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They'll Try Anything

It's tough to get into Stanford. Eager to stand out from the crowd, applicants have sent cookies, tie-dyed boxer shorts, life preservers and even an oil painting of the admission staff. Just one problem: the publicity stunts don't work.

By Jesse Oxfeld

For most of his life, he's also been a kid with a dream. "Since the seventh grade," he says, "I've been working toward Stanford."

With such a rosy résumé, you'd think he'd be well on his way. But the odds of admission these days are stacked against even apparent shoo-ins. Last year, a record number -- 18,888 -- applied for the 1,600 spots in the class of 2002. Just 13 percent got in. It was Stanford's lowest "admit rate" ever. Only Harvard and Princeton had more formidable odds.

Last fall, along with thousands of other eager applicants, MacNiven was getting ready to apply under the University's early admission program. On a night in late October, after what he calls "one of those long days of application-working," he sat down at the piano to unwind. While at the keyboard, he hatched a plan: he'd mount a political-style campaign for the position of Stanford student.

He turned in his application in time for the November 1 deadline. Eight days later, he hit the hustings with a press conference in front of Bowman Alumni House. That day, and for the rest of the week, Tyler and his volunteer staff of friends and family headed to campus after school, donned sandwich boards and passed out "Tyler MacNiven for Stanford Student" leaflets. He painted his Caddie cardinal red and put a small tree on its roof. His supporters staked out stoplights at major campus entrances and passed out fliers. At the weekend, when the Cardinal took on Washington State on a balmy Saturday afternoon at Stanford Stadium, a small plane flew overhead pulling a MacNiven-for-Student banner. All told, he spent about $500 on his effort, not including the airplane (donated by a friend of his father, Jamis MacNiven, owner of Buck's, the power-breakfast spot on Woodside Road).

On December 15, Tyler MacNiven learned Stanford had rejected him.

It had to hurt. But perhaps he shouldn't have been too surprised. If you ask anyone who knows, they'll tell you that when the shtick hits the fan, it makes little difference in an admission decision. Indeed, while stunts are common -- though few are as elaborate as MacNiven's -- they have no effect, or so admission officials insist. "It is definitely a myth that a gimmick can make a difference in the final decision," writes Jean Fetter, admission dean from 1986 to 1991, in her book Questions and Admissions.

In fact, it can backfire. "It's been understood by the applicants that [gimmicks] can be seen as obnoxious," says Jim Montoya, admission dean from 1991 to 1997 and now vice provost for student affairs. One admission staffer groans when asked to discuss application stunts. "Any story about them encourages them," she says. "And we hate that."

But in a love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin sort of way, that aversion applies only to the applicant's gambits, not to the applicant himself. "That's where the professionalism comes in," says Jon Reider, '67, PhD '83, senior associate director of admission. Just as application readers can separate their own political views from an essay they might disagree with, they can separate a would-be freshman's folder from an irritating gimmick. "We evaluate every application on exactly the same materials," Reider explains. "Tuning out this element is no different from tuning out other things."

Maybe so, but even Fetter admits these futile ploys are memorable. "Here I am, telling you they're irrelevant," Fetter says, "but clearly they do make an impression." Based on interviews with current and former admission officials, application antics can be divided into four major categories.

HARMLESS SUCK-UPS: Quite a few hopefuls send what Montoya refers to as "little trinkets." Many are edible: cookies, brownies, cakes, popcorn and candies. Mindful of their commitment to impartiality, admission staffers "feel very guilty eating the cookies and candy," writes Fetter. They eat nonetheless. Admission officers also receive books, poems and stuffed animals. One applicant did an oil painting of the staff, rendered from mug shots in the brochures. Another student spent his summers working in a chocolate factory. He made a chocolate "S" and sent it in. "It was very good chocolate," notes Reider.

FEATS OF ENDURANCE: A few students seem to think that the grandiose gesture will impress the admission staff. One student jetted in from Denmark to hand-deliver his paperwork. ("What's the point?" asks Reider. "Just put it in FedEx.") Another flew in his application himself, in a private plane. A few years ago, a high school student from Los Angeles biked up the Pacific Coast Highway to deliver his forms. The essay question that year asked applicants to attach a meaningful picture and write about it. The young man produced a snapshot of himself with his bike and wrote about the trip. His photo-op delivery to Montoya made the front page of the Daily. He was rejected.

AMUSING APPEALS: If any gambit will have a positive effect on the admission office, witty efforts are the most likely to charm. They tend to take the form of puns. One young man sent a sneaker, and one young woman a high-heeled shoe -- so they could at least have "a foot in the door." Two others sent tie-dyed boxer shorts, because they were "dying to go to Stanford." One especially memorable tchotchke: the glove with a string tied around a finger. "Don't forget about me," said the attached note. Another applicant had heard of Stanford's practice of sorting applications into admit, deny and "swim" piles. She sent a life preserver, hoping it would get her "to the admit shore." One problem: it was labeled "USS Sanford."

Then there are the videotapes. Most home movies are ignored. ("We distribute them among the staff; then we don't have to buy blank tapes," says John Bunnell, former director of undergraduate admission.) One that did get a screening made quite an impression. A wait-listed New Englander made a professional-quality tape that focused on how his family -- clad entirely in Stanford apparel-was excited that he hadn't been rejected. "Now you won't have to work for Frito-Lay!" Mom happily exclaimed. After seeing the tape, Bunnell says, "we all wanted this guy to get in." But no one from the wait list was admitted that year. The kid's probably not making potato chips, though. He ended up at Harvard.

TOO CLEVER BY HALF: Sometimes bright ideas go too far. In answer to the question, "What adjective best describes you?" one student wrote the essay in reverse letters and provided a mirror. "If you hit that one at 11 at night," Fetter says, "you're not going to be too sympathetic." Another student, writing about a meaningful photograph, supplied a picture of himself in front of the Parthenon, as if posing for a classical Greek sculpture -- sans tunic. Indeed, Bunnell has detected an inverse relationship between the gaudiness of the gimmick and the likelihood of acceptance: "Never does them much good."

Tyler MacNiven knew that risk. The question was whether his campaign would be seen as an amusing appeal or one that was too clever by half. "I was a little worried," he says. But he's still pleased he went ahead with it. If he hadn't, he'd always wonder if it might have helped. "I'd regret it now."

MacNiven hasn't given up on Stanford. He hopes to transfer in as a sophomore. Unless, that is, he finds himself completely satisfied at his new top choice: the University of California at Berkeley.


Jesse Oxfeld,'98, a frequent contributor to Stanford, is an intern at Newsweek. He lives in New York City.

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