The Ultimate Guide to Applying to Stanford

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There is a special uniqueness to Stanford University’s campus. From the entrepreneurial spirit of the student body and its focus on excellence in science and engineering to the signature shine of the golden sandstone that makes up its iconic campus in Palo Alto, California, it is no wonder Stanford has been referred to as the “Harvard of the 21st century.”


Founded in 1885, Stanford is one of the world’s elite higher education institutions. Its proximity to the startup hub of San Francisco and year-round amenable weather make it a very attractive place to study. As a result, it has one of the lowest acceptance rates among American colleges and, in fact, has a lower acceptance rate than any of the Ivy League schools, including Harvard.


Here at CollegeVine, we understand that navigating the admissions process of a prestigious institution like Stanford can be intimidating, but if you manage to get in, the rewards will be more than worth it. Below, we will walk you through the process of applying to Stanford.


Want to learn what Stanford University will actually cost you based on your income? And how long your application to the school should take? Here’s what every student considering Stanford University needs to know.


Introducing Stanford University

Stanford is located in sunny, laid back Palo Alto, California, and is just an hour away from San Francisco by public transit. It is currently tied for the #4 national ranking on the U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges List and provides students a liberal arts education.


The school offers almost 70 different programs of study and three undergraduate degrees, including a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences (BAS). Those degree programs are housed in three different schools on Stanford’s campus, including the School of Humanities and Sciences; the School of Engineering; and the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences. 63% of Stanford’s 7,000 undergraduates, who make up nearly half of the 16,770 students on campus, graduate with degrees in either the humanities or sciences.


Additionally, students at Stanford can pursue pre-professional tracks in law, medicine, and business. Stanford operates under the quarter-system and has a virtually unrivaled 4:1 student-to-faculty ratio, with 70% of classes enrolling fewer than 20 students.


The university’s core curriculum, the General Education Breadth Requirements, unites the undergraduate schools into a cohesive intellectual community. Students are invited to pick from a diversity of “Thinking Matters” courses looking to answer questions ranging from questions like, “What is evil?” to “Why are humans drawn to making and breaking codes?” The “Writing and Rhetoric Requirement” tries to build students’ skills in writing and research-based argument. Students are also asked to fulfill a more typical “Language Requirement.”


The bulk of the WAYS curriculum is made up of the “Ways of Thinking/Ways of Doing” coursework. Students must take eleven WAYS courses, which range in subject area from applied quantitative reasoning and scientific method and analysis, to creative expression and engaging diversity. Overall, Stanford’s general education requirements offer a broader focus than the heavy focus on the reading and writing of classical literature found at comparable institutions.


Outside of the traditional classroom setting, students are afforded the opportunity to study abroad through the Bing Overseas Study Program, conduct research at the Hoover Institution or SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and serve as a Public Service Scholar with the Haas Center. The Stanford Diversity Exchange allows students to study at historically black institutions of higher education, including Howard University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College.


Stanford is one of the more diverse American universities, with 50% of students identifying as people of color and 15% of freshmen identifying as first-generation college students. The school also has more than 650 student organizations and 35 varsity sports with which students can get involved. The school’s sunny atmosphere and its spirit of entrepreneurship and experiential learning make it an ideal place to study for students interested in exploring all that higher education has to offer, without the dreary winter months.


Stanford Admissions Statistics

As you might have guessed, the Stanford admissions process is extremely competitive. The acceptance rate for the Class of 2020 is the lowest in the school’s history and among the lowest of any school nationally at 4.69%. Out of 43,997 applicants, only 2,063 were admitted into the undergraduate division. These students come from all 50 states and 76 different countries.


75% of Stanford’s recently admitted class had at least a 4.0 GPA, and 95% graduated in the top 10% of their high school class. 90% of admits scored at least a 30 on the ACT and at least 70% of them scored a 700 or more on the SAT’s Math, Critical Reading, and Writing sections.


This year, Stanford admitted only 42 transfer students out of 1,959 applicants, making the transfer student acceptance rate just 2.1%. There are no minimum GPA or test score requirements for students to be considered for transfer to the university. However, the admissions committee recommends submitting at least two SAT Subject Tests, although they are not required.


Despite the competitiveness of Stanford’s selection process, it is important to remember not to get discouraged if your numbers aren’t quite in the upper range. the school’s admissions process is holistic, which means they consider more than just a student’s GPA and test scores.


While academic record is a factor, the admissions committee also considers things like extracurricular involvement and personal background, such as socioeconomic, racial, and religious diversity. Thus, even if you don’t have the test scores listed here or an exceptionally high GPA but feel you did the best with the circumstances you were given, it could still be worthwhile to apply.


Paying for Stanford

For the 2016-2017 school year, tuition will cost $47,331. When fees, room and board, books, travel, and other expenses are added in, the total cost of attendance could reach upwards of $66,696.


The admissions process at Stanford University is need-blind for domestic and transfer applicants (need-blind admissions are not guaranteed for international students). 47% of students receive need-based financial aid, with the average financial aid package amounting to $49,220 per year. Because Stanford uses a need-based system, you will be required to submit information on your family’s income and assets through the FAFSA and CSS Profile. Stanford does not offer merit scholarships.


The school promises to meet 100% of domestic applicants’ demonstrated financial need. Thus, students are not required to take out any loans as part of their financial aid packages, though they will likely be required to work. International students are exempt from this promise; Stanford’s financial aid budget is limited for these applicants.


For those who do meet the requirements for need-based aid, families with total incomes of less than $65,000 per year are not expected to contribute to the cost of attendance. Families making less than $125,000 per year qualify for a reduced parent contribution, however even families making up to $225,000 per year may qualify for assistance.


Stanford offers a Net Price Calculator for students to determine how much it might cost them to attend. However, this tool only provides an estimate, and there is no guarantee you will receive that aid amount.


For Restrictive Early Action applicants, students must submit an initial financial aid application through the CSS Profile and the current year’s Federal Tax Returns for both parents and students; these are due November 15th, roughly two weeks after the main application is due on November 1st. Those who are accepted early will receive an estimate of their financial aid award with their acceptance letter. When the tax information for the following year becomes available, students are required to submit that along with the FAFSA.


For Regular Decision applicants, students must submit the CSS Profile, Federal Tax Returns for the following year, and the FAFSA by March 1st. Upon acceptance, applicants will also receive their financial aid award.


The Stanford Application

Stanford accepts applications through either the Common Application, known as the Common App, or the Coalition Application. The admissions committee gives no preference to either application, however the Common App is the more popular of the two among students.


The questions are the same on both applications. You can choose to apply either Regular Decision or Restrictive Early Action, which is non-binding but prohibits students from applying to other private colleges or universities’ Early Action or Early Decision programs, with some exceptions. (For more on what distinguishes Regular Decision from Restrictive Early Action, check out the CollegeVine blog post EA vs ED vs REA.)


For Restrictive Early Action candidates, all application materials must be submitted to the admissions committee by November 1st, the SAT must be taken by the October test date, and the ACT must be taken by the September test date (be sure to alert the testing company to send your scores directly to Stanford).


For Regular Decision candidates, all application materials must be submitted by January 3rd, and all standardized testing must be completed by the December test date. (Again, if you are taking the test late, make sure to list Stanford as one of the schools you want the results sent to.)

Common Application

To apply to Stanford through the Common App, you must first fill out a list of general questions ‘common’ to all applicants. (For more information about the Common App, check out CollegeVine’s User’s Guide to the Common Application, as well as our blog posts on how to fill out the other sections of the application, including educationactivitieshonorscitizenship, and family questions.)


Stanford’s supplementary application consists of a series of six short-answer questions and three essay questions, with the word limits ranging from 50 to 250 words. The supplement is required and touches on a range of topics; it is thus worth spending a great deal of time on.


The beginning portion of the short-answer and essay supplements on the Common App for the 2016-2017 application season are shown in the screenshots below. The prompts themselves are listed just below the screenshots.


Stanford Common App Short-Answer Section


Name your favorite books, authors, films, and/or artists. (50 word limit)


What newspapers, magazines, and/or websites do you enjoy? (50 word limit)


What is the most significant challenge that society faces today? (50 word limit)


How did you spend your last two summers? (50 word limit)


What were your favorite events (e.g., performances, exhibits, competitions, conferences, etc.) in recent years? (50 word limit)


What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? (50 word limit)


What five words best describe you?


Stanford Common App Essay Supplements Section


Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development. (100 to 250 words)


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. (100 to 250 words)


What matters to you, and why? (100 to 250 words)


While tackling each of these questions may seem daunting, together they constitute one of the most important parts of your application and can help you stand out from the many other applicants, particularly if you have below-average grades and test scores. Thankfully, CollegeVine has produced a detailed breakdown of Stanford’s supplement to help you present the best side of yourself to the admissions committee. Visit our guide on How to Write the Stanford University Application Essays 2016-2017.


For a walkthrough of how to go through the process of submitting your application, see our User’s Guide to the Common Application. You must review and submit your Common App before you can submit your supplement. The admissions committee will not receive your other required documentation, such as your school report and recommendations, until you have completed both the Common App and the required supplementary essays.


The Stanford Interview Process

Stanford offers some applicants the opportunity to interview with an alumnus/a. If you live in the U.S. and are selected for an interview, an alum in your area will contact you. Once you agree on a time, you will typically meet at a coffee shop or similar public space. While you may feel pressed to recite your resume, remember that this is an opportunity to showcase a side of you the admissions committee will not get to see in your written application.


If you live outside the U.S., you may still be contacted for an interview depending on where you live. Stanford operates the interview program in 51 domestic locations and 41 international locations.


For more on what to expect from your interviews, check out CollegeVine’s blog posts on how to prepare for your interview, what to do (and not do) in your interview, and how much interviews matter in the admissions process. It is important to remember that the number of interview areas is limited, and thus not every candidate who is admitted to Stanford will have received an invitation to interview. You will not be penalized if you were not invited to interview. However, if you are invited, you should certainly take advantage of the opportunity.


Other Application Requirements

In addition to your Common App or Coalition Application and your Stanford supplement, Stanford requires you to submit the following:


  • School Report completed by your counselor (or other school official)
  • Counselor Recommendation completed by your counselor
  • Official transcript
  • Any additional test score reports (for AP tests and so on) requested by you and sent directly to Stanford


Please remember to be honest in every aspect of your application; if you lie, your application may be rescinded. Usually, a college will offer an otherwise attractive student the opportunity to explain themselves if they have done something wrong. That opportunity is not afforded to those who attempt to mislead the admissions committee.


If you ever need to correct or update your application for any reason, do not resubmit your application. Instead, you may email the materials directly to the admissions office.


Hearing Back from Stanford


Restrictive Early Action

If you have applied through Stanford’s Restrictive Early Action program, you should receive your admissions decision by December 15th. At this point, you may be accepted, rejected, or deferred to the Regular Decision applicant pool.


If you are accepted via the Restrictive Early Action program, congratulations! If your application is rejected, however, you will not be able to reapply during the Regular Decision cycle and will not be entering Stanford’s freshman class the following year. However, you may be able to apply as a transfer student at a later point, though Stanford usually accepts less than 2% of transfer applicants.


Regular Decision/Deferral

If your application is deferred during the Restrictive Early Action round, your application will be reconsidered alongside Regular Decision applications. This gives you an opportunity to update your application with any new qualifications or awards that might help you to stand out.


If you have applied through Stanford’s Regular Decision cycle, or your Restrictive Early Action application was deferred, you should hear back about your decision by April 1st. By that time, you will either be accepted, rejected, or waitlisted. We’ll discuss what to do in the event your application is waitlisted or deferred below.


If you are admitted, congratulations! You will have until May 1st to decide if Stanford is the right college for you (be sure to leave enough wiggle room to submit your deposit on time and secure your place in the entering class). This will give you an opportunity to compare financial aid offers and think about the pros and cons of other schools.


Deferrals and Waitlist

If you are deferred from Stanford during the Restrictive Early Action cycle, please do keep in mind that deferral does not mean rejection. Your application will simply be reconsidered alongside those in the Regular Decision cycle. You may wish to update the admissions committee with any new information or consider retaking standardized tests in order to achieve higher scores.


If you are waitlisted, your chances of getting in are much lower. Only 3.6% of Class of 2020 applicants were waitlisted, and while Stanford does not release statistics on the number of students accepted off the waitlist each year, you can expect that the number will be quite low. At this point, you should start considering other options. The admissions committee asks that you not send any additional materials if you are waitlisted. If you are accepted off the waitlist, it will be past the May 1st deadline.


To learn more about Stanford University and whether it is right for you, you can explore their website, schedule a campus tour and information session, or, if visiting isn’t an option, you can take the admissions office’s virtual tour. While the application process may seem intimidating to you, especially if you don’t come from an elite school system, it is important to remember that there are plenty of students on campus just like you. If you feel like Stanford is the best place to pursue your educational and career goals, we wish you the best of luck!


If you’re interested in attending Stanford University, CollegeVine is here to help. Check out our comprehensive guide on how to tackle the Stanford supplementary essays, as well as our posts comparing Stanford to other top schools in the Ivy League and outside of the Ivy League.


Curious about your chances of acceptance to Stanford? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

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Yusef Al-Jarani
Senior Blogger at
Short bio
Yusef is a Gates Cambridge and Harry S. Truman Scholar. He received his BA from the University of Chicago in Political Science with Honors, after which he spent a year in the UK studying for his MPhil in Development Studies at the University of Cambridge. He is currently pursuing his JD at Yale Law School.