“Congratulations. You have been admitted to Stanford University’s Class of 2025!”
I think every Stanford student will remember the moment they read those words for the rest of their lives. On April 7th, 2021, at around 3:30 pm, I assigned my younger sister the task of clicking the “status update” and reporting back to me, because no one else in my family could bear to do it. I remember curling myself up into a ball and squeezing my eyes shut. I remember the long, agonizing pause as the clock slowly turned to 4pm. And then, I remember the shrieking.
Not long after this, I remember receiving emails from Stanford inviting me to something called “Cardinal Quad,” sending me links to forms to fill out and imparting instructions and next steps. My inbox quickly became saturated with emails titled “Approaching Stanford,” emails that were so lengthy and dense that if they were a required reading, I would glance at the first few words and call it a day. I remember attempting to sort through the 34 “Quick Links” that were listed at the bottom of every email, and trying to differentiate between the many acronyms, such as COLLEGE and ITALIC, WAYS, ESF, and SLE (I still couldn’t tell you the difference between some of them). Most of all, I recall feeling like every incoming newsletter was a puzzle that required days — or weeks — to solve, and being lost, confused, and overwhelmed. As I scrambled to fill out forms, write essays, and make sense of the acronyms and course requirements, I felt as if this was the final exam that would determine if I was truly worthy of this institution.
When I was accepted to another university, my family and I received a singular email that offered congratulations and invited us to join one general “Welcome!” Zoom meeting. I joined the meeting, obtained the necessary information, and felt wanted at that university while simultaneously feeling on top of what I needed to know. Upon being accepted to Stanford, however, my inbox became deluged with Zoom links to dozens of welcome meetings. Overwhelmed by the array of choices and unable to keep track of all the options, I did not attend a single meeting. Ultimately, I walked away with less information about Stanford than I did about the other university. When presented with an overabundance of options, a common human response is to freeze, paralyzed by the array of choices. Sometimes, the way to help more is to do less.
The “Approaching Stanford” emails are messy and disorganized, lacking a “Table of Contents” and rambling on about many topics that could easily have been left out. If these emails were an RBA, I would give them a poor grade based purely on a lack of fundamental knowledge about writing; namely, the importance of conciseness, formatting, and structure. For example, the August 26, 2021 edition of the newsletter contains a paragraph that says:
“We have been getting a lot of questions about the placement exams and diagnostics for Chemistry, Math, Physics, and Language, so this is a good opportunity to remind you about them. First, you are not required to take them. For example, Stanford doesn’t have a general math requirement for all students. Classes in these departments are wonderful and engaging, but there are numerous ways to fill the Ways breadth requirements. However, for some courses, to take your first Stanford class in that subject, you do have to take the placement diagnostics or exams. These placements are needed to give you guidance as to which class you are best positioned to succeed in. So if you are considering any of those courses, we encourage you to take the placements as soon as possible.”
While the conversational tone has its merits, these 7 sentences could have been condensed into one: “Placement exams are only required if you plan to take a chemistry, math, physics, or language course.” These 7 sentences are hard to read, difficult to make sense of, and clog up the emails, covering up other important information.
Besides just being frustrating for incoming students, the complexity of these emails creates several other repercussions.
For much of its existence, Stanford’s student body has resembled what you’d expect of an elite educational institution: white, wealthy, and well-connected. Even though the demographics of its student body have shifted slightly over recent years, and Stanford has begun to vocalize its commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion more loudly, the transition to Stanford for a low-income student or a student from a historically marginalized group will inevitably still be more difficult than for those from more privileged groups. And while the obstacles that these emails present might not be difficult to navigate for an incoming student with parents or friends who attended Stanford, or a community with the resources to assist them through the process, it is the students without these resources who will struggle the most. And while most of us ultimately make it to the other side, these emails may have planted the question of “do I belong here?”, which will ring louder for some than others.
So Stanford, do better. Your d.school classes teach that the first step towards making something welcoming is accessibility. And the first step towards accessibility is simplification. Just like you showed us with your application questions, it is harder to write in fewer words than more. True intellect is not measured by how many fancy words and acronyms you can throw in, it is measured by how efficiently you can communicate an idea.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful; I am extremely appreciative of the effort that this university is making to provide us with opportunities and knowledge. I simply hope that by improving the “Approaching Stanford” emails and making them more concise and organized, we can make these opportunities and knowledge even more accessible.
Julia Segal, Class of ’25, plans to major in Design with a minor in Music. She is also a singer/songwriter, producer with the Stanford Concert Network, a member of Stanford Women in Design, and an executive board member of JSA. She is passionate about creating meaningful change through music, social entrepreneurship, and graphic design.