Nov 17, 2006
Admissions advice from someone who’s been there
I've been working on my grad school apps lately, when I'm not busy with other stuff. I bet that a lot of you are working on college applications, including your MIT applications.
Over the summer, when I was living in Switzerland, I didn't really have a social life outside of work and the Internet. One of the things I was doing to fill the time was posting on the College Confidential forums. Some of you have probably discovered these, for better or for worse, but I'm sure that most have not, which is why I'm going to reprint my first-ever College Confidential post here. The powers that be over there liked this post so much that it's still one of the featured discussions on the MIT board.
I wrote this both to give advice and out of frustration with prefrosh who posted a bunch of numbers and then demanded to know exactly what their chances of getting in were, or who posted their very high SAT scores and then asked if they should retake to raise them by 30 points. I hope that it gives you both useful advice and some insight into the values of MIT's academic culture. Enjoy!
Disclaimer: I'm just a student blogger, not an admissions officer. Nothing I say here is official policy. It's my interpretation of how MIT Admissions works based on hanging around Admissions a lot talking to the people who work there, and my observations of the students who get in vs. the ones who don't.
As you can see by my post count, I'm new here. One of the things I notice from looking around, and from reading the comments on some of the blogs, is the popularity of the "stats post". Some eager applicant posts a list of their stats - GPA, class rank, SAT scores, AP scores, maybe extracurriculars or major awards, and asks what their chances are of getting into MIT. Or, around the time when applicants are notified of their acceptances or rejections, furious rejected applicants (or their parents) post a list of their stats, and demand to know how they could possibly have been rejected. Frequently, if they are male, they then assert that they were rejected because of "affirmative action" in favor of less-qualified female applicants.
I can't speak for other schools, but if you are making a pure stats post, you are approaching MIT Admissions in the wrong way.
When I was a middle-school cross country and road runner, I used to get recruited by high school coaches. I didn't understand why they all seemed so interested in me. I was a very good young runner, but I wasn't one of the best, and I had poor form and was clumsy and didn't pace myself very well. Why were they talking to me instead of the girls who were a little faster and had better form to boot? I think it was my mom who explained it to me. She pointed out that a top middle school runner with perfect form and pacing wasn't very coachable, but that the coaches figured that with proper coaching, I could become a much better runner.
Admissions is a little like that. MIT wants the people who will benefit from the MIT culture and education the most, and will bring the most benefit to the MIT community. Stats ARE important, but that's because MIT is a difficult place and they need to make sure that the people they admit are able to do the work. Stats don't get you acceptance into MIT, they get you consideration. Once you demonstrate, with your application in full, that you probably have enough mathematical capability to handle 18.01 and 18.02, they don't care whether you got a 740 or an 800 on the math portion of the SAT, or whether your GPA was 4.0 or 3.92.
I saw that there was a thread before asking for MIT "hooks" and that there have been other threads asking "Is it possible for me to get into MIT without foo?" The answers to these questions are "There are no activities or combinations of activities which by definition will get you into MIT" and "Yes".
MIT doesn't have a checklist of activities and qualifications against which it runs your application to see if you match up. There are certain traits and values that are at the core of MIT culture, and those are what you should be demonstrating, but there are infinite ways to demonstrate them. Obviously, there's not some official list of these, but I would say that some of them are:
(Responsible and Informed) Risk-taking: Going to MIT is risky in itself, considering that you could go to a less challenging school and have an easier time earning a good GPA. Academic risk-taking, whether in research or choice of classes, is a basic part of MIT life (and frequently, so is non-academic risk-taking). You can demonstrate risk-taking with a difficult high school class schedule, with research, with various extracurriculars - something where you put yourself on the line and went through with it in spite of the chance of failure.
Creativity: Good scientists and engineers have to be creative. There are a lot of ways to show your creativity in an application. Maybe you did some great research. Maybe you invented something. Maybe you're an artist or a writer or an actor or a composer or design lighting and sound for high school plays - there are an astounding number of artistically talented people at MIT. Maybe you're a quarterback who showed great ingenuity in planning or calling plays.
Work ethic: As you might imagine, this is important at MIT. If you played the same varsity sport for four years and won the team "hardest worker" award when you were a junior, that shows work ethic. If you delivered pizzas or worked as a video store clerk for 15 hours a week while maintaining top grades, that shows work ethic, especially if you have a letter from your employer saying what a hardworking person you are, that shows work ethic. You could demonstrate your work ethic through theater, quiz bowl, your job in a research lab at your local university...anything, really, as long as you're actually showing it and not just assuming admissions staff will get it because you listed the activity.
There are a lot of other qualities I could go into - appreciation of hands-on work and learning, outstanding intellectual aptitude, a desire to use your knowledge in the world...but this post is getting long, and I bet you get my point, which is that it's not what activities you do (or how many activities you do), but what qualities you show with them, and whether those qualities are a match for MIT, that matters.
There's a myth that MIT only wants well-rounded people. Well, some MIT students are quite well-rounded, others not so much. The less well-rounded ones just managed to show their appealing qualities with fewer or a narrower range of activities. And believe me, you can be "well-rounded" in the sense that many people mean - have at least one each of sports, service clubs, academic clubs, and "leadership" positions - and come off looking like a boring and superficial resume-padder, not a desirable applicant.
So if you're going to post your stats, at least tell us something about yourself to go with it.