I attended SU from 1988-92 as an undergraduate. I hope and assume that there have been major improvements over the past decade(and I anticipate more to come thanks to the generous grant from the Packard Foundation specifically targeted for undergraduate education). However, based on my experience, I have forbidden my children from even thinking about applying to Stanford, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it over any of the quality, small, undergraduate focused, liberal arts institutions that exist in this country (notably the schools that form the Consortium of Liberal Arts Colleges.) I would recommend that if one is superficial enough to be stuck on getting the prestigious (to some) Stanford label, the smarter way to do it would be to begin your academic career at one of the small, interesting colleges, and then transfer as a junior (or better yet, as a grad student) AFTER you've benefitted from the attention, feedback and nurturing of a school that is focused on giving its undergraduates a quality education. There is no 18 year old who wouldn't benefit from the intimacy and engagement of a college devoted to teaching the undergraduate and OPENING his/her mind. Stanford is more suitable for the student who is naive enough to think that they know who they are (or even presume that they SHOULD know themselves at the ripe old age of 18) and who aren't focused on the love of learning but more interested in the love of elitism, narrow mindedness and self congratulation. (For further discussion, I direct you to the books of Loren Pope: "Looking Beyond the Ivy League" and "Colleges That Change Lives".) At 18 life should be about expansion NOT contraction.
Personal details? Well, I was REALLY looking forward to college. I anticipated gatherings with my fellow students and professors, discussing philosophy and politics and art over wine and cheese. Instead, I moved into the dorm (at that time there was an acute housing shortage, so there was a habit of cramming two freshman into a single. Fortunately, I liked my roommate, but can I get a refund?) and discovered the social scene to be the most pathetic junior high school soap opera imaginable. I was in utter shock to witness the obsession with who was dating what football player and who was getting in whose pants. Had I been transported to 1950? I began my search for my 'peeps'. Sadly, I never quite found them. I made better friends at my job at Stanford Shopping Center.
As an undecided major, I found my academic 'counselor' utterly useless. He basically just checked to make sure I wasn't on academic probation, but never so much as suggested a course. Essentially I was on my own to drift around until I managed to find the smallest department that I could (Urban Studies, not yet an offical major) so that I wasn't so totally overwhelmed. Essentially, it was me and the course catalog to figure out my direction through college. (At the time, there wasn't even a core curriculum.) I'm not saying there were no good teachers or classes, I am sure they existed, but for premium education dollar, I think a minimum amount of guidance would have been in order. I did manage to get a degree, but I basically felt as though I was abandoned after my acceptance letter. I was placed on a life raft in the middle of the Pacific and expected to navigate my way without a compass or even any idea which continent I should head for. I didn't know what to do, so I let the current carry me. I suppose the 'sink or swim' approach is acceptable to some, however, when I paid for my kids to get swimming lessons, I avoided those whose philosophy was to throw the baby in the pool and wait to see if he/she would swim to the surface. In the end, I did get a degree, but it would have been really nice to have some assistance from SOME professional. I am ashamed by how little I learned. There actually ARE schools who share in the responsibility to insure that a graduate of their institution has actually been intellectually challenged and at least develops the skills to cultivate curiosity and nourish their mind, body and spirit.
Positive experiences? Well, after three years of misery, I somehow realized (Lord knows, no faculty suggested it!) that for the same tuition and no language requirement, I could go overseas... so I attended the Stanford Program in England. That was absolutely the highlight of my 4 years. It was fun to travel abroad. It was great to be near London. The "campus" (castle is more accurate) was refreshingly intimate and dramatically lovely. I enjoyed the courses and closer contact with my professors. (In my Shakespeare class, we actually were able to attend about 15 productions in London and Stratford. In my favorite class, "The English Country House" we spent the morning watching slides and studying/discussing social, political, architectural, musical, etc ... trends of a period, then we'd spend the afternoon visiting three or four estates.) Unfortunately, those were my final quarters at school. If I'd had that experience in my sophomore year, I would have started to take Italian so that I could go to the campus in Florence! In fact, there are MANY things I would have done in retrospect, but four years isn't much time for the trial and error method of self education. A mentor sure would have been helpful. I certainly hope that Stanford takes some of that 300K endowment and invests some of it in a system that provides more support and increased contact with members of the university community who can offer guidance and who really can encourage the growth of each individual student. After all, the primary goal of that stage of life (and ALL stages) is GROWTH: intellectual, personal, spiritual, emotional, creative.
In summary, unless you are a pro-bound athlete, I can't imagine any reason to attend Stanford (or any of the graduate, research focused universities) for your undergraduate education. (Graduate school is another discussion.) I have found NO value whatsoever in having a Stanford undergraduate degree in terms of better employment opportunities or salary. (Later, after years of frustration, I went to nursing school so that I would have a MARKETABLE degree.) The only people who are impressed when they find out I attended Stanford (I don't exactly broadcast it) are superficial, label conscious, judge a book by its cover types. (The people who need Rolex watches and drive Land Rovers for validation.) The statistics show that a B.A. is pretty much a B.A. They also show that small liberal arts colleges place their graduates in prestigious graduate schools at much higher percentages than schools like Stanford, or even the Ivies. (The admissions offices of the graduate departments at elite, selective institutions know which schools actually EDUCATE and best prepare students.)
Surely a school with resources like Stanford has a lot to offer, but what good is it all if you don't have a guide or a map to help you become aware of all the possibilities available, let alone ASSIST you in selecting which path is right for you? The truth is that there isn't anybody paying attention to help you figure it out. You might get lucky and accidentally find your niche, but why should you have to rely on chance? Doesn't it make more sense to go to a place where there are people who actually think it's their job to notice and offer guidance and to discuss the multiple options AND who actually know and care about individuals AND who are part of an institution that supports that instead of pressuring its faculty to 'publish or perish' at the expense of their pupils? (Teachers whose goal and purpose and passion is to TEACH!!! What a concept!)
Well, good luck to the college bound. I hope you have a richer experience that I did, and I think you have a better chance of having a rich experience if you avoid Stanford for your undergraduate education. I suspect that it is the same at most of the prestigious universities, including the Ivy League. I recently went to a recruiting event hosted jointly by Harvard, Duke, PENN and Georgetown. I asked them two questions: 1)How do you respond to the criticism that the graduate and research focused institutions neglect their undergraduates? 2)Acknowledging that the schools have great resources, what systems are in place to insure that students are aware of the opportunities that would be relevant to their needs AND to insure that nobody falls through the cracks? The non answer to my first question was a dismissive, "That's a myth!" The non answer to my second question was that 'a student SHOULD be able to find help if they need it'. Sorry, but I am not reassured. What's wrong with a system that is personal enough to actually observe when a student is absent from class, or where there is a periodic check in with a dorm supervisor (who is trained in counseling) or an advisor so that someone takes responsibility to explore potential and perhaps notice changes in mood or behavior? One might expect that someone would get lost in a big, anonymous, state school, but I can testify that it is the norm at pricey, elite universities as well. I am not surprised by the family that is currently suing MIT for their daughter's suicide. (There was a recent article in the "New York Times Magazine".) Perhaps the school was not negligent, but at least it will draw attention to the fact that, in spite of what one might assume, the reality IS: nobody's watching. They are too busy pursuing their research, which their institutions not only encourage, but insist upon. For $35K/year SOMEBODY should be watching. Why support the notion that if you are smart enough to get in, you should be smart enough to figure out how to maneuver your way out? Why pay all that money for what is, essentially, an independent study program? Why have to keep your fingers crossed in the HOPE that you'll stumble across someone who takes a sincere interest? "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."