Oct 26, 2017
Ask Me Anything! Responses
In my previous post, I announced a blogger AMA on Thursday, 10/26, 7-9pm EDT. That's over now, but you're welcome to email me with additional questions or ask them in the comments below. I can't promise to get to them soon, but I'll try my best.
For reference, I've done this before on the application process here. This time, however, I wanted to talk about more than just The Process. Every college is different, so it's important for you all to take the time to find out what MIT can offer, and if it is right for you. I can think of at least one excellent school (once my #1 choice) where I would've been miserable, had I decided based on reputation alone. So, this AMA was about life, the universe, and everything!
Note: on Thursday, 10/26, this post was updated live. I've highlighted all the questions so you can read only what's relevant to you. Make sure to scroll down to the comments as well!
Last week, Allan K. '17 and I did a Facebook Live AMA about studying social sciences at MIT on the MIT Admissions page. Below are some questions in the comments we didn't get to answer (watch the webcast for the ones we did).
Do you ever meet young students on campus? Maybe 16-17 year olds? Do you think they would be accepted by classmates?
Yes! My hall has several residents who were not 18 entering MIT. One of our 2018s is turning 21 a week before graduation, and she is one of the most competent and coolest people I know. Beyond the legal hurdles (e.g. you can't get a piercing/tattoo with your friends under 18 or go to a club under 21), age doesn't really matter.
Were you always interested in attending MIT?
Confession: no. At first, MIT was my #1. When I first moved to the U.S., the idea that I was closer to MIT kept me going (that, and the idea of getting a real American boyfriend - things were very different back then). But then I realized my true interests weren't in STEM, and by senior year, I had a new dream. I wasn't even sure I'd go to CPW (Campus Preview Weekend) once I got accepted, but a local Central Ohio MIT get-together changed my mind—everyone at the get-together was so lovely! A day into CPW, I could really see myself on campus and caught myself planning classes and student groups. I felt confident that, even if I didn't plan to work in a STEM field, I could find my place at MIT—I did enjoy learning STEM after all! Two weeks later, I went to my #1 school's "CPW," came back crying because it was such a poor fit, and immediately comMITted.
How are people involved with music at MIT? What are some music activities taking place on campus, and is there an MIT band?
We answered this on the webcast, but I wanted to provide some links to support the answer. Some popular for-credit activities are: MIT Symphony Orchestra, Concert Choir, CMS Jazz Combos, Emerson Program (which includes a scholarship for students for private lessons with professional musicians). There are many others as well. Freshmen have a credit limit of 54 units, which is enough for 4 full classes + 6 extra units people often apply to one of these musical endeavors. 21M - Music and Theatre Arts is not an uncommon minor/concentration, and the professors in the department are pretty excellent (despite the technological focus of MIT in general). Some of my music minor/concentrator friends have had to compose original pieces for their final class projects, and these were later performed at an open recital by professional guest musicians, which was pretty cool. Outside of the formal activities, plenty of students do a capella and other musical things. I've been to several friends' a capella concerts, which were amazing! Each group has a special focus, and all of them are awesome. They're also excellent communities, from what I hear. Make sure to check out the big a capella concert over CPW if you're on campus!
What has been the greatest challenge you have faced at MIT?
For me, it has been maintaining a reasonable sleep schedule. And I'm using the word "schedule" very loosely here. Really, getting reasonable sleep has been tough. That's not an MIT issue per se, but it is pretty common. I've been trying to encourage the freshmen to get 7+ hours of sleep consistently. Otherwise, the body eventually crashes, and then it's really hard to recover. I can't tell you how many times I've slept through pretty important activities and had to write apology emails. So I'm working on getting those 7-8 hours in a reasonable time frame (i.e. not starting later than 3am). But, sometimes, you sit down for a bit to talk to people in the lounge, and next thing you know, it's 3:07am! I know some people who have managed to get through MIT with enough sleep and no all-nighters, but they did have to make some social sacrifices.
Are there any interesting Halloween events or traditions at MIT?
Yes! There's the annual Pumpkin Drop from the Green Building (blog post about it here), which features multiple pumpkins dropped from the highest building in Cambridge, and most of the pumpkins are frozen with liquid nitrogen. There's also Spooky Skate, organized by the student group SaveTFP, where people wear Halloween costumes and skate on the campus ice rink for free (blog here). This year, Spooky Skate will feature: "Costume Contest! Win BEAVER SQUISHABLES! Eat Pizza! Skate on Ice (for FREE)! Cookie Decorating! Pumpkin Carving and Painting! and More!" Also notable is Next Haunt: Escape the House, an event that gets filled almost immediately after sign-ups open. It is a "chance for you, and five of your friends to try your cunning and nerve against an escape the room haunted house built [by students] right in the basement of Next House." For seniors, there's Boos Cruise (an actual cruise). The East Campus head of house and GRTs (graduate resident tutors) do trick-or-treating every year, and there's a costume contest as well (blog with pictures here). A friend of mine won two years ago for dressing up as a stack of post-it notes (complete with a marker that people could use to write on the costume). I'm guessing other dorms have trick-or-treating as well. Besides those, there are plenty of smaller events that I've gotten emails about: Spooky Grams care packages from the Latino Cultural Center, a Halloween party from the SPXCE Intercultural Center (for queer folk), pumpkin decorating from Art Club and other groups, Spooky Night from SaveTFP ("with snacks, face paint, and jump scares from your favorite horror films!"), Halloween Mystery Mafia from the Live Action Mafia club, and many others. There's a lot going on!
As a non-STEM major, do you get judged/criticized by your peers at MIT?
That's a tough one! MIT is not the kind of school where students are commonly criticized, and there's no outright judgement as far as I'm aware (thanks to the efforts the Institute takes to avoide competitiveness). The major negative judgement that I've felt (but, again, not something explicit) is that HASS is simply easier, so a HASS major is an "easy way out." There's also the perception that you're losing employment opportunities if you're not in STEM, but that's a subject for another day (briefly, if you go to MIT, you're probably not going to be unemployed). I've heard people say that it doesn't make sense to major in, say, Literature, at MIT (which I sort of agree with, if you are not getting financial aid). Together, these perceptions result in most people double-majoring in STEM and HASS fields. In my case, I'm double-majoring in two HASS fields, and minoring in STEM. And I've gotten some positive reactions! People think it's fascinating (in a good way) that I chose this path, so it's a good conversation starter. It still takes some self-persuasion to not feel like a slacker, but I can honestly say that I've taken some challenging classes, and they are vastly different from the introductory courses people tend to take to satisfy their HASS requirement.
How many different languages are offered at MIT?
9: Chinese, Spanish, French, Russian, Portuguese, Latin, English, Japanese, and German (source). Many students also cross-register (for free!) at Harvard, which offers a lot more (see here, page 6). My friends have taken Yoruba and Arabic at Harvard. It takes about 15 minutes to get to class from main campus, so it's pretty accessible.
Is there a pass/fail grading system for first year? Class duration?
Freshman fall, the grading is Pass/No Record: if you get a C or above, you get a P on your transcript. Otherwise, you "no record" and can retake the class (though, depending on how many classes you "no record," you might get a stricter credit limit imposed the next semester, which is an internal-only consequence). Freshman spring, the grading is A/B/C/No Record. Beyond freshman year, there are some other cool grading options, see here. Classes are typically 50-110 mins, though there are some once-a-week evening courses that last three hours (usually 7-10pm).
Last year, I wrote a post addressed to the 2021 applicants and offered to respond to questions personally. Most of the responses are here, but below are some responses to the backlog of queries by applicants to class of 2022 or above.
What counts as an extracurricular? What if we don't have extracurriculars in my country?
This is a surprisingly common question, and the above are two of many variations. I wrote a bit about it here already, as someone who grew up in a foreign country and is aware of the differences in the educational systems. MIT is not looking for you to do the traditional activities you might see in an American teen movie (e.g. captain of the football team or student body president). Hobbies, helping parents, and other informal activities also count, especially for MIT. I wrote "reading books" and "playing piano" for the "Summer Activities" portion of the MIT application. Besides not doing much during the summer, I wasn't in any clubs in high school. I went to an "alternative" (read: "hippie") public school, where I got to do some pretty cool but unconventional stuff. And it worked! Also, if you're interested in STEM, you can build stuff and solve puzzles from anywhere in the world!
When you've been awarded a need-based scholarship as a freshman, is there a risk of not getting one in a later year? (Apart from being uberclumsy filing documents)
No! MIT will provide you a need-based scholarship for as long as there is a need. We have one of the best need-based programs, rivaled only by schools like Harvard/Princeton/Yale. Also, you can appeal your aid award by contacting your financial aid counselor (find yours here). This is helpful for special circumstances, especially for those that occurred after your submitted your aid application. I've appealed twice, both times quite successfully. If that doesn't help, you can also work with your counselor to figure out ways to pay.
Is it feasible to work part-time to pay off what isn't covered by the scholarship? (Self-help $5500, other expenses). Which jobs are usually available?
Yes! Many, if not most, students work during college. You can even get paid for doing research through the UROP program. And it's common practice to get a higher-paying internship over the summer (or continue with a UROP). Other common jobs are Tech Callers (which pay $14 plus an additional $1 a semester, last time I checked), desks in dorms/libraries (you can work on classwork while you work!), and, more recently, ATI SAT/AP prep tutors, which pay $14 plus an additional $1 every semester you stay in the program. Most of those jobs are possible to start as a freshman, especially Tech Callers. I also have some friends who got paid for dog walking in Boston (there's some sort of "Uber for dog walkers" app that you can sign up for) or tutoring online for Chegg Tutors. Note also that the expenses calculated by MIT do not necessarily reflect what you will spend. Freshman year, when you're mostly taking GIRs (General Institute Requirements), you can probably get away with buying zero textbooks, which saves money. You can also save a lot by getting off the meal plan and cooking for yourself (more here), or by choosing a cheaper dorm. However, you will probably spend more than what's estimated for travel home, especially as an international student.
What is, roughly, the timeline from prospective student to freshman?
Decisions for Early Action come out mid-December, and decisions for Regular Action come out on Pi Day, 3/14. In winter, you will also need to apply for financial aid, and the decisions for that come out sometime in the spring. If you get accepted, you can sign up for CPW (Campus Preview Weekend), which is mid-April. You must comMIT by May 1. After that, you'll have several tasks to complete over the summer, such as applying for housing or setting up your MIT email account. There's also a writing test, FEE, and (optional) applications for Freshman Pre-Orientation Programs (FPOPs). Keep track of your emails during this this time! You will arrive on campus ahead of the upperclassmen at the end of August (or earlier if you're doing an FPOP/International Orientation/Interphase) and spend a week doing REX (Residence Exploration) to select your dorm and Freshman Orientation, plus optional things like fraternity/sorority rush, as well as a swim test. Early that week, you will attend Convocation, when President Reif will give a speech and you will officially become an MIT freshman (no longer a prefrosh). After Freshman Orientation, it's class time!
How hard is MIT, really? (from the comments)
I'll only address the academic side of MIT, leaving out additional committments students normally take on, such as UROPs, jobs, and/or student groups. There are two easy answers to the question: one, it depends on your major(s)/minor(s)/concentration, and, two, you can look at the average number of hours spent per week on each class on Firehose (firehose.mit.edu). I've taken a class that took about 1.5 hours a week total (with three additional assignments for an additional 6 hours or so). I've also taken a class where the psets alone could take up to 20 hours every week. Some core major classes, such as 2.009 for Course 2 - Mechanical Engineering can take 40+ hours a week. Some people take graduate-level courses, which can take more time just to digest the material. Those are all, in a way, personal academic load choices. Of course, time committment does not equal level of difficulty. The hardest part of MIT is understanding the material. Lectures can be relatively easy, but the psets could go into way more depth, and it's up to you to make up the gap. Fortunately, there are friends/professors/TAs who are happy to help, and S^3 (Student Support Services) if you're really behind and need to negotiate an academic accommodation. But even with all the support, you might struggle with the concepts. Our 7.012 Introductory Biology (a General Institute Requirement, usually taken by freshmen)) professor told us that a B at MIT is an A anywhere else. A physics professor from Ohio State University told me that the 8.01 Physics I (also a GIR for mostly freshmen) pset problems were OSU honors physics majors-level. Maybe these professors were just trying to make us feel better. Either way, MIT is a challenge, but if you're up for it, it will be fascinating, and academically fulfilling.
How's your experience with the campus [architecture]? Anything in particular that you dislike? If so, how does it affect you? (The buildings don't seem as elegant as some of the other universities I visited)
When I first toured colleges, architectural elegance held a special appeal. I wanted to be around all the mahogany and ivy. MIT doesn't have that. However, I've since found that MIT's practical buildings are more conducive to informal learning—among other reasons, because you waste no time being in awe of the past. In fact, one of MIT's first dorms, East Campus, was specifically constructed to not be like the "castles" build previously at Ivy League colleges. The donors wanted the dorm to be practical and plain. They also wanted the dorm to include the latest technologies—a new form of strong concrete was developed just to build EC! And that's the wonderful thing about MIT buildings—you often don't discover their true appeal right away. For example, building 66, right next to East Campus, is a 60-90-30 triangle. Kresge Auditorium is 1/8 of a perfect sphere, which allows it to be supported at only three points and frees up space for the auditorium underneath. The lighting for the MIT Chapel is provided solely by hidden windows over the surrounding moat. And then there are Stata and Simmons, which are particularly quirky. Oh, and the Infinite's numbering system is worth exploring (you might also spot the hidden puzzles on the floor or the transparent glass labs). So, overall, MIT isn't elegant at first glance, but you discover some great features with time. All the mahogany can get old, but you'll always find something new at the 'Tute.
Thanks for your questions! GOOD LUCK!