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How To Get Your Kids Into Stanford University - Guest Comment

Jason Ma


22 December 2011

A recent survey from Barclays Wealth showed that the top priority of high net worth Asian clients is their children’s education. A dearth of top tier universities in the East means that many Asian families are looking West to the elite US schools. However, fierce competition at Ivy League schools, many of which accept just 7 students for every 100 applications, means academia alone is not enough. Increasingly families are turning to education counsellors to advise them on the application process which combines essay writing, leadership qualities, public speaking and extracurricular activities, among other things - to stand a good chance at entry.

Jason Ma provides such a service through his company ThreeEQ. As well as the parents and kids themselves, he increasingly advises private bankers and family offices, who filter down the advice to their clients. Here, he tells WealthBriefingAsia exclusively what it takes to make the grade at the world’s top universities. 

In the US, college applications for fall 2012 freshmen admission is approaching the latter phase of completion. Last season, the freshman admit rate at Stanford dropped to an all-time low of 7.1 per cent, the third lowest admit rate among all US universities. Ivy League schools Harvard and Columbia had even lower admit rates of 6.2 per cent and 6.9 per cent, respectively.

Next year’s college application season will likely set another low watermark in admit rates, largely because more applicants, including international students, will come their way while the number of matriculants will stay steady (partly because of housing constraints).

The problem is that from the perspective of an elite school, booksmart high achievers with lots of extracurricular activities are a dime a dozen. So, just what does it take to get admitted?

I have counselled many students who have been admitted to the Ivy League institutions (i.e. Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, UPenn, Brown, Cornell, and Dartmouth), Stanford, MIT, Caltech, UChicago, Northwestern, Duke, Johns Hopkins, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and other top-ranked universities and liberal arts colleges, including Williams, Claremont McKenna, and Pomona).

There is a consistent pattern among my former students who now attend Stanford or an Ivy League school. They exhibit sound study habits, including good time management skills, and have gone deep within and built up sustained, genuine causes or interests (some would call these "passions") through the bulk of their high school years. They have learned to express themselves effectively and write cogent college application essays.

I have observed that the job of an elite school admission committee is typically to build a well-rounded, diverse class of people, which aids in retaining top professors, fostering inter-student teaching and inspiration, providing a platform to educate future leaders, and maintaining the school's strong reputation. It's not easy.

In addition to the personal statement long and short essays required in the Common Application, the Stanford application also requires three Stanford Supplement short essays. International applicants also need to submit the International Supplement.

Stanford's intellectual vitality essays is one of the most notoriously difficult essays to write. No doubt the admission officers use this essay to quickly toss out most applicants. The student’s writing needs to project critical thinking at a sophistication level that satisfies the jaded minds of an elite school in an environment of great ideas from its own celebrated faculty as well as from highly successful chief executives, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists.

One successful student of mine, Chris, wrote about his leadership experience at a philanthropic summer camp in the deserts of the impoverished Gansu Province in China. This summer experience has led him to rethink ways in which he can contribute in the socioeconomically and geopolitically complex while technologically refreshing alternative energy sector of the global green movement.

Chris' other two Stanford Supplement essays, a quirky and sincere note to his make-believe, future roommate and the "why Stanford" essay, reflect a likable and congruent character. His overall application portrayed a genuinely interesting, thoughtful, highly engaged, and eager student who will make a difference at Stanford and in the world beyond. Such an ability to communicate can’t be conjured up quickly during the senior year. Learning to speak and write effectively is a slow process.

These days, applying to ten schools by a high-achieving high school senior is fairly common. This means the kids end up writing dozens of essays. "It's so stressful" are words I hear often from college applicants, as they also attack a heavy senior year course load, purposeful activities, and if still not done, the SAT or SAT Subject Tests.

To produce quality writing that stands out from the crowd, a student must have life experiences upon which he or she has done deep reflection, plus emotional maturity, and lots of practice communicating orally and in writing with thoughtful adults about their values, passions, and goals.