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Chris Peterson SM '13

Nov 1, 2010

Applying Sideways

Posted in: Best of the Blogs, Process & Statistics

Every fall, like leaves tumbling exhausted from branches, admissions officers follow the winds to the corners of the country to talk to students and hawk their school.

I recently returned from my travel, which took me from Raleigh, North Carolina to Atlanta, Georgia and a dozen places in between over the course of a few days. I visited big high schools and small high schools, cities and villages, and performed what amounted to a thousand-person MIT revival in an Atlanta auditorium.

Whenever I speak to students or their families, be it on travel or during a campus information session, without fail I am asked the same question.

This question may take many forms. What is it that you look for in an applicant?, some say. What makes someone stand out in your pool?, others ask.

But these variants - and countless others - are all just versions of the same question, which is this:

How do I get in to MIT?

And here is what I tell them:

Apply sideways.

Let me unpack that.

When folks ask me this question, it is generally because they want to come to MIT, and they want me to tell them something they can do that will get them in. Maybe they need to be an Eagle Scout with a 4.0. Or a drum major with a 2400. Maybe they need to solve an open math problem or cure cancer before graduating high school. Just tell me what I need to do, their eyes implore, and I will attack each line item on the list like Ray Lewis cleaning a wideout's clock on a slant route over the middle.

Terrifying? Yes. Required to be accepted to MIT? No.

But it doesn't work that way.

Because here's what you need to understand:

There is nothing, literally nothing, that in and of itself will get you in to MIT.

For example:

A few years ago, we did not admit a student who had created a fully-functional nuclear reactor in his garage.

Think about that for a second.

Now, most students, when I tell them this story, become depressed. After all, if the kid who built a freakin' nuclear reactor didn't get in to MIT, what chance do they have?

But they have it backwards. In fact, this story should be incredibly encouraging for most students. It should be liberating. Why? Because over a thousand other students were admitted to MIT that year, and none of them built a nuclear reactor!

I don't mean to discourage anything from pursuing incredible science and technology research on their own. If you want to do it, DO IT. But don't do it because you think it's your ticket to MIT. And that applies to everything you do - classes, SATs, extracurriculars.

There is no golden ticket.

So breathe.

Now that you are Zen calm, liberated from the pressures of not having cured cancer by your 18th birthday, what should you do if you still want to come to MIT?

  • Do well in school. Take tough classes. Interrogate your beliefs and presumptions. Pursue knowledge with dogged precision. Because it is better to be educated and intelligent than not.
  • Be nice. This cannot be overstated. Don't be wanton or careless or cruel. Treat those around you with kindness. Help people. Contribute to your community.
  • Pursue your passion. Find what you love, and do it. Maybe it's a sport. Maybe it's an instrument. Maybe it's research. Maybe it's being a leader in your community. Math. Baking. Napping. Hopscotch. Whatever it is, spend time on it. Immerse yourself in it. Enjoy it.

If you do these three things, you will be applying sideways to MIT.

See:

If you get into MIT, it will be because you followed these steps. If you do well in school, you will be smart and prepared for an MIT education. If you are nice, then your letters of recommendation will convince us that MIT would be a wildly better place with you on campus. And if you pursue your passion, you will have developed a love for and skill at something that helps distinguish you from other applications - something that is your "hook."

But what if you don't get into MIT?

Well, you may be disappointed. But you learned everything you could, so now you're smarter; you were a positive member of your community, and you made people happy; and you spent high school doing not what you thought you had to do to get into a selective college, but what you wanted to do more than anything else in the world. In other words, you didn't waste a single solitary second of your time.

Applying sideways, as a mantra, means don't do things because you think they will help you get into MIT (or Harvard, or CalTech, or anywhere). Instead, you should study hard, be nice, and pursue your passion, because then you will have spent high school doing all the rights things, and, as a complete side effect, you'll be cast in the best light possible for competitive college admissions.

Sometimes, you really can have the best of both worlds.

Comments (Closed after 30 days to reduce spam)

Thank you for the great post!
This relieves some of the pre-submitting stress I'm feeling at the moment! Thanks!

Posted by: Rupa on November 1, 2010

Thanks for confirming what I´ve thought MIT would most likely take into account!!

Posted by: felipes on November 1, 2010

That was a great post with the whole 'nuclear reactor thing'. It calmed one of my main worries about applying here. Thanks : )

Posted by: Alberto on November 1, 2010

Great article. Good advice for life too!

Posted by: Linda on November 1, 2010

Thanks, I was a great post, It is helping me thank you again

Posted by: Rossana saez on November 1, 2010

Chris, I remember you coming to talk with us in Cary North Carolina. You really were a great help to me so I just wanted to thank you again. I already submitted my application and I'm super psyched about hearing from you guys in a couple months!
Well, look at me still talking when theres Science to do (Chemistry haha.) Gotta go but Thanks!

Posted by: Herbert on November 1, 2010

The stress stops here (at least for a little while) thanks to you (:

Posted by: Wingman on November 1, 2010

Oh no...I built a nuclear reactor a few years ago. I guess that means I won't get accepted;) JK

Posted by: WillBe2015 on November 1, 2010

Guess I could press that submit button now:)

Posted by: ArtisticSwimmer on November 1, 2010

WHAT AM I GONNA DO WITH ALL MY NUCLEAR REACTORS NOW? THIS.CHANGES.EVERYTHING.

Posted by: pdowling on November 1, 2010

Dear Chris,
Thank you. That helped.
Unfortunetely, there will still be students who are obsessed with getting into college. I hope I will not become that person. smile
KP
P.S Was the reactor fully functional?

Posted by: KP on November 1, 2010

Excellent post!
I've been waiting to hear something like this. Thank you so much.

Posted by: Sarun on November 1, 2010

Thanks for the post. It eased the stress for now =). Least we don't have to be crazy scientists with millions of accomplishments to get in. All we need is a lot of passion, dedication and good grades. =)

Posted by: Gin Siu on November 1, 2010

I'm curious as to what about that student caused him to be rejected...

Posted by: Anthony on November 1, 2010

It's done...

I'm already planning stuff for my midyear report, hahaha. I think my application ended up, despite my best efforts, a little too straight up in many parts, and turned upside down in others. I hope that makes it fall sideways just right.

That's some good, Chris. I think a lot of people are just too afraid to take it.

Posted by: Robert on November 2, 2010

Chris:

Long story short = I feel extremely confident about my EA application, except for my GPA. My GPA is not horrible, but it is the Achilles tendon of my application. Given that my standardized testing falls within MIT's usual range, and that I have been active in school clubs, active in self-initialized activities, and that I have good letters of recommendation, is the flaw that is my GPA going to overwhelm every other positive aspect? Any insight on the mechanics of my situation is appreciated.

Posted by: J on November 2, 2010

Everything will be fine...
Good luck people! Thanks Mr. Peterson

Posted by: Ruslan'15 on November 2, 2010

Throughout this whole process, all the blogs have been really helpful. I think no matter what the outcome is come December, I am really happy that I read through these and learned new lessons. Some of my friends sometimes accuse MIT and schools like it as being 2-D when it comes to the application. I know if they spent some time on this website, their views would change. Thanks Chris (and all the other bloggers too!)

Posted by: Royal on November 2, 2010

hey, I am from some country you guys probably don't have any idea. My alma mater - just a building with too many vintage tables and chairs. Nobody would have thought about me getting a chance to become one among six to represent my whole nation in a youth exchange program. But I applied, trusted myself and now I have a lovely host family in Pittsburgh. And that all cannot be a matter of luck.

Seriously, its all your dream, expectation along with your hard work that takes. So dream on!! Make your community proud and be worthy...

Posted by: anik on November 2, 2010

Dear Chris,
Thank you for your energizing post.That really helped a lot to ease tensions regarding admission policies. By the way was that reactor a fusion-type or a fission-type? Or did it even work?

Hope to meet you on 3rd Nov. smile

Posted by: Shahariar on November 2, 2010

Outstanding post, Chris. This only makes us more infatuated by MIT and by the university's community.

Posted by: Sandro Rodrigues on November 2, 2010

Dear Chris,
It was a thoughtful post!You really made me think over the admission matters. But now,i'm not thinking about that particularly!I think it's important to be nice.I've the passion to be an Architect,i really think.Not so much with grades!THANKS!Your advice will show me the path for FUTURE.THANK YOU AGAIN!!!

Posted by: USAMA on November 2, 2010

That's what i call a energizing post.... Thank you and i hope i am doing what's better for me
gd luck everybody smile

Posted by: SD on November 2, 2010

Thank you for the post. It made me smile genuinely for the first time after I clicked the submit button. Thank you. smile

Posted by: Aris on November 2, 2010

Well, what if a person didn't mention his/her passion in their interview or app? Because for someone like me, what I do has become so much of who I am that I'm unable to talk about it as a "part" of me; instead, it IS me.

For example, the most kind person in the world won't tell an interviewer or an application how kind he/she is, and instead just talks about, say, traveling experiences, drawing, and bridge building.

Or even a great artist, who will talk other interests because those interests are different and more "examinable," if you know what I mean.

Posted by: Paint on November 2, 2010

Sorry to post again, but forget the artist example (it doesn't work with what I'm trying to say).

I'm talking about something someone does all the time without conscious thought (as in, the person doesn't stop and go "Hey! I'm going to do that!"), but just does it because it's innately fun and intriguing.

Posted by: Paint on November 2, 2010

Thank you every much for this great blog, it gives an unique perspective into applying to MIT and takes away much of the fear and the unknown.

Posted by: Shashi on November 3, 2010

excellent post.. very insightful.. thank you!!

Posted by: Prats M on November 4, 2010

Hey chris thanks for that post.....now if i don't get admitted into MIT i might become an outstanding person........gud luck everyone....... good day chris!!!!!!!

Posted by: rohtash on November 4, 2010

Hi there Chris ....

hey , you serious about the nuclear reactor ? I have my doubts on a claim such as a student just applying for college having built a nuclear reactor......it should've been all over the news , and the energy he'd have to conjure up to start a controlled fusion/fission reaction is just too unlikely for someone to acquire without other people knowing it .
Sorry if I'm being a know-it-all , but I'm pretty interested to know the way that student managed to do it ( if he really did do it , that is ) .
And how'd he manage to get his hands on those isotopes anyway ?

Posted by: Neutron105 on November 4, 2010

Whew!!! That's a relief :D Thank you SO much for posting this! Now at least I'll know that if I don't get into MIT it wasn't because I didn't build a nuclear reactor in my garage. :D

Posted by: LDS on November 4, 2010

Will the possibility that a straight A student gets admitted be the same as a junior-year turnaround student?

P.S. How did this kid get his hands on the radioactive substance/money in the first place?

Posted by: Kiefer on November 5, 2010

I love this post. I feel like it directly addresses my high school career - a lot of people stack up extra-curriculars and AP classes like crazy so they can look good for college, but I feel perfectly happy for simply occupying myself with the clubs and classes that truly interest me. And when I complete applications now, I feel that I have a lot to talk about. I completely understand what you mean by everything eventually falling into place if you let it. I still don't think my application will stick out enough (though your story about the nuclear reactor really made me rethink the standards), but I am happy to know that I've done all I've could and that someone at MIT agrees with my perspective.

Thank you so much for this post! smile I have never commented on a post here before, but I felt I had to this time.

Posted by: Sarah on November 5, 2010

one question, for the humanities evaluation letter, does Air Force JROTC count as a humanity class?

Posted by: Trent on November 6, 2010

THAT WAS A GR8 POST Mr. Peterson.. but id like to say one thing... u said "find what u love and do it".. fair enough..
but sometimes really tht can be the hardest thing for pepole out there .. its supposed to be easy but it ain't.. its supposed to b staring rite at u in ur face but its even more frustrating wen u dnt geddit..
Once again, it was a WONDERFUL post. sets ur mind rite. thnx for trying to make it easier on us.

Posted by: Gill on November 7, 2010

Thanks. But I have one question. HOW IN THE WORLD COULD A SEVENTEEN YEAR OLD BUILD A NUCLEAR REACTOR? How much will it cost? Where will you go for radioactive material? Shouldn't you get the approval of authorities?
Well anyway, Thanks Chris for I have done nothing of the kind and don't intend to either! I have my own interests and I'll try my best to get into MIT

Posted by: Divya on November 7, 2010

Chris,

Is it OK if I submit more than two letters of recommendation?

Thanks

Posted by: Nishan on November 7, 2010

What a great post… my EA app is already in, but of course I still have to worry about everything. Anyway, this post is great even if you aren't applying, because as a senior, I want to say that we collectively worry too much about getting into colleges, and forget to live. I just came home from hanging and crashing with my friends who are already in college, and I realized that things get better once you're already there, at almost any school you wind up in. But that doesn't stop me from obsessing over these blasted applications.
People ask me what I've been up to these days and just about all I can say is "applying to college". Isn't that depressing? I think so. I like to do so many other things, and I'd want to consider myself less boring than that.

And about standing out, that still bothers me. I feel like all the things that make me unique out here do nothing to set me apart from the other applicants. There's a ton of talented musicians at MIT (another reason I'm sold on MIT), and people who dabble around in the arts while being a hardcore math addict (gotta get that linear algebra fix) and code / grease monkey on the robotics team.

With an attitude like that, I didn't do too well at my interview. I have a personality, I swear! I know I'm not a genius and I'm not perfect, but I feel like I still have to be one of those kids who learns the prescribed "right thing" from every single mistake, and is always confident and composed. Not quite me. But I hope they see something in me. I think I can do great things there.

I really want to go to MIT, but I doubt just wanting it badly enough will make it happen.
And hopefully this little rant makes sense.

Posted by: Ellmish on November 7, 2010

Thank you for this excellent post. As an MIT alumna and mother of a college sophomore, I'd like to echo what Chris wrote. I've seen too many high school kids driven to a frenzy trying to do way to many activities and polish their resumes, just to "look good" for colleges, rather than taking the classes they'd really like and doing the things they most enjoy.

I'd also like to add that there's no one "right" school for anyone, and that the best school for you isn't always the one you picked as your first choice. I've seen that many times now, including for my son (who did not end up at MIT).

Posted by: Meredith on November 8, 2010

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