How I got into Stanford?


One of our students, Linda Tong, has been admitted to Stanford University, Class of 2020 and several other elite schools, including Columbia, Berkeley, Wellesley, Georgetown and Barnard.

We had a great conversation with her where she shared many interesting tips on the college application process, drawing from her own experience.

This video will dissect Linda’s strategy, including how to succeed as a well-rounded (giỏi toàn diện) student, what really attracted her to “The Farm” (the nickname for Stanford), and how she applied our SOAR technique to conquer the dreaded interview.

Scroll down to see the transcript below.

See full transcript

Tony: Oh hi everybody, I’m here with Linda.

Linda: Hi!

Tony: And I’m super excited today to have this conversation with you.

Linda: I’m really excited to be with you as well.  [Shakes hand]

Tony: [laughs] Linda is here to talk about her experience.

Linda: Mm-hmmm!

Tony: Getting into Stanford.  And I’m super super excited; she’s got the right gear on.

Linda: [laughs]

Tony: I wish I brought my Stanford shirt in today too!  So can I ask, what got you excited about applying to Stanford in the first place?

Linda: I think for me it was definitely the interdisciplinary focus that Stanford.  So in high school, I was a very well-rounded student. I never had one single spike or defining interest, but what I did really enjoy doing was exploring a lot of things.  So I was really into coding, but at the same time, I also liked classics a lot. So I’ve been taking Latin and Greek.  

Linda: I love the language, I love the culture, and I love the history. I think Stanford really encouraged that and they have a huge focus on finding intersections between different fields and finding the connection between them.  So, I think that’s what stood out to me the most about Stanford. 

Tony: Hmmmm………Does Stanford talk about a specific program that ties coding and classics together?

Linda: I think Stanford still has a lot of different majors that combine different subjects.  For instance, if you’re doing Symbolic Systems.

Tony: Yeah!

Linda: That’s Computer Science with Linguistics, Psychology, and just a lot of different things.  Or if we’re doing MCS, that’s Math and Computer Science. Or even a Human Biology major.

Tony: Mm-hmmm!

Linda: That’s very unique to Stanford, we cannot find that anywhere else.

Tony: Oh really? I did not know that.

Linda: Well, you can fact check if you’d like. [laughs]

Tony: [laughs] Well, when I was there, they had the element of the BioX department, which was a huge deal, combining Biology and Engineering fields together.  

Linda: Right.

Tony: And I think they were one of the first.

Linda: Yeah.

Tony: You’ve mentioned that you’ve had a variety of interests in high school, but I feel like when students apply, they have a big challenge.  You are generally given this advice, “Hey, being a well-rounded student doesn’t actually help you in this application.”

Linda: Exactly.

Tony: So can you talk about that conflict?  Were you a well-rounded applicant, or were you a “pointy” applicant?

Linda: So, I think for me, it was a combination of both.  I think it’s really good that you bring up that point because it was definitely one of my insecurities in the college admission cycle.  I was very scared that if I did not have one defining interest, I would not stand out in such a competitive applicant pool.

Tony: Uh-huh.

Linda: Especially, I think this year Stanford had…………well, last year, Stanford’s acceptance rate was around 4.3% and they stopped publishing it. [laughs] 

Tony: [laughs] I’m sure it’s not higher than 4%.

Linda: Exactly, so, I actually thought a lot about that. At boarding school, you’re encouraged to pursue a lot of interests and you’re given the opportunity and resources to do just that.  So, I definitely took advantage of a lot of the resources at my boarding school, advice that you gave me that Stanford is actually intellectual vitality-focused.

Tony: Mm-hmmm!

Linda: So, for me, I’ve always considered myself a very intellectually curious person.  I love learning. I really enjoy exploring the subjects and because I think I had well-rounded interests, that was what Stanford was looking for. 

Tony: I see, so step me back, when you look at the application, I often tell students to try to make sure that their position as an applicant is very clear.

Linda: Right!

Tony: So we actually form, what we call, a positioning statement.  

Linda: Sure.

Tony: We didn’t talk about this, but when you submitted your application, could you try to summarize, “Who is Linda?”

Linda: Right, I think for me, it was my diversity of experiences and my diversity of interests.  But also with the classics bent. [Laughs] So, for my main essay, I wrote about how I grew up exploring languages.  So, I came to the U.S. as a second language English learner. So, for me, that was really difficult process, but it taught me perseverance and it made me love the language learning process.

Tony: Mm-hmmm!

Linda: In middle school, I started taking Latin and French.  Now, I’m doing ancient Greek and Python. [Laughs]

Tony: [laughs] All sorts of languages.

Linda: Exactly, and I also started Vietnamese this summer.

Tony: Nice!

Linda: Yeah!  So, I love learning languages.  But at the same time, I think that because I enjoy navigating different situations, that was another big part of my upbringing.  So I’ve been to public school, private school, boarding school, international school, in the U.S. and in China. So, for me, getting to meet people who come from a really wide variety of backgrounds and learning how to connect with them was a huge part of my experience as well.

Tony: Mm-hmmm!  I see, so if I can try to summarize.  It sounds like, it’s not only that you had all these different experiences, I’m sure there are other students out there that have learned 2, 3 or 4 different languages.

Linda: Right sure, absolutely!

Tony: But it sounds like you were able to tie it with a very clear theme about navigating different new environment and cultures.

Linda: And I think, for me, the main essay, I put it in there because I’m a classics nerd, I’m not going to lie. [Laughs]

Tony: [laughs]

Linda: But the theme that I chose was about wandering.  So in Latin, the word for wander is erraverunt, which is where we get the English word, “error” from.  

Tony: Hmmm!

Linda: So usually, in English, when we would talk about error, it does have a negative connotation because you’re failing and making a mistake.  But for me, I learned to love that process. I learned to love wandering, to love failing and to learn how to cope. 

Tony: That is fantastic!  So, I also feel like so many students feel this pressure. 

Linda: Sure.

Tony: That you have to talk about these huge achievements in order to get into Stanford. 

Linda: [chuckles]

Tony: But the reality is, as an interviewer myself or advising other students.  I know it’s not about having that, “I won the Olympics” or “I won first place in this competition.”

Linda: Right.

Tony: But it’s about the learning process. 

Linda: Absolutely!  I think that in such a competitive applicant pool, I think so many kids are qualified.

Tony: Mm-hmmm!

Linda: For me, I also won National AP Scholar, where I got summa cum laude on the National Latin Exam and the National Greek Exam.

Tony: But you don’t need to write an essay about it!

Linda: Exactly!  I don’ t think those metrics are what set you apart, I think  growing up in Asia and living in a very Asian environment , we do put a lot of emphasis on numbers.  

Tony: Yep!

Linda: We talk about SAT scores, GPA and exam scores.  That’s what we’re heavily focused on because we value those metrics so much.  But again, having the boarding school experience and talking to you as well, I learned that there are things that schools look for that we cannot reflect through those metrics.

Tony: Right.  So, is it fair to say though, that to be considered, you do need to have the exceptional metrics like GPA and SAT scores.  

Linda: Right.

Tony: But to differentiate yourself, you need all those credits.

Linda: Right, I think it’s absolutely helpful to have them, but it’s not enough.

Tony: Fantastic.  So again, lots of kids with perfect scores don’t get in; it’s all about that extra step.  

Linda: Right.

Tony: So, on the interview process itself, you and I spoke about how to communicate your story clearly and persuasively, especially in this interview format.  What was it like to interview at Stanford? 

Linda: I actually really enjoyed my experience, so my interviewer, he did his undergrad at Stanford, he studied Chemistry.  So for me, I was applying as a Classics and Computer Science major, but I think the techniques that you taught me helped me connect more with my interviewer.  

Tony: Mm-hmmm!

Linda: Being a reflective listener, asking the right questions, and if I’m talking about something, my experience, how does that relate to you?  So you would ask them about their experience and find the common ground.

Tony: So sorry, just to summarize that.

Linda: Okay!  [Laughs]

Tony: Being a good listener and reflecting back to what you’re hearing in terms of the feedback, right? 

Linda: Yes!

Tony: Okay.

Linda: And something else, the storytelling technique that you taught me,  S.O.A.R. Situation, Obstacles, Actions, and Results.

Tony: Mm-hmmm!

Linda: So for me, it’s really important to have a story because again, as an applicant, you want to appear as a whole person and really humanize yourself by having a story.  I think that’s why it’s so important to be a good storyteller.

Tony: Totally!  So, we work with a ton of students and we find that they have a tendency to either have a very bland list, they list out all the accomplishments they’ve done, resume style.  And that’s what the rest of the application is for.  

Linda: Sure.

Tony: Or they may want to tell a story, but it’s just not clear where it’s going.

Linda: Mm-hmmm.

Tony: So, we have a framework, S.O.A.R, that you and I discussed.

Linda: Mm-hmmm.

Tony: “Situation,” to describe what the environment is like, that you’re in.  And then, what’s the conflict? What’s the conflict and “Obstacle” that you had to deal with in order to succeed and overcome this challenge? 

Linda: Right. Mm-hmmm.

Tony: “A” is the Action.  So what “actions” did you take in order to resolve that obstacle or that conflict?  

Linda: Mm-hmmm.

Tony: Sometimes students make the mistake of identifying stories that are too passive.  Things happen to them and they just think about it. But I think that it’s critical to actually have something where they take thought and describe that process.

Linda: Mm-hmmm.

Tony: And then finally, the Result, “R.”  The result here, again, does not have to be that superstar championship, but actually the key learning.  What the insight? How did you grow as a person? Why was that a meaningful experience to you, right?  

Linda: Mm-hmmm. 

Tony: What was one story that you talked about, either in the essays or in the interview if you don’t mind sharing?

Linda: Sure, actually one story that I talked about was teaching a seminar at my school for Martin Luther King Day.  So, for me, I really like ancient history, but I’m also passionate about the way it relates back to social justice issues.

Tony: Hmmm!

Linda: So I think, it’s really interesting to be seeing classics in the 21st century because it feels so distant, but it’s also so relevant.  

Tony: Totally.

Linda: In my classes, we were discussing Ovid and how the men in these stories relate to the modern Me Too movement.

Tony: Wow! That is deep, in the essay?

Tony: Actually, I have some students go through it and it becomes too mechanical.  “This happened, then I did this and that was the result.” But actually, they want to see those insights of where you were in the moment, what you were thinking, and what you were feeling.

Tony: Any last words of advice for someone who wants to apply to have the best chance to get into Stanford?

Linda: I think a really important aspect is to know why you’re applying.  So, almost every school has an essay and their supplement. It might be, “What are you looking forward to the most when you’re here?” or “Why are you applying to X school?” I think at the same time, you should know why you want to go here.  I think as an Asian applicant, part of it was getting wrapped up in the peer pressure of going to a name-brand school.

Tony: Totally.

Linda: Also doing it for the prestige.  I have a lot of friends who took a shotgun approach to the college process, where they applied to all the top schools, even though they’re so different from each other.  So I think, it’s about really knowing what you want and also knowing what you want to get out of your experience.

Tony: Yeah, Stanford and Harvard were totally different! 

Linda: Right.

Tony: In terms of the day to day experience for me.  I feel like, certainly, when I was in high school, I had no idea that there are these huge differences.  So we work very closely with students to make sure they do their research.

Linda: Absolutely!

Tony: Not just on numbers, but what is it like to live there?

Linda: Exactly!

Tony: What kind of environment are you looking for?  What are the activities you hope to be involved in when you hope to be involved in when you’re there?  Can you imagine yourself in that environment?

Linda: Absolutely, I think, even when I was going through the process my senior self, I wasn’t asking myself the right questions.

Tony: Mmmm!

Linda: It’s only after having gone through the college process.

Tony: Yeah!

Linda: Something started clicking and this is what I realized, this is why I wish I knew the right questions.

Tony: [laughs] Hugely valuable, well thank you so much for your time!

Linda: Thank you so much! [Hugs]

Tony: [hugs] Thank you for coming by!

Linda: But I’m really grateful Tony, for all of your help and for your support.  I don’t think I could’ve done it without you.

Tony: I’m super excited to see how your academic and professional career unfolds and I really hope you stay in touch.

Linda: Absolutely!

Tony: Let us know if we can help anymore!

Linda: Thank you! [High-five]

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