Hi! If you’re here because of this tweet, welcome!
Feel free to read more about me in the About page but a brief intro:
I’m a senior at Stanford University majoring in CS in the AI track. I’m also a transfer student (transferred from a Cañada Community College). I’m Latinx, first-gen, and nontraditional (over 25) and a mom to three girls.
To start off PLEASE APPLY. I’ll let you in on a little secret: Every single one of us thought we wouldn’t get in because our year the acceptance rate was <2%. Pero aqui estoy!
To share information as much as possible I will list Q&A from DM’s resulting from the tweet above. While I wish everyone well, I am concentrating my efforts in increasing the number of Latinx, Black, Native American, first-gen / low income community college transfers. I respectfully ask that you not DM me on the process for grad school or frosh app (no idea). Follow me @susanabenavidez and DM me your questions.
Let’s begin! I will share the questions I’ve received and answers I provide. Please note that my answers do not in any way represent Stanford nor are legal advice nor are to be taken as official instructions of any kind. Names are removed and questions are edited for clarity.
Q. How do I event start the application process?
A. Here’s a checklist from Stanford detailing exactly what you need to submit for your application.
Q. Can I afford it?
A. I can’t answer this question for you but I can share that Stanford has been incredibly generous with me and many of the transfer students that I know. I got into UC Berkeley – you can read about that here and the financial package I got meant I had to pay several thousands of dollars even though I qualified for financial aid with a low family contribution. When I got into Stanford – you can read about that moment here I didn’t respond. It wasn’t until the transfer director contacted me to see what was going on. I told her I was waiting on financial aid because I couldn’t commit without knowing what I would owe. She checked and I got my FA letter almost immediately.
I almost screamed when I saw the generous $$$ scholarship they awarded me. It was like they made it so I couldn’t say no. My youngest was 4 months old when I started and they even provided me with a daycare stipend. It obviously doesn’t cover all of my expenses as I have a big family but it covers enough to give me peace of mind.
See here for official information from Stanford about cost / aid estimates.
Q. Do they accept transfer students out of California?
A. Yes! My transfer class had students from all over the US and an international student from Singapore.
Q. Hi Susana – I’m considering CS at Stanford!. I’m already a self-taught developer but I want to go back to school. My biggest obstacle is that I’m undocumented and low income. I’m not sure where I can find resource for my specific case. Any tips, would be much appreciated. 🙂
A. I emailed financial aid and will report back what they say (didn’t give any identifying information)
“Hi Susana, Stanford treats undocumented students as US domestic students in the undergraduate admission process, assessing their applications under the same need-blind admission policy it uses for citizens of the United States. Stanford will use institutional funds to meet the full demonstrated financial need of undocumented students who are admitted. Please share our Undocumented Student webpage with your friend and let him know that he is welcome to call our office if he has any concerns.
Our number is 650-723-3058.
Financial Aid Officer Montag Hall, 355 Galvez Street Stanford, CA 94305-6106 | T 650.723.3058”
Here is the link to the Undocumented Student webpage: financialaid.stanford.edu/undergrad/how/
Q. I received several questions that asked for general advice. I mean many of us are first-gen students and didn’t receive the guidance on how to apply to schools or that Stanford even takes transfers.
“I’m a second year (first born and gen) student at —- college and I wasn’t planning on transferring anywhere until 2021 as a —— student. I honestly never considered Stanford until I came across your tweet! I need all the orientation I could get so I was wondering if you had some pointers that I could work on for during this next year! Thank you sm.”
A. What I did:
Start cultivating who is going to write your recommendation letters. They should be from people who know you well and who will write incredible recommendations. Take a look at the application on the common app to start thinking of the essay prompts and more importantly the personal statement. My recommendation letters were from my poliSci professor and lead of the College for Working Adults program at Cañada College. The other was from a senior partner at the law firm I worked at. He is well-known in Silicon Valley so it showed Stanford that I could impress impressive people.
SHOW who you are:
You have the opportunity to show who you are through what involvements you take on at school re: leadership, what classes you take, and opportunities to get to know mentors to write your recommendation letters. Stanford seems to like resilience, making bold decisions in terms of goals, and growth mindset. They look for growth. So it’s not just volunteer etc, it’s how are you looking to bring your skills towards a worldview. We all have incredible stories as I’m sure you do as well so it’s like that’s not enough. We all ‘failed’ in the sense that we didn’t go straight to a 4 year and how you take that failure and turn it into motivation will speak a lot.
This resource is for ‘low-income and otherwise educationally disadvantaged community college students throughout California’. You can apply to the Transfer Alliance Program via your community college counseling office. It connects you with a counselor affiliated with UCB and they offer counseling and workshops that help with your application essays and extracurriculars. That was incredibly helpful to me when applying to Stanford.
JOURNAL Your Accomplishments:
I kept notes of everything I was involved in and did outside of academic school work:
- Approach professors to take their honors course – some offer a contract you sign and you just have to do extra work and a research paper – apply to symposiums at Berkeley and Stanford to present your research – your counselor should have this info
- I was a single mom so I added everything I do as a parent on top of working full time and going to school
- I volunteered at startup orgs showing that my interest in entrepreneurship was tangible
- I started a social media group for parents that grew into a building a new school effort, served as advertising for the Chamber of Commerce to attract families, and resulted in networking that got me my first business development job
- I worked up the ladder in business development and highlighted my leadership position at a prestigious firm
- I had community organizing experience, freelance writing, and showed how much I grew and survived while thriving. It’s hard to remember everything if you don’t take notes in a journal.
Your accomplishments don’t have to look like mine. The transfer class for my year was incredibly diverse and ran the gamut of life experiences. That’s the point. Stanford wants to attract a diverse community of students.
Q. How did you structure your personal statement?
A. My personal statement told a story that went something like this:
- who I was + where I started
- the trauma / struggles that defined my early ‘failure’
- how I took that failure and let it motivate my next moves
- my commitment to higher education + equality of education (my focus is edtech / CS + Social Good)
- highlighted the turn from where I was to what I did to accomplish -> highlighted the biggest and most impressive accomplishments
- how I would leverage my time at Stanford to reach my goals (for me, a startup in edtech / social good space)
That’s sort of the short story of how I approached my personal statement. I would share it except that my essay was deeply personable, emotionally raw, and describes trauma / abuse that I don’t want to share here quite yet.
But the higher level approach I took was – what do I have that others don’t? Why am I impressive? I took the little that life gave me as a start and turned it into mother effin magic.
Let me illustrate my point via a couple of pictures:
Highlight the Upward Trend of your Life that demonstrates sustained growth.
How do you respond to ‘failure’? I’ve had many challenges in my life. ‘Failure’ is hard, really hard. Most people give up, settle, crumble under failure. Others take that failure, learn from it, pivot and take off to their potential. Be the latter.
In other words, I wasn’t the ‘perfect’ candidate given the early ‘failures’ in my life. But I definitely demonstrated resilience and the ability to not run away from my problems or the shame that comes with them. I owned what happened to me as well as the decisions I made. I spoke about the motivations in my life for a better life and Not Giving Up (for me my little girls). And I showed what a badass I am by letting them see the growth from where I started and what I accomplished with the little I had.
Q. Did you do any research as a community college student?
A. Yes! I researched ‘Implementing CS curriculum at the K-12 level’, my advisor was the counselor of a program I was in at the community college. It was a policy paper and I applied to study CS. I could only go to school evenings and weekends because I worked full time M-F so the honors classes weren’t a choice for me as they were offered during the day. I approached the professor during a political science class I took with her and asked her if I could take it as an honors and she said I would have some additional homework and a 10 page research paper. She encouraged me and sponsored me to apply with it to the research symposium that Stanford was hosting for community college students. It’s an excellent opportunity as once you get into Stanford you can get into a research lab and show that you’ve done research before.
Now at Stanford I presented an AI paper ‘Detecting Hate Speech on Twitter’ at the Latinx in AI workshop at NeuirIPS December 2019 in Vancouver. That would not have happened if I didn’t have the practice of doing research, writing the paper, and applying for submissions. I applied for a conference grant and Stanford paid for half of my travel and lodging expenses.
Side note, I tried to take as many of my classes as Honors. Stanford will see if this is offered at your school so if it is – enroll!
Q. SAT / ACT scores – Are they required?
I emailed admissions asking for average + median GPAs and SAT scores and will update when they respond – But don’t compare yourself to other – if you have a strong case, why not apply?
[UPDATE] Unfortunately it was a bit of a generic and underwhelming reply but here is Stanford Admissions response (Stanford response in bolded blue):
My Personal Take
This one is a tough one. I had to retake the SATs since it had been so long since I took them in HS. My score increased significantly so that was awesome but taking the SATs with teenagers when I’m in my 30s – not so fun. 🙂
I know of two transfers that didn’t take any exams. One of them is a novelist of several YA books, I’m not familiar with the exception circumstances of the other transfer student but she is a bad ass veteran. So it may be that they were both so impressive that Stanford wanted them anyway.
That’s a big gamble so my recommendation is that if you can take them – take them!
Q. What is campus life like?
A. I feel like you have to ask someone else on what it’s like as a 20 yo but from my very unique experience:
The first year was tough. It can feel incredibly isolating when you are a nontraditional student and don’t feel like you belong. I joined and took on leadership positions at Women in CS and Society of Latinx Engineers. This helped somewhat. I also took several creative writing courses and that was a great way to meet friends as the classes are tiny (~8 students v. the hundreds in my CS classes).
Eventually I worked through the belief and voice that told me I didn’t belong and worked on carving out spaces for me on campus.
Last year and this year have been incredible socially. I feel like I have friends wherever I go and I very much feel like Stanford is home.
I have done so much while on campus, the opportunities are incredible:
- Did the Levinthal Tutorial, a 1:1 class with a Stegner Fellow and read one of my short stories to a large audience. I’ve never shared outside of small workshopping.
- Was a Seeds of Change cohort leader where I went through Stanford’s Women’s Executive Leadership program and taught similar concepts to high school girls interested in STEM
- Member of CS + Social Good where I took the incredible CS51/52 two quarter course where we ideated, prototyped, and then built a product as a solution posed by an edTech partner
- Summer CS + Social Good Fellow where I interned at a tiny but powerful edTech startup. I grew so much as an engineer – I had to – I was the 2nd engineer on staff!
- WiCS and SOLE: Met so many companies that I recruited to come speak to our members, including some very cool CEOs that I really admire
- Moderated an event with Ellen Pao A Conversation with Ellen K. Pao, tech investor and advocate, the former CEO of reddit, and a cofounder of the award-winning diversity and inclusion nonprofit Project Include
- Took the novel writing class and have a draft (very rough) of my first novel!
- Presented my research at the Latinx in AI workshop at NeurIPS last month in Vancouver
- Forged incredible relationships with CS professors that I deeply admire
- Met my co-founder!
- Interned at Y Combinator and Thunkable, a YC Company
- El Centro for Friday Cafecito (Mexican sweet bread + hot chocolate / sometimes atole or champurrado YUM!)
I know I’m forgetting a lot. But you get the point, if you leverage the resources there is so much to do!