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.
*ten minutes later*
Davie: Do you want to be distracted?
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:
I am really in German class now, but I thought you might benefit from a friendly null-email of good wishes. Consider this so.
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.