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Anna H. '14

Oct 10, 2011

Being “qualified” for MIT

Posted in: Best of the Blogs, Life & Culture

On Thursday, I sat in front of a camera for an hour (along with admissions director McGreggor Crowley) and answered questions from international students. Near the end, someone asked:

"Can you give an example of something international students have done in the past to make them qualified for MIT?"

My mind went blank. Qualified? What a strange word. I thought of job applications. "Explain how you are qualified for this position." List your skills for us. How many programming languages do you know? I thought of food stamps, financial aid, sports tournaments. Numbers, income, scores. Cutoffs, requirements, eligibility. I thought of math competition trophies and science olympiad medals, none of which I have or have ever had.

I thought about how the MIT application was nothing like a job application. "Tell us about something you do for fun."

McGreggor and I responded the same way we responded to all the questions about minimum SAT scores and minimum GPA and what constitutes a good extracurricular activity: that the only official qualification for coming here is a certain level of English profiency, and that's only because all classes are administered in English. There are no minimums, because, ironically, the institute of numbers-loving folk recognize that numbers don't tell the whole story. I said, in effect, there there's no such thing as being "qualified" to come here.

I'd like to take that back, because of what happened on Friday.

I had an icky week. I had four exams in four days, one of which didn't go well at all. On Thursday night, after my last exam was over, I stayed up until a totally unreasonable hour doing my 8.03 pset, which I forgot to turn in until I was almost back in my room. That meant I had to double back, at around 4pm on Friday, and make the trek to the third floor of the physics department, which was precisely the opposite of what I was in the mood to do.

I don't need to tell you that everything seems worse when you're exhausted - trivial issues are crises and anything short of success dooms you to eternal failure. Needless to say, I wanted some company for de-stressing purposes. I turned the corner towards the literature department (hoping to find my lit professor) and came face-to-face with Davie '12, a French House friend. He waved. I waved. He said that I looked tired. I think that I nodded. He gave me a hug. I got in the elevator, and as the doors slid shut and the lights started blinking "2...3...4", I realized that I wasn't really composed enough to hold a conversation with my professor - and sent the elevator back to 1. When the doors opened, I rushed out, hoping that Davie would still be around - he was, and this is why friends are wonderful. He could tell I was upset about something, and what it was didn't matter in the slightest.

Davie: I have half an hour before German class; we can do whatever you'd like.
Me: Let's go for a walk. It's nice out.
Davie: Okay. Feel free to either talk about it, or just be silent. Either is fine.
Me: *silent*
*ten minutes later*
Davie: Do you want to be distracted?
Me: YES.
Davie: Let's find horse chestnuts. They're fun to open.

We didn't find any - something else had gotten to them first (squirrels? stressed MIT students? stressed squirrels?) since empty shells and their contents lay scattered on the grass. Instead, we did a little climbing and sat on some branches, while Davie told me about the genetics of trees. Trees are fascinating, he said, because they're mostly unrelated to each other; they're genetically closer to flowers or fruit or other predecessors. When evolution rolls on for long enough, all kinds of plants seem to adopt tree form. I talked about how, back in London, my friends and I used to hide in trees and alarm passers-by by bursting into song; Davie said that he used to do the same.

At 4:10, Davie was back in German class, and I, feeling much better, went to the library to check my e-mail. First item in my inbox:

"Anna,
I am really in German class now, but I thought you might benefit from a friendly null-email of good wishes. Consider this so.
:-)
Davie"

The following evening, a group of us were cooking fried rice when Davie got back from a run. He handed me a complete horse chestnut, and showed me how to open it. As I came to understand the satisfaction of peeling open a horse chestnut, I also came to understand that this was what made Davie qualified to come to MIT.

Sure, he's a beast, academically and otherwise. He's written a zillion articles for nature newsletters, and goes running all the time (I don't think he actually walks anywhere.) But the point is that he sent off a quick reassuring e-mail during class; that he used his nature know-how to distract a friend; that he stopped during his run to pick up a horse chestnut from the ground.

I take back my answer to that international student. Sorry. There is a way to be qualified to come here, and that's by being thoughtful: by applying whatever talents and quirky interests you have to helping other people. It can be as trivial as cheering up a bummed friend, or helping a frustrated underclassman with a pset at 3am. Actually, I'd modify that "can be" to a "should be", because I'd argue that those trivial things are the most telling; they are what you do without promise of recognition, when you don't stand to win awards for "Character" or "Leadership" that you get to put on your transcript.

I'm not an admissions officer, but I have faith that there's a way to find that attitude in an application, whether it's through teacher recommendations or essays or interviews, and that it holds more value than a medal. I also believe that it's difficult to fake. Maybe. I hope so, anyway, because MIT would be a sorry place if its students were unwilling to pause for horse chestnuts.

Thanks, Davie!

Comments (Closed after 30 days to reduce spam)

"Actually, I'd modify that "can be" to a "should be", because I'd argue that those trivial things are the most telling"

And it's words like these that not only keep me hopeful about my application but also make me feel like MIT is such a great place. Yes, because of its resources and education, but more importantly, its people.

Just letting you know how I appreciate posts like this! They give a human face to the Institute smile

Posted by: Chris Ong ('16)? on October 10, 2011

Thank you for the thought. I'll focus more on my character...

Posted by: Jason Sarwar on October 10, 2011

Thank you for this post. This kind of environment seems like a one of a kind and almost impossible to find anywhere else. I wish I knew more people like you.

Posted by: James on October 10, 2011

Thank you for the post! It's really amazing and helpful too. smile

Posted by: Aashish Tripathee on October 10, 2011

Sadly, I hope people don't go back to the drawing board and mould their essays trying to be the person you described :(

Posted by: anon ('16)? on October 10, 2011

This post has otherwise made me think I could have better chances of opportunity at MIT presenting the real me, in ways that I thought I would never earn credit for, other than the kind of person I always have thought admission officers expect an ideal prospective student to be!
I hope others did too.....tnx Anna

Posted by: kirubel on October 10, 2011

I thank you wholeheartedly! This was a great post.
I have always wanted to study at the MIT (In fact since I was 6 when I read a article about MIT) and this kind of posts enthralled me and makes me love more and more this Institute.
I am applying. I hope I could be there next year!!
Thanks.

Posted by: Jimmy Rojas (Costa Rica) on October 10, 2011

Is there anywhere we can download the webcast you mentioned?

Posted by: Ethio-MIT '16 on October 10, 2011

@anon ('16)?: I hope that people don't mould their essays trying to be ANYONE other than themselves. I do see your point, though; maybe I shouldn't have given a description of someone that I thought fit in well here. I just thought that it was worth giving one that didn't have anything to do with success in the traditional, GPA/extracurricular/SAT score-sense. Also, take a look at kirubel's comment; I think that's sort of what I had in mind.

@Ethio-MIT '16: I'm not sure; I'll find out for you.

Posted by: Anna H. '14 on October 10, 2011

Anna,

The anecdote you described was really, really moving. It nearly brought tears to my eyes. These first few weeks haven't been the easiest for me, but this post of yours gave me a little more hope.

Thank you.

Posted by: Luyi '15 on October 10, 2011

I have the same question as Ethio.... I missed it :(

Posted by: Adarsh '18 on October 10, 2011

@Adarsh '18: I e-mailed Chris Peterson, and he said that he would post a link later.

Posted by: Anna H. '14 on October 10, 2011

Anna correctly says that that there is no such thing as being "qualified" other than meeting the requirements for admissions, which are more than English proficiency. However, in practice there is such a thing as being unqualified for MIT. MIT has hard work and lots of of it. Any applicant who can't provide fairly convincing evidence that they can keep up with the academics is most unlikely to be admitted, although they would be foolish to apply in the first place.

MIT is a interesting place full of nice, interesting people. It is also a very tough grind that will test your motivation and commitment and abilities in ways that you have probably never experienced before.

Posted by: MIT EC '85 on October 10, 2011

This truly encouraged and convinced me to apply to MIT.
I always wondered if “Character/Personal Qualities” listed under “Very Important Admission Factors” are actually considered, but today through your post I no longer doubt.
Both Davie’s kindness and your gratitude make MIT so captivating.
The friendships at MIT excite me and make me dream about my hopeful, future years at MIT.
Your post spoke to me and gave me a conviction that MIT might want a girl behind not-so-perfect application.
Thank you Anna!

Posted by: Soo on October 11, 2011

Anna, this post made me feel that I am absolutely on the right path. It made me smile from within. Thank you for making my day.

Also, how are student bloggers recruited? I wish to inspire people if I get in.

Posted by: Raj Kunkolienkar ('16)? on October 11, 2011

@MIT EC '85: Yes; the admissions office definitely need evidence that you would fit in here academically. I didn't want to say that that wasn't the case; I wanted to say, like Soo said, that there are other characteristics taken into consideration, and that "would fit in here academically" isn't judged by ranking applicants by GPA or SAT score.

@Raj Kunkolienkar ('16)?: The blogger application appears here on the MIT admissions page (for example: http://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/blogger-application-2011)

Posted by: Anna H. '14 on October 11, 2011

@MIT EC '85: Yes, thanks for bringing that up; I may not have been clear. The admissions office look for evidence that you would be a fit in all dimensions, which includes academically. I wanted to communicate that 1) there ARE other dimensions, and 2) that an academic fit isn't judged by numbers alone.

@Raj Kunkolienkar ('16)?: The blogger application appears here on the MIT admissions page (for example: http://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/blogger-application-2011)

Posted by: Anna H. '14 on October 11, 2011

If only there were more "Davies", we would all be better off.

Go Davie!!

Posted by: D on October 11, 2011

@Anna and everybody else. I can see a hullabaloo of comments overhead, but can I say something honestly?

I guess this post emphasizes and gives out more on the value of being thoughtful, and caring, even in the humdrum of a place like MIT - which is the epicenter of ceaseless and relentless activity and the pursuit of the extraordinary. What it pushes me to think is about the Admissions process, but about the value of genuineness. Few entities in the world inspire us to continually be ourselves, all the time.
That said, to my fellow applicants for the Class of 2016, let's not try to paint everything with the colors of getting in. Life is so much more important than MIT, or any college, or any award, for that metter.
And to that, I say, awesome post Anna. Thanks a quadrillion. Cheers. smile

P.S. And best with the crushing workload!

Posted by: Rishabh Singh on October 11, 2011

"What it pushes me to think is about the Admissions process, but about the value of genuineness."

Oops. What it pushes me to think about is not the Admissions process, but about the value of genuineness.

My bad! smile

Posted by: Rishabh Singh on October 11, 2011

This is undoubtedly the best blog yet (at least ever since I have been following them) and I must say that it is truly inspiring.

No specific set of qualifications at all?
Great! smile

Just curious....but was it you at the Asia Webcast?

And what's up with the many people using a ('16) for their names? Guys, it's really annoying. We all know you are awesome, but just using a '16 along with your name wouldn't make you good enough for the institution. Sure, once you make it, you can do that, but no, not just yet.
No hard feelings I hope. wink

Posted by: Sameer M. Khan on October 11, 2011

@Anna

I wish there was a mechanism at MIT where admitted persons could reliquish their "seat" at MIT to an unadmitted applicant with superior achedemic merit. An ethical person would, surely, feel uncomfortable with the notion that they would build a career and life based on an MIT education rightfully belonging some someone else. How can an ethical person live with the fact that they are admitted because of their parents' wealth while a student who spent his entire life preparing for MIT is denied admission?

Maybe they should "occupy" MIT ...

Posted by: m_quinn on October 11, 2011

Looks like you need to be the right shape to fit into the MIT jigsaw puzzle.

So what are the criterias that need to be met in order to get accepted by MIT? I guess, being yourself and having luck on your side is all there is to it. Or you could just "hack" your way into MIT through their admission system lol.

Posted by: Hakker on October 11, 2011

@Sameer M. Khan: Nope, that wasn't me!

Posted by: Anna H. '14 on October 11, 2011

@hakkos WE are thinking alike cos the road to MIT is very uncertain so hacking to admin officers with you past academic and social ability seems the in thing.

Posted by: kilanko on October 11, 2011

@Anna -

Thanks for making my day just that much brighter.

Posted by: PseudoIntellectualHack '08 on October 12, 2011

@m_quinn - You're misinformed about the MIT admissions process. The process is need-blind, meaning that your admissions decision is made regardless of whether or not you can pay. The process also takes environment into context. Raw numbers do not tell the entire story of someone's intellectual capabilities, how hard they've had to work, or what they're capable of doing.

Success is about not only intelligence, but grit - and MIT wants to help students change the world, so they're looking for both wink

Posted by: Piper '13 on October 12, 2011

@m_quinn: Me and most of my floormates my freshman year here were the first in their generation to go to college. Our parents' income was clearly not a factor in our admission to MIT. As Piper said, admissions here is need-blind. You've been trolling these blogs ever since you didn't get in - perhaps the admissions committee picked up on your negative attitude in your application? As Anna said so well in this entry, admission isn't solely numbers - attitude and spirit are much more important.

Posted by: Anonymous '12 on October 12, 2011

@Piper H. '13

If MIT selection is really "need blind" then why does MIT demand that you submit financial information months before admission decisions are made??? Yes environment does count; just ask those poor applicants from snubbed states.

@Anonymous '12

Seems to me that MIT admissions worshipers are met with gushing gratitude, but admissions critics are trolls ...

Posted by: m_quinn on October 12, 2011

@ m_quinn You're just making a fool of yourself, mate. How you are reacting shows how sore you are from being rejected, still. If MIT is so bad, why loiter around the dungeons of its blogs with a bazooka looking for MIT Undergrads? And if it was so bad in the first place, why did you even apply?

The truth is, MIT happens to be too good for some people to handle. I guess you're one of them. One of my friends just graduated from MIT. And guess what, he did not have to pay a single penny. Not even his travel expenses to India. Nothing at all. I'm sorry if I sound rude, but even from the streets, post the decisions, respect this place not as the place which rejected your application, but as an 168 acre expanse of land which has been giving so much to mankind over the years. And I can clearly see a line between worshipers and critics, and it spells something like "Dignity and Sanity".

Posted by: Rishabh Singh on October 12, 2011

'How can an ethical person live with the fact that they are admitted because of their parents' wealth while a student who spent his entire life preparing for MIT is denied admission?'

"who spent his entire life preparing for MIT". You carve the reason of not being selected to MIT out yourself. I know I am getting very pedantic here, but I guess you missed the point. The best strategy is preparing for life and having a passion for a science or an art, not an institute, and not preparing for an admissions process. I am not the expert but again, this makes sense, doesn't it?

Posted by: Rishabh Singh on October 12, 2011

@Rishabh Singh

MIT admissions worship will not get you in. Money gets you in ...

Posted by: m_quinn on October 12, 2011

This is what all schools should teach ahead of academics, morals and values are much more important to make someone successful in life, which is I believe the first goal for those who are after pursuing higher education at a great school. Thanks Anna for this eloquent post.

Posted by: Abdalaziz on October 13, 2011

@kilanko

You wanna share some ideas? [email protected]

Posted by: Hakker on October 13, 2011

Well done!! Thank you for sharing!

Posted by: Mohammed on October 14, 2011

What happened to all the admissions videos that were on the website last night? Why were they removed?

Posted by: anon on October 14, 2011

Thank you so much Anna. Now I feel much better even if I do not "qualify" the IPhO! grin

Posted by: Cathy on October 14, 2011

This is the reason why I want to be in MIT. Now I feel more comfortable about my admissions. At least I can be admitted even if I don't win major science contests. (But I'll surely try to win )

@m_quinn : Sure, but just the different between you and humans is that they get in by the Passion unlike you who thinks money is important. Sorry if I'm rude but Trolls aren't invited in anti-trolled' places.

Posted by: Jayant on October 14, 2011

Is it really so simple? For someone like me too? Being from Bangladesh, and never having taken part in an Olympiad, I don't think I stand a chance (even though I never lacked good grades). An Olympiad recognition or experience seems like the most important ingredient without which my application "recipe" will just never be remotely palatable *sigh*... if only the world were simpler

Posted by: distressed_depressed on October 14, 2011

I have been reading these blogs since 2007, and as such, I have read hundreds of posts in the same vain as what Anna wrote above. The message is not, "Hey, this is how you get into MIT!" It is just to illustrate that MIT students are people, too. Trust me kiddos, MIT admits individuals, not GPAs/SATs/Class Ranks.

The message is: be yourself, not your numbers.

Posted by: Cunningham '10 on October 14, 2011

Forgot to mention.....I know this will be hard to believe, but, you will find students like this Davie guy--and lots of them-- on college campuses all across the country. If this post is the reason why you want to come to MIT, then you surely will be happy at plenty of other institutions.

Also, before I forget; I wonder how many essays this blog post is going to influence?

Posted by: Cunningham '10 on October 14, 2011

@Cunningham

I only wish that what you said about there are many Davies on college campuses all across the country is true. I know of a freshman at an excellent college that moved to a "lower" ranked college in a different state at the start of her second year because she found her college environment to be so competitive that students were not willing to help those in need. The college has a grading system which encourages competition among the students. Most students hence do not want to share knowledge or help their fellow classmates in the fear that they would not make it to the top because the others may excelled.

In a pressure cooker environment, not many students would take precious time away from doing a p-set or re-charging their own battery to go out of their way to stop and help a fellow student in need.

You are indeed very lucky to have come across so many "Davies".

Posted by: D on October 14, 2011

@m_quinn

Wow. Aren't you the same guy who's been here for over a year? Let it go. A lot of other people and I didn't receive offers of admissions and we just moved on and realized there are better things than obsessing over a school that doesn't want you.

Posted by: user.exe on October 15, 2011

@D

Perhaps this personality came out in Davie's application, and perhaps MIT wanted someone like him on campus, but that is not my point. Anna states that Davie and her are friends. From the sound of it probably good friends, too. This is something that friends do for one another, hence, why you will find a Davie on every college campus. Yes, I have seen it. Or, perhaps this guy just has the hots for her?

MIT is a great school. It is very competitive. But, the Boston metro area has something like 80 colleges or so. Whether you go to MIT, Harvard, Tuft's, BC, BU, Northeastern, Suffolk, UMass Boston, or where ever: you will meet tons of college students from other schools. Davies exists.

Posted by: Cunningham '10 on October 15, 2011

Of course MIT has no monopoly upon acts of friendship! Nor does being a good person suffice to get one into MIT, though it will certainly be a positive rather than a negative if Admissions people like you as they read your application (which won't happen by trying to make it happen, by the way - there is no silver bullet. Be yourself and you will come off in the best way possible. Certainly don't write an essay about friendship or brotherly love when you really want to talk about how cool robots are or why French literature is so amazing! Think about what makes you excited - pretty much anything will make a fine essay if you love talking about it.).

Certainly I would have utterly failed to get into MIT if I had been judged solely upon character - though it seems I am quite good at cheering people up with horsechestnuts. grin On the other hand, it does say something about MIT that I am now a senior (yikes, that is old!!) and have met no-one at MIT to dislike, and a very many people who became friends almost at first meeting. MIT is a wonderful place, and there are a lot of wonderful people here, in all sorts of ways. I think that is most of what Anna was trying to convey - don't over-analyze.

Posted by: Davie on October 15, 2011

Really appreciated this post. It actually helps me feel a little bit more confident - I had some trouble balancing my social life (and internet life, heh) with my academics last year (junior year), and my grades slipped a bit, and I was afraid I'd wrecked my chances to get into MIT, and other highly-selective schools. Things like this make me appreciate that you don't have to have a 4.0 GPA to get into one of those schools, that the relationships I've made with my teachers and the extracurriculars I've devoted myself to (Mr. Academic Team!) will help me a lot.

I just hope the fact that my slipped grades are in the subjects I want to take in college won't be a problem... Funny how that works.


Lastly... (after a bit of profile creeping...) FIRST! Awesome! I was a member of our rookie team last year (Team 3507, Dallas Rookie All-Stars. Did better there than OKC, for sure...), and I have to say it was an amazing experience, and it's awesome seeing it pop up everywhere like this (I think one college app SPECIFICALLY mentioned it as an activity that would be good to mention)

Posted by: Brandon J. on October 17, 2011

Thank you so much for this post Anna! smile Now I do believe that MIT has some normal people instead of those super-intelligent guys and girls who I thought were kind of 'perfect' and whose admission to the Institute was inevitable. :p :p
This post has definitely given me more confidence, and it really has showed the human side of the Institute, as you had said. smile :D

Posted by: Kshitij on October 17, 2011

It's stuff like this that keeps me hopeful.
Thank you, this is a really great post smile

Posted by: Shoyeb A. on October 17, 2011

Im doing an essay and i would like to know what the required gpa of mit or the average gpa of accepted students

Posted by: theapostles on October 19, 2011

if this is the way things happen in DUDLEY'sTOWN, then....... this so so KOOL. this is the best i can say.

Posted by: Siddhant on October 19, 2011

Thank you so much for this post! I just sent in my final part to the early application and I was stressing and not feeling good enough for the amazingness that is MIT. Then, as I was depressing myself further by looking at other people's achievements and what they did to get in, I stumbled across this article. Thank you so much for reassuring me that my lack of a 36 and triple 800s are not the end of the world. Simply being a kind person and having the ability to be nice to someone else is such a valuable quality and so often goes unrecognized by colleges. I feel much better now. Thank you so much for brightening my day!

Posted by: Morgan on October 20, 2011

Anna, I actually had the same problem as distressed_depressed. I'm not that great in sports, and my extracurriculars aren't that many that I think there are. Although my grades are quite good in previous classes, I still don't know whether I really am MIT-material (a person who CAN make it.) Please HELP!!!!!!!

Posted by: Kshitij on October 21, 2011

I'm very happy to see the title of your article, which brings me to ask you a few questions about transformers and I hope it won't bother you.
I'm now studying in china as a university student but unfortunately this university is not the one I wanted. And I decided to go aboard to learn the subject I wanted to.
According to the website MIT requires students to learn calculus, calculus-based physics, chemistry and biology in university for one year or two. While several courses are not offered in my school, and actually few universities in china offer all these subjects. Does that mean I'm not eligible to apply for MIT as a transfer? As a freshman in university is it ok for me to apply to MIT in 2013? Looking forward to your reply.

Posted by: Dency on October 22, 2011

This is a great blog post. I met someone over the summer who is the female equivalent of Davie, and she was a really uplifting and thoughtful person too.

I've often believed that students at tough universities like MIT may struggle to keep up with a fast pace, but what makes their experience worthwhile is that they struggle together. Thank you Anna for confirming my notion.

Posted by: LakshyBoy on October 30, 2011

nice!!! but what kind of attitiude you are talking about?ro

Posted by: M19 on November 6, 2011

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