Rick Shaw, Stanford University, Answers Five Questions


Rick Shaw, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Stanford University, answers five questions for us this month as everyone heads to campus.

Stanford University was founded in 1891 by Jane and Leland Stanford in memory of their only child who died of typhoid fever. The 8,180-acre campus, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, was originally the Stanford family's Palo Alto Stock Farm, used for the breeding and training of trotting horses and thoroughbreds. It is still affectionately called "The Farm." 

Today, the university's grounds include 800 different species of plants, 25 fountains, the 285-foot Hoover Tower that dominates its skyline, and an extensive collection of outdoor art -- Rodin's The Gates of Hell, the Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden, Andy Goldsworthy's Stone River, as well as works by Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Bruce Beasley, Maya Lin and more.

And of course there's an app for that -- a walking tour podcast of the campus, including its buildings, gardens and art, is available at Stanford on iTunes U. Because Stanford is situated just about smack dab in the middle of Silicon Valley -- about 35 miles south of San Francisco and 20 miles north of San Jose, California. Its alumni and faculty have created a host of Valley companies, including Hewlett-Packard, Google, LinkedIn, Netflix, Yahoo and Cisco Systems.

Home to about 6,900 undergraduates, the private research university boasts a 5.9 to 1 student-faculty ratio. Since Stanford's founding, 27 of its faculty have been awarded the Nobel Prize. Notable alumni include businessman Charles Schwab, inventor Ray Dolby, novelists Michael Cunningham and Scott Turow, four Supreme Court Justices -- Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, and William Rehnquist -- and the first woman in space, Sally Ride.

Stanford fields 35 varsity sports and 26 club sports and the Cardinals have won 117 national championships and 103 NCAA championships. Stanford athletes have won medals in every Olympic Games since 1912. For the last 18 years, Stanford has been awarded the Directors’ Cup, which honors the most successful collegiate athletic program in NCAA Division I.

Rick Shaw joined the Stanford Office of Undergraduate Admission from Yale University, succeeding Robin Mamlet, co-author of College Admission: From Application to Acceptance Step by Step. Why feature the Stanford dean when one of us was dean there fairly recently?  To make a point.  Admission offices change quickly, as do admission policies. No one who "used to work" anywhere can speak for that institution. Always go to the current source.  

So please join Rick Shaw here to learn more about Stanford admission, his favorite thing about "The Farm," and what's on his mind lately:


What kind of student does well at Stanford? How would you describe the student body?  What would you most want an applicant to the school to know?  


Stanford was founded on the principle that the University is open and accessible to all students interested in pursuing higher education. We review candidates from every conceivable background, and the common denominator is that each has aspired to be successful academically, intellectually and in the pursuit of activities they are passionate about. There is no profile of the right student for Stanford. We thoroughly and respectfully consider each candidate’s unique background, accomplishments and personal qualities. We value students who demonstrate intellectual vitality and who radiate a passion for learning and inquiry. Stanford students cannot be typecast because they bring such a broad array of talents and perspectives. Ultimately, we seek students who will be deeply engaged in all of the possibilities of a Stanford education with the intention to benefit from and contribute to the vibrancy of this place and our greater society.


How do you read applications? Does every application get read by the admission office at Stanford?


We review every application to Stanford. Our approach is holistic in that we consider quantitative, qualitative and contextual information. Our review includes the academic record within the high school context and SAT or ACT Plus Writing test scores. These are foundational measures that act as a springboard to a comprehensive review of three teacher and guidance counselor evaluation letters in addition to the student’s own voice in the application essays. Our admission officers are regional experts and understand the living and learning contexts of individual high schools.


We welcome students who present focused interest in a major field of study as well as students open to a range of academic possibilities. Stanford’s academic philosophy is one of exploration, academic freedom and interdisciplinary study. Stanford offers a world class liberal arts education and a commitment to preparing students to be part of the educated community of the world.


What is your favorite thing about Stanford?


Convocation, held every September in the Stanford Quadrangle, is my favorite event. What I enjoy most is the energy our students bring to their first day on The Farm, and the hopes they cherish for the years they will spend here. I believe Stanford is a place where dreams come true, and they begin on that day.


Stanford now admits just 6.6% of first-year applicants. What is it like to say 'no' so much of the time?


It is never easy to say no. The most difficult part of our work is having to decline so many applications and disappoint so many outstanding young people. Stanford attracts the best applicants in the world. The vast majority are eligible and competitive.  We want each applicant to know that our decision is not an absolute judgment about his or her individual accomplishments or potential. The truth is that our applicants will invariably be highly competitive, and I surmise, successful in finding an excellent opportunity for their higher education even if Stanford is not in the final tally. The reality is a matter of supply and demand—there are many, many more applicants to Stanford than spaces to offer. Our hope is that each student identifies a number of colleges or universities where she or he can be happy and thrive. Given the amazing options, I have every reason to believe all our candidates will have excellent choices for their higher education.


What are the college admission-related issues that you have been thinking about lately? What keeps you up at night?


I am worried about the stress that surrounds the transition from high school to college.  More specifically, I am perplexed by the billion-dollar for-profit consulting industry that has grown up around the objective of “getting in.” We have created an environment that is less about the positive and nurturing development of adolescents and more about winning a preconceived prized space in a Dream College. The idea that there is a hierarchy among institutions of higher learning is aggressively promoted by the media, and this detracts from the notion that there are many positive options for students to pursue. 


I also worry about access and opportunity for the many more forgotten or dispossessed young people who do not have privilege, opportunity and most importantly, encouragement and empowerment to pursue their education. A fantastic education for our children should be the number one priority for our leaders and among the highest budgetary imperatives. I fear for both our K-12 public school system and our public universities as they struggle to provide a quality education and to prepare our citizens to compete in the global economy.








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