Mar 8, 2012
As We Approach Decision Day
When I hit puberty my inability to assess risk thank goodness manifested itself academically. I had a close relationship with my parents, and I didn’t have a rebellious streak beyond my accidental goth-hipster phase. I loved setting up ridiculous goals and then reaching them, just to prove that I could, even if it meant sacrificing my physical and mental health in the process. The ultimate goal was MIT, I decided sometime in seventh grade. I didn’t imagine life past college admissions. All I knew was that I was working to get into MIT. If I got into MIT, I’d be happy.
And then I did.
MIT is wonderful, but as Folkers Rojas, former MIT undergradate and current MIT graduate student, wrote in the Tech last month, the magic didn’t happen. MIT is not a magic wonderland. There are grades. There’s a lot of work. There are times when you are happy, and then there are times when your preexisting uncertainties are magnified and your self-esteem drops to unprecedented lows.
I applied early action, and on decision date I finally got deferred. I remember very clearly what it felt like. I cried. I ate an entire box of mandarin oranges. I arranged the College Confidential results threads from the past n years into an Excel document, and I tried for several hours to determine which variables could best predict my chances for March. I’m going to tell you now what I wish someone had told me then.
You applied because you’re passionate about something, probably science or technology, maybe writing or music or theater. You’ve found something you love. You’ve nerded out on it. You want to keep doing it for the next four years. In fact, you want to keep doing it forever. You know that it’s awesome, and you know that together, it and you can make the world a better place.
Applying to MIT has a parallel in science: not all projects turn out, and not all grants get accepted. In order to succeed you need to invest yourself in something that probably won’t work out, and if it does work out, it will take years of love and dedication and commitment. If you go to MIT you’ll experience this. If you continue in science, engineering, business, or anything, really, you will experience this even more. Failure is inherent in risk, and risk is necessary for success.
Applying to MIT was a great risk, with a very small chance of positive outcome. You’ve already given your all, for almost two decades, to get where you are now. I know you’ve put in a lot.
Here is my deep life advice, for the next week and forever after. Going places and reaching your goals takes luck, skill, and perseverance. It depends more on you than on the school you go to. Keep the future in mind, but live in the present. Enjoy what you do and the people you are with. Take chances; be bold enough to put your all into everything you do. You’ll probably miss at least as often as you hit, but trying hard and trying often are more important than succeeding, since the positive impact of your successes will eventually far exceed your losses.
If you go to MIT, it will take you apart and put you back together again. It’s an opportunity that you can use to learn, grow, and get far. But an undergraduate education is only the first step. Regardless of whether or not you go to MIT, you have a long, uphill battle ahead of you. You’ve gotten far, and you’ll go farther. Your efforts will lead to a lot more than an admissions decision.
If you get in on Wednesday, congratulations. You’re about to start a long and challenging journey with many prizes along the way, if you choose to accept it. If you don’t get in on Wednesday, inhale, exhale, and move on without looking back. You’ll have plenty of other, greater successes to celebrate.
As hard as I know it is, try not to obsess over your pending decision. Do spend time with your family and friends, and revel in the last few months of your childhood before you have to buy your own groceries (the rest of us are jealous, really). Do the things you keep putting off.
Here are some (free) things on the Internet I enjoy now or enjoyed in high school, to de-stress and distract you:
- A City on the Edge of Forever: my favorite Star Trek episode; for you, hopefully a gateway to more Star Trek.
- PhD Comics: a lightly pessimistic web comic about life in academia.
- xkcd: a nerdy web comic that you've probably already heard of.
- Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality: a Harry Potter fanfiction that is every bit as entertaining as it is rational.
- The Guild: a web series about online gamers.
- The Adventures of Dr. McNinja: I haven't read this web comic, but my boyfriend recommends it.
- Atlantic Monthly back issues, from 1995 to today: a glimpse of perspectives that exist, including some of my favorite fiction.
- Pushing Daisies: a TV series about Ned, a pie shop owner who can bring the dead back to life, his dead childhood sweetheart, and their adorable mystery-solving adventures.
- Veronica Mars: a TV series about Veronica Mars, a jaded high school student turned detective, and her mystery-solving adventures.
- Firefly: another TV series. This one's a western, set in 2517 on a spaceship.
Hopefully I’ll also be posting some math riddles this weekend, for those of you who enjoy that kind of thing. Have a good day. Be happy.