It’s a story West Windsor-Plainsboro high school students have told each other for almost a decade: Stanford University, now the nation’s most selective college, has blacklisted WW-P applicants, only a handful of whom have been admitted in the past 12 years.
But a Knightly News investigation suggests that the long-standing rumor is nothing more than an urban legend.
Thirteen years of admissions statistics do not indicate that Stanford summarily rejects WW-P applicants, and the North alumnus widely believed to have provoked Stanford into placing the district on a secret blacklist claims the rumor was already circulating long before he applied to college.
Colleen Lim, Associate Dean and Director of Admission at Stanford, declined to comment on the university’s admissions policies. But WW-P Guidance Director Lee McDonald said the blacklist story is false.
“There is no truth to this rumor,” McDonald said, “nor do I believe any university, much less Stanford, would ‘blacklist’ any district or school at the expense of admitting the most qualified applicants.”
Others echoed McDonald’s sentiments. “Most colleges are looking at individual candidates,” said North’s head guidance counselor, Lee Riley, who had not heard the rumor before The Knightly News contacted him. “I can’t see that they’re holding a student’s school district against them.”
Robin Mamlet, a former dean of admissions at Stanford and the coauthor of an application guidebook, College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step, said she was “quite certain” that Stanford has never blacklisted a school district.
The story behind the rumored blacklist has evolved over the years, but in more than a dozen interviews with current and former WW-P students, several details remained fairly consistent. Some years ago, the students said, a North senior applied to both Stanford and Harvard through their single-choice early action programs—a clear breach of college admissions protocol, which permits students to apply early to only one single-choice program. According to the rumor, the senior got in to both schools and decided to attend Harvard.
“It now seems that because of this event, Stanford has a grudge against our guidance office, and therefore has placed HSN on a blacklist,” said Brian Rodriguez (’14), a freshman at Cornell. Other students said they thought the entire district had been blacklisted.
Stories about college admissions blacklists have taken hold in other districts, as well. Princeton High School senior Sinan Ozbay said he had heard that Brown University placed his school on a blacklist after a PHS senior reneged on an early-decision agreement. “The rumor mostly died down last year when a couple people were accepted,” he added.
It is difficult to determine what effect, if any, the blacklist story has on WW-P students’ college application choices. But Rodriguez—who applied to Harvard, Princeton, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, among other high-profile universities—said he did not apply to Stanford, partly because of the rumors about the blacklist. In 2011, North students Jim and Joe Rosa enrolled at Stanford on athletic scholarships, and last spring, a South student, Chaitanya Asawa, was admitted to Stanford from the regular decision pool.
Asawa said he knew about the rumored blacklist but had heard that a female South student was responsible. “The rumor did seem to be slightly disconcerting,” he said, “but I thought I still had some chances of getting in, so I went through with the app.”
Even if the alleged rules breach had occurred, Riley said he doesn’t think Stanford would have been able to discover it, let alone act upon it, because universities don’t communicate with each other about prospective undergraduates.
Several students said they had heard that North alumnus Peter Maa (’08) was the applicant whose spurning of Stanford resulted in the supposed blacklist. But in a phone interview, Maa said he had heard rumors about the blacklist before he applied to college. “People have been saying that for a while,” he said. “All this stuff, I think, is kind of like hocus-pocus.” Maa, who attended the University of Pennsylvania, said he applied early action to Stanford but was deferred and then rejected.
Maa said the rumor might have originated with a different student, who graduated from North in the mid-2000s. But the second student, who asked not to be identified, said Stanford deferred and then rejected him as well. He said he had heard that another North alumnus, John Fang (’03), was the applicant who broke the early-action rules and then turned Stanford down.
Fang, who attended Harvard, refused to comment for this article.
From 2002 to 2014, 358 WW-P students applied to Stanford; 18 were admitted, for an acceptance rate of 5.03 percent over a period when Stanford’s overall acceptance rate averaged 9.2 percent. The number of WW-P students accepted to Stanford has fluctuated from year to year, ranging from zero to four, with no significant drop-off to indicate a prejudicial admissions policy.
Over the same 13-year period, 529 WW-P students applied to Harvard, and 26 were admitted, for an acceptance rate of 4.91 percent. During that time, Harvard’s overall acceptance rate averaged 7.9 percent.
Princeton Review surveys indicate that Stanford has recently become the college of choice for ambitious high school seniors. It is located in the heart of Silicon Valley, the nation’s technology capital, and last year, it had the lowest undergraduate acceptance rate, 5.1 percent, in the country.
But according to Riley, high-achieving WW-P students are more likely to apply to Harvard, Princeton or Yale, simply because those universities are closer to home.
“The bar to getting into Stanford is just a little bit higher in the east coast, especially if you’re an Asian,” Maa added. “Stanford has enough Asians.”
Current Stanford freshman Asawa said the blacklist rumor shouldn’t discourage students from applying. “I hope more people in WW-P apply to Stanford and learn more about what a great place it is,” he said.
I am one of John Fang’s classmates who went to Stanford for grad school. John was (and is) an arrogant social-climbing blowhard full of himself. He did not break the rules, but he skated close to them. If I remember correctly, the story was that he applied to Stanford ED and Harvard EA (back then, Harvard EA was not single-choice EA). When he got his Harvard EA admission, he immediately withdrew his Stanford application, a day before they mailed out his decision. But he is not responsible for the “blacklist”. They were talking about it ever since HSN opened, and the rumor our year was that some idiot from HSS did it, and we were annoyed that admissions officers were conflating us with a different school (remember that before HSN, HSS was just WW-P HS).
After I went to college and worked in my school’s admission office, I am pretty convinced that a “blacklist” is nonsense for the following reasons:
1) There is very high turnover among admissions officers. Many stay less than two years. Any individual officer who bears a grudge is likely long gone.
2) Admissions officers cover many, many schools. The chance that any single particular incident about one school sticking out in an admissions officer’s memory for years on end is pretty remote.
3) Admissions officers do not make decisions alone. Usually, there’s a committee of at least 3 who vote on decisions. No one officer can force it through, and vetoes are very sparingly used for much more important things (like drug arrests.)
4) There was categorically no blacklist in my school’s admissions office, formal or informal, period.
5) I went to an east coast school for undergrad, and Stanford for graduate school. My undergrad was overrepresented by east coasters. And Stanford was overrepresented by.. west coasters!