefit you in the end.

Standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT are a great way to prove how well rounded you are. They're difficult enough that getting a sufficiently high score signals you're in the 95th percentile or above in all the US—certainly enough to qualify as well rounded. That being said, the ACT/SAT isn't specialized enough to be your spike.

If you're a little weaker on the humanities side, shoring up your SAT/ACT score is the fastest and most effective way to improve. You should aim for an SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score of at least 650 or ACT Reading and English scores of at least 28 each. I firmly believe that being great quantitatively correlates with being smart in general.

You can definitely get these scores if you put your mind to it. (The only caveat is that you'll need to be reasonably fluent in English. If you're not a native speaker and aren't fluent, I suggest you make this a priority, probably through immersion in an English-speaking country.)

Your test-prep strategy will center around the fact that the SAT/ACT is an analytical test. The same skills you used to become good in quantitative subjects will be useful in mastering these standardized tests. Since you're only targeting a 650 (or 28) or above on these sections, you don't need to stress as much about the last few problems and being careless.

You do, however, need to memorize all the most common SAT grammar rules and learn how many questions you can afford to get wrong without sacrificing your score goals. You can do this yourself or take advantage of our online SAT/ACT prep program, which will automatically identify these weaknesses for you.

 

#3: Include Some Well-Rounded Extracurriculars

Round out your Stanford application with some lower-hanging fruit if possible. Assume a leadership position in some club that requires public speaking, whether that's debate, Model UN, or something else. Many areas in politics and law are surprisingly close to the logical systems you're used to in STEM.

You might also consider playing a sport. Many JV teams are not incredibly competitive. Also, be sure to play to your strengths: if you're more dexterous than strong, you might want to choose squash, for example. If you're fast and have good hand-eye coordination, consider baseball.

Sports teams will take up a ton of time, though, so check that you're well positioned and able to handle the time commitment before making any decisions.

Our guide lists hundreds of extracurriculars, which you can use to brainstorm how you can build a diversified base. Note that for your activities, you don't need to be especially great at them—participation is what ultimately matters here.

 

#4: Focus On Your Spike

Now that you've achieved good SAT/ACT scores and have a well-rounded base of activities, it's time to build up that final factor that will get you in: your spike! This is where you really get to show off your STEM skills.

When it comes to spikes, the name of the game is to be highly ranked in recognized fields.

One of the most natural environments to be ranked in is a competition. Now, obviously, the more recognized the competition, the better. As you might imagine, the most well-known, difficult, and participant-heavy competitions are the most prestigious.

For your Stanford application, it's better to rank in the top 1,000 of one of the most prestigious competitions than it is to rank in the top 100 of a competition of middling prestige. This means you should try to aim for the most prestigious competition you can actually do well in. You should consider competitions from highest prestige down in that order whenever possible.

 


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We know what kinds of students colleges want to admit. We want to get you admitted to your dream schools.

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When it comes to prestigious STEM competitions, two of them take the cake: the US Math Olympiad (which I'll refer to as the "USAMO series") and the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (Regeneron ISEF). These are two competitions everyone applying to Stanford should consider entering.

The USAMO series is all about pure math and solving problems fairly quickly (think a few minutes to an hour in a timed environment). If you want to get a taste of what an easy problem looks like in the USAMO series, just look at the hardest problems on SAT Math or the hardest problems on a sample Math Level 2 SAT Subject Test (the hardest problems usually appear last).

By contrast, the ISEF is more about tinkering around, spending days and months doing research similar to what you'd do in college, and then presenting your results. Compared to the USAMO series, the ISEF is much more like working on a hobby or personal project for an extended period of time.

Now then, let's take a look at each of these two STEM competitions in more detail.

 

USAMO Series

Here's a sample AMC 12 Problem. If you can solve this without any issues, then you'd be a strong candidate for a math competition:

Three real numbers in the interval [0, 1] are chosen independently and at random. What is the probability that the chosen numbers are the side lengths of a triangle with positive area?

(A) ⅙

(B) ⅓

(C) ½

(D) ⅔

(E) ⅚


You can see the answer and a full explanation at AoPS Online.

If you're very good at math, then you should seriously consider the USAMO series (more unofficial information here)—it can really be your spike. The USAMO series is so prestigious that I've known Stanford students whose main spike was placing within the top 1,000 or 2,000 in this competition.

But why is the USAMO so prestigious? For one, it's the oldest of the high school subject Olympiads, and it was the subject of Cold War tensions between the US and USSR. Most importantly, though, hundreds of thousands of the most mathematically strong students participate in it, making a top ranking really impressive.

The best way to sign up is to ask your high school math teacher. If your high school doesn't do this competition, you should either aggressively petition them to do it or search for a neighboring high school that will accept you as a guest.

This spike will be good for you if your SAT Math score is 760 or above (or your ACT Math score is 35 or above) and your Math Level 2 SAT Subject Score is 720 or above. If you don't meet these basic thresholds, I would think very hard before making the USAMO series your spike—the series is, after all, just a much harder version of these standardized tests in nearly the exact same format.

Furthermore, a college applicant who has competitive USAMO series scores but questionable SAT or ACT Math scores will send mixed signals that'll diminish their USAMO series accomplishments.

Conversely, if you're above the SAT/ACT Math threshold, you definitely will benefit from taking the USAMO series, even if it isn't your spike. Why? Because if you're above these thresholds, your test score won't reveal your true math skills, which are likely off the SAT/ACT charts; you need to upgrade to the USAMO series to show off all your math skills, even if you don't perform amazingly.

To recap, do the USAMO series if you do really well on math tests such as SAT/ACT Math. The USAMO series will be a definite spike for you if you manage to make it into the top 1,000 or 2,000 spots. The best resource to train for the USAMO series is Art of Problem Solving.

Now, what if you're good at tests and competitions—but not math? If this sounds like you, read on to learn how the Regeneron ISEF could be a great choice for your STEM spike.

 

Regeneron ISEF

Many students are strong in STEM but aren't exceptional when it comes to solving timed problems. Some get anxious from the pressure, whereas others just don't do well on tests, even if they're brilliant at STEM. These students might instead be found writing their own computer programs for months at a time or working on a science experiment for weeks.

If this sounds like you, then the prestigious competition you should consider for your spike on your Stanford application is the Regeneron ISEF (formerly Intel ISEF).

Like most science fairs, the ISEF requires you to do research and present your findings. What's unique about the ISEF, though, is that it's the premier science fair in the United States. Think of it like this: whereas winning your high school's local science fair is like winning a 100-meter dash in your town, winning the ISEF is like winning the 100-meter dash in the Olympics.

You can't apply directly to the ISEF. Instead, you have to start out first in a regional science fair. If you do well in that, you can advance to the next ISEF rounds. You can read about the competition's judging criteria and a real winner's experiences on the official website.

Some of the key factors to winning include being innovative and original. You have to be rigorous, but not nearly to the degree of professional science research. Being interesting is the name of the ISEF game.

What does a winning ISEF project look like? Here's an excerpt from a profile of a 2019 winner:

"In this year's competition, Richard Beattie of Dublin, Ireland, was one of the top winners in the category of animal science. Richard and his partner, Dylan Bagnall, also from Ireland, developed a system to aid bat conservation efforts. Though they are often associated with haunted houses and vampires, bats have a key role in the ecosystem, particularly for maintaining balance as the world's lead night-time insect-eaters. In many parts of the world, they are also under threat. With this in mind, Richard and Dylan designed a low-cost bat detector and developed a genetic test to identify specific bat species. They even set up a repository for citizen-scientists to upload bat calls, identify species, access information and more."


To show originality for the ISEF, you must tackle a problem that's interesting to the scientific community. Since few high school students have a good overview of the academic science literature, it's important for any student to have a professional academic scientist or engineer as their mentor. This will ensure that you work on a problem the field considers important.

Also, good mentors with previous experience will know which problems can be done by students and which would be too complicated or time-consuming. After you choose your field and mentor, having the tenacity and focus to put your creative thinking toward the problem is key. Students who have historically had a lot of trouble staying focused or finishing projects should be wary.

With the USAMO, doing well on SAT/ACT Math is a good predictor of performance; being fast and being good on tests is important. But with the ISEF, tenacity and the ability to stick to a project for hundreds or even thousands of hours from start to finish is absolutely crucial. Ranking in the top 100 for the ISEF would definitely qualify as a spike for you.

 

Other Options for STEM Spikes

There are many more STEM competitions besides the two above. In the sciences, you have the Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Informatics (Computer Science) Olympiads. These competitions require you to work with logic very intelligently, and all require memorizing and being familiar with some facts. I personally participated in each one of these while in high school. Here's a quick overview of how they work.

The Math Olympiad is special because it's the most competitive, with the highest number of people doing the first round. Because so many people prep for the Math Olympiad, the field has changed so that a good part of doing well on it is having tons of practice so you'll know immediately which equations you need to pull out when you see a particular mathematical expression.

Biology requires the most memorization. In fact, most early rounds are about recalling the text of Campbell Biology in a timed fashion.

Chemistry is a happy mixture of using logic to solve problems and memorizing a moderate list of information to help solve those problems. The hands-on portions of both Chemistry and Biology require you to be good at following memorized procedures.

On the other hand, Physics and Informatics have a lot of hands-on sections that require a ton of resourcefulness and novel problem solving.

In these other competitions, I'd say that qualifying for the top 20-40 will make the competition a spike for you in the eyes of Stanford.

But not all spikes need to be in explicitly ranked STEM fields. You could discover a new protein with significance to medical research; there wouldn't necessarily be a competition for the discovery, but if the discovery is qualitatively stunning enough, it can count.

For your Stanford spike, you could brainstorm an amazing discovery, such as a biological process, an electrical engineering discovery, or something else entirely. Or you could build something new, such as a computer program, a cool robot, or a fun electronics project. Whatever the case, make sure that your project is impressive.

Qualitatively, the project should be as good as or better than a ranking within the top 1,000 on the Math Olympiad. Stanford is all about engineering, and they would love to see you build something of your own!

As you can see here, there are tons of competitions and ways through which you could show off your special STEM skills. Beyond the top few listed above, you can also brainstorm your own fields. Once you have a competition or field in mind, it's useful to evaluate how prestigious it is.

Remember that the less prestigious a competition or field is, the higher you have to rank in it to be afforded the same credit. To estimate prestige, first look at how many people participate—the more people who participate, the more impressive it'll be on your Stanford application. Next, look at the skills of the average participant: the more skilled the people coming in are, the better.

Using this method, you can find ways to show off your spike outside the set ones above.

 

Conclusion: The Best Tips for Getting Into Stanford

Stanford is one of the most difficult universities to get into, as are UC Berkeley and Cornell. But all these schools follow the same pattern of being highly ranked and having a slight engineering tilt—and all have a common admissions pattern.

Because these three universities are so prestigious, it's critical to keep in mind the three truths:

  • You need high baseline academics, with SAT scores above 600 (ideally 750 in each section)
  • You need to have a diverse set of extracurriculars at which you're good (but not necessarily a pro)
  • You need to have a "spike" for which you're (ideally) ranked in the top 100-1,000 compared to other students

At the same time, be sure to dispel these two myths about Stanford admissions:

  • Stanford admissions is all about academics
  • Stanford wants you to be as evenly well rounded as possible

Keep in mind that Stanford has a slight STEM (engineering) emphasis. So if your focus is outside STEM, you should be the best you can be in that area and, if possible, try to tie that work into some potential interdisciplinary work with STEM.

If you're already in STEM, you'll want to strongly consider entering a prestigious math or science competition to show off the high degree of your skills.

In the end, make sure that you're putting forward your absolute best Stanford application possible!

 

What's Next?

If you're applying to Stanford, it's important to know everything there is to know about the school. Get started with our complete guide to Stanford University and then read our best tips on how to write great Stanford essays, including a stand-out roommate essay.

As you know, strong test scores are an important part of your Stanford application. If you're looking for test-prep tips, take a look at our expert guides to SAT prep and ACT prep. Aiming for a top score? Learn how to nab a perfect 1600 on the SAT or a perfect 36 on the ACT.

Already got some great extracurriculars? Then check out our college admissions and test-prep guide designed specially for students like you!

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

Get eBook: 5 Tips for 160+ Points

Raise Your ACT Score by 4 Points (Free Download)

 

These recommendations are based solely on our knowledge and experience. If you purchase an item through one of our links, PrepScholar may receive a commission.

 

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Dr. Fred Zhang
About the Author

Fred is co-founder of PrepScholar. He scored a perfect score on the SAT and is passionate about sharing information with aspiring students. Fred graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor's in Mathematics and a PhD in Economics.



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