Everyone wants to know, so here’s my best advice about how to apply to Stanford: Don’t.

I love Stanford.  I had four great years there.  But I applied in a different era: pre-millenium.  The acceptance rate was 13%.  Now it’s 5%.  As my mom likes to point out, I was in that 8% that wouldn’t make it today.  She’s right.  (Love you, Mom!)

Hooked vs. Unhooked

Before you even think about applying to Stanford, you have to know what a hook is.  A hook is a quality colleges think makes you special.  (That is not the same as a quality that actually makes you special!)  Here are the common hooks:

  • Legacy: one of your parents attended the school where you’re applying
  • Recruited athlete: coach wants you on the team and will speak up for you
  • Under-represented minority: you’re African American, Latino, or Native American
  • Development candidate: your family has donated $$$ to the school
  • Unique aptitude: you have already shown amazing talent or ability at the state / national level

If you’re like most applicants, however, you’re well-rounded, smart, and dedicated, but you don’t have a hook.  That’s the student I was, too.  I had lots of AP and honors classes and nearly a 4.0.  I had a 720 Math and 800 on Critical Reading.  I ran cross country and played soccer.  I volunteered at a hospital and at church.  Sound familiar?  Being a well-rounded smart kid might have been enough to get into Stanford back in 1997, but it’s rarely enough anymore.

1 in 35 (aka The Long Odds)

How rarely is it enough?  Let’s run through some numbers.  Let’s say Stanford gets 40,000 applicants and accepts 2,000.  Let’s say 1,000 of the accepted students -- 50% -- have a “hook.”

Here’s why I think 50% is a reasonable guess.  At Harvard, 12% of incoming students are legacies (See Freshman Survey Part I), and 11% are recruited athletes (See Freshman Survey Part II).  Also, 11% are African American, and 12% are Latino (See Freshman Survey Part I).  That gets us to about 46% of the class.  Though there is some double-counting of students with multiple hooks (for example, a student who is both a legacy and recruited athlete), once you allow for all the other kids with “unique aptitude” hooks, it’s not far-fetched to say that 50% of admitted students have hooks.  I doubt it’s a stretch to say that the profiles of admitted students at Stanford mirror those of students at Harvard.

But what does it matter if 50% of applicants have hooks?  Let’s say the acceptance rate for these hooked applicants is 20%. Yes, I am just guessing, but the admission rate for legacies at some elite schools has been clocked at 30%, so 20% seems like a conservative number to use (See Legacy Kids Have an Admission Advantage).

If we assume a 20% acceptance rate for hooked applicants, that means there are 5,000 of these hooked applicants in the pool.  With 40,000 total applicants, that means there are 35,000 unhooked applicants in a pool.  My superb subtraction skills tell me that if there are 2,000 total acceptances and if 1,000 of those go to kids with hooks, that leaves 1,000 slots for kids without hooks.  That’s 1,000 slots for 35,000 unhooked kids.  Hmm.  1,000 out of 35,000.

Let me put this another way.  If you don’t have a hook, the odds of getting into Stanford are 34:1.  In other words, if you don’t have a hook, your odds of getting in are about the same as rolling a pair of dice and coming up with double sixes.  Not impossible, but not encouraging.

3 Suggestions

I’m not trying to be a killer of dreams.  But I want to challenge you to think carefully about where to apply.  The better information you have, the better decisions you can make.  Here are some suggestions I share with my ambitious students:

  1. Don’t automatically apply to Stanford.  Being a great student from California is not a good enough reason to apply.  If you’re a great student with a hook, or at least a quirk that might capture an admission officer’s imagination, then please do apply.  But don’t do it just because that’s what smart kids from California supposedly do.
  2. Apply to excellent alternatives.  If you’re a great student without a hook, consider great alternatives like Cornell, Berkeley, UCLA, USC, and Michigan.  These schools admit high-achieving, well-rounded students.  If I were applying today, I would probably be going to one of these schools.
  3. Apply to Stanford after you finish your other applications.  Unlike the Harvard and Yale applications, the Stanford application takes a long time to do well because it requires so many extra essays.  But if you must apply, then wait to apply until you’ve completed applications to schools where you have a better chance.  That way, you definitely spend enough energy on realistic options.

If you don’t have a hook, be wise about how  you allocate your energy.  It’s not a given that you must apply Stanford. You only have so many arrows in your quiver.  Why not save more of them for targets that are in range?  If you don’t, you might go hungry.

Good luck writing!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.