Sara at the Stanford Summer Session

This summer Sara Gottschalk got the chance to study at Stanford University through an Aalto stipend. As the application process just started for 2018, we wanted to know how her experience was and learn how you can get in as well!

Stanford Main Quad
Stanford Main Quad
  • Sara, how did you find out about Stanford Summer School and what is it about?

I was curious about summer schools and scholarship opportunities offered by Aalto and after some serious googling, I stumbled over two programs that I liked with the Stanford Summer Session being my favorite. Even though it is intended for Bachelor students and the courses are mostly on that level, Master students still have the chance to apply, which is great for exploring courses outside your regular study field. The Stanford Summer Session hosts locals and international students from all over the world and provides a unique opportunity to experience the university for 8 weeks during the summer. As an Aalto scholar, I was part of the International Honors Program (IHP), which is a program for partner universities of Stanford (Aalto being one of them) that can send a few students each year.

  • Why did you want to go?

I have always been highly interested in psychology but was never able to study it in university due to my major in Design. When I saw that psychology and other social science courses were offered within this program, I thought it was my one-time chance to study my first passion at another renowned university. At that time there were no courses offered in Design (I heard in 2018 there will be!) but I also wanted to expand my horizon and study something outside of Art and Design School. And I think it’s one of the best chances to do so.

Let's talk about life
Let’s talk about life
  • Was it hard to get in?

The application process was straight-forward and took some time and nerves. Aalto offers six full scholarships each year, for one student per School – thus, one student from Aalto School of Arts, Design and Architecture only! I was very skeptical, if I could make it, but you do your best and then see what happens. I was lucky enough!

You first apply to Aalto and once you are selected, it’s only a formality (even though a long one – lots of paper work!) to apply to Stanford and for the US visa, because by then your study place is already secured. The application process with Aalto consists of sending your documents (CV, motivational letter, study plan, transcripts, letter of recommendation etc.) and once you are shortlisted, you are invited to a group interview with other applicants.

  • Which courses did you take at Stanford and how did you experience them?

I took Introduction to Social Psychology, Thinking Strategically and Leading Trends in Information Technology. Initially I had another list of courses that I wanted to take but many students make changes to their plans once they arrive and know the actual schedule and offerings for that year. Based on the scholarship and visa requirements we were supposed to take a minimum of 8 study units and I would not recommend taking more, as there should be enough time left to enjoy the campus, other activities and the sun and surrounding!

I loved my Social Psychology class and was a bit disappointed by Thinking Strategically, as it didn’t quite fit the actual course description. But either way, I learned something and the courses are of high quality after all, and if you make sure that you are really into the topic, you will learn a lot!

Yosemite National Park weekend trip
Yosemite National Park weekend trip
  • What were your summer highlights?

My highlights were weekend trips into Californian nature, visits to Facebook and Google and places like that, as well as “just” hanging around campus breathing in the history of the place and everything that comes with it, such as great sport facilities and labs and libraries with walls and walls of wisdom. As a summer student one gets full access to the facilities as well as a Stanford email, which could be used to make some lasting connections with local companies for example.
I also enjoyed visiting the Stanford and other activities organized by the IHP program (through which Aalto students come to Stanford). For example, the handwriting analysis workshop was excellent and visiting the Design School ( felt a bit like coming home, as I was otherwise studying fields that were far from Design and Arts.

Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz
Aalto crew visiting Facebook
Aalto crew visiting Facebook
  • Anything that surprised you?

As I enjoyed free education in Germany for my Bachelor studies and are also currently enjoying it at Aalto, I was just reminded that everything costs incredible amounts of money at Stanford, from text books to accommodation to high tuition fees. As I was there on a scholarship, it was still “free” for me, but realizing that it’s normal for students to pay these high amounts of money is just insane. Yet, Stanford offers full scholarships to bright students, so it’s still possible to enjoy without going bankrupt.

Besides that, I was in love with the paradise-like feel of the campus and to have all necessary facilities (tennis courts, gym, dining area, class rooms) just a 5-minute bike ride away from where I stayed on campus. It’s very convenient and I could have really gotten used to the weather and the Californian/Stanford way of life. Nevertheless, one still cannot help to question everything there from time to time as well.

I was rather negatively surprised about how many high school students were present during the summer or even younger kids groups for summer sport camps etc. It felt like I barely saw actual Stanford students but was instead constantly surrounded by foreign student visitors (like me) or high school students. That’s something to be prepared for, especially in terms of noise levels. (Sitting in class with students that were 10 years younger than me also made me feel old, all of a sudden. :D)

Stanford campus
Stanford campus
  • Did this experience influence how you think about Design and your field of studies?

Studying Social Psychology widened my mind on a deeper level about how this field of study is relevant for our daily lives and thus also influences Design, possibly providing a more solid foundation to the practice. Learning more about Stanford and its history also showed me how Design is seen as the glue between many other disciplines and allows for greater collaborations in order to do bigger things that “just” Design. In general, studying social and political sciences and hearing more about Tech in Silicon Valley really made me step out of the design bubble and the ways we usually work. Sitting in big class rooms and writing papers and solving problem sets reminded me that studies can look very different to what we are used to at Aalto Arts and it showed me that each side has something to appreciate and learn from.
  • Any tips for students interested in applying for Stanford Summer School 2018?

Even though the environment and the short amount of time available during the summer can be really demanding at times, it really opens you up to a whole different way of thinking about school, yourself and possibly even the world. Silicon Valley is a very intense place and depending on how you want to use your time there, you can make it happen somehow!

Recalling my experience after a few months now, my best advice is for you to know what you want to study and why, and to be ready for 8 very intense weeks and meeting tons of different people. Meeting people is possibly even the most important part and it will make your stay a success. Also, research a bit ahead of time what you want to do in terms of weekend trips, companies, labs, sports, events, so that you can make the most out of it – the two months will fly by in an instant!

I summarized more tips here, and you can also read the other blog posts that the selected Aalto students are required to write each year about their summer experience. If you have more specific questions about the application process or else, feel free to email me at

All in all, if you want to study something outside of Design and visit an incredible place, then this is an excellent opportunity! Give it a try! And good luck. 🙂

Take the free campus tour to learn about Stanford's history
Take the free campus tour to learn about Stanford’s history!

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