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Three questions to keep asking

A letter to prospective students

What you have most in common with your fellow admitted students you also share with most of this year’s forty-two thousand applicants: You are generally competent and ambitious, and you filled out the application. That’s probably it.

The only important thing that separates you from the other applicants is where you will likely spend your next four years. Should you decide to attend Stanford, you will be thrown into an environment where privileges and opportunities will be heaped upon you, whether or not you can take advantage of them. You will be steeped in an atmosphere of disparate goals, ideas and values. You can do whatever you want, and no one will provide you with any substantive guidance unless you seek it out.

Perhaps, though, there is guidance to be found in part of that application you filled out to get here — in those three supplemental essays, 250 words or fewer. You had to stop for a moment and ask three questions of yourself. You of course know the prompts, so let me rephrase them.  First, what motivates you to learn? Second, what drives you to action? Third, who are you?

For the outsize importance of those essays in the application, Stanford will never again make you ask the three questions of yourself after you step on campus. In fact, the workings of the university often will disincentivize you from asking them.

But you should ask them. You just have to do it yourself.

1. What motivates you to learn?

“Reflect on an idea or experience that makes you genuinely excited about learning.”

With an overabundance of classes to take at Stanford, it will be exceedingly easy for you to become unreflective in class choice. Criteria like “What am I interested in?” or “What is useful?” will underdetermine your choices. Many classes are useful. Most are interesting. I took nine math classes and declared a math major because I thought math was interesting and I liked the mathematical way of thinking. Is that a good reason? It’s questionable. I have friends who became CS majors because it was interesting and because it was lucrative. Is that a good reason? I’m not sure.

Many things can affect your motivation to learn — fun or dreary assignments, good or bad professors, your own talent or lack thereof at a certain subject, your frame of mind at 9:30 a.m. in the morning. And unless you think continuously about what you want to be motivating you, you may well find yourself without great reasons for why you chose to take this class in particular, or chose to declare this major in particular.

That’s not to say you cannot make mistakes in your class choice — mistakes are inevitable. But you will take only about fifty classes in your time at Stanford. There will be only twelve academic quarters. Don’t drift through on autopilot. What truly motivates you to learn? Ask the question and don’t stop asking it, especially not before the add/drop deadline in Week 3 of the quarter.

2. What drives you to action?

“Tell us about something that is meaningful to you, and why?”

Most of us will at some point worry about what we will do when we grow up. As early as freshman fall you’ll be given reasons to worry about your career — friends will get internships, Google and Goldman will come to the career fair, your parents will probe your plans with various degrees of subtlety. If Stanford gives you the resources to further the noble values you professed in your application, it gives you also the incentives to pursue far more lucrative opportunities.

Money, prestige and security may begin to drive your actions — along with a fear of falling behind and never achieving these things.

Perhaps money, prestige or security are, for you, important reasons for action. But if you do choose these reasons, choose them on purpose rather than out of fear or following the tide. Remember that you likely answered this question “What is meaningful to you?” with something more high-minded: social good, education, justice, knowledge.

Reasons of fear can easily distract from these values. But if there was ever a place where you had a real chance to better the world, it’s an institution like Stanford.

Perhaps we can’t always be high-minded. We do have to put food on the table. But don’t lose sight of what motivates you most genuinely and fundamentally. Ground yourself with the question: What reasons truly drive you to action?”

And perhaps ask yourself occasionally the broader question: not “What matters to you, and why,” but “What matters, and why?

3. Who are you?

“Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate — and us — know you better.”

If you’ve seriously asked the two questions above, it will be hard to avoid the question “Who are you?” After all, you are but a conglomeration of values and motivations, flesh and bones, opinions and emotions. Asking “What matters to me?” is a subset of asking “Who am I?” Asking “What motivates me to learn?” is also a subset of asking “Who am I?”

In some respects, you have a choice of who you are; in some respects you don’t. You don’t get to choose your skin or your family or whether you’re good at math or whether you got into Stanford. But perhaps you do get to choose your values and your motivations, your opinions and your emotions, how you treat people and what ends you pursue.

Your ability to make such choices depends, however, on your ability to know what your values and motivations are, what opinions you hold, what emotions tend to grip you. It depends on your ability to observe your own behavior in a detached light, and on your ability to realize what facts about yourself you cannot change, or that you really shouldn’t change.

You wrote a letter to an imaginary roommate. Perhaps you supposed you were just presenting one side of you. But aren’t you always just presenting one side of you, even to yourself? After all, you are inevitably your own roommate in every room. Go back and read the letter you wrote. What have you told you about yourself?

Contact Adrian Liu at adliu ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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