This is the age-old question that I ask myself and constantly gets asked of me. I would like to believe that it was my strategic foresight, research and leadership experiences, and all of my ambition. And while that may be part of the story–a large part–it it still far from complete. When I originally wrote this post, I started by listing all of my accomplishments, things I had done, started, and won. The ways I had forged this path ahead of myself on my own. Upon reflection, I think it could be more useful to emphasize a different perspective; a maxim I learned from my improv class, “Dare to be Average.”
Disclaimer: this post is not a short-cut substitute, or alternative for hard work. It does not contain mystical wisdom about the admissions process or the formula for the perfect introductory email. These are my compiled mistakes, blunders, and near-regrets that also contributed to me getting where I am today–a Ph.D. Candidate at Stanford University in Mechanical Engineering. I won’t, however, make you wait too long for the answer to the post title’s question. I got into Stanford…I think because of my persistence. In other words, I got into Stanford, honestly, because of other people.
Okay, now it’s your turn in the hot seat:
- Why do you want to go to Stanford (or a comparable school)?
- Are you willing to put in the effort it takes to get in–and more importantly–to stay?
- What aspects of the surrounding area or school appeal to you? Could you find those qualities somewhere else?
- Finally, is there anything that would stop you from attending? Finances? Fitting in? Impostor Syndrome?
Be honest with yourself, it’s the most important thing you can do when picking an institution. I wanted to come to Stanford, despite all the “odds” stacked against me:
- I’d done research and internships in vastly different fields unrelated to my ultimate career interests
- I was not in the honors program in undergrad
- Did not have a distinction to graduate with, because I did not have a 4.0 GPA (and wasn’t that close to one either)
- Had never TA’d an engineering course because I’d never received an “A-” or better in engineering courses
- I didn’t win any fellowship that I applied for my first year and my financial plan to pay for school consisted of personal savings, loans, or donating blood while working on campus part-time.
- I didn’t have anyone in my family guide me through the process of applying
- Didn’t play any sports
- I had no connections with professors in schools I wanted to attend
I could go on and on about things that could have disqualified me, or made me think it would be near impossible for me to get in. What I had to convey to the application committee and to myself, was that I knew where I belonged and had hordes of people that believed in me. Even parents that were willing to empty their retirement savings to get me to my dream school. What doesn’t show up in my honors/awards section is that I am fiercely determined to get what I deserve and honor the people in my life. Graduate schools want to see that you will succeed. And with so many shoulders that I am standing on to be here, who could look down on me to tell me otherwise?
Golden Nugget of Wisdom: Realize that there is no formula for who gets in and who doesn’t. The only expression that works for Admissions is (Not Applying) + (Not Giving Yourself the Chance) * (Self-Sabotage) = Automatic Rejection. Look, I don’t have all of the answers. My story may be completely different from your own. If nothing else, you can at least see, that my admission was not solely a decision based on my grades and accolades. Figure out what else you bring to the table. Why would an elite program want you? What do you add to the student body that would be missing without your presence? Once you can answer that question, you’ll realize you didn’t need me after all…