The best resources, my application, and high school tips.
Welcome to this article — a full case study on an accepted Stanford student (that student being me, accepted REA into the Class of 2021). You also get a bit more: advice on how to position/differentiate yourself, especially useful for young developers and people interested in the tech-entrepreneurship scene + building cool shit, with resources for helping you do that. So it’s a lot of “I” and a bit of “you”, most effective given that you and I are similar people 😀.
This will be a long read. I’m fine with that. This certainly wasn’t my intent going in writing it, but I guess I had a lot to say. I initially wrote this article for a close friend of mine (mentee, in a sense) who wanted to learn more about my application because he was basically a younger version of myself by ~2 years, and I ended up writing about 100 mins worth of text.
I figured that there are probably other young developers who would benefit from this writeup, so I thought it would be worth it to share.
My aim is to condense 2+ years of research into the undergraduate admissions process (including but not limited to Stanford admissions) here. I know not everybody will do their research, and I’m also sure that vast majority of Stanford applicants won’t do the level of research I did. This is for the latter group of people, not the former. You can’t come into this article knowing basically nothing about the whole system; you should have a good baseline understanding of it. (International students might fall into the former group more often than domestic.) This article will then give you everything you need to know to create a compelling application to Stanford.
Again, it’s better if you are a developer — I can’t speak for other types of applicants as much, but the takeaways should generalize.
If you need to make life and mindset changes as per this article, then do so! You don’t have to — in fact the most important takeaway I can give from this article is to think for yourself — but you should definitely consider it in the sense of not being afraid by such a prospect. You need to come here with an open mind on how you can change your attitude towards different aspects. If what you see implies a harsh statement on your chances for Stanford, then swallow it along with your pride and figure out what you can do next to advance. “Accepting the truth is more useful when you want a specific outcome than ignoring it or acting like it isn’t true.” — this quote, from an important Stanford graduate who has the best resources on Stanford admission (will link later), really resonated with me. Why? Because it’s a mistake I’ve personally made so damn often throughout my high school career and would change if I had to redo it.
Though I’ll share a lot of my successes, I’ll also share my failures. They’re equally important for you.
This article is extremely private. Perhaps the most private and personal document I’ve ever written. It includes all my stats, my transcript, my activities, my essays, ambitions, etc. That’s why this article is unlisted (and will remain so). If you want to share this with people who are keen on Stanford, then let me know and I’d be happy to do so. They can email me at email@example.com. But the link to this page needs to be kept in privacy, otherwise I’ll have to delete it, which I don’t want to do. Please don’t share it with family. Please don’t share it with friends. Please don’t send it to people or put the link online. I know that, by virtue of putting it on the Internet, this may certainly be the case, I’m just hoping it isn’t. Ultimately I had to consider the opportunity cost, which is what led to me sharing this.
Why I am writing this
I got this message from a Stanford student when I was accepted. I don’t necessarily agree with it fully, but over time I’ve come to appreciate the significance, both in a subjective and objective sense, of my acceptance letter. In an objective sense — Stanford is a great place to fulfill my ambitions. In a more subjective sense, I’ve felt an increasing attachment to the Bay Area — not just in terms of Silicon Valley , also esp. in terms of music (punk rock) — and being at Stanford puts me in the place I’ve wanted to be for the last 4 years of my life. In short, I’ve made my dream come true.
I feel like, with many other fields like Art or History or Music, schools like Stanford, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and the other top schools etc. etc. are on a level playing field. However, when it comes to tech + entrepreneurship, I have a firm belief that, given opportunity and network maximization/utilization, Stanford is hands down the best environment to be in. Being at Stanford (and really, as a result, Silicon Valley) certainly gives you a leg up, but it’s obviously by no means a guarantee of success. Compared to any other university, though, Stanford most likely breeds the greatest number of entrepreneurs in tech / people who play a major role in tech. If anybody has the time to find data to support this, send it to me.
Here’s a nice starter:
For those who do not know, Y Combinator is unequivocally the world’s most powerful start-up incubator, check out their portfolio:
Yup. That’s Reddit on there.
I know plenty of others in the young developer community share the same dream that I had. For some it’s more urgent and significant than others. Regardless, I’m here to help with realizing that. This year, after my REA acceptance, I was mentoring 7–10 people in my school in both crafting an application and writing essays and found myself repeating the same advice. I’m going to also centralize that info here. The emphasis will be on the whole application itself rather than writing great essays — mostly because this advice is aimed for people earlier in the process when doing cool stuff and undergoing formative experiences that you can write about is more important than the writing itself. For more specific help with essays you can PM/DM/email me, and then I might add that info back here.
Doing tons of research and talking to Stanford students/alumni was key to my acceptance, and I’m here to perpetuate that cycle. That’s why I’m writing this.
Who this is for
This is for you if:
- You want to go to Stanford, or;
- You want to go to a similar school
- You’re in the tech-entrepreneurship scene (preferably but not necessary)
- You have an open-mind and thus;
- You will seriously consider the advice here and take it constructively
- You are curious, independent, and/or energetic
- You care about you and your future; not just the college game
This is not for you if:
- You will only value the advice that conforms to what you’re currently doing
- You’re not willing to make serious changes in your mindset/attitude towards things
- You don’t think for yourself enough — I hope that no parents ever see this article and then force their kids to read it. It has to come from the student, nobody else.
- You’re not willing to grow and learn from your mistakes (this is something I wish I did differently throughout my HS career)
I know many of you will have questions. I’m more than happy to answer them. However, the best place to ask is http://reddit.com/r/GetIntoStanford, a forum made by a Stanford graduate who gave me feedback for my application. The turnaround time for a response is usually <1 week. And if it’s a question I can answer I’ll also put my opinion in the thread — my username is /u/sup6978.
If you want my opinion as well, then send me an email over at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d be happy to answer. Generally, the smartest people ask a lot of questions, but they only ask things that can’t be easily Googled — because otherwise they wouldn’t be asking somebody else in the first place, since they really care about the answer vs. trying to impress somebody.
Why I chose Stanford
I chose Stanford because I wanted to attend college, and it was the best match for me as a college, in it’s emphasis of building things/entrepreneurship, blurring the lines between disciplines, collaboration, location, quirky student body, etc. I hope at Stanford I can find people to work on things with. I’m also really excited to call the Bay Area my home for the next four years and ideally beyond.
In short: I am a “fantastic match” with Stanford, as Richard Shaw — dean of admissions — put it in the acceptance letters sent out to Class of 2021 students.
Match. Remember that word. “Match” explains why people who get rejected from Stanford can get into MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc. All these schools are pretty much equally selective.
Being a good fit for the school is crucial. Different schools have different values and they look for students that conform to those values (they will sometimes sacrifice if they need to fill up certain niches though). My independence over the years — building things and researching stuff only because I loved to and was curious — made me a great fit for Stanford, among other things.
Here are a list of values and traits I believe Stanford looks for. I’ve bolded the most important ones:
- Intellectual vitality (love of learning)
- Entrepreneurship… OK here’s the deal with this one. It is bold, but Stanford doesn’t just value entrepreneurship in the business sense. Only ~2% of the very diverse student body are these types of people, an estimate given by a Stanford grad. They value entrepreneurship in the sense of students being enterprising of their own passions, if that makes sense. In my time interacting with Class of 2021 students, I literally have only come across one other student who has super similar interests to me in tech and entrepreneurship. There is a remarkable intellectual diversity, so just remember that, whatever you are interested in, you demonstrate good fit for Stanford by being independent, being enterprising,and taking initiative in that thing. Not by loving tech and startups.
- Sense of self
- Taking risks
- Blurring the lines between disciplines
You don’t need to conform to all these values, for example I didn’t do any athletics at all, but demonstrating many of these shows you are a match with the school.
You should only choose a school you are a good match with. There’s nothing more that I personally dislike than:
“Oh yea, I want to go to the ivies.”
But each Ivy offers something completely different! Students who get rejected from Yale get accepted to Princeton. Students who get rejected from Princeton get accepted to Harvard. You know why? Because fit is important. Figure out who you are and which university will help you become the best version of yourself. I knew that Stanford would be the university that could help me become the best version of myself, given I put 100% into it. That’s why it was my “dream” school. I personally was never planning on applying to Harvard among most ivies because I didn’t think they could offer me that, even though they were extremely competitive/top-tier schools.
A lot of people say “prestige isn’t very important”. Meh. That’s just noise. Prestige is extremely important, and you need to consider it in your decision of which school to attend. Academics will be very similar between universities, that is for sure. However, opportunities, brand recognition, and most importantly connections will not. I definitely see opportunity cost with respect to cost and financial aid/scholarships, but match is equally important to prestige in my eyes. Ideally, you maximize both prestige and match. Do not choose a school that isn’t a good match for you, however, because you most likely won’t be very happy. At the same time, if you are accepted at a top school, there is a good chance they think you’ll fit into the student body well.
At the same time, do not get caught in the prestige game. The most successful people in life aren’t necessarily the people with 10x competition awards, leader of 5+ clubs eg. MUN, NHS, Key Club, debate team, blah blah blah, 36 ACT, 800/800/800 SAT IIs, 4.0 GPA, 15 APs, etc. who then apply to every top-tier school.
(EDIT: Sorry if that sounded like a generalization, because there are people with these profiles who genuinely care about what they do ^ But my point is that you shouldn’t aim to check boxes in a obsessive perfectionist way.)
The most successful people know who they are, can articulate this, and work towards finding opportunities that will help them transcend to their best versions of themselves — their existential, authentic self.
Aim to be this type of person.
What Stanford looks for
First and foremost, they identify students who are academically sound and can succeed at Stanford and graduate. This is based on context — for example, less (both academically speaking and in terms of portfolio) will be expected of a low-income Hispanic student. A student whose mother died in sophomore year can obviously be excused for a large GPA drop. The former is called affirmative action, the latter is called extentuating circumstances. I believe firmly in the implementation of both of these.
If you can’t demonstrate that you “can succeed at Stanford and graduate”, the harsh reality is that your chances of acceptance quickly go down to zero without some other serious hook like being a donor. Even if your activities and essays are awesome, chances are that it, unfortunately, won’t really matter. The good news is that you really don’t need perfection to demonstrate this, and the bar is perhaps lower — at least in terms of standardized testing — than you may believe (or may not, but at least what I thought earlier in HS).
Once the bar is passed, two candidates are very rarely assessed on academics anymore. There are much more important things to holistically assess on.
So, after that, they’re asking two main questions:
- Are they going to make a big impact on the world and/or thus the Stanford brand?
- Are they going to add to the Stanford community, and are they a good match?
I believe I answered both very well. Many students can get in just by answering #2, but there’s much more luck involved. In my opinion, students who answer #1 should also answer #2. Even the students that are world-class at something should show that they will add something to the Stanford class.
Next few paragraphs are regarding point #1.
The first one is pretty easy for us young developers. In general, you want to demonstrate you have ambition and you independently create value, solve problems, make stuff, etc. If you’re a very “pointy” applicant (that is, you’re very passionate about one thing eg. technology and take that to many verticals to become fairly successful) and show you do the stuff you do just because you are interested in them/want to become more successful then this will shine through. If you do cool, impressive things and make it so that the admissions officers can’t ignore you, you stand a good chance for admission at Stanford.
Obviously, if you’re world-class at something or have done extremely extremely impressive things above the standard of pretty much every other HS student out there, then you better make sure you present this appropriately and effectively to admissions officers. I’ll have resources later to help you with that.
You can sacrifice this for grades and test scores. Again, the academics are just a bar (or “threshold”). Why? Because US universities are not a pure meritocracy. Internationals new to the system — get this into your head. In the UK, Australia, and pretty much every other country it’s all based on who succeeds the most in the education system, with some context (like income/hardship) factored in as well. Top US schools are not like that. They crave reputation, rankings, future donations, and power; they want students who will change things up, not students who get 36 on the ACT or 2400 on the SAT. They want alumni who will run the world and add to the school’s prestige and, of course, donate money (which explains why top athletes are accepted, even though you can argue they don’t really progress society in the same way an Elon Musk or Larry Page would).
There are many different ways to do this. I expressed that I’ve impacted the world through building products that people have been positively affected by. Other people have expressed their desire to discover something in a certain field — one Class of 2021 member seeks to participate in cutting-edge research to help resolve an injury she got from a skiing accident as a young girl. But in general, show that you are ambitious, have unique perspectives, have a strong understanding of who you are, and/or have done and will continue to do big things.
You need to communicate this to admissions officers of course. You do that with essays and letter of recommendations mostly. Show your perspectives on the world and your ambitions for your future and how you have already made a dent, somehow.
I like this comment (not from me but another Class of 2021 member):
Something I’ve noticed as an admitted Stanford student is that the other kids who’ve been admitted aren’t always the best on paper. We have a Facebook page and have started to connect with each other, and I’m really only realizing now what Stanford saw in these people. People seem to have the wrong idea about having the best SAT scores, the most activities, the best sport. Stanford wants to admit people who they believe are going to change the world, or at least change the field they’re interested in.
There are people I now know who are incredible programmers, artists and scientists — but they’re not the people with stacked CVs (some of them are). They’re people with a real passion, that comes through in their essays. It sounds like a broken crappy record that you hear from admissions counsellors bounce around in the back of your head while you obsess over trying to add ECs (far too often have I read ‘I have good ECs’), but it really, really is true. Everyone I’ve talked to on that Stanford Facebook page has an absolute passion.
I would agree with this notion of having a passion. I don’t necessarily think every accepted student wants to or believes they will “change the world”, but the passion part is certainly correct.
Honestly, I believe that the match of the student can sometimes be compromised in order to fill certain niches or to make sure that the most impressive people get on campus. (When you get to the absolute best students in the world/America, schools aren’t gonna say no because they’re not sure if they will fully “fit in”. They want some people as much as they want the school.) Schools won’t admit it but I certainly think so. I think I have seen some crazy academic students get into Stanford without other impressive stuff, but it’s significantly less than eg. Caltech or Princeton where that type of culture is more suiting. Stanford among all schools really need to fill their niches. Stanford would probably take more tech-entrepreneurship students than Harvard because it fits their culture more, but Harvard certainly still wants those type of students for example.
Every school needs to build a group of different individuals. Each year, they need dancers. They need trombone players. They need programmers. They need these students to construct the college experience, and to ensure their clubs and roles on campus are fulfilled.
For you and I young developers, I believe fit is paramount — we’re impressive but not that impressive, unless there’s amazing data to prove otherwise, + in any case we are almost all good fits for Stanford’s culture. So, it’s important to show that while you’re a kickass programmer and/or entrepreneur, you are also a Stanford student. Again, these can very much go hand in hand. I showed that I’m a great fit for Stanford in other ways and I also showed that I’m an interesting person, which leads me to…
A fair number of students at Stanford aren’t actually world-class, relative to age, at what they do. Believe it or not, being super impressive and world-class at a school like Stanford is rarer than you might think. Perhaps it isn’t rare, it’s just that not everybody in the student body, to exaggerate a bit, has “cured cancer” (because I keep seeing this…).
Know where you stand in this regard. A lot of the naysayers (especially on my end) refused to believe this. It’s true; trust me. Many adults told me: “a lot of kids make apps nowadays”, but I knew objectively that, compared to other young developers, I was in the top percentile. There are many different ways to evaluate this, and it’s very field specific, so I won’t elaborate.
Now, don’t say this out loud. Obviously. Just know where you stand in terms of how you excel at what you do. Forget political correctness and don’t listen to the noise. It doesn’t matter or help in the process. Self-awareness is very important, but many people forget that part of being self-aware is not overestimating nor underestimating your abilities. You are self-aware if you are spot on. So, people who internally undermine their chances/achievements are, in a sense, delusional. Being humble is a great skill, but in my eyes humbleness is best about communication and presentation to other people.
Know where you stand, it’s important.
If Stanford isn’t just composed of people with world-class abilities, who else are there? Well, they want to create a diverse student body of interesting people so that more students will choose to matriculate there in the future (the sense of community in US universities cannot be paralleled in other countries). They want diversity not just in the sense of race/skin color/gender/etc. but also in intellectual interests, perspectives, and activities. So, in my experience, there’s a general pattern amongst these type of accepted students:
- They’re a very interesting person
- They’re a hooked applicant or fulfill Stanford’s special interests
- They bring a unique perspective to campus
How do you show you are an interesting person? Well, there are many ways. Here is an awesome comment (Class of 2020 student) in response to somebody online. This is a must read:
Stanford Class of 2020 here -
I’m going to echo this. Stanford wants kids that do awesome stuff and will continue to do awesome stuff as college students. They don’t want kids with the highest GPAs — they want kids that will take advantage of the amazing opportunities Stanford has to offer, because those kids will continue to take advantage of the amazing opportunities life throws at them (and do amazing things with them).
A professor of one of the introsem courses once told her class “you weren’t admitted because you were the smartest kids that applied. You were admitted because you have a story to tell” which I think embodies Stanford’s approach to applications. They admit students that have a story to tell, or students that will. Stanford wants kids that are proud of who they are and what they’ve accomplished, and more importantly, students that can articulate how and why they’ve become the person they are today. I think that’s the key to a successful application — being able to articulate who you are and why. That’s how they’ll see that you are authentic, driven, curious, and opportunistic.
All of those traits? Well those aren’t things you’re going to be able to point out from chance me threads or a list of activities. Those qualities shine through in your writing, in your recommendations, and in your portfolios.
So please don’t focus on what everyone else’s application looks like, because they won’t be admitted for the same reason you will be. Everyone is here at Stanford for a different reason.
Story: Another girl at my school applied the same year as me and she was objectively better in every respect. She got perfect SAT/ACT scores (I didn’t). She was Valedictorian like me. She interned for a chemical engineering firm, and competed and won national science and math olympians. She won national writing awards. She was a URM, and I wasn’t. She was a presidential scholar that met Barack Obama. She was objectively better than me in every way, but she didn’t get in, and I did.
Thats because we were fundamentally different people with different interests, and therefore our applications wouldn’t have even been evaluated the same way in the first place. Do not compare yourself, because it’s pointless, incongruent with how admissions actually work, and will give you way too much anxiety.
I think Stanford very much values people who know who they are, have great ambitions and perspectives, and can articulate these (even potentially without success at their age and stacked portfolios). People like this may not have amazing achievements at 17 years old but definitely have the potential to become extremely successful. Now, there is more luck for these applicants vs. extremely achieved people.
In my opinion I don’t think I communicated this very well, but it worked out for me because it was clearly shown in my activities, achievements, journey, and letter of recommendations. I took the opportunity to talk about something else important to me, which you’ll read soon.
In my main essay I didn’t “tell my story” (my 5+ year journey as a developer, building products). I took a risk with this essay because of that and I’m not entirely sure if I got in because of it or in spite of it. In fact, I’m curious to check by reading the comments on my application when I get on campus this fall, if it is still possible to do so.
Being interesting also can just mean having passion (ah yes, this word again!) for different things, literally even if it’s for TV shows, books, movies, celebrities, etc. Obviously, it’s important that you take initiative with these things, and do something meaningful/productive. I heard about a student accepted to a top school whose main EC was a “Family Guy club” at school. Now that’s cool, heh.
In my essays I also talked about my addiction to burgers, Green Day, Billie Joe, a certain fictional world, singing in the shower, etc. (I’m also noticing this trend in the Class of 2021 group of people who expressed their love for just different random, crude stuff.) I also showed that I have certain life values and principles already formed. You might not expect these in a college essay — these non-academic and non work-related sometimes crude topics — but they show you’re a real, passionate person and have an outlook on the world. They show you’re a cool person who will engage and share enthusiasm for everyday stuff with other students around him.
I didn’t need to necessarily demonstrate initiative with some of these things because that was demonstrated in my main app/tech related achievements.
With regards to #2, being a “hooked” applicant, this is referring to if you‘re legacy, a minority, low income, first generation college student, donor, etc. These are either special interests the school has — like in the case of donors the school wants that $$$ — or implementation of practices like affirmative action for diversity (which I personally believe is just). Stanford may have other interests like if they’re missing out on people who play the cello for their student orchestra or they need to recruit people to help out with a new solar energy project. They admit students every year who fill these gaps in the niches/interests, which are pushed by faculty and the administration. However, this is generally not very important… I don’t think students ever really get accepted on the basis of this, but it can certainly help chances and push borderline applicants to acceptance/rejection.
#3 is about having a unique perspective. I would say this applies to people who have experienced something extremely unique or have gone through some sort of hardship to develop their life values. Schools want these types of students because, again, they add to the diversity of their incoming class. (Diversity of thought and opinion.)
I would say that showing you are an excellent match/fit for the school is sort of what encompasses these three points as well. Me, personally? I showed that I have dreams and ambitions to change things that I’ve already acted upon, and I then went on to demonstrate I’m a cool, interesting guy with passions and life perspectives who is ultimately a fantastic match for Stanford. That’s what got me in.
How admissions works
You also need to understand how admissions work. Most of the applicants that end up getting accepted go through a “committee”, where admissions officers who initially read the application have to “pitch” applicants and argue their case for being accepted to the incoming class. A vote is then given by each member in the committee to decide between acceptance/rejection/deferral/waitlist/etc.
With this knowledge, I want you to try this exercise (pulled from here).
MICHAEL WANG, a young Californian, came second in his class of 1,002 students; his ACT score was 36, the maximum possible; he sang at Barack Obama’s inauguration; he got third place in a national piano contest; he was in the top 150 of a national maths competition; he was in several national debating-competition finals. But when it came to his university application he faced a serious disappointment for the first time in his glittering career. He was rejected by six of the seven Ivy League colleges to which he applied.
How would you, as an admissions officer, pitch to the committee? Well, first you’d extract some key points from this:
he sang at Barack Obama’s inauguration
Uh, cool, so he’s a good singer. But IMO no more impressive than something else that shows he’s a good singer, unless he has an insane story of his efforts/how hard it was to get there.
he got third place in a national piano contest
Cool, he’s good at piano.
he was in the top 150 of a national maths competition; he was in several national debating-competition finals
Cool, he’s good at math and debating.
So, as an admissions officer, here’s my argument:
“Hey, there’s this guy, he’s really good at math, piano, debating, singing, and he tests super super well.”
Then they can be like:
“Oh like the other 500 people who test well and are good at math piano singing and debating?”
And I’ll have to say:
“Yes. Exactly like the other 500.”
Just from knowing that he’s impressive, I can say that he’ll get a good consideration, but the thing that will truly allow them to make a case for him being admitted are other things: how much value he’s created/going to create for the world, how interesting he would be to have coffee with, how energetic and ambitious he is, what things he has an authentic interest in, etc.
If I would have to summarize this, I would say: Stanford chooses impressive people to maximize future return and/or cool, interesting people to add to their diverse class. Here’s a nice comment on Reddit, as well:
Some colleges such as Caltech have a pure meritocracy for their admissions system. Other top schools don’t look for the most qualified applicants. Instead, they examine a pool of applicants who are sufficiently qualified and from them select the kids who will make their student body interesting and will reflect well on the school.
I also like this comment I found on Reddit:
My friend at MIT right now (Class of ’20) didn’t even get his HS diploma. He got a job offer in the Bay and wanted to do that for a year instead of finishing HS. When he was deciding to drop out or not, he called MIT admissions and asked if that would hurt his chances of an acceptance, and they told him “actually, that would make your application stronger.”
Colleges like interesting people. Dropping out to work for a company, in another state, on your own, as a 17 year old, is beyond interesting.
TL;DR: College admissions (especially MIT’s) is ridiculous lol.
It definitely helps if you do something that sounds or seems cool. Admissions officers are people; psychological laws apply, heh. But this is like a cherry on the top — at the same time, the most successful applicants are still the ones that do things that are very meaningful and have depth even if, on surface level, they may not “stand out”. They may stand out in virtue of just having so much depth.
Think for yourself
Generally, being authentic and having conviction — doing the things you do because they are meaningful to you — is paramount. Too many people try to bloat their resume by adding a bunch of bullshit, not thinking for themselves. When doing the things I was doing, I wasn’t just thinking about the college game. I was thinking about my life and what I want to fulfill in it/who I want to be. I spent every waking moment in my earlier high school years creating stuff because I loved to. Naturally, I became successful in a few dimensions. As a byproduct of this, Stanford said “we want you”.
Think for yourself. Try the authenticity test, from here.
This advice was intended for startups, but it’s also excellent advice for applying to colleges:
“As startups have become a resume item, “Does this company seem authentic?” has become one of my most important filters.” — Sam Altman
The college version would be “as doing cool things for college has become a resume item, “does this activity seem authentic/meaningful to the person/deeply valuable to the recipients” has become an important filter. The better the school you’re applying to, the more important this test is.
My mom made me sit down with a free private college counseling session for a 1.5 hour meeting. This was when I figured that private counseling wasn’t for me, even though I could afford it. Why? Because he told me to sit the AP exams (even when I was already doing IB), do a bunch of programming competitions, win science fairs, try to get my app pushed into the Singapore government somehow, get a 35 ACT or I’m doomed etc. etc. I sat there listening to his bullshit prescription and I did none of it. You don’t need competitions (maybe more useful for Caltech though). You don’t need an insanely high ACT. You don’t need perfect grades across the board. You don’t need to do science fairs.
You just need to do things you authentically enjoy. Excel at them. Be impressive. Be real. They can be unusual, unorthodox, and they don’t have to be in school. There’s a person active on /r/ApplyingToCollege who got into Stanford who had making clothes in her free time as an activity. Here is a link to her awesome essay on it.
Admissions isn’t a science. It’s more like an art. So everything I’ve mentioned here are basic frameworks to accepting students, but there are always improvisations, blurring, and non-conformance of/on these principles. There have been and will continue to be exceptions to the general guidelines above, but I firmly believe this is a good general overview of the kind of person Stanford looks for.
Definitely don’t frame this advice as the way(s) to get in. Just think of it as definite patterns I’ve seen and extracted from an otherwise black box system, to us outsiders. It’s black box in the sense that we non admissions officers don’t have a full picture of how the process works, and that the process isn’t structured in itself. So it’s two-fold.
Specific advice for CS students
Pulled from here:
Answer these questions:
If I was Stanford, and I had 1000 kids who wanted to do CS who had won science fairs, had 4.0 UW, 2300+ SATs, why would I give a shit about accepting me? What do I know about myself that I could tell someone to prove they should want me, not them? (things that make you interesting, cool, smart, thoughtful, generally valuable to the world and to other students at the school) -> Now note that down, and make sure you prove it using facts/stories/data points in your application/essays.
The bad thing about college applications, and what I hope to help here, is that “being excellent” and “showing Stanford you are excellent” are two different skills. It’s much easier to take someone who is excellent and teach them how to prove it.
If someone isn’t yet excellent/doesn’t have a convincing answer to why Stanford should want them, then hopefully they have some time, and then the short advice would be read “how to be a high school superstar”, follow all of your interests and make a bunch of things that you think are cool.
This could apply to anything, not just CS students starting companies; this could mean CS students doing breakthrough research, wanting to change up a field like journalism, other things that I can’t think of right now.
Note: Initially, this section was after my application and a breakdown of it. But I felt it was important that this section come first, and that you — with honesty and integrity — read and watch the things linked here first. It may be tempting to scroll ahead, hell, I know I would’ve probably done it, but I’m only suggesting what would be most value add for you as an applicant.
Consuming this entire section might take a couple of days on/off, but I feel that having the knowledge will give you a better mindset going into the “My Application” section. You can see how I implemented the advice given to me by others, and you can see advice go from a generalized scenario to an applied scenario.
That’s important because my application is only one way to get into Stanford. I don’t want students, even young developers, to think that my application is something to reproduce. It really isn’t — it should just demonstrate how to take general tips and apply them, as well as how to construct an application.
It’s crucial that you read/watch/visit all of these if you want to get in:
These are in no particular order. Some of them are general advice, some of them are specific essay advice, and some of them are forums to join.
The best resource ^ A kickass subreddit.
A guide. Time to read: 14 minutes. Time to implement: Days. How long might the benefits last? The rest of your life.stanfordguide.org
This interview was conducted in October 2015 by a high school student who emailed me. The following are the notes he…stanfordguide.org
The three resources above are by the same person. He is a Stanford CS graduate who offers advice a) advice on building things and tech-entrepreneurship b) life advice, and c) advice for getting into Stanford. He runs a subreddit (first link) dedicated to c) where he answers any question on the application process along with a) and b) sometimes as well. I participate on the sub as well sometimes, replying to posts when he is not online or asking questions myself. Very useful guy — have been looking to him for a lot of advice recently.
For CS students, this is the best resource. He also has a course/mentorship program that I’ll discuss about soon, but you can sign up for it here. About <1 week turnaround time. This course is by the same Stanford graduate guy in the first couple links. It’s about making money, running startups, building things, maintaining relationships, excelling at life etc. The actual course description follows:
This is everything I wish I’d been taught.
This course is for absurdly ambitious people. How might you know if you’re absurdly ambitious? Maybe you deeply believe you’ll be President. Maybe you deeply believe you’ll be able to make lots of money with little work and live on a beach (that was once my plan). Maybe you want to be a deeply respected public intellectual. Maybe you want to make money (and not a little — enormous sums of money).
The lessons here have helped me a) create more value b) be more satisfied in daily life, through better and deeper relationships, and a better understanding of myself.
Why am I teaching this? I enjoy finding future Elon Musks/Mark Zuckerbergs/Bill Gates, or future public intellectuals or otherwise absurdly successful/impactful people.
Don’t try and remember things. Take what is useful, discard the rest.
The ultimate test is applying these learnings to get things you want in life.
Here is a wonderful subreddit dedicated to applying to college:
This subreddit is for anyone looking for advice about college admissions, including college essays, scholarships, SAT…reddit.com
This is the worst possible site to use in the application process. Just read these two posts and get off:
I posted this on the Stanford page and realized that a lot of this information probably isn’t unique to Stanford. I don…talk.collegeconfidential.com
After having been over-familiarized with CC, I have become sick of useless chances posts, useless speculation about how…talk.collegeconfidential.com
Use reddit.com/r/ApplyingToCollege as linked above instead of this toxic forum ^
About once a month, I get an email from a student in high school (and sometimes middle school) who wants advice about…feross.org
This one is excellent, but ignore point #7 about athletics.
This girl is http://reddit.com/u/tylersunami on Reddit. Her name is Tyler. Stanford Class of 2020. PM her (or maybe actually email her) if you have questions. She helps a lot of HS students.
The following video talks about a good point that you can sell yourself in terms of how interesting you are/your experiences/your perspective vs. only achievements (more luck required with these students though). She was accepted with, relative to Stanford, not the best stats — 30 ACT, <700 SAT IIs —and, according to her, not many leadership roles. It seems that she knew how to present herself and her work relative to what Stanford looks for in applicants in terms of fit:
Specific advice for essays from the same girl. For the types of students where there are less achievements, essays have to be nailed. Hers were awesome:
From Stanford’s site:
Undergraduate Admission at Stanford University — one of the world’s leading research and teaching institutions. It is…admission.stanford.edu
From the same Tyler person. This is basically her video but transcribed:
(Medium and Reddit have some sort of integration I think ^)
Nice interview with Stanford dean of admissions. Especially like the part where he talks about how they really look into the “reality” of each student to evaluate each activity/achievement in context of the opportunities said student is provided:
This is why a student who is less impressive on paper may be given equal consideration to a student who is more impressive. Perhaps the latter student was from a wealthier family, went to a magnet school, was in a kickass area like Silicon Valley, etc. etc.
Read every single post in this Reddit user’s history (the same Stanford CS grad as before). This is probably the most important thing to do. If you’re super fucking ambitious then read every single comment he has written. I literally read every comment he wrote before I applied to pick up all the possible takeaways.
I liked this video, but it’s a bit unnecessarily long:
These are sort of meh but still good quick watches/reads:
Three years ago, I wrote an essay for this magazine on the feelings I experienced as our daughter, Sarah, applied, got…alumni.stanford.edu
This touches upon how things that seem impressive/cool give you a leg up. But don’t get too caught up in this; things are important if they are important to the person doing them and are meaningful.
March 26th, 2010 · 147 comments Steve and David Let’s try a simple experiment. Imagine that you’re an admissions…calnewport.com
Not related to Stanford but still great for CS students looking to build a portfolio:
It’s crucial that you STAY AWAY from these if you want to get in:
Many students want to get into Stanford, one of the most prestigious undergraduate institutions in the United States…blog.prepscholar.com
Millions of posts with valuable advice are available throughout the forums! Browse around our most popular topics below…collegeconfidential.com
This /r/ApplyingToCollege sister sub is for anyone who wants feedback from others about their chances of acceptance at…reddit.com
Private paid counsellors. Honestly, even if you can afford them, I don’t think you need them if you’re independent and ambitious. Young developers are usually of this kind. For people who are less concerned and need their parents to remind them to complete their essays, for example, perhaps private counsellors provide more utility. But if you are the type of person who really cares about putting a ton of effort into your application, you can find better people to ask and talk to, you can find great resources online, and you don’t really need these guys’ help. That’s just my view though. My friend had a counsellor and he felt that the advice was pretty generic.
Before you continue
The section following this is a breakdown of my application. I will be discussing a lot of different things but will not be summarizing them anywhere in this article. It would benefit you greatly if you compose a list of takeaways for every couple of paragraphs you read. It would also be great if you could compose a list of takeaways of everything mentioned before this section as well. In fact, I think this is so important that I will buy something small (through Amazon) for the first person who can send me a detailed first draft of this list, such that I can include it here, because I’m lazy.
I feel like the following section might be a bit less important for applicants who are 1+ years from applying, since the focus is very heavy on the application itself with a few insights/pieces of advice scattered throughout. My current prescription would be to not skip it, but you can comfortably skim and mostly look for takeaways.
EDIT: After writing, here is my definite take… people 1+ years from applying should skim the application content itself, including comments directly on it, and instead mostly focus on all the bold parts (I’ve bolded important stuff but I may have missed out) which are mostly takeaways/generalizations/HS advice. This is why I want somebody to help me compile a list really badly.
EDIT: Here is a document for the summaries, provided by two students (thank you to both!) shortly after they read the article.
EDIT: I talked to my admissions officer with other admits during Admit Weekend (as part of a “picnic with your admissions officer” event), and one thing she really emphasized was the multi-dimensional and human aspect of each individual application she reads, communicated through essays. For me, this was for example my love of Green Day.
My application — a breakdown
Here’s the meat of the article: my application. What follows is every main piece of information I sent to Stanford that I have access to in order (so the only thing missing is my teacher/counsellor letter of recommendations but I can explain what they, to my knowledge, wrote). Following each section/essay/whatever I’ll make a comment on why it helped me and added new insight to the whole admissions process.
The beginning of my application is just a bunch of basic info and background on me, my family, my education, their education, race, etc. Admissions officers use this data for affirmative action and to identify which students are minorities, low income, first generation college students, etc. so they understand the context and “reality” of each student. They want to understand what kind of opportunities the student had; it’s harder for minorities with low income and uneducated parents to excel the same way somebody like I would, for example.
I don’t feel the need to share this section of my application.
I decided to not specify my race (it’s not included in the application). I did this not because of affirmative action — literally my name is “Rohan Kapur” and my parents are from India so an admissions officer can deduce— but I really don’t identify with being Asian, personally speaking, having been born and spent my formative years in Australia.
Ultimately, I have educated parents, am Indian — an over-represented race, high income, etc. and I applied as an international student as well. A lot of people think that’s a tough combination, and a fair number of people will position these as obstacles. Here are two things to consider: 1) in my perspective they’re not obstacles at all, since I could only be the person I am today due to them, for example if my parents made less money I definitely would have access to less opportunities, and 2) be so good that admissions officers can’t ignore you — no matter your background. International admissions might be slightly harder than domestic, but I think only in the sense that there are less random/riskier, from the school’s POV, picks.
My school doesn’t rank. If they did I don’t have a good idea of where I’d be. My school is very very competitive and there are many people who get the same IB predicted close to the top. If you were judging on all grades since sophomore year (Stanford does not look at freshman year), maybe I’d be 20–25/334 or something like that. It wouldn’t matter though because IB is insanely rigorous — probably the most rigorous system in the world — and my school is very competitive so I showed I have the academic prowess to succeed at Stanford.
Here is my transcript:
You could consider 7 an A+/A*, 6 an A, and 5 a B. It’s not at all the same as American system’s GPA. Having an A average, or 6 average, in my school would definitely not get you into a school like Stanford. An A in my system is not equal to an A in the American system, at all; an all A student would be in the 65th percentile probably. However, I wouldn’t consider my “6s” (which I had throughout high school) equal to American Bs, but they’re definitely not as good as American A’s. This is just virtue of our scale. I don’t really know how to convert between the two.
What I do know is that you’d need mostly 7s (A+s) for your IB in year 11 and 12 for admission to top schools. IGCSE (in 9 and 10) doesn’t matter as much anyways.
My IB predicted was a 44/45. That’s on par with a 4.0 GPA. Grades are very important for Stanford admission. Much more so than standardized testing.
As you can see, I didn’t try very hard in grade 9. I spent my time building stuff instead, and I definitely have no regrets. Why? Because Stanford does not consider freshman year, as mentioned before. I didn’t know that at the time, but in hindsight it was a good choice. I don’t think it would have made a difference if they did, though. I was never a perfectionist in terms of grades. Instead, I only got what I needed (the exception being junior year where I went a bit overboard, as I explain later… in senior year I dropped a bit but since my attainments are holistic my teachers kept me at the same level given my great performance in grade 11).
I think my lack of worth ethic throughout middle school and freshman year did sort of harm me because I had to buckle down later on, leaving little time for me to build more things.
There are people with nearly straight 7s in all four years that got deferred and rejected from the top schools. The smartest (in terms of academic prowess) kid in our grade with a 52/45 IB predicted — he took an extra IB subject, only <10 people in the world do this per year — was deferred from his top school choice in early.
My grades definitely weren’t perfection. They were really damn good, but not #1 in my school. Probably closer to #25. That didn’t matter — I passed the “bar” to get full consideration. My grades could have been lower a bit and I still would have gotten in. Students are never compared on academics; students who pass the bar, with context taken into account, are only then compared on their activities/essays/perspectives/accomplishments etc.
This was my ACT score. It was a 33 (rounded up from 32.5) out of 36. When it comes to top schools, some people say this score is “risky”. Generally speaking people think a 34 is the “safe” score. I think it doesn’t matter, though. The ACT is mostly a bullshit test anyways; if you’re intelligent, it tests application of basic common sense in crazy fast time. It’s not really a good indicator of your academic ability at all. I only took it once at the end of my sophomore year. Never again. I know people who got a 35 after taking it three times (Stanford requires you to send all your scores). I would prefer spending my holidays building cool things and learning about AI, heh.
I think a reasonable cutoff is about 30 on the ACT. However, it still depends on the context of the student and whether the other parts of the application make Stanford really want them.
Here is a good link: http://ucomm.stanford.edu/cds/2015. The Common Dataset of each school has important data, like incoming student stats, that can be important for figuring out your chances.
I also didn’t take any SAT IIs. I wasn’t able to take it again before the Stanford REA deadline because of time constraints and opportunity cost. A lot of people told me I was doomed because of this. Ha.
I want you to think about two things: purpose and correlation not causation.
People forget this in the college admissions process. They forget the idea that everything has a purpose. Test scores? There’s a purpose to it. Grades? Purpose. Rank? Purpose. Some say: oh you need at least a 34 ACT for these schools. Oh, you don’t have SAT IIs… everybody has SAT IIs, take them first and then apply!
But as if there’s an arbitrary line that you need to cross? Arbitrary guidelines you need to fulfill? Nope! Think about the purpose of these scores and how admissions officers will interpret and use them.
The purpose of the ACT is to have a standardized measure for students because schools in the US are unstandardized. A 4.0 GPA is much easier at certain schools than others. Some schools don’t offer APs, others offer many. It’s also helpful to judge how well a school prepares students for university, especially if the applicant is coming from somewhere the university hasn’t looked at before, like an international school that doesn’t use standardized education. Where I’m from, this isn’t an issue; I took IGCSE courses in 9 and 10 and IB courses in 11 and 12. My school sends 2 kids to Stanford per year on average.
I showed that I excelled in my school environment, which Stanford knew to be rigorous. In any case, what’s the difference between a 33 and a 35? Like, 6 common sense questions out of ~200 in such little time on one Saturday morning? It’s a joke, really. Some people are just faster at processing info than others. Some people make careless mistakes under time pressure. Personally, I’m an over-thinker and it really hurt me with the ACT. I also think the US middle/high school education system is more repetition and info processing heavy so students who excel generally can get 34–36 on the test.
It’s important that you figure out which test is better for you. I made this mistake; I defaulted to the ACT just because a lot of my friends were taking it. I thought about switching to the SAT or trying it out, but was too lazy. In retrospect, the SAT was a test better suited for me. You need to play the game, so make sure you play it intelligently.
Standardized testing can thus be much more important if you come from a school or region where very few applicants have, in the past, come from. If the university has a good understanding of the rigor of your system, and a more whole picture of your “reality”, the better.
Furthermore, Stanford requests testing from all test dates. While some peers took the ACT and SATs again and again, I took it once early on. What does that show? It shows that I wasn’t necessarily concerned with my testing too much. It shows I could have got that 34 or 35 (the older you get the easier these tests are) with more studying. But I did other things that were more impressive. I believe my ACT score could have been as low as a 30 and I still would have been selected. I know somebody in Stanford c/o 2019 like me who had a ~1800/2400 SAT (26–27 ACT I think) from Europe.
SAT IIs can highlight strengths in specific areas. But why would I need them? I had straight 7s in the sciences since grade 9 and mathematics since grade 10. I even had a few academic awards given by my school in the same areas. I didn’t need SAT IIs to prove that I was good at Math/Physics.
This isn’t just about test scores; this is about always looking at the purpose of something. Understand what they’re trying to figure out and ask regarding students and students’ abilities. If you can answer these demands sufficiently in the areas they give you, you’re good.
Correlation not causation
95% of accepted Stanford students submit SAT IIs. 60% of them had a higher ACT than I did. But here’s the thing: correlation =/= causation. Most people take SAT IIs because many schools require them (Stanford doesn’t). On top of this, who doesn’t take the SAT IIs in the college process? I was supposed to take it. It’s a box everybody checks. But that doesn’t mean you need it. It’s all about purpose. For the ACT, I just think I was at a disadvantage with the test because I didn’t retake it, I can’t process info very fast, and the IB education system is more focused on problem solving vs. rote memory.
They asked me for my senior year courses. As you can see, I took Math HL, Physics HL, Computer Science HL, Philosophy HL, English SL, and Chinese B SL. Theory of Knowledge is a compulsory subject in the IB system. The Extended Essay is as well. Almost everybody in my school takes 3 HLs and 3 SLs because that’s how the system works. By convincing my school to let me take 4 HLs, I showed that I challenged and pushed myself. Furthermore, given that the fourth HL was in philosophy — a subject that very few STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) applicants take or value — I showed my appreciation of the humanities and my well-roundedness in this aspect. Philosophy was key to my application and my interest/ambitions in artificial intelligence.
Challenging yourself is very important for college admissions. Challenge yourself in the things you care about, though, and challenge yourself because you genuinely care about what you are studying (it’ll be in your favor that way).
For the Extended Essay, I added “(on artificial intelligence)” even though it technically wasn’t in the name of the course. This is one example where I slightly bent the rules of the application to my advantage. They won’t penalize you for this! Remember: purpose. By adding this small detail I initiated the process of nailing into the reader’s head the interest I have in AI. These seems super damn minor, but this takeaway extends in more major ways later on.
These were my “Honors” (awards). You can include a maximum of 5. Most of my awards were not really “academic” in the typical sense. That’s fine. When Apple and Facebook invite you to their developer conferences, that’s something you want to somehow convey to colleges. When you win a hackathon, that is too! You don’t have to include the common/typical awards like NHS/Science Bowl/AP Scholar (you should if these are important to you) or conform to what you think they are asking you. Instead, you should figure out how to maximize conveying the important info about you that is impressive, especially since the space on Common App is pretty limited — at least it was for my application.
The “(continued)” means that I add more detail about this in the Additional Information section. For the Apple WWDC scholarship, I put that I got the award in freshman year even though I actually got it in grade 8. This is because the Common App does not allow you to enter honors before freshman year. However, WWDC was too important for me (and too “cool” in my eyes) to not put. So I just listed it under Grade 9 and then corrected it as Grade 8 in my Additional Information section. This is another example of me taking risks and bending the rules a bit, albeit super minor.
I was also ruthless about numbers throughout my application. I put the value of the WWDC scholarship and the Facebook scholarship because that demonstrates significance. Otherwise, admissions officers won’t know (some people just put bullshit on their application or exaggerate stuff nowadays so its important to prove yourself otherwise). This is part of selling yourself. Not many people know how to sell themselves; it’s an important skill. You really need to contextualize everything.
I added academic awards given to me by my school — most people actually undervalue the significance of these. Furthermore, I think it helped emphasize my academic well-roundedness given that I got an award for excellence in English since comparatively less STEM students achieve this.
I expressed my interest in becoming a business owner in the future. This is for two reasons:
- It’s true. I don’t want to work for other companies as a programmer. I want to build the next biggest thing.
- People wrongly assume that applying with an interest in computer science puts you at a disadvantage for Stanford because of the volume of those applicants. I think that in reality Stanford just looks for people who aren’t going to work for Google/Facebook/Apple/Amazon but instead create those types of companies. It’s better for them and fits with their culture. My activities already demonstrate this (which is the actual important part), but by specifying it as my “Future Plans” puts the nail in the coffin, if that makes sense.
Now for the Activities section.
I put Contra as the first activity. I would not have been accepted without it. In my whole application, Contra is the greatest “slice” of me. I started working on it in grade 9 and am still doing so in grade 12. If this didn’t show my ambition and conviction/passion then I don’t know what did. It also demonstrated creativity, entrepreneurship, collaboration, intellectual vitality, risk-taking, and initiative — all core Stanford values. Nobody spends 4 years on a project unless its so meaningful to them.
Contra was a manifestation of all my dreams as a young iOS developer (to have my app featured, people using it, create a social platform, etc.). It was the most important thing in my application because it is the most important thing in my life thus far, except family and such.
Notice that my writing is not very fluid. It’s almost like a bunch of bullet points but delimited by ‘;’. That’s fine; the essays are for prose. I had a ton of information to convey to admissions officers and I needed to convey it in the limited application space. (If I remember correctly activity descriptions can only be 150 characters long — not much at all!) This is again all about selling yourself. Be ruthless in conveying information and don’t be restricted by any format you feel is prescribed.
I put the most important points (like the value I created in terms of teens expressing themselves, that I raised money, that I led employees, and was promoted by Apple). It’s very cool when 17 year olds code stuff but it’s even cooler when they can also manage a team to do it, in my eyes. It shows ambition and management skill/leadership.
This was the second activity I put: my AI blog. I put this as my second activity because I thought it demonstrated my passion for AI best but in a non-typical medium. Instead of talking about how I program machine learning algorithms, I thought discussing how I write on AI online would be cooler. Adds more dimensions to my profile. Again, few STEM students do this (writing). I decided that this could be another selling point for me so I wrote about it in a short essay. Will elaborate then. Once again, I was ruthless on the stats to add to the impressiveness.
To be clear, the AI blog isn’t the only time I spend my time learning about AI. I do like to experiment a lot, for example, and read a lot of research, but from an admissions officer’s perspective I felt if they’d remember me as “the AI guy” it would be best through something more unique than code.
So, in this sense, positioning oneself is very important. You have limited space and time to make your argument, so filter out the less cool stuff to make it compelling.
The third activity I selected was a club I run at school where we teach people how to build stuff (so iOS, backend, AI, etc.). I felt this demonstrated my leadership, initiative, and knack for sharing knowledge. Remember that universities definitely would love to have students with a “spark” who will teach and mentor their fellow classmates. This is definitely something best conveyed by recommendation letters, but you can also show this with your own initiatives that you have/will (and not just can) create value for the other people around you. I also referred to how we’ve pulled in speakers from different reputable tech companies — adds to the impressiveness.
This demonstrated leadership, initiative, risk-taking, creativity, etc. Compounded to Hack Club for demonstrating sharing knowledge/passion and showing I have that “spark”. I included my mission (universities want to know why you did something not just that you did it! — important takeaway: the why is super fucking important, even if you can’t write about something in an essay.) to start one of the first hackathons for people my age in Singapore. Stats, funding, and company names were key here; they once again added to the contextualization -> significance factor. This is again about selling.
I specified that I was the youngest ever employee, once again, to sell myself (sorry if you keep hearing this, but I can’t emphasize it enough). I put my salary to show that my work was valued; many people do unpaid internships. They’re alright, especially earlier on in high school when connections > money, but not that impressive. If you achieve something significant in an unpaid internship then this can offset. Generally though I say this since many people have them because they’re not difficult to get. If people pay for your work it demonstrates your skill. I didn’t really talk about the technologies I used but instead the value I created — this is important! Colleges would rather hear that I have made the lives of drivers/passengers easier rather than “learned new APIs to do X and Y”. Value creation shows potential impact on the world, which is a great measure for admissions officers.
My 6th activity was an initiative I took part in, operated by a Stanford PhD student. The fact that it was Stanford didn’t make a difference in my eyes. What made a difference was that I was yet again taking part in the process of educating people. Not only have I taken online courses in my past, I’ve already been creating them for other people’s benefit through this initiative. So, I was creating value (you’ll hear this a lot — it’s important) in doing so. It also really aligned with one of my essays and one of the themes of my application/profile. Also, I emphasized my leadership by referencing that I co-directed courses with 30–40 member teams.
These next two activities were community service ones required by my school. In retrospect I would have removed these because they weren’t very authentic. Both were, in a way, done because my school made me. However, I enjoyed the fact that I was able to take a twist on my school’s requirements and offer my own set of skills to people in need. Why should I build houses for poor people? I’m out of shape, don’t have muscles, and can’t work with my hands. (heh.) But I can operate a computer. I can create courses for kids and teach domestic helpers basic IT skills. I wanted to channel this in my application because it’s something I firmly believe in.
I put this because I wanted to show Stanford I’ve been making $$$ since 13 years old. Companies hired me before I entered high school which adds to impressiveness. I think at this point they would stop doubting skill, but more importantly, it shows that I’ve been doing this whole entrepreneurship thing since a young age. Further emphasizes my conviction and ambition and authenticity.
This was my line of thinking when adding this: “Which other STEM student can give talks on product development at age 14? Not many.” By nature I’m not a very good public speaker, I’m definitely no debater — so why should I add it to my profile vs. other potential internships or projects? Well, this is more differentiation and selling; by including this I open more facets of myself and my profile, versus discussing more coding aspects.
As you can see, I put less emphasis on the “technical” aspects of my work and instead put more on the value created, leadership, educating others, interdisciplinary work w/ humanities, creativity, public speaking etc. This differentiated me from the typical high-achieving STEM student who has dozens of programming competition awards, science fair prizes, etc. etc. Stanford might have thought: “[X] kid is really cool”. That’s what you want to go for. You want to be cool and multi-dimensional.
Why? Because successful people are cool and multi-dimensional. To be successful in tech/business, you also generally need to know a lot about philosophy, psychology, management science, communication, economics, finance, etc. You need to have fair public speaking experience. You need to build and manage teams. You need to have an understanding of business. You need to understand consumers. You need to understand people. You need to be socially adept. You need to read a lot.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t have these things. For example, I didn’t. (Only to a super super small/low extent.) But I showed my recognition/acknowledgement of them and potential in them.
If you’re a really good engineer, that’s great in its own right — you’ll most likely work for a top Silicon Valley company making bank, but perhaps you won’t go on to start something huge. I want to start something huge, and I’ve already taken very small but concrete steps to get there. Stanford saw that, and I firmly believe this is the main type of CS student they look for.
A lot of people argue that being well-rounded isn’t very good and that it’s best to be awesome at one thing and instead take that thing to multiple verticals, opening dimensions for yourself (which is what I did). I feel like this is some insane overthinking. The time to think about positioning yourself for college is the time when you’re filling out the application; not when you’re doing the actual activities. Do things that you care about and perhaps you will be well-rounded, perhaps you will be pointy. It’s actually not that discrete let alone binary like a lot of people think. If you do things because you care about them and your future, and think for yourself, I promise that a “multi-dimensional and strategic” application will just fall in place.
All of these things that I did, I did because I cared about them. I never thought about any of my achievements or activities in terms of the differentiation or positioning as expressed here with regards to my application, until the time to fill out the application came. Basically — the most successful applications are ones which were crafted with most thought, care, and strategy. Do you see how much time and effort into positioning myself? Literally every sentence was, in a way, deliberate and planned. Each sentence had a reason for being there, and created some sort of value. Not just the quantitative info put in activity descriptions but how I really made myself seem interesting rather than just, for example, a code monkey. In my opinion, you really benefit from having that non-nerd factor for Stanford. You’ll see this even more in the upcoming essays.
That’s why I think it’s both easier and harder than one might think; a lot of people will downplay your achievements and spew noise such as “a lot of people make apps!”. That’s not true. You know if you’re awesome at it— don’t be scared to admit it to yourself. At the same time, though, you can’t just be an amazing coder and get into Stanford. You have to be multi-dimensional, savvy, enterprising, and very very cool/impressive. I showed this in my activities, but that was probably only 50% of it. The other 50% was my essays.
Let’s start with my Common App main 650 word essay. I chose the following prompt: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. To be honest, I didn’t really follow the prompt (I figured it was quite flexible). Here is my essay:
That’s right — I wrote about music and how I use it to “explore and long for places that captivate me”. This is something remarkably important to me. I initially wrote it in one of my Stanford supplement essays instead but realized that I could turn it into the main 650 word one. I feel like it really reflects on my character and heart — about my curiosity, sense of self, love of music, sentimentality, perspective on the concept of home, independence, day-dreaming, thoughtfulness, secret admiration of nature (this may surprise some of my friends!), etc. These are things one cannot infer from my achievements or portfolio.
I took a risk by talking about this instead of my journey as a developer, but I think it added a completely new dimension to my profile. It gave readers insight into a vulnerable and personal side of me, and another argument point during the committee meeting. It certainly added to the “non-nerd” and “how interesting is this person?” factors. I enjoyed expressing my knack for writing (the language is more flowery than any other portion of my application). Finally, I don’t think many other STEM students can express themselves the way I did, but this is just unsubstantiated speculation.
In my opinion, some of the best moments to write about in essays are the small ones. These are ones which reflect on your character the most. They also speak to your “intellectual vitality”; here is a post I agree with from Quora:
…your topics don’t have to be remarkable. In fact, it might even be better if they aren’t.
To see why, let’s take a closer look at what the prompts are really asking. Although only one explicitly mentions it, it seems to me that both of those questions ask whether you have “intellectual vitality.” So, uh… what exactly does that mean?
At least to me, it means that they are looking for people who can’t help but be engaged with the world around them. The things they see get them thinking, even when there isn’t any homework asking then to do so, even when those things that aren’t necessarily recognized intellectual topics, and even when there aren’t people to impress. Life simply stirs their minds into motion.
(Disclaimer: I make no claim to embody this romantic ideal. I am quite far from it. But I guess I exhibited some of these qualities enough for the Stanford admissions committee…)
If you can successfully take an ordinary topic and illuminate what makes it extraordinary, then you have demonstrated some amount of this intellectual vitality. You’ve shown that you search for meaning in your everyday life.
This is important because the way you handle the little things speak a lot about your character (this is true in life in general, not just for college essays). It’s easy enough to pretend when it comes to big things because you’re more likely to consciously mind the way you act. Furthermore, there are well-known patterns to follow. However, it’s harder to pretend for the little things because you’re more likely to forget to pay attention.
I really wrote from the heart with this one. I went deep. I think my admissions officer liked that. It was authentic, real, and so “me”. I am an interesting person who loves a lot of different things. I wanted to show that with this essay.
Next up is the “Additional Information” section. This is 650 dedicated words where you talk about extentuating circumstances (so like really bad illnesses or family death or something that could get in the way of your academics and activities) or extra details about your qualifications. I decided to use the entire word count as a resume. I might be one of the few people applying to Stanford who did that — it’s very rare to even use it to elaborate on achievements at such depth, but I simply felt my strategy required me to. A lot of people told me not to do this, but in now I have justification for saying “fuck it!”.
I wanted to sell myself to the max, and the activity descriptions did not give me the opportunity to do so. Don’t be afraid to use this section if you need it, do not be afraid of not using it if you don’t.
This is the first page. I listed free college courses I’ve taken online — this showed my intellectual vitality. One of them was also graduate level.
For the WWDC scholarship, I decided to contextualize it. Again, admissions officers won’t know the significance of “Apple WWDC 2013 Scholarship” until you tell them. Here’s a quote I agree with, from here:
“I won X award” is objective, but not contextualized. “I won X award, awarded by Y institution that you know about, that has Z applicants and accepts X people” is objective and contextualized. I can immediately understand that this is significant.
If you think that admissions officers have the time to dig around the Internet contextualizing things for you, you’re wrong. Make the work easy for them — show them that your stuff is significant (if it is).
For the hackathon, I thought there was actually something even better to convey than the fact I won — that we’re getting mentorship from the Singapore government to continue developing the project. Again, just adding to the impressiveness factor here.
For Contra, I decided to include a quick sentence on the value I’ve created for other people through it. I then went on to discuss my other accomplishments.
I completely contextualized Contra. I added the amount of money I raised (who knows, I could have raised $1!), where I’ve been featured, user stats, how many lines of code I’ve written, that I’ve led employees and created ads, and have received mentorship from big names. Again, this makes universities go “ok this is very significant”. Once again, instead of talking in detail about the technicality, I thought: how many STEM applicants have produced advertisements? I put the link of Contra so that admissions officers could check it out and verify. I imagine this impressed them even more.
With Contra, I demonstrated creativity, initiative, ambition, authenticity, etc. I made shit happen and created value for people in doing so. I explored multiple different disciplines, a Stanford esque trait, and did things beyond just code that made my application seem more unique.
I decided to elaborate on Hack Club and IDEA Hacks in a less fact-based way. I chose to talk about why I started these and what goals I had for them. This is important because it adds to the authenticity of the activities but also demonstrates thoughtfulness and multi-dimensionality. In my opinion, the “why” is very important for expressing things you’ve done; why you did something is as important as what you did, because it reflects on qualities of your character. (I think this might be a repeated point from before.)
For the Grab internship, I made it sound both impressive and legit, through contextualization. Stanford admissions officers aren’t going to know a Singaporean company, so I had to prove to them how big it is. More importantly, though, you’ll notice I explicitly stated that I applied online and passed the interview rounds. I did this because I know many people, especially in international schools, get work purely through parental connections. Given this,I didn’t want Stanford to doubt my ability. I explicitly stated the amount of value I could make on people (created features for millions of users) based on my work there. The fact I now have an open invitation to join for a full-time position demonstrates I did an awesome job.
I put a lot of thought into this. Ask yourself — without this extra info, would my Grab internship be as impressive? 100% not. You have to be in the mindset of selling yourself to achieve this level of detail.
Sidenote: I apologize if I sound braggy in this section. I realize this while editing. I tried to tone it down a bit, but ultimately I’m just trying to convey the logic and truth behind my acceptance, and at the end of the day some modesty and political correctness needs to be sacrificed for this.
For the Stanford Scholar Initiative, I didn’t put any more data points but instead a reflection on why I take part in it (again — important!). It also “fit in” with other themes of my application, which gives the theme more foundation and backing and this activity a compelling reason to exist (since I couldn’t write an essay on it, not enough space).
I put that I’m performing in a Green Day tribute band, even though completely unrelated to my accomplishments. Why? Because it makes me seem cool, interesting, and passionate. Again — it adds more dimensions to my profile. Perhaps dressing up as Billie Joe with mascara and a red tie also makes me seem quirky/weird. That’s fine, that’s who I am. You want to demonstrate edginess and some risk-taking, and pride in what you do/who you are.
The rest of the stuff I put follows the same pattern. I put Project 001 because it once again demonstrated my ability to go beyond code/technical stuff and explore investing/the business side, adding to non-nerd factor + multiple disciplines. I then put some of my nerdy stuff like self-improvement projects (this is just building random stuff over 6 years since I first got into programming) because it demonstrated my intellectual vitality, even though these weren’t successful. I like this quote, from Stanford CS grad student /u/129183-stan-ps as mentioned before:
Mention all of your endeavors. Genuine curiosity is unmistakeable if you tell someone all of the ways you’ve explored. Don’t just talk about the things that got impressive results.
You (and/or your recommenders) have to prove that these were meaningful to you and you did them because you thought for yourself. Once again, too many kids do stuff for their resume nowadays.
My Singapore Post internship, Travelog, and IB app (where I got recognition) were both showing that I got stuff done at a young age. You’re not creating products in grade 7 because you want to get into a top school. You’re doing it because you’re curious as hell about these things. So authenticity was conveyed here, along with the other traits that made me a very good fit.
We now move on to the Stanford supplement. Everything you saw before this was part of the “Common App”, information that gets sent off to every university. The supplement includes more question that are specified/customized by each individual school. So the main 650 word essay I included above went to all schools (I only really applied to Stanford though since I got in early), but then Stanford asks for more info that just goes to them.
I did not apply for financial aid to Stanford. For international students, admissions is not need-blind like domestic is.
These were my intended majors. You don’t actually apply to a specific department for Stanford, instead you just specify what you might be interested in. It’s very easy to change majors at Stanford, given their academic freedom and that they’re a liberal arts school.
I chose Symbolic Systems as #1 since that’s the major I’m most interested in pursuing — it’s an interdisciplinary major revolving around artificial intelligence. CS+X was my second choice, a joint major where you can study not only CS but also a humanities area of your choice (I would choose philosophy because of its relevance to AI). Finally, I chose Philosophy as third.
I didn’t put CS because I don’t feel like I would decide to major in CS by itself given my interest in AI and human computer interaction, which are interdisciplinary fields.
I don’t think these choices really matter. Just put what you really want to study. Many people at Stanford change what they study. Some people think that by including CS here it lowers your chances. I disagree. I put humanities/philosophy because I am genuinely interested in studying these at Stanford and have already shown that I’ve done a lot of work around interdisciplinary AI, so it further emphasized certain themes in my application.
I think this section made close to 0 impact on my application.
If you do put CS, they ideally want to see you’re the type of student who is going to go do big things and do really cool stuff instead of, for example, working for a multinational. Again, it’s better for them.
Stanford asks you to write 150 words elaborating on one activity of yours. I chose my AI blog for this one. I could have talked about how I studied different algorithms and programmed and such but how boring is that? Instead, I chose to differentiate and sell myself, emphasizing a theme I wanted to convey about my interest in humanities and interdisciplinary tech through AI, by including two main takeaways:
- Demonstrate the interdisciplinary nature of my articles and ergo my interest in interdisciplinary approaches to CS
- Talk about how I use writing to educate people and communicate complex topics
The first paragraph is all about the first point. I talk about how I combine multiple disciplines to inform an understanding of AI, demonstrating the value I place on the humanities and interdisciplinary studies (again, rarer for STEM/programming applicants) and how I feel these are paramount for us to achieve consciousness/sentience. This also speaks directly to why I want to study Symbolic Systems.
I wrote about this because, while researching Stanford, I noticed that blurring the lines between disciplines — most specifically technology/STEM/CS and humanities — is something they are huge on and promoting/encouraging/developing a lot. I noticed the parallels between my own work and decided to demonstrate this parallel to admissions officer to convey match/fit. It’s also more unique this way.
The second paragraph is all about writing and how I enjoy using different devices and techniques such as tone/voice, analogies, anecdotes, colloquialism/slang, etc. to make intimidating content really fun and accessible to people. Through this I showed my passion for writing (which I discovered at very young age, much before technology) and I reinforced the value I place on education/sharing my knowledge. Once again, this added more dimensions to my profile, differentiated me, showed the value I place on things outside of STEM, and made me seem cool etc. I also feel once again this showed I’m a strong fit for Stanford because the school emphasizes application of different disciplines together.
I have a strong belief this paragraph alone could have played a fair role in my acceptance to Stanford and the argument that my admissions officer gave to the committee. To repeat, I think successful people specialize in something but can take it to many different verticals.
I did not have any legacy. Legacy doesn’t really matter anyway in my eyes. There was a double legacy STEM girl who did research at HMC (through connections though) in my grade. One of her parents was a professor as well. But she applied Stanford REA and was deferred. Stanford sent out an email that the legacy acceptance rate is roughly ~3x that of non-legacy, but this is definitely correlation not causation. If your parent(s)/sibling(s) went to Stanford, chances are that you were nurtured in a pretty damn awesome environment.
Now we come to the short questions. These are awesome! They’re only 50 words max so you can have a lot fun with them.
Straightforward question. I just decided to list the things I enjoy. I’ve always been obsessed with a lot of random stuff since a young age at different phases of my life. This is a point I bring up in my roommate essay so I decided to reinforce it with the first sentence. The question didn’t ask for TV shows but I wanted to put them anyways.
Some people told me that my answers here were generic but it didn’t matter. I just put the websites that I really use. You don’t need to put fancy/out of the box stuff here. I felt it was important to include descriptions of each, though. The question doesn’t ask for it but generally speaking these short takes are very very flexible.
I put “Green Day”, “philosophy of A.I.”, and “11.22.63” to reinforce the value I place on these things which come up in the rest of my essays/answers. Twitter.com/Facebook.com also reinforces an essay I wrote which you’ll see soon. The other sentences demonstrated intellectual vitality.
You’re probably seeing that I reinforce a lot of info. I think this was important for me; I identified a few things that I value and then I showed different ways in which I’ve worked with them throughout the application. This really themed my application and made it seem focused.
And in all honestly, this makes sense because I, as a person, usually center and fixate around a few things like crazy. I’m a creature of habit. I define myself with a few items that I nonstop think/care about, and I wanted this to be expressed in my application.
For this question I decided to not talk about the most significant challenge society faces but instead a challenge that I care about and want to help solve. This again reinforces my interest in AI, but also shows my insight into not just the technical aspect but the implications of it in general.
Perhaps you can just answer the question straight in terms of “what’s the biggest challenge society faces”, I just thought that I personally cared more about the answer to: “what’s the biggest challenge you want to help solve”. Maybe this is bending the rules a bit, but it doesn’t matter. It helped with reinforcing themes in my application, so I did it.
For this one, I made myself seem like a real person. I talked about the things I worked on — like Contra, the machine learning conference, summer camp, and my internship — but I did it in sort of a fun, catchy way and referred to the value I created (repeated again, take note of this if you have not already) instead of vividly talking about the technical aspects. I then talked about other stuff I did for fun like doing networking in the Bay, road trips, walking, eating lunch with friends. Why? Because these were also important memories for me! I like to work, but I like to meet people and explore the world and chill too. That’s important for Stanford — I showed I’m a real, interesting guy. I think this reinforced my Common App essay as well.
In my opinion it’s always good to show the lighthearted parts of yourself through your application somehow, even if small.
Wrote this in a very light-hearted way. Notice I only talked about one event and decided to elaborate on it. “GIMME THAT BETA!” — yea, you can write like that! Why not make Stanford admissions officers laugh? Why not let them see your borderline craziness or overboard enthusiasm? I’m a nerd for dev conferences. That’s a good thing. Makes you seem like a humorous guy. You don’t want to sound robotic or overly formal in your writing. You can and should take risks and be edgy, if that’s in your disposition!
I hope they read this and thought “wow this guy is interesting, cool, and weird… I like it!”. This added a new dimension to me. I referred to my love of fiction and fantasy, specifically 11/22/63. I fell in love with its world and characters after watching the show and then reading the book. This yet again reinforced how I love and get obsessed with a lot of things.
I sort of took a twist on this question. Instead of discussing an event I would like to experience, I instead talked about a world I became engrossed in. Again, I bent the rules and took risks. That’s fine — risks are good.
Don’t be boring. Be the opposite of boring — really fucking cool. Honestly, weird is good compared to straight and formal. Conviction (even if more serious and not humorous) is equally great. Real people are reading your application. Make them feel something. Make them feel you. Don’t hold back your love for things, even if they are really weird, crude, or even sappy! Sometimes we’re all sappy people — that’s fine. They want to know about these things you like. They want to tap into your human nature and see what turns you on. They want to see you’re a person.
I am a person. You are, too. So, convey that.
I thought about the themes in my application and put them together with five words.
- Lover-of-things: about my obsession with a lot of random stuff. I love a lot of things and am proud of it!
- Contagious: about how I love to share my passion for things with others.
- Nerdy: I’m a nerdy guy. I’m not afraid to admit it. Yes, a lot of me is not nerdy, but at heart I love learning random things. Stanford is definitely also a place for nerds who aren’t just nerds.
- Dreamer: I dream for things — for places, people/celebrities, desires to build something big, etc.
- Builder: I like making stuff, like apps. Fits in with the Stanford entrepreneurial creator culture.
I think my short takes were very fun. I definitely had fun writing them. They got my voice through and really conveyed me as an interesting person with a “spark” — somebody you could hang around and talk with. They also showed I’m a great fit for Stanford.
Quick takeaway: voice is essential in your writing. Maybe I’ll include more tips for how to concretely achieve this later.
Now onto the main supplement questions. These are 250 words each.
The first one is about an idea of experience that was important to your intellectual development. The prompt also says that students at Stanford possess an intellectual vitality (a love of learning), and asks how you’ve demonstrated that. I, of course, talked about Contra. Contra is perhaps the best item that demonstrates I fit in at Stanford: it showed I am very ambitious, independent, entrepreneurial, a builder, and value many different disciplines… Stanford traits!
So, I discussed this in the context of my growth from being a programmer to a product person. In the first paragraph I explicitly state my age to reinforce that I was interested in these technologies from very young (demonstrating intellectual vitality and authenticity). In the second paragraph I briefly mentioned my growth as an engineer in a fun, humorous way. The third paragraph talks about how I began to explore different verticals such as business development. I related it to the show Silicon Valley because a) I felt that way at the time and found the parallel between Richard and I very funny, which is the most important part, b) it humanized me c) made me seem more interesting, and d) reinforced my love for the show and thus the “Lover-of-things” attribute. In the third paragraph I referred to my learnings when people began to use it — I also talked about the value I created which I think I mentioned before is key — and how I overcame my social anxieties to network with many people in the industry and lead a team in the process. The final paragraph sums it all up. Here I call Contra my “baby”, which really is what it is. Contra is my baby — it’s such a big part of me that I want to continue working on until I’ve seen it through to the max.
In short, I talked about: my intellectual growth, my personal growth, the value I created for other people, and what Contra means to me. Again, I have a way with words and know how to bring voice to writing (not everyone will and that’s fine). I brought humor to this essay and conveyed a pretty complex journey in a catchy way. I did this because a) that’s my natural disposition while writing, which again is the most important part, and b) I wanted my readers to think “this kid does impressive stuff but is cool at the same time”. I really did not want to talk about algorithms and such.
Personally, I’ve read a few essays in this application cycle to help people and can’t help but yawn a bit when I read the straight, stereotypical scientific research experience essay. Spice it up a bit, it makes the writing more fun for you and the reading more fun for them! Obviously, do you and convey your voice, but spice =/= humor. Rather, spice can equal just demonstrating that something was really significant to you and that you loved it, in a non-mechanical way.
Quick takeaway: understand who your audience is. They probably don’t want to hear a lot about the technical details of the algorithms you implemented at an internship.
OMG. This was my favorite essay by far. I had so much fun writing this! The prompt was: “Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate — and us — know you better.”
I want all out on the “Lover-of-things” and “Contagious” attributes. Really, I vividly shared what it’s like to be my close friend. I talked about how I’ve always been obsessed with things eg. Green Day and Apple to the point of sheepishness like wearing eyeliner to act like Billie Joe and arguing with strangers online who disapproved of Tim Cook. I talked about how I listen to the same few songs over and over again and can’t help but sing along. I tied this to my love of repetition and that I’ve watched each Silicon Valley >7 times (legit). I talked about how I treasure walks and burgers at the same time, and that I’ll literally eat anything (but not seafood).
I literally put “STANFORD-PUT-YOUR-DAMN-HANDS-TOGETHER…TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY-BREAKDOWN!” — referring to the fact that I constantly play guitar and sing, pretending to be Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day — with dashes and no spaces because the Common App registered it as 1 word and I was running out of space in the essay. Again, I took risks.
I felt so excited writing this essay. I didn’t hold back at all. I showed Stanford my true colors and I think they valued that. I got my voice across and wrote in a really humorous way (which, again, came from my disposition… it was not forced). They saw I was an interesting, energetic, excitable, quirky person with a “spark” who can add immensely to the student body. I am this person!
The main takeaway from reading this essay should have been that I love a lot of random things and can’t help but share it with people. I think it’s very important to have main points in essays that admissions officers can use in their argument for you to the committee. Some people treat this prompt as an opportunity to compose a stream of consciousness but I don’t feel like this is a good idea. It can certainly work if executed well, though, but certainly harder to execute. In my case, the main takeaway hopefully was “holy shit this guy is super energetic about things and he will rub off his enthusiasm with other kids… he is super interesting so let’s consider him”.
Finally, to repeat, you don’t have to write essays like I did (in a humorous way). I’ve seen great essays that demonstrate equal conviction and authenticity but have more of a serious tone. In fact, my Common App essay was exactly that. You should just do you.
Either way, write from the heart.
The final question Stanford asks is simple: “What matters to you, and why?”
I chose to talk about a life value I have — sharing my knowledge and passion. I felt it was important to discuss my journey in iOS development, starting with my participation in the Young iOS Developers group, and my partner Lenny’s impact on me. It gave a backstory to all of my work and many of my activities (like IDEA Hacks, Hack Club, the volunteering ones etc.), and the last sentence emphasizes this. This is really where I “told my story”. I think it also demonstrated my fit with Stanford, given that collaboration and teamwork are two of their core values. Finally, it demonstrated “spark” and that I can create value for the Stanford community.
I took the application process to really reflect on my life thus far and noted the importance I place on mentorship. More specifically, I have received mentorship from many people (Lenny and my Singapore Post internship supervisor Bernard) and have also mentored many others/my friends. I realized that the cycle of mentorship has been key to my success today — the idea that I learn from people and pass that on. It’s something key to my past, present, and future.
I think this question prompts a lot of self-reflection. I dove deep into my outlooks and perspectives in the world and I think it demonstrated my maturity and thoughtfulness. Furthermore, it obviously strengthened the argument of me being a positive addition to the Stanford and my “spark”.
I think self-reflection is critical in the college admissions process. It would really give you a leg up if you understand who you are, what you value, how you got here, and what you want to be moving forward. Not just for this essay, and not just for the essays alone, but for the whole application.
To increase your self-awareness, here is a good link:
What has happened in your life that you are particularly proud of?medium.com
This one to me definitely felt more serious and philosophical than the others. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about myself while planning/writing it. However, at the same time, I’ve seen a successful essay on this prompt about ice cream. And that’s great, too.
Maybe this surprises you. Maybe it doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to take risks with your essays, be super authentic, and convey a clear message/takeaway that will add to your profile. Admissions officers aren’t looking for detailed, complex prose — if Stanford wants to see that they will look at your AP/IB English scores. The essays are for showing Stanford and other schools who you are so you can add multiple dimensions to your profile.
Don’t be so formal and robotic. Just be yourself.
I think my essays were the second best part of my application behind my activities/accomplishments. They really sum up to “me” — they talk about how my mind works, the things I love, the work I value most, my life outlooks, etc. I heard that for STEM applicants essays can sometimes be the weak point, and I think this wasn’t the case to me.
EDIT: Just to emphasize how important personality/being interesting is — I sent an email recently to my regional admissions officer thanking her for the acceptance and when she replied to me she referenced my insane love of Green Day and that she is “extra-excited to meet [me]” because of it. Personality can honestly stick with people more than achievements can. Achievements are definitely functional, and you need to express them well, but adding personality makes you someone want to meet you more (except the case where you are networking esp. in tech and startups). I’ll update this again when I get my personalized quick note on why I was accepted and what stood out in my application.
EDIT: Quick tangent — everybody tells you to “be authentic/be yourself”. Perhaps, it’s not very helpful; it wasn’t for me. However, it’s because of how you interpret this. If you interpret this advice only in terms of: “don’t misrepresent yourself/fake your persona/be who you think they want you to be”, sure, that is definitely good advice, but I doubt the most successful applicants ever thought about doing this in the first place. Instead, think of it this way: don’t be afraid to express your true colors, instead of filtering your persona. Even if there are things about you that you think are weird, crude, or not relevant to academics etc., talk about them. I felt that my undying love for Green Day was important in who I was, for example, so I felt it was important to talk about it. Stanford among other top schools really want students who are self-aware and are proud of the perhaps weird things that encompass them; these are the students that will create value for the community.
Now onto recommendations. I had 4 letter of recommendations:
- 1 from my CS teacher
- 1 from my English teacher
- 1 from my school counsellor
- 1 external recommendation from my mentor Bernard Leong, the supervisor of my paid Singapore Post internship in 2014
Most top-tier US schools ask for 2 recommendations from teachers, 1 from your school counsellor, and 1–2 optional external ones. I chose my CS teacher because I’ve known him for 4 years now and I CS is my best subject. I chose my English teacher because he knows a completely different side of me and I figured he could add more dimensions to my profile than say my Math teacher (and I heard he writes awesome recommendations).
For each of my recommendations, I gave ~1 page of typed up information that could be used for teachers to write it. I felt this was really valuable information for them, and you should do this too. I haven’t read the recommendations themselves (I’m not allowed to), but here is — to my knowledge — what they wrote about:
- I’m not too sure about my CS teacher but he told me that it was one of the best recommendations he has written. I imagine he talked not only about my love for CS but more importantly that I teach many others — including him at times! — and share my knowledge/passion with classmates. He probably also referred to IDEA Hacks and Hack Club here. I doubt he gave many new insights to the application readers, but it instead served as validation. This is important; a lot of people nowadays exaggerate or make things up on their application. Recommendation letters have become an important method to verify. I also believe the letter served as more reinforcement—education and mentorship was a very core component of my application as you should recall and this really drove it home.
- Though my CS teacher really loves me, I think my English teacher’s recommendation added most new insight to my profile. He also told me that my letter of recommendation would make me shine. To my knowledge, he talked about my liberal arts background (in particular my love for music and writing growing up) and how I bring that to technology today. Stanford is actually a liberal arts school so this probably demonstrated fit yet again. He probably also discussed my writing style and voice, how I read a lot to gain knowledge, my ambitions, my character, my passion for philosophy and how I bring that to literature commentaries, my interest in artificial intelligence etc. Finally, he most likely discussed a project I worked on in class for our Communication and Marketing Unit — that is, a PSA to raise awareness for women and diversity, or the lack thereof, in tech. It showed my awareness of societal issues I want to solve. This was a lot of new insight and again reinforced + validated the idea that I value both STEM and the humanities and often connect them in my pursuits.
EDIT: from Stanford’s site:
At Stanford, students enjoy an unusual degree of academic freedom. The Stanford curriculum will not force you into specific courses that do not interest you. Instead, it will remind you at every turn why you wanted a strong liberal arts education.
I have access to my optional external letter of recommendation from my mentor Bernard. It follows:
- Key quotes that added new insight to my application were my reputation of being a “great developer [in Singapore at age 15]”, that I was the “youngest student” to work at the company, and that I’d be in the “top 1% of the [university] cohort”. Not much personal insight was offered beyond these minor references. However, it did something far more important (in this case): validate and reinforce. Contra was a massive project with a ton of room for exaggeration and, honestly, BS on my application. Bernard, however, confirmed all my achievements and efforts with it. More importantly, he explicitly stated my entrepreneurial, self-awareness (I use this word once again… it’s important, and definitely make sure to increase your self-awareness), and risk-taking nature — three core Stanford values. Some more keywords are “impressive”, “rare”, and “make things happen”. I think the third paragraph didn’t really offer much as I’m not sure how admissions officers would interpret it if they’re not into tech. The best quote, overall, is probably “I have a strong belief that he will be successful in the future and will want to work with him in the future”. Why? Because these schools really look for successful people; they want to up their brand, reputation, money, and power. The fact that a VP wants to work with me is a signal that I’ll potentially do big things; it’s a gamble, just like VCs have to rely on signals to invest on startups, but the gamble works nonetheless. I think the fact that this recommendation exists in the first place was a strength. It was living proof that I value mentorship and connecting/networking with people in an entrepreneurial way (“He has often asked me for advice and is persistent to connect to people from Asia to Silicon Valley who can help him to do better”), themes that came across in my application and essays. Again, relatively fewer STEM students have this edge. Since I did, it showed my potential for success.
- I never read my school counsellor’s recommendation either, but I sort of gamed the system with it. I asked her to insert 3 quotes from other references inside it. The references were/were from: my internship boss at Grab (Head of Mobile Engineering), my Stanford summer camp instructor evaluation, and the individual who runs the Stanford Scholar Initiative which I create research talks/courses for. I have access to each of them. The rest of the recommendation was mostly just repeating and validating my achievements with very little or perhaps even zero new insight. On top of this, the validation/reinforcement isn’t as significant because counsellors usually just ask students what to list. I heard that the main reason these exist in my eyes is so the counsellor can report any extentuating circumstances the student faced or any prior disciplinary action (which is otherwise self-reported on the Common App and thus can be faked).
This is what my boss at Grab wrote for me. I’m not exactly sure which quote(s) my counsellor used from here. This is a fairly weak recommendation because it doesn’t offer any new useful insight for the admissions office, nor does it really validate or reinforce much. It does validate that I did important and significant work at the internship, but I don’t think admissions officers would have any reason to doubt that given the talents highlighted elsewhere in my application. (Plus, you can’t really exaggerate/BS about sitting on a desk and coding for a company.) The best line would probably be “He has an open invitation to come back to Grab any time” because it shows my presence was impressive enough that they want me to come back and do more, so this acts as an important signal.
There was a lot of great stuff in my Stanford summer camp evaluation, especially regarding my technical ability. I asked my counsellor to only include this, however:
His knowledge of machine learning was certainly impressive, but his broader knowledge of world news and ability to think critically about world issues and about AI philosophically was, too. He was deeply familiar with many of the topics chosen for blog prompts, such as minorities in tech and data privacy. Furthermore, he is a talented writer, and imposed his own responses at a level above that of most of the other students.
I didn’t want to overwhelm the reader with a bunch of info, and I felt that this paragraph in particular was more important than other parts which were mostly focused on technicalities.
The new insight added was my ability to think about world news critically. There was major reinforcement here in terms of bringing philosophy to AI and my ability in writing. Again, important differentiation here from the normal STEM applicant.
Finally, here is the quote from the Stanford Scholar Initiative guy:
Rohan is one of the most outstanding high school students I have ever worked with — his knowledge in different areas of computer science can be compared with most of the senior students or professionals in the space. He is a great team worker, team leader and has demonstrated that excellently by contributing to courses and research papers as part of the Stanford CrowdCourse and Scholar Initiative, of which he has directed two quality projects each of 30+ members. Best wishes.
In my view, this is a very significant, even though short, recommendation/quote. He not only emphasized my skill in CS but also leadership and collaboration, themes that were present throughout my application. I think validation was important for this activity since it could seem that it was less meaningful/authentic to me as I never really elaborated on it anywhere else in the application (unfortunately, I didn’t get the space to because the Common App is limited).
Those were all my recommendations.
Have good relationships with your teachers and your counsellor. I was very comfortable around mine. My CS teacher and I were like basically buds (he’d share a lot of personal stuff with me). My English teacher and I were not as close personally but he knew my ambitions and dreams and was very keen on helping me fulfill them.
How do you do this? You just be a cool person who is open to learning more about and from others. You treat them like people — who they are — and thus don’t shy away from telling them who you are. Converse with them. Look to them for help and mentorship. Buy them presents for the help they offer you.
Also, after you get accepted to schools, do give your teachers a small gift like chocolates or wine or something. However, the thing they will value most is a well-written letter demonstrating your appreciation for their teaching, the value they created for you and your education/college application, as well as your plans in university and what you plan on doing next.
EDIT: Here’s an even better tip… implement the things you care about in your work for these classes. My English teacher was awesome enough to ask us to write letters for him at the beginning of each year, talking about anything relevant to who we are/what we’re interested in, but I realize not all teachers will do this. Here’s what I did in most of my classes that equipped me for good recommendations for nearly all my teachers (save Chinese and Physics, I think): I made my classwork and projects relevant to my interests. (I did this because it makes work more fun, but now I see the immense value add.) For example, in Philosophy class, I’d always write about — and did my main coursework on — the application of mind-body + free will philosophy theories to artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms. In English class, I added a lot of philosophical flair to my literature essays, and — for one of my main projects on media PSAs — I did it all on the gender issue in Silicon Valley. Our teacher also encouraged us to read, log, and discuss about our reading, and I would consume a lot of artificial intelligence/tech books. For Math, I did my main coursework on the math involved in machine learning algorithms like logistic regression (link to it over here). CS class is more obvious, heh. Through this, I showed my teachers what I care about, what I value, what I stand up for, what I believe in, who I am, etc. Then, if you remind them about this in a writeup for their letter of rec, it’ll help them write really great stuff.
Look for people to mentor you, as well, be it somebody your age (for me, Lenny) or way older than you (for me, Bernard). I wouldn’t be able to build the things I have built today without Lenny and I wouldn’t be able to know the people I know today without Bernard. I have a strong belief that mentorship is key to future success. Find mentors at a young age, could be through internships, and ask them to help you connect with more people. Once you start climbing up the ladder you find that you’re one email away from people who run industries (that was the case for me, at least). This is a powerful thing.
EDIT: For penetrating the initial network and, for example, finding internships to do this, I’ve added an chat I had with a Stanford RD applicant who reached out to me over Reddit. The way I found my first internship, though (and I don’t think I mentioned this in the chat), was by giving a speech at a fairly well recognized geek/developer conference in Singapore. I reached out to one of the organizers whom I met via a Singapore programming Facebook group (quick takeaway — join Facebook groups with likeminded people who are your age or live in the same area as you… so important!… check my “What matters” essay above for a reminder of this) and asked them if I could talk about my experience with developing apps and visiting WWDC on scholarship.
If you want to see the talk, here it is. This was my first ever public speaking engagement (I talked way too fast and sped through what should have been 30 minutes of presentation), and I was really nervous + pretty inexperienced in iOS development, so please do cut me some slack:
In the crowd was Bernard Leong, who ended up reaching out to me and asking if I was interested in an internship.
If you interact with people and present yourself well in/give your presence to groups of people, yes adults, who are in the field you are interested in, there’s a good chance you may be able to find some sort of opportunity. Find hubs to involve yourself in, eg. Block@71 is the startup-tech hub in Singapore, as well as conferences. Do not be afraid to reach out to people who you haven’t before. Join FB groups to find these people. Ask questions in these groups.
In total, I had 7 people write about me in terms of recommendations. I think that really just helped demonstrate the impressiveness factor. Stanford might have thought “OK, look at all these significant things people have said about him”. When a lot of people talk about you highly it means you’re doing things right. On top of a lot of validation and reinforcement, a ton of new insight was offered as well in the recommendations.
The final piece to my application was the interview. These are optional interviews conducted by Stanford alumni. They’re not very important (like, students in California don’t even get one) — probably one of the least considered factors in the entire process — which is highlighted by Stanford on the website and by my interviewer himself. With that being said, I thought my interview went excellently. Fun fact, mine was in the Google HQ! Fair to say that my interviewer and I bonded fairly well, heh. Things we touched upon included building products, mentorship, my relationships with Lenny and Bernard, Green Day, Silicon Valley, etc. We really went in depth on two things: philosophy + AI and me overcoming social issues to network with people. So a lot of reinforcement going on here, especially since I don’t think I got to talk enough about AI and most certainly philosophy in my application, so my strategy going in was to really hit these points home and open more convincing dimensions for myself.
EDIT: I sent this to somebody recently, re. interview advice:
It [this article] currently doesn’t have much advice for Stanford interviews. But here is my advice: prepare a few key points for questions like “Why Stanford?” or “What challenges have you faced?” or “What do you want to do in the future?” or “What are you interested in?” or “What would you consider success in life?” etc. etc. but do not rehearse — for me I would have difficulty coming up with points on the spot mostly because I find face to face discussions pretty intimidating/pressuring, until I really get into the conversation and connect with the other person.
The “Why Stanford” question is very, very important. You need to have a good answer for this. For me, it was all about entrepreneurship, blurring the lines between disciplines, collaboration, etc. and that, to be honest, I wouldn’t be able to find my people at any other university like at Stanford (backed up by the fact that so many of my friends made online now study there).
You can practice with your parents, friends, mentors, or siblings. You can ask your parents or mentors to help you brainstorm some questions they may ask as well, especially since these are the people that will probably have done similar type interviews in the past (and maybe they have even conducted interviews, which means they are an even better resource).
Ultimately, the conversation should be really natural (mine was, at least). For example, the interviewer asked me just one question and I just ran with it for a while and it turned out being more of an exchange versus Q&A. It certainly helps if the interviewer is in the same domain as you, this was the case for me, but this won’t always be the case. I asked my interviewer questions throughout rather than just at the end, mostly because again — it was just a normal conversation — so things were more fluid.
Focus on themes you presented throughout your application, and are thus relevant to you personally, but also see if you can talk about things that will serve as new information for admissions officers (for me this was philosophy). That’s really the main purpose of interviews, in my perspective. It’s to serve as more information to differentiate applicants.
Each interviewer will be different. So don’t worry if your interview wasn’t as “fluid” as you hoped it would be. Some are just less open than others. They’re honestly like you and I, maybe they are sometimes awkward themselves, heh. In any case, I don’t think interviews matter much at all.
Potentially useful quote I found a while ago on CollegeConfidential (heh), but I can’t verify if it’s legit or not:
I am a parent of a high school senior, and have been an interviewer for Stanford the past 2 years (grad 1978). I do not do interviews this year because Stanford does not allow parents of high school seniors to interview (even if my daughter does not apply). Stanford has not been doing interviews for many years, and is still in the growth phase of recruiting and training alumni to do interviews. They want to interview everybody, its a manpower shortage at this time if someone is not offered an interview.
I feel I can reveal the guidance that Stanford gives to us as interviewers. They ask us to rate candidates in 3 categories (I am paraphrasing) 1) depth of commitment (to something) 2) intellect 3) personal skills. We are given zero information about the students. In my opinion, the success of the interview turns on criteria #1. 2 and 3 show themselves. If a student can clearly express something they care about, know about, show evidence of achievement and self-initiative in that area, demonstrate reflection and thoughtfulness on the topic, the interview is a success. Our BS detectors are on, so it requires honesty and sincerity. I like to learn something I do not know, and to have something explained to me in a clear concise manner.
At this time, I believe, Stanford states that the interviews are optional. You may be curious as to whether agreeing to an interview helps or hurts. I think it depends on how one thinks one would do in an interview. I see no harm in turning down the opportunity if one is hesitant or nervous, because they evaluate large proportion of the pool without interviews. Contrary to a previous post, we certainly can write “negative” reports.
And that’s it. That’s my entire successful application to Stanford!
I put a crazy amount of thought, strategy, and planning into my application. That’s why it was successful. I started my essays around summer before senior year, and the actual application around 2 months before the deadline (including a 3 week holiday I had in between).
I think that, for RD apps, it’s basically impossible to put the same amount of attention to detail. So, a good strategy could be to apply to your dream school early. For a school like Stanford, just applying early won’t help, but attention to detail will.
This attention to detail only occurred during the application crafting phase. I didn’t plan all this stuff years beforehand for college, it just came naturally because I cared deeply about my success. This is crucial.
You probably heard: “cool, impressive, interesting” a lot. That’s good. Stanford doesn’t necessarily only want the most intelligent, highest scoring, nerdy/geeky kids (again, they do want some of these types of people to fill niches). Sorry if this sounds politically incorrect, but they instead want impressive, ambitious, and interesting people. People who believe they can change the world and/or people who are super fucking cool at the same time. People who can liven up their student body. People who have had mind-boggling backgrounds and have unique perspectives.
This is true for all schools, I just believe Stanford is more holistic and thus emphasizes this more than any other out there.
Honestly, I’m not that intelligent when it comes to CS. I’m certainly not as intelligent compared to the high school kids who win programming and informatics olympiads/competitions on algorithmic thinking and such. I, instead, choose to develop things that solved problems I cared about. I’m not saying one is better than the other — perhaps the average CS builder has an edge over the average CS competition winner for Stanford because of impressive factor + culture fit — but don’t fall for the “oh you have to do competitions” trap. I’ve read a few articles that literally say this (avoid PrepScholar). It’s pure horse shit.
I positioned and differentiated myself from a) the typical STEM student b) the typical programmer kid, and even c) from the typical app developer. I thought long and hard about each sentence of writing and what qualities, perspectives, and traits I wanted to convey. I planned how I would reinforce and validate these. If you had to summarize my entire application, you could do it pretty easily:
- Building products, entrepreneurship, and ambitions in startups/changing things (Contra, WWDC, other apps, hackathons, essays, letter of recs, internships, business stuff)
- Sharing my knowledge, mentorship, and partaking in education (mentorship, essays, AI blog, Stanford Scholar Initiative, Hack Club, IDEA Hacks, volunteer work, letter of recs, etc.)
- My interdisciplinary, especially philosophical, pursuit of artificial intelligence (letter of recs, online courses, essays, AI blog)
- Loves and is weirdly obsessed with a lot of small or random things, loves self-reflection and observation (conveyed through essays)
These are all things that I felt defined me. Thus, I differentiated myself through these. I sold myself. You really need to be ruthless about finding places to position yourself against the average high-achieving applicant, contextualizing your achievements, including facts/numbers/data, showing the different ways in which you express independence/curiosity/energy/etc., and building central themes for your overall application.
I was multi-dimensional. I took what I loved to many different verticals and thus was not only good at writing code but devising business plans, designing experiences and interfaces, public speaking, valuing the humanities, writing, just being a person etc. etc. Again, this is important for success in the college application process but life in general. Being well rounded =/= multi-dimensional; I specialized in one thing and took it to many different areas, out of my own interest (remember the authenticity test), not that one is necessarily better than the other. This is where it gets hard.
You can and should open multiple dimensions, but make sure the scope of your application is not too broad, like Tyler Su says in her video. You should open multiple dimensions that really center around a few certain anchors/points.
I reflected a lot in the process and it helped me out. I thought about the things that mattered to me and about who I was + my ambitions for the future. This channeled through.
I want to quickly dispel the myth that “these top schools are so luck based, it’s so hard to get in even if you are insanely qualified”. I think that you can put yourself in a position where luck is greatly reduced. Just know that nothing is ever even close to a guarantee, though. It’s honestly not that luck-based if you can demonstrate your impressiveness, multi-dimensionality, and interesting-ness (if that’s a word). Before submitting the application, ask yourself: why wouldn’t they want me if I showed these things? (The two-fold challenge is being in the position to show all of this, and then actually showing it.)
EDIT: After seeing the results of this admissions cycle, I’m not sure about this anymore. I think it can still be luck-based many times. Maybe less luck-based if there’s one school you really really really have in mind and are shooting for.
If you’re reading this as a young iOS developer/you’re my friend on Twitter, then I believe you stand a pretty good shot at Stanford… just keep building things, doing cool shit, and following your interests. I’ll repeat this from earlier: don’t listen to the noise and forget about political correctness. Worry about application intricacies when you are applying.
I was lucky in the sense that so many moving pieces came together — without much planning until the start of my senior year — to form a compelling application. However, I guess if you just put in the hard work it should come naturally anyways. In fact, if you care about the things you do, it should come naturally. But “should” is the keyword here. That’s why I’m writing this article. I want to help maximize success for future applicants. And I want you to know how to position yourself for success in not the college admissions game but life in general (which includes the former).
I think this article so far highlights everything I did right. But what it doesn’t highlight is the things I did wrong. That’s what this section is for.
- Trying to do too many things at once. I was definitely genuinely interested in these things, but it meant that I couldn’t get some of the stuff I wanted to (like Contra) to its maximum potential. In the process I let down some people, including myself. Also, when you’ve got so many things on your todo list — like an online course, AI blog post, and features to implement — you feel like doing nothing instead. It’s better just to focus things one at a time and see them through.
- Studying too much & not building enough. I think I could have studied 50% of what I did in junior year and still achieve the exact same grades. I put too much unwarranted effort into my assignments (which were barely considered), overstudied for tests, generally tried too hard, and attempted to top the class in terms of getting the highest score instead of being satisfied with the lowest possible 7. I was never a perfectionist in high school, but for some reason I went for it in junior year. I should have instead spent the time building more things and taking Contra even further, perhaps to go for hundreds of thousands of users instead of just ~ten thousand. I should have fulfilled my wildest ambitions instead of doing academics for hours and hours a day. One of my Class of 2021 friends has literally sold two companies!
- Not getting enough sleep. In junior year I would get around 6 hours on a good night (most nights). On bad ones I would get around 4.5. Sometimes 3.5 on “hell weeks”. This was a bad idea. If I had to go back I would get at least 8 a night, even during my most stressful periods. Why? I’m 99% sure that I could compensate in productivity with more sleep. Getting ~6 hours on average left me constantly grumpy, tired, and not in the mood to build things and work on my projects. I think the effect compounded — it would take me longer times to do my schoolwork and after that I would be done for the day. However, my circadian rhythm adjusted so I wouldn’t feel sleepy until the end of the week. Instead of doing more work, I just wasted time on Reddit, YouTube, Facebook, etc. Read this: https://www.fastcompany.com/3057465/how-to-be-a-success-at-everything/why-six-hours-of-sleep-is-as-bad-as-none-at-all
My validation/evidence for this theory follows:
I agree with this quote for people like Elon who sleep ~6 hours a night, pulled from here, for people who wish to counter this theory:
A thought I have is also that lower sleep less relevant during periods of mainly execution as less thought is required; e.g. w Elon or something a famous low sleeper can get away w lower sleep because the strategy/main thought required was 10+yrs ago, and hopefully every so often when there are big decisions he does a week or two of high sleep, or every now and then as a maintenance thing to make sure there’s nothing his low sleep brain is not seeing that his high sleep brain would see.
- Burning out, procrastinating, and relying on motivation. I think this stemmed from not getting enough sleep, but also not developing enough self-discipline. For junior year I solely relied on motivation to get through my schoolwork, but after little sleep I began to face a burnout quickly. In senior year I would procrastinate for 5+ hours a day doing basically nothing, even though the workload only got worse. Furthermore, since I hadn’t developed much of a work ethic, I found it difficult to give much of an effort to both my academics and hobbies. I really was doing nothing. I still managed to keep my grades up because I didn’t drop that much + my teachers had faith in me, which really proves to me that I was putting too much effort in the year prior. But now I was just perpetually tired. My motivation faded away and there was no self-discipline as a backup. It’s best to keep a balance in your life so you can be at the top of your game. I aimed for perfection in junior year, and burned out because of it, negatively affecting me in senior year. Best option would be to have a great balance for both years.
- Working for companies. Honestly, going back, I wouldn’t have done my internship at either the low-profile Silicon Valley startup in 2015 or the high-profile Singapore company (Grab) in 2016. In 2015, I was really allured by the idea of living in the Bay Area, but I didn’t really get much from it. In 2016, I was allured by the name and prestige of Grab, but I didn’t get much out of it either. I just sat on a desk and coded features with knowledge I already had before (iOS dev). Yes, I did venture out to connect with more people, but the network gain was insignificant to what I already had from my mentor Bernard. My internship in 2014 summer at Singapore Post was the most useful for me because I enlisted mentorship for the first time and penetrated the tech network. But I don’t get the fuss with “work experience” later on in high school. You don’t actually gain much, if anything at all, that you can’t while building projects with friends. I would have instead kept working on Contra so I could see it through to its maximum potential. I really let myself down and other people invested (both emotionally and monetarily).
The best way you can learn from this failure is not to say “oh, I don’t want to intern for companies during high school”. It should be: “I want to set specific goals for each summer/vacation I have and take steps to fulfill them” rather than being allured by the prospect of something. For example, my goal was not to grow as a programmer and make new connections for either of these summers, but doing an internship would only really help me with that. Deep down, I wanted to continue building my own things and taking Contra to the next level. So the lack of self-reflection and articulation of what I desired most (and what would logically benefit me the most) hurt me because instead I just went through the motions of resume building. For your summer, figure out:
- What goals do I have? I cannot help with this— just what your heart wants the most + what will logically benefit you most.
- What are the different ways you can fulfill these goals (I can help you here)
- What sounds most fun + value add from these? And what is most feasible?
After answering #3 you should know what to do.
My general rule of thumb for internships is to prioritize connecting with people and setting up meetings with people in the company, even if you don’t know them, over learning technical stuff. You should aim to network at your job. If you work your way up you’ll find you are one email away from the people who can help you become the best version of yourself. Early on, look for mentors as well.
- Not reading enough. If I went back, I would challenge myself to read 50 books each year. I did not read enough. I have a strong belief that to be successful you need to be an avid reader. You should learn about the things that interest you and are relevant to your ambitions. You should intake knowledge that will help you in becoming the best version of yourself.
- Not networking enough in Singapore. One more thing I would do would be to make a bigger name for myself in the Singapore startup ecosystem by hanging out at places like Block 71 and cold emailing people. Would have given me some insane opportunities. It was too difficult for me, however, to step out of my comfort zone — socially speaking — to this extent.
- “Accepting the truth is more useful when you want a specific outcome than ignoring it or acting like it isn’t true.”, from here. I didn’t follow this enough (doesn’t apply to one specific thing or experience, but generally).
- Not staying healthy. There were many times when, throughout high school, I didn’t feel great, and I think it contributed to my procrastination and burning out with both academics and building stuff. You should aim to be healthy and happy, even if you need to sacrifice your grades at times. It’ll pay off in the long run.
- Giving fucks about what other people thought about me. Do not succumb to this. It can limit potential so much. Read this:
People often say the key to confidence and success in life is to simply "not give a fuck." Indeed, we often refer to…markmanson.net
A next step
For young developers, the best thing to do right now is to join this course:
That I mentioned earlier, from the anonymous Stanford CS graduate who moderates reddit.com/r/GetIntoStanford (/u/129183-stan-ps). It’ll help with value creation, life satisfaction, self-awareness, etc. etc. Part of the course is building products and learning from greats in your field.
He’s also willing to write letter of recs for people that thoroughly impress him, and personally mentor these people as well. Could be an excellent value add to your application but I don’t have a substantiated bearing.
In my opinion, if you’re not exactly sure what you want to do / make next, this course will provide the best possible framework for you. I wish I took it earlier in high school.
This advice worked for me and won’t work for everyone, but you should already know that. I strongly believe that each application is unique — that there are no two “equal” people that they have considered thus far in the pool — and so you should focus on figuring out who you are + what works best for you rather than trying to be me or another successful applicant.
This was a long read, but that’s fine because only the most ambitious people will have made it this far. These are the people I want to help the most.
Remember that reddit.com/r/GetIntoStanford is the best place to ask questions and seek help. This should be your go to.
If you’re applying while reading this, PM/DM/email me and I can help you with specific application questions. If you’re ~1+ years from applying and want my help with something in specific then email me at email@example.com. I’m more incentivized to help people who demonstrate their qualities. Regardless, keep doing awesome stuff and everything will work out just fine. I promise.
Update — Chat
Here is a Skype chat I had with someone who reached out to me recently. This should benefit people earlier in HS. The interview addresses approaches to building things, how to learn new technologies, getting internships, networking, finding people to collaborate with, Stanford admissions, and more.
[4/1/17, 2:44:34 PM] Rohan Kapur: Please add me as a contact
[4/1/17, 2:45:06 PM] [redacted name]: Hey
[4/1/17, 2:45:22 PM] Rohan Kapur: Hey. Sorry about the lateness — didn’t keep my eye on the time.
[4/1/17, 2:45:34 PM] [redacted name]: Ah no problem. I just got home a little while ago.
[4/1/17, 2:47:17 PM] Rohan Kapur: Cool cool. So I think the best way to format this is to just to let me know what individual questions you have that I can respond to. Also, I had a question — would it be possible to publish your questions + my responses on a private article I’m making for young developers interested in Stanford? Similar to what /u/129183-stan-ps but more specific to people I know who are in the tech-entrepreneurship scene and more in depth with regards to that. Since I think your questions are about building things and internships and stuff I figured this would be good for them. I’ll anonymize it and remove any personal details obviously. Let me know if you aren’t comfortable with this though.
[4/1/17, 2:47:38 PM] [redacted name]: Sure
[4/1/17, 2:47:47 PM] Rohan Kapur: Awesome
[4/1/17, 2:47:53 PM] [redacted name]: I’m assuming a lot of other people would have the same questions as me too haha
[4/1/17, 2:48:06 PM] Rohan Kapur: Yup hopefully!
[4/1/17, 2:49:42 PM] [redacted name]: But I guess my first question would be in regards to how you managed to get different internships, especially to do with tech? For me, being from [redacted country], there just doesn’t seem to be many opportunities in this regard. There aren’t too many startups, nothing I could find on google, and I couldn’t really find anyone who knew much about it. This is for high school internships specifically though.
[4/1/17, 2:50:33 PM] Rohan Kapur: Hmm. Yea I can see the difficulty there. If I’m being honest I’m lucky in this regard because Singapore is like a startup hub. Here is my advice though:
[4/1/17, 2:50:52 PM] Rohan Kapur: First of all — where in [redacted country] do you live? A big city (relative to the state?)
[4/1/17, 2:51:17 PM] [redacted name]: Well I live on [redacted region], so definitely the max potential for opportunities if we’re talking about within the state
[4/1/17, 2:51:36 PM] [redacted name]: But it’s literally like an hour drive max to anywhere so I’d be okay traveling anywhere here
[4/1/17, 2:52:53 PM] Rohan Kapur: Cool. Use Angel List to find startups, you can increase the radius if you’re flexible traveling beyond your current location. Build a good Angel List profile and just apply/demonstrate interest in like every startup and I’m sure a couple will reach out. This is what I did to find a few places I could work.
Also, you can specify you’re looking for an internship, but also just apply/show interest for full time roles because most of the time you can just say “oh but I’m actually interested in an internship” if they want you
[4/1/17, 2:53:18 PM] Rohan Kapur: Otherwise, just lookup companies in your area and apply/send cold emails. You need to create a good resume and LinkedIn profile.
[4/1/17, 2:53:34 PM] Rohan Kapur: For me I literally just applied to the company I worked for this summer through their online portal
[4/1/17, 2:53:44 PM] Rohan Kapur: The one last year was Angel List
[4/1/17, 2:53:55 PM] Rohan Kapur: And the year before I spoke at an event which got me some attention
[4/1/17, 2:53:59 PM] Rohan Kapur: So here is even better advice:
[4/1/17, 2:55:27 PM] Rohan Kapur: Especially if you’re in a place like a city in [redacted country], the startup ecosystem should be very tight-knit. Meaning, if you find startup hubs (in Singapore the most popular one is called “Block 71”) and hang out there you can definitely network + connect with people that could offer you jobs. If you speak at events of these types (so like startup events or something) then even better because people start to notice you.
In general, hanging around startup co-working spaces/startup hubs/startup events near you is like your best shot, if you can find any.
[4/1/17, 2:55:34 PM] Rohan Kapur: That way you can begin to build your network.
[4/1/17, 2:55:49 PM] Rohan Kapur: Of course this is easier said than done. Even I found it extremely intimidating.
[4/1/17, 2:55:56 PM] Rohan Kapur: (And most of the time didn’t do it for that reason)
[4/1/17, 2:56:50 PM] [redacted name]: Where did you begin to look for startup hubs?
[4/1/17, 2:57:00 PM] [redacted name]: I’m assuming most people were well above your age too right?
[4/1/17, 2:57:17 PM] Rohan Kapur: Just search up “<My City> startup hub”. Let me check for [redacted region].
Yes. That’s the challenge.
[4/1/17, 2:57:42 PM] [redacted name]: [redacted website, link to startup accelerator]
[4/1/17, 2:57:45 PM] [redacted name]: Something like this?
[4/1/17, 2:59:42 PM] Rohan Kapur: This seems to be an accelerator (which is an organization that invests in early stage companies to kick start them)
So it’s not a startup hub, but it’s obviously going to be a central spot for startups in [redacted country]. So that’s a good thing because you could shoot a cold email asking if you can visit their office to talk to people or something
Even better if you look around their website and identify a more concrete reason for visiting or showing interest in them.
[4/1/17, 3:00:10 PM] Rohan Kapur: BTW is [redacted region] close to [redacted city]? On the map it says ~30 minutes
[4/1/17, 3:00:18 PM] [redacted name]: Oh [redacted region] is the island
[4/1/17, 3:00:27 PM] [redacted name]: [redacted city] is actually where I go to school
[4/1/17, 3:00:29 PM] Rohan Kapur: Oh, heh, sorry I don’t know my [redacted country] geography :p
[4/1/17, 3:00:36 PM] Rohan Kapur: Ok cool
[4/1/17, 3:00:44 PM] Rohan Kapur: I’m sure there will be lots of startups in [redacted city]
[4/1/17, 3:01:07 PM] [redacted name]: I see. So I should look for just the startups to intern for?
[4/1/17, 3:01:16 PM] Rohan Kapur: https://angel.co/[redacted city]
[4/1/17, 3:01:37 PM] Rohan Kapur: Not just that. Go in with the intent of building connections in the startup community and penetrating the community. Then you can find companies who could be interested in you
[4/1/17, 3:02:07 PM] Rohan Kapur: For example the “East Meets West” event: [redacted website, link to startup event]
If it’s free consider going with a friend or something (if it makes it easier) and try to talk to as many people as possible
[4/1/17, 3:02:13 PM] Rohan Kapur: You could even make a business card for yourself
[4/1/17, 3:02:42 PM] Rohan Kapur: Heh, never mind, it’s ~250 bucks
[4/1/17, 3:02:49 PM] Rohan Kapur: But be on the lookout for similar type of events
[4/1/17, 3:02:59 PM] [redacted name]: Alright I’ll definitely do that
[4/1/17, 3:03:24 PM] Rohan Kapur: For actually finding startups to reach out in the cold Angel List is your best friend. But penetrating the community is even better if you can do so
[4/1/17, 3:03:51 PM] Rohan Kapur: You could even ask Blue Startups if they’re willing to sponsor a ticket for you to the event or something — not sure. Just try to think of ways to get in contact, even if most will fail.
[4/1/17, 3:04:22 PM] Rohan Kapur: Also I’ll just say that internships aren’t the only way to fulfill your goals for summers and such. If I went back I wouldn’t have done 2/3 internships I did in high school.
[4/1/17, 3:05:00 PM] [redacted name]: Yeah, I actually didn’t really do too much for my summers, which is something I wish I utilized better.
[4/1/17, 3:05:16 PM] [redacted name]: I spent a lot of time on that Steam thing I was talking about
[4/1/17, 3:05:49 PM] [redacted name]: But it wasn’t a career goal or anything at the time. I only decided to put it on my college apps when someone recommended that it might be something interesting to show
[4/1/17, 3:06:11 PM] [redacted name]: Anyways, I’m assuming you did all this before starting your own company? Or did you just do all the programming and go somewhere to find funding?
[4/1/17, 3:07:03 PM] Rohan Kapur: Sure. Same for me, in my opinion — I didn’t have a clear enough articulation of what my goals were and I just followed the “attractiveness” of doing an internship, when instead I should have built my own projects and continued iterating on them / interacting with more people.
[4/1/17, 3:08:09 PM] Rohan Kapur: Hmm honestly I wouldn’t really call it a company. Contra is sort of a project I’ve had for a while that I managed to raise funding for + get users etc. and I’m keen to continue working on it. However, I wasted this summer — the most time I had for this — interning at a company as well as last summer when I could have finished working on v2
[4/1/17, 3:09:26 PM] [redacted name]: Yeah, that’s what I’m kinda wanting to spend a lot of time during college doing. Just building my own things and seeing where that takes me.
[4/1/17, 3:10:09 PM] [redacted name]: But did you get any guidance on that project? You had to learn somewhere right?
[4/1/17, 3:11:53 PM] Rohan Kapur: Cool. Building your own things is awesome. Honestly I don’t get the hype about having work experience — I’ve interned at two companies and it’s basically the same as building your own stuff except it’s not your own stuff and you’re at a company building rather than in your room. Yes it’s important for working at companies in the future but if that’s not your long term goal (i.e.. that’s not mine) then it isn’t necessary.
[4/1/17, 3:15:26 PM] Rohan Kapur: And in terms of meeting people at a company, you can do that on your own while building your own projects in the exact same way. It’s just a bit harder because if you’re working at a company you’ve already penetrated that network in a sense.
Guidance — of course. First of all, I’ve been creating apps since age ~12 so I built up the skill set and ability to learn. So, when the time came I was not afraid to consume a bunch of books + lectures + tutorials etc. to get to where I needed to be to create it. I also co-created it; Lenny, another young developer my age in Long Island NY, did a lot of code review and so he helped me refine my programming skills and challenged my thinking many times (which helped me grow in the technical aspect). Finally, I had guidance from my mentor (who was my internship supervisor in 2014) for connecting with people to help me take the project further and advice on raising money/designing good features/keeping users onboard/etc
[4/1/17, 3:19:37 PM] [redacted name]: How did you find other people to work with so far from home? I’m kinda in the same situation in a sense, and quite honestly I’m pretty lucky to have met you now haha. Also, how would you suggest that I could get started on app development (and developing/building other things)? I’ve done a few projects as you saw when you looked through my apps, but none of them were really big or significant and quite honestly I’m not too confident in my programming skills. I had some help from other people to build the Steam bots I was talking about too (but they’re all really busy and just happened to have some extra time that summer).
[4/1/17, 3:20:54 PM] [redacted name]: A lot of the things I did learn came from tutorials, but a lot of it is bits and pieces and I don’t really know if there’s a “set” path in terms of tutorials, books, etc. that I can follow to learn how to begin pretty much being able to build anything I put my mind to.
[4/1/17, 3:21:38 PM] [redacted name]: I’ve taken some edX, Coursera, and Pluralsight courses though, but I actually don’t find them too helpful in terms of starting something completely new.
[4/1/17, 3:22:44 PM] Rohan Kapur: How did I find other people to work with: all through Facebook, Twitter, and events. If you have a Twitter I can tell you exactly who to follow and you can begin interacting with people to penetrate the community — there’s a pretty big international community of young people (14–22 yrs old) who are interested in building things, mostly apps.
Facebook — there are a TON of groups (like Young iOS Developers, Hackathon Hackers, HS Hackers etc.) and subgroups for sharing project ideas and stuff. This was how I first met Lenny in 2012.
Events — every year Apple holds an event in San Francisco called WWDC for developers. Students who are fairly good (you don’t have to be amazing) at iOS development can apply for a scholarship to attend. I got a scholarship in 2013 and this immersed me in the young app developer community even more.
[4/1/17, 3:25:28 PM] Rohan Kapur: “Also, how would you suggest that I could get started on app development (and developing/building other things)?”
The first priority is that you have insane determination + ambition + independence + interest to actually go ahead and learn it. Second priority is the correct resources. But the first is more important.
I can’t help you with the first but if you need help with the second I have a lot of resources to share.
Don’t worry about not being confident in programming skills — just keep working on stuff.
“A lot of the things I did learn came from tutorials, but a lot of it is bits and pieces and I don’t really know if there’s a “set” path in terms of tutorials, books, etc. that I can follow to learn how to begin pretty much being able to build anything I put my mind to.”
Yes it’s a LOT of piecing together, you sort of really need to have independence and ruthless drive to get it done.
“I’ve taken some edX, Coursera, and Pluralsight courses though, but I actually don’t find them too helpful in terms of starting something completely new.”
Agreed 100%. Why? Here’s something I wrote recently:
“Rule of thumb I personally have is to get a basic intuition of something by reading/watching stuff and then really learn by building stuff (with resources by your side). For example, if I was to try to learn Android app development, I’d spend ~1.5 hours reading the reference of Java and looking into the actual IDE and then I’d try to create my first app using the Internet as I go along. The latter takes a lot longer than the former, but I get more hour by hour value.
This is more effective given greater experience in programming in general, but I think the ratio between consuming:building is equal across different experience levels. For example, I would recommend a newbie in programming spend 10x (just a guesstimate) what I’d typically spend on the “consuming” part and 10x on the building part.
I think this is important for both fulfillment (so satisfaction in what you are doing) and in trying to become a “learning machine”. I’ve seen many people quit coding right after they start because they don’t get the purpose in sitting down and consuming a few resources for weeks on end. That makes sense to me. It’s much more captivating to get something to work than to get to the bottom of a page.
You can really only get meaning and direction from trying to create something. In doing so you will come across many obstacles that you need to learn to solve. 99.9% of the time, what you learn while creating stuff will generalize to the domain you’re working in. That means you’re equipped to build something new.
The best thing you can do is build things where scope grows on an exponential scale. So, for example, my first real app was a simple, ugly calculator. My sixth real app was a full-fledged social network. If your projects keep increasing in breadth then you will devour more and more information and know more about technologies and become a “learning machine”.
TL;DR: learn by doing.”
[4/1/17, 3:33:40 PM] [redacted name]: I’m actually not a big social media person, but I’m assuming it might be a good time to start if I’m going to be sticking with technology for the rest of my life. I have accounts, but they don’t really have anything on them since I didn’t have anything to post about (lol). Regarding the drive to learn, I was actually considering taking a gap year to just focus on programming and building things to build my skills up so that I would be able to take full advantage of my college experience wherever that ends up being. I think I get what you’re saying by focusing primarily on building things, but I still don’t quite understand the part about finding resources as you learn. Obviously you have google, but how exactly do you know what you need to learn to complete a project? For calculators, I can see how you could google “how to programming a calculator with X,” but let’s say you decide to do a bigger project. Like “Angry Birds” or something. How exactly do you know what to google and what you need to learn and just the entire process? I wouldn’t google “How to program Angry Birds.” Even moreso if it was a completely new idea no one had done before.
[4/1/17, 3:39:05 PM] Rohan Kapur: “I’m actually not a big social media person, but I’m assuming it might be a good time to start if I’m going to be sticking with technology for the rest of my life. I have accounts, but they don’t really have anything on them since I didn’t have anything to post about (lol).”
I’m pretty big on social media and I think it definitely was crucial for my journey.
“Regarding the drive to learn, I was actually considering taking a gap year to just focus on programming and building things to build my skills up so that I would be able to take full advantage of my college experience wherever that ends up being.”
Oh, cool! I don’t think that you need to per se. You could just spend your summer learning. With the kind of people you will be with in college as well you can learn by building with them as well.
“I think I get what you’re saying by focusing primarily on building things, but I still don’t quite understand the part about finding resources as you learn. Obviously you have google, but how exactly do you know what you need to learn to complete a project? For calculators, I can see how you could google “how to programming a calculator with X,” but let’s say you decide to do a bigger project. Like “Angry Birds” or something. How exactly do you know what to google and what you need to learn and just the entire process? I wouldn’t google “How to program Angry Birds.” Even moreso if it was a completely new idea no one had done before.”
So, like, for me, if I was trying to create an app like Instagram and I was just starting iOS
* Resources on the general language/frameworks/IDEs I need
* Resources that walk you through a small project
* A lot more experimenting + learning about stuff
* Resources that walk you through creating an even bigger project
* Resources that walk you through perhaps creating the entire project itself
* Try to start creating your own project from this, you should have the experience to link it all together
[4/1/17, 3:39:36 PM] Rohan Kapur: There are a lot of tutorials dedicated to building an entire application or project. Those are AWESOME.
[4/1/17, 3:41:03 PM] [redacted name]: So you started by watching tutorials on how to complete a project from top to bottom? And after that you figured out how to apply what you’ve learned to other situations?
[4/1/17, 3:41:14 PM] Rohan Kapur: And also you could literally find a tutorial on creating an app like Angry Birds, I bet you lol
[4/1/17, 3:41:20 PM] [redacted name]: Probably
[4/1/17, 3:41:46 PM] Rohan Kapur: Yes you could. Most of the time I do to get a general feeling of how to tie a bunch of technologies together if it’s something I’m new at. This would generalize to different ideas.
[4/1/17, 3:43:14 PM] [redacted name]: I see. So like lets say I wanted to build a game like League of Legends sometime down the road (if you know what that is). How would I begin to learn everything I would possibly need to know? I’m assuming I’d have to break it down into parts somehow, but it just seems like such a large task.
[4/1/17, 3:44:12 PM] [redacted name]: And by large task, I was referring to the sheer number of things you’d need to learn and not by the fact that I’m not willing to put in the time to learn them. Just the breaking down of the entire application that I don’t understand.
[4/1/17, 3:45:24 PM] Rohan Kapur: Sure. Many times I’ve tried to tackle task which just seemed so large but eventually I did it.
For this, the best way might be to learn online how to create game similar to LOL and follow it. That’s good because it shows you all the individual parts you need and how to connect them together. Then from those individual parts you can go deeper with other resources you find online to hone your skills.
[4/1/17, 3:46:10 PM] Rohan Kapur: LOL is huge though. Like massive. So that’s probably way harder. Choose something easier first — best you have concrete stpes.
[4/1/17, 3:46:24 PM] Rohan Kapur: Start small. For 3D games for example you could look at Unity
[4/1/17, 3:46:27 PM] [redacted name]: So something like snapchat
[4/1/17, 3:46:41 PM] [redacted name]: idk how large that is but it seems like a simple app on the surface
[4/1/17, 3:46:49 PM] [redacted name]: bar the networking part
[4/1/17, 3:47:24 PM] Rohan Kapur: Yes, so for an app like Snapchat it’s HUGE (because of all the optimization they do + other stuff) but if you want to make a “simple” version of the app it wouldn’t be insane. You could probably find a tutorial online for it given you don’t have any prior experience with building iOS apps + backends + networking layers
[4/1/17, 3:48:03 PM] Rohan Kapur: If there’s no tutorial, there should be a resource/post telling you the different things you need to link together (for example iOS client app and backend)
[4/1/17, 3:48:07 PM] Rohan Kapur: From there you look further into both
[4/1/17, 3:48:30 PM] [redacted name]: I see. So generally you just googled and watched videos on YouTube and other places? Or do you happen to have a website that has a lot of good tutorials in general to build a lot of different things?
[4/1/17, 3:48:41 PM] Rohan Kapur: Yea. Just anywhere honestly
[4/1/17, 3:49:29 PM] [redacted name]: Just a quick question that’s kinda off topic to programming. Do you build other things that don’t involve coding?
[4/1/17, 3:49:37 PM] Rohan Kapur: Not really, no
[4/1/17, 3:50:17 PM] [redacted name]: Ah I see. I want to get into programming, since it has smaller barriers to enter the field, but quite honestly I’m not 100% sure what I want to do.
[4/1/17, 3:50:41 PM] Rohan Kapur: Hmm. You should identify something you want to work on. Otherwise it gets intimidating fast + you have no direction.
[4/1/17, 3:51:09 PM] [redacted name]: Yeah, I think I’ll stick with programming at least until I hit college. Then I’ll decide where I want to head from there
[4/1/17, 3:51:27 PM] Rohan Kapur: Cool cool, sounds good
[4/1/17, 3:51:32 PM] Rohan Kapur: BTW when do you hear back from Stanford?
[4/1/17, 3:51:45 PM] [redacted name]: Around late, late March probably
[4/1/17, 3:51:55 PM] Rohan Kapur: I see. That’s a while heh. Good luck though
[4/1/17, 3:52:11 PM] [redacted name]: They said by April 1 but my decision for Northeastern said by Dec 31 and it came before.
[4/1/17, 3:52:23 PM] [redacted name]: Thanks though
[4/1/17, 3:52:27 PM] [redacted name]: for everything
[4/1/17, 3:52:38 PM] Rohan Kapur: Yea. Same for Stanford REA. It was 15th of December online but it actually came 11th
[4/1/17, 3:52:44 PM] Rohan Kapur: Or 10th, can’t remember
[4/1/17, 3:52:51 PM] Rohan Kapur: No worries. Happy to help
[4/1/17, 3:52:53 PM] [redacted name]: What in the end made you choose Stanford over any other school though?
[4/1/17, 3:53:06 PM] [redacted name]: Like over Harvard, MIT, etc.
[4/1/17, 3:53:37 PM] [redacted name]: Was it just the proximity to Silicon Valley and the reputation for entrepreneurship?
[4/1/17, 3:53:41 PM] Rohan Kapur: Yea
[4/1/17, 3:53:47 PM] Rohan Kapur: But also just because I’m the best fit for it
[4/1/17, 3:53:53 PM] [redacted name]: I’m assuming education wise all three are pretty similar that’s why
[4/1/17, 3:54:22 PM] [redacted name]: Did you visit?
[4/1/17, 3:54:29 PM] Rohan Kapur: In terms of like — the creator/entrepreneurship culture, quirky/fun/high energy student body, emphasis on collaboration and blurring the lines between disciplines,
[4/1/17, 3:54:36 PM] Rohan Kapur: Yea I’ve been to the Bay Area a couple times
[4/1/17, 3:55:22 PM] Rohan Kapur: And then of course proximity to the Valley + startups + etc
[4/1/17, 3:56:24 PM] [redacted name]: Ah I see. I didn’t really visit any schools so I don’t really know what would fit me best in that sense. My dream school was actually MIT for the longest time in my life (of course I didn’t really know the caliber of students that it takes to get in), but now I just don’t know anymore. I told myself I was just going to visit schools I was accepted to and decide from there, but I just don’t see how 1 or 2 days would help me make that decision
[4/1/17, 3:56:48 PM] [redacted name]: It seems that many of the schools have the opportunities I want, a social scene I would fit well in, etc.
[4/1/17, 3:56:51 PM] Rohan Kapur: Hmm. I didn’t visit any other school except for Stanford, which I only visited because I’ve been in the bay Area
[4/1/17, 3:57:24 PM] Rohan Kapur: You can tell what school is the best fit for you w/ research. For Stanford I didn’t need to do that many since I’ve been like always relying on Stanford’s resources online and stuff since a young age when I was learning apps
[4/1/17, 3:57:30 PM] Rohan Kapur: *that much
[4/1/17, 3:57:38 PM] Rohan Kapur: I don’t think going to the school helps you make a choie
[4/1/17, 3:57:40 PM] Rohan Kapur: *choice
[4/1/17, 3:57:44 PM] Rohan Kapur: As much as research does
[4/1/17, 3:58:58 PM] [redacted name]: I actually did quite a bit of research on all of the schools I applied to (at least in terms of opportunities) and they all seem so enticing. The one thing I couldn’t really get a firm grasp on is the general student body and the type of people I’ll meet there.
[4/1/17, 4:00:42 PM] [redacted name]: Anyways, is your friend who co-founded the app going to Stanford too?
[4/1/17, 4:01:13 PM] [redacted name]: And I guess do you know some other people from your social media groups who got in REA?
[4/1/17, 4:01:22 PM] Rohan Kapur: Hmm. Maybe I’m wrong in that case.
[4/1/17, 4:01:39 PM] Rohan Kapur: Honestly I just compiled a list of schools best for CS + building stuff. That’s the culture aspect that matters most to me.
[4/1/17, 4:01:52 PM] Rohan Kapur: He just applied RD actually
[4/1/17, 4:02:18 PM] Rohan Kapur: I didn’t know anyone who got in REA before we received our acceptances
[4/1/17, 4:02:24 PM] [redacted name]: Yeah, Stanford’s that’s why Stanford became my top choice when it came down to it.
[4/1/17, 4:02:37 PM] Rohan Kapur: But there is an official Class of 2021 group and so I talk to a few people on there
[4/1/17, 4:02:51 PM] [redacted name]: Did you know others who applied?
[4/1/17, 4:02:52 PM] Rohan Kapur: Yea agreed. Stanford creator culture is unmatched
[4/1/17, 4:03:01 PM] Rohan Kapur: A few people in my grade
[4/1/17, 4:03:57 PM] [redacted name]: Did you think they would get in at first thought? Like were they the achieved, passionate, etc. people that Stanford seems to continuously accept?
[4/1/17, 4:04:55 PM] Rohan Kapur: They applied this year, I mean (just now)
[4/1/17, 4:05:09 PM] [redacted name]: There’s a couple people here applying but all they seem to do is study all day. Personally, I’m not a big fan of spending too much time on schoolwork. I just don’t see the connection between some of the things I’m learning in class and who I want to be in the future.
[4/1/17, 4:05:28 PM] Rohan Kapur: From other years, honestly not too sure. I didn’t know them that well so probably can’t make much of a comment but I don’t think any of them had crazy achievements
[4/1/17, 4:05:49 PM] Rohan Kapur: Yea, if I did HS over again I would spend much less time on schoolwork
[4/1/17, 4:06:38 PM] [redacted name]: I know you said you honestly don’t think it’s too hard to get in, but I know that I was talking to [redacted name] the other day (he actually mentioned you lol) and he was saying that he thinks the acceptance rate is gonna be 2% or something
[4/1/17, 4:08:10 PM] [redacted name]: Sometimes I feel like I have a decent shot, but other days I feel like I’m just dreaming. Because I honestly don’t know what other peoples’ applications look like. Personally, I think I like the essay portion the most, but who’s to say that there aren’t 30k people with even better essays especially when you have to expect most of the people applying are all super smart and probably good writers.
[4/1/17, 4:08:41 PM] Rohan Kapur: Well, when I say “too hard” I was referencing the fact that you need to cure cancer and build apps with millions of downloads and such. Like I know 4–5 app developers at Stanford who were my friends before they got in and they weren’t that crazily achieved. I just wanna dispel the myth that you have to be some insane kid that’s changed the world and earned so much money or something. They accepted interesting people, people with stories to tell, impressive people who have done impressive things, etc.
Also, I doubt it’ll dip below 4%. No reason it shouldn’t be following year by year stats.
[4/1/17, 4:08:59 PM] Rohan Kapur: Yea, a lot of people have that though. Don’t worry about it.
[4/1/17, 4:09:42 PM] Rohan Kapur: Well, in the entire application cycle I helped quite a few people out with essays and yours were certainly the best
[4/1/17, 4:10:21 PM] [redacted name]: Oh well that’s nice to hear haha. Things like this keep me believing. Just don’t wanna get my hopes up too much though.
[4/1/17, 4:10:31 PM] Rohan Kapur: Yea definitely don’t get your hopes up lol
[4/1/17, 4:10:34 PM] Rohan Kapur: Just prepare for rejection
[4/1/17, 4:10:51 PM] Rohan Kapur: But don’t doubt yourself either
[4/1/17, 4:11:02 PM] Rohan Kapur: Wait I think I just contradicted myself
[4/1/17, 4:11:39 PM] Rohan Kapur: Prepare for the high possibility of rejection, but definitely don’t be to the extent where you’re like “I have no chance”. Just acknowledge that it could either work your way, but it could also not, since you’re an applicant with amazing essays and less achievements it’s harder to predict.
[4/1/17, 4:13:09 PM] [redacted name]: Speaking of amazing essays and less achievements, do you think if Tyler applied 10 times again, she would get accepted 10/10 times? Sure she had the grades, essays, etc. but she doesn’t have that raw achievement that I feel sometimes is what solidifies someone as a 100% admit
[4/1/17, 4:13:33 PM] Rohan Kapur: Honestly I don’t know
[4/1/17, 4:13:42 PM] Rohan Kapur: I can’t say either yes or no with a level of certainty
[4/1/17, 4:14:01 PM] [redacted name]: Yeah I get it haha
[4/1/17, 4:14:09 PM] [redacted name]: Just wondering what you would think
[4/1/17, 4:14:11 PM] Rohan Kapur: And that’s cool that you talked to [redacted name]
[4/1/17, 4:14:52 PM] [redacted name]: Yeah, I’m actually trying to find more people my age interested in the same things as me. I just feel like no one here really cares to much about anything if that makes any sense.
[4/1/17, 4:15:08 PM] [redacted name]: It’s a lot more fun to do things when you know people doing it with you
[4/1/17, 4:15:14 PM] Rohan Kapur: Sure. Don’t worry though you don’t have to be limited by your region. Find people online
[4/1/17, 4:15:51 PM] [redacted name]: Are all students at Singapore super motivated?
[4/1/17, 4:17:36 PM] Rohan Kapur: So first of all I’m not actually Singaporean. I just live here for my dad’s job, so I go to a private school (I can’t attend the public schools here). Public schools are really intense. Maybe the most intense country in the world. Private schools have a good mix. I would say it’s more self-discipline than motivation though.
[4/1/17, 4:19:06 PM] [redacted name]: I see. That seems cool. There’s actually someone I met who’s from Singapore and she’s literally went through college as a high schooler.
[4/1/17, 4:19:19 PM] Rohan Kapur: Haha, yea it’s insane
[4/1/17, 4:19:46 PM] [redacted name]: Anyways thanks a lot of all the help again? Do you use Skype often?
[4/1/17, 4:20:53 PM] Rohan Kapur: No. Like I only open it when I need to talk to somebody who uses Skype. So if you have any more questions email me. If you have a bunch more then we can setup another session similar to this.
[4/1/17, 4:20:57 PM] [redacted name]: That wasn’t mean to be a question lol
[4/1/17, 4:21:02 PM] [redacted name]: My bad
[4/1/17, 4:21:07 PM] Rohan Kapur: Haha, right
[4/1/17, 4:21:16 PM] [redacted name]: Alright sounds good. Thanks.
[4/1/17, 4:21:29 PM] Rohan Kapur: Also so are you good with me publishing these responses to these questions (mostly in the beginning of the conversation before it got more chatty). I’ll redact stuff like location
[4/1/17, 4:21:41 PM] [redacted name]: Yeah sure
[4/1/17, 4:21:46 PM] Rohan Kapur: Ok, great.
[4/1/17, 4:22:10 PM] [redacted name]: Cya later!
[4/1/17, 4:22:15 PM] Rohan Kapur: See ya!
I wrote this article for a few friends a while back and thought it might be worth sharing for anybody interested in building backends.