Wednesday, 25 October 2017

So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star



You want to get into Stanford? Make a 1d20 saving throw. If you roll a 20, congratulations.

Thought that I would change gears just a bit today; no politics or personal stories about my son. 

From time to time, I participate in the on-line Q and A site called Quora, which is a moderated forum of, well, questions put to people with some professed expertise, and the answers. I've pitched it before, but generally, the level of discourse is better than on, inter alia,twitter or Facebook. 

If you're not a Quora user, I recommend at least to check it out.

And you can follow me over there for me nonsense (largely) and brilliance (occasional).

Today, as a Stanford graduate, I got an "asked to answer" requesting how an "average student" might gain acceptance to Stanford.

It's not the first time I've gotten a question on the topic, and I suspect that, with deadlines for applications looming, more will come. I attended Stanford as a graduate student (maths) 25 years ago, which (I guess) gives me some insight.

Given that the school rejects about 19 of 20 applicants, that gives me some insights that 95% of a sample don't have.


A couple of other Stanford grads weighed in, offering that one be a top athlete (Tiger Woods), or a famous actor (Fred Savage), or perhaps the daughter of the president (Chelsea Clinton).

Of course, all of these are ways an average student (academically) could gain acceptance, but then, these people are not really "average" in any real sense of the word.

The cold, hard truth is this: if you are an outstanding student, the odds are you will not get in. If you are just average, barring one of those Twilight Zone level, toss a coin and have it land on the edge, neither heads nor tails events, there is practically no chance at all that you will get in.

An “average student” will not get into a top university like Stanford. The likelihood of this is sufficiently close to zero that one can in all realities ignore it.

In the past, people talked about HYP (Harvard, Yale, Princeton), a group into which Stanford has now nudged its way. Over the past 50 years, competition for spots in these universities has gone from tough to fierce to ridiculous.

Part of the reason is that the population of the US has roughly doubled in that time (from 170 million or so in 1960 to 310 million in 2010, based on census numbers). The size of the undergraduate student body at Stanford has gone from 5600 or so to 6800.

Add to that, the number of foreign students at Stanford (close to zero in those days) has grown to more than 10%, according to Stanford's own published data.

Projecting the 11% reported onto the total of 6800, about 700 or so are from overseas.

It’s obvious that the result of this is tremendous pressure.

Stanford now admits something like 5% (1 of 20) of its applicants. And that applicant pool itself is self-selecting.

Unless your SAT scores are in the far right tail of the distribution, and your GPA puts you at or near the top of your class, your application is likely not even going to pass the three second screening. Even then, you’re now into a group that puts your odds at being terrible.

The reality is this: getting admitted to a school like Stanford is, aside from a handful of people who are recruited by one of the coaches to play on an NCAA team, or who invented something significant, or were a television star, or whose father was the president, down to luck. Pure and simple.

People will give you ‘recipes’ for getting in, and they will tell you how well qualified and brilliant they were (or their kid was), and that that is how they stood out.

It’s BS.

They were flat-out lucky. Period. Paragraph.

I'd like to say that I was brilliant, or interesting, or perhaps brilliant and interesting. But really, I was lucky. 

Aside from a tiny number of people who are obviously going to get admitted (the top recruits to the football team; the daughter of the president of the USA; someone who invents a medicine that cures cancer), there is extremely little difference between those admitted and those rejected.

It's just luck.  

With thousands and thousands of applicants where the range of GPA is between 4.0 and 4.2, and with SAT scores within an equally tight distribution, it is then down to how much the admissions officer who reads your individual application happens to think there is "something" unusual about it.  

I would love to see a sample of 1000 people who got admitted to Stanford matched via some sort of propensity score based on grades, class rank, and test scores to 1000 who did not.


Shuffle the 2000 together, and give them to admissions officers at say, Harvard or Yale, and ask them to identify who was admitted and who wasn't.

What this means for you, as an applicant is thsi:

If you’re a nobody from a public high school in Illinois who is first in his class with SATs of 1500 or so, take a die with 20 sides and roll it. Did you get a ‘1’ on the roll? Congratulations and welcome to Stanford. Did you roll anything else? I am sure that you will do very well at Northwestern, or perhaps the University of Illinois.


It’s really that simple.

If you’re not someone with those credentials (say, a 1350 on the SAT), then throw a couple of 20-sided dice. If BOTH came up a ‘1’, you’re in.

If you’re an ‘average’ student (1000 or so on the SAT, somewhere in the middle of the class, you sat the bench on the school football team). Throw that same die 100 times. All 100 will have to be a 1.

Sorry - by introducing other criteria (‘particularly interesting’) - makes you decidedly not ‘average.’

That is the cold, honest truth.

Post a Comment