Uniqueness in a Pool of Sameness

In college admissions, standing out is a good thing.

Whenever people find out that I go to Stanford, their response tends to follow a similar format:

  • Awe/Congratulations: “Wow! Good for you!”
  • Flattery: “You must be very smart to have been accepted to Stanford.”
  • Anecdote: “I remember when my son/daughter/friend/friend’s son or daughter applied to Stanford/‘Top Tier’ College. They had all A’s, a really good SAT score, and volunteered, but [gasp!] they didn’t get in.”

It is the latter two parts of the response that I take issue with, and that I think a lot of people still don’t quite understand about admission to the elite colleges and universities in the United States. While in other countries a single test decides your academic fate, the holistic nature of admissions to American universities means that, for top tier colleges, “smart” is a given, not a guarantee.

Let’s look at the facts: Stanford had 42,167 applicants in my year, the Class of 2018. The admit rate was 5.1% with 2,145 people admitted, out of which about 80% of admits matriculated.

In my freshmen dorm, Serra, everyone had at least one interesting or awe-inspiring thing that made them shine. One person spent her summers designing 3D-printed prosthetic arms for children in abject poverty, spent a good amount of time during the school year exploring Stanford’s outdoors, and has one of the most funny and clever personalities I have come across. Another guy in the dorm – a literal genius and a lovable goofball – set the curve in Ph.D level math classes, created an algorithm to keep track of ping pong matches, and was always in search of crazy activities to explore in his free time. There are more examples: the rainforest hero, the future Madame President, the computer whiz CEO, the national LGBT and women’s rights activist, the polyglot philosopher. A good amount of athletes in the dorm could also be added to the list, at least two of whom will be competing in the Olympics in the near future.

My wonderful freshman dorm, Serra
Some of the people from my wonderful freshman dorm, Serra.

That was just a sample from one dorm. The truth is, nobody cares about your SAT or ACT scores in college. Stanford could fill its incoming class with straight-A people, with valedictorians alone, with people who completed more than 10 AP classes. But they don’t.

Why? I don’t feign to be inside the head of admissions officers (and I wish to avoid incurring Dean Shaw’s righteous anger), so I can’t tell you the answer. However, after a year at Stanford I believe that a focus on academics alone both devalues the promise of a full liberal arts education at Stanford and leaves students completely unprepared to handle the real world. In effect, a diverse student body enhances a liberal arts education in a way that nothing else can quite match.

The people I described in my dorm all have at least one thing that made them more unique, that shone brightly in a pool of sameness. In high school, I knew too many applicants who followed a predictable pattern: good grades, high SAT scores, played a common instrument, volunteered to empty bed pans at a nearby hospital to show off their “premed” skills; okay grades, Boy Scout or Girl Scout, all focus placed on one sport to attempt to get into a great school; amazing academics, and little else to show. When only one person gets in out of every twenty, that person really stood out. At Stanford, the jocks are proudly a part of “Nerd Nation”, the nerdy academics go out to shoot hoops and watch sports games, and the band geeks are actually the coolest people on campus. Everyone may have at least one thing that defines them well, but it does not limit them in the slightest. When you have that kind of mixing and acceptance – culturally and academically and collaboratively – amazing things can happen.

Behind each pair of Nerd Nation glasses exists a story that captivated the hearts and minds of the gatekeepers. Across campus, those stories are shared to educate and inspire.

So next time you tell me about that person you know who didn’t get in despite good grades and the minimal number of hours to qualify for whatever service club was on campus, or think that being “smart” was the sole deciding factor in my Stanford acceptance, I’d like you to reflect on what I just explained. At top tier universities, the people who get in are the ones who sparkle with interestingness, who offer as much to their peers as a world-class education can offer to them. At top tier universities, exceptional is the new normal, and that’s fine with me.

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