Stanford Interview: What It’s Like + My Experience

Let me set the scene for my Stanford interview: it’s 2015, Illinois, and I’m sitting in a cozy nook of a Starbucks. Thick but gentle snow is falling on the shops outside. Smells: expresso, paper, and a freshly-sharpened pencil. Sounds: the buzz of conversation, clacking keys from the surrounding laptops. 

 

Read on for my take on how the Stanford interview is nothing to be afraid of. 

 

Stanford Interview Selection

 

Stanford is tough, in that they select you for an interview, and you’re not allowed to ask for one. According to their most recent policy, interviews are carried out by alumni volunteers, so if there’s not many alums in your area, you may not get offered one. 

 

Interviewers will contact you, usually over email but sometimes over phone. They’ll introduce themselves, and attempt to set up a time to meet. 

 

Technically, you’re allowed to decline, but it’s always advisable to carry through with an interview. Interviews provide a valuable supplement of information about you, and can help you demonstrate your enthusiasm even more. It’s free time to sell yourself to your target college.

 

COVID-19 Impact on Stanford Interviews

 

Stanford Interviews are 100% virtual. While I met my interviewer in a Starbucks, you’ll be interviewing over a video platform. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Stanford has nixed all in-person interviews and mandated virtual contact. 

 

Consequently, you should make sure you have all the necessary components for a successful virtual call: good lighting, a quiet space, reliable Internet, and a professional backdrop. See our guide to virtual interviews for more tips.

 

Setting Up Your Stanford Interview

 

Stanford: it was my pipe dream, but in 2015, it had a relatively generous admissions rate of 5% regular decision (compared to 2020’s rate of 3-4%). I applied regular decision over winter break of 2014, and I got a call from an alumnus in late January. 

 

My interviewer suggested a location in their vicinity, and I agreed, although it was a bit away from where I lived. Although location is a null point for 2020-2021 interviews, I just want to point out for future readers that it’s best to be flexible and accommodate your interviewer as much as possible. It’s like a job interview: make yourself available as close as possible to your interviewer’s ideal place and date. 

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What the Stanford Interview Is Like

 

The first thing my interviewer said – we had met ten seconds ago and barely just detached from our handshake – was “DO YOU THINK AUTHORIAL INTENT IS A VALID LENS THROUGH WHICH TO ASSESS A PIECE OF LITERATURE.” 

 

Okay then! 

 

Luckily, I had the wherewithal to realize that the suddenness of the question wasn’t aggressive or personal – it was meant to test how I could think on the fly. Could I discuss a bodiless and academic topic sans warmup? 

 

I tried. Obviously, I didn’t answer with the wealth of literary theorists and citations that I now possess with an English major under my belt, and if you played my response back to me now I’d probably headdesk myself into an early death. So I want to offer you encouragement: you’re not being assessed as a full-fledged scholar, but as a teenage student who’s just barely started to scrape these questions. 

 

I remember waffling – which turned out to be unwitting wisdom, post hoc. Since “AUTHORIAL INTENT” is a controversial, knotty debate in literary studies and psychology, it reflected well on me to weigh two sides to the debate instead of sticking to one. If your interviewer asks you about a controversial or unresolved subject, DO entertain multiple perspectives! 

 

My interview was also a tremendous opportunity for me to expound upon my extracurriculars. And especially on my “extra” extracurriculars: being a writer, I’d pursued a wide variety of independent projects that existed outside the sanctioned pale of clubs and student orgs. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that “the novel” I’d been working on – and embarrassed to mention on my application, since it didn’t have any sort of organizational association – became a key topic of discussion for the rest of the 45-minute interview. So you should feel empowered to use the interview to talk about your most freewheeling pursuits, the ones that don’t easily translate onto a paper resume. My interviewer, as I recall, compared my real pursuit (that novel and my writing) to my unfocused, people-pleaser resume (my clubs, my grades, anything I could slap together) as an “MVP in real-life trying to be everybody’s benchwarmer on paper.” 

 

So through my interviewer’s feedback and the direction of questioning, I learned what strengths to emphasize in future interviews. That’s the great thing about them – each interview is practice for the next! 

 

And yes – because I was flexible in my responses and pivoted between topics, my interview was successful and I was admitted to Stanford (I did not attend). I just wanted to give myself credibility as I launch into…

 

Tips for the Stanford Interview

 

Outfit and Items

 

Wear something unique: while still following a business-casual regime, incorporate a clothing item that showcases your brand – Stanford really emphasizes big personality and a sense of fun. For my interview, I wore a blazer over a tulle dress. Again, nothing I’d wear now, but I think the Carrie Bradshaw look helped me stand out. Some more contemporary ideas that are less overbearing and Zoom-compatible:

 

  • Statement tee with blazer
  • Interesting but sophisticated accessory (watch, barrette, etc.)
  • Rings to emphasize hand movement and expressiveness (yes, guys can pull this off too)
  • Make sure hair is out of your face! 

 

Prepare handworking accessories: Have a pad and paper ready to take notes throughout your interview. It also may help to have a soothing tea (honey optional) to help your voice – although coffee shops are a thing of the past, beverages still serve as a standard icebreaker. 

 

What to Ask Your Interviewer

 

Ask about their work and major: If you can look up your interviewer on LinkedIn, do so! Asking them about their major, career, and interests will go a long way. Also, try to ask them about themselves as early as possible! Establish a 2-way conversation so that the interview feels organic.

 

About how the adjustment was at Stanford: Since your alum is from your area, this is a good chance to ask about whether Stanford was hard to adjust to in terms of culture, climate, socioeconomics, politics, population, and lifestyle. 

 

Explain specifically why you’re interested in their perspective. It’s crucial that your questions feel natural, even if they’re preemptively prepared. There’s a huge difference in warmth and energy (two valued Stanford traits) between “what was Stanford like for you?” (canned) and “Since you work for a startup, I was wondering if you had much exposure to startups and businesses during your time at Stanford. The energy of startup culture is something I’d like to explore in marketing!” The latter question is authentic, and provides a clear link between your interviewer and you. 

 

For more tips, see our post on meaningful questions to ask your interviewer.

 

Miscellaneous 

 

Review your applications materials and research notes about 1 hour to 30 minutes ahead of time. 

 

Listen to instrumental music to increase your concentration beforehand. 

 

Have a snack or meal beforehand that makes you happy! 

 

Good luck!

 

We know you’re going to master your interview! If you want more resources on Stanford, you can look at CollegeVine’s Stanford statistics and our guide to Stanford’s essay prompts, including a successful Stanford essay example

 

If you have any questions about the interview process, you can use our Q&A forum to get answers from peers and verified experts. Just sign up for your free CollegeVine account to get started.


Short Bio
Maya St. Clair is a freelance writer and Renaissance historian from Illinois. She loves "writing about writing" and helping others achieve the best results with their own prose. She graduated from Washington University in St. Louis.

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