MIT Admissions

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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Matt McGann '00

Oct 12, 2006

Dean Marilee Jones in the news

Posted in: Prepare for MIT

MIT's Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones (our rockin' leader) is in the news. Below, I've highlighted four major media stories featuring Marilee from the past week, with a selection from the piece; click the link to read or listen to the entire story.

In the New York Times:
Her Mission: Easing Stress of Getting In

Looking at colleges with her daughter was often painful, Marilee Jones recalls. Not because of anything her daughter Nora did, but because of the behavior of admissions officers and parents.

Admissions officials routinely boasted of the number of applicants with perfect 800 SAT scores whom they had turned down. Message: You’ll never get in here. They tried so hard to present their university as offering something for everyone that they failed to convey what made their institution different.

Parents did not do any better. Overly aggressive, they monopolized the question-and-answer sessions and shoved their teenagers aside to cram into sample dorm rooms on campus tours.

Unlike most parents, Ms. Jones could do something about the excesses she saw. The dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ms. Jones said the experience made her re-evaluate many of her assumptions about college admissions.

“It helped me get real about what we’re actually looking for,” she said. “It helped me realize what a business we have become, the spin we put on things, trying to be something for everyone.”

In USA Today:
Getting into college taxes teens, parents

The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that today's overscheduled lifestyle is robbing children of the developmental benefits of play. It also cites pressures created by the high-anxiety college admissions process.

The academy discusses this in a new book, Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond. USA TODAY's Mary Beth Marklein spoke with co-authors Marilee Jones, admissions dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and pediatrician Kenneth Ginsburg.

Q: Why the extra focus on college admissions?

Jones: It can be a big driver. Many of us in college admissions have set standards that are so high, and we've been sending the message that kids need to be perfect. We get rewarded by U.S. News rankings for admitting those kids, and as a result we're caught up in it. The other piece is that we have a tendency to want kids to look alike. We want them to take so many AP classes, we fixate on the scores, and oh, by the way, they should have so many activities and they should also be leaders. They get headaches, or migraines, or stomach problems — all the classic signs of stress — because the adults in their world are holding them to such a high standard. There's no room to fail.

On NPR's Morning Edition:
School, Study, SATs: No Wonder Teens Are Stressed

Chelsea Halprin, a junior, hopes to apply to Columbia or Harvard. She has a nonstop schedule: homework, class president, team sports, mentoring younger students, helping at her synagogue. But she worries that in spite of all she does, it might not be enough.

And she has a point.

"This is sort of the peak of the demographics," says Marilee Jones, the MIT dean of admissions. "So when people feel anxious about the competition and worry that, 'Oh no, there are just so many people applying to college,' they're right. That's a true anxiety they feel."

That anxiety can take a toll on health, says adolescent medicine specialist Ginsburg. He sees many teenagers whose bodies show the signs of stress, whether it's headaches or chest pain or belly pain.

"At the extreme -- and I want to emphasize that this is the extreme – we're seeing more kids who are engaging in self-mutilation," Ginsburg says. "[It's] a way of taking control over their life when they feel their life is out of control. And I see quite a few kids with eating disorders. It's kids who just feel like they can't handle everything they're doing."

There are other, less obvious concerns. Jones believes that creativity and innovative thinking are taking a hit.

"Because students are so busy all the time, because parents think that's what they need to get into college, and we in college admissions officers reinforce that, they don't get into their imagination enough," Jones says.

Her remedy: "Let's free up a lot of kids to be able to do that and not force everybody to have all of those AP classes and all of those activities."

And in an interview/discussion on NPR's On Point [edit: as noted in the comments, this one is a few years old now; it snuck in because of my hasty blogging. Nevertheless, it's interesting to hear what Marilee was saying three years ago, in comparison with today]:
College Admissions Chaos

While the college years can be "the best years of your life," not the same can be said about applying to college these days. Baby boomers have produced a booming crop of college bound students and they are carrying the enormous expectations of their parents to get into top schools. More applicants to top schools has led to more rejections, and that only has made schools more selective and thus, more desirable.

"It's now 20 percent harder to get into any college than it was just a decade ago," says the Atlantic Monthly's National Correspondent Jim Fallows. In the lead story of the magazine's first-ever college survey, he describes parents, their private college consultants, and the colleges themselves going to new heights and lows in working the admissions process.

Comments (Closed after 30 days to reduce spam)

The NPR link seems to be to a 2003 program...

Posted by: 0 on October 12, 2006

So, what can our students do to get your fair judgement about admitting them or rejecting them? Hide their AP's on the application? It is easy on your end to say something like in this blog, but do you realize how sarcastic it is for you admissions end to say so because you are the one who caused the applicants to speculate, to guess, to suffer,...

Posted by: W. L. on October 12, 2006

It isn't fair to lay the blame onto the admissions personnel. Who is it that decides that every student must attend a highly selective college? How much of a benefit will there be to that student's future? How much better of an education will there be? Our entire culture pushes students to do this. But the admissions personnel are always the first to be blamed. Imagine how much worse admissions could be. Admissions officers try their hardest to make admissions fair, and try to give everyone an equal opportunity.

Posted by: Erik Chen on October 12, 2006

I am a Kenyan but I know enough about admission process into the top colleges in the US. The process is excellent for it extracts the best students. It, however, puts so much pressure on prospective students as they try to excel in everything just to get into a top college rather than for fun or betterment of mankind. Students should be more natural, freeing their thinking from any pressure, and colleges should be looking for such applicants.

Posted by: Thuita Maina on October 13, 2006

Some very valid points in the above comments. I would like to add another: Isn't taking several APs in the sciences and math a way to show the student's passion in the sciences? I know many students who take loads of advanced courses because to them gaining knowledge is enjoyable. Sadly, 8 AP 5's would be described by Ben Jones as: "The applicant definitely knows how to grind, but this doesn't show any passion because he didn't invent a handy-dandy nuclear reactor" Can't perfect scores be a way to demonstrate passion?

If so many people are perfect scorers that you can make an entire 1000-member class out of them, then why not simply do away with standardized tests?

I bear no malice against anyone, but these are important questions...

Posted by: Deepta on October 13, 2006

There are unique human endowments, including, inter alia, self awareness, a conscience, language (written and spoken), imagination and independent will. Among any others is the capacity to create (and innovate) which, I proffer, is the premiere unique human endowment. It is therefore very significant and instructive, for me, to note Marilee Jones' concern about the attenuation of this capacity as an unintended consequence of the college application process as it currently plays out. I read elsewhere, that Ms. Jones had indicated that some of the professors had offered that they did not like so much to teach the current student crops. Apparently, the concerns with "getting in" carry over into those of "staying in and getting through" such that the dynamics of learning, growing and honing one's skills for creating/innovating are negatively impacted. Clearly, these are not intended outcomes.

As I'm here, one other point: The standardized tests, it seems to me, suffer from the very problem they are intended to alleviate. They are not, themselves, "played on a level playing field", while they are supposed to correct for the large variances across several metrics and across the myriad learning institutions, globally, from which the pool, college students, is drawn.

In deference to being succinct, I'll just say this: It seems that these tests are just as likely to work to the detriment of intellectually solid, very competent and committed students, as they are to work to the benefit of excellent students from, say, small, low visibility school systems, or, say, school systems which are so "good" and competitive that some very competent students would be "lost in the crowd". It should not be underestimated the extent to which the standardized test format, itself, plays to the strength of some students and against the strength of some students. The "some" is not insignificant in either case. Further, I am referring to the case where intellectual capacity is not a significant differentiator.

Posted by: Anonymous on October 13, 2006

Are you releasing decisions this year online or through the mail?

Posted by: Joe on October 14, 2006

"I'll just say this: It seems that these tests are just as likely to work to the detriment of intellectually solid, very competent and committed students, as they are to work to the benefit of excellent students from, say, small, low visibility school systems, or, say, school systems which are so "good" and competitive that some very competent students would be "lost in the crowd"."

as oppsosed to what other system?

Posted by: 0 on October 14, 2006

I appreciate the fresh perspective. There are many willing to criticize and critique, but I am one voice in support of your school and admission personnel in their quest to redefine the process.

Posted by: just a mom on October 14, 2006

I often wonder how our public school students can have the fair opportunity to show their enthusiasm of pursuing knowledge, NOT PERFECT SCORES/GPA, but without any other resource than the GPA driven school stuff. They don't have parents capable of talking to them about engineering technology or any significant topics at the dining table; they don't have the funds nor access to learn Japanese; instead, they plod through poorly taught high school Spanish. They don’t have the opportunity to go diving somewhere in the tropics and count ocean creatures in summer, which they could write on the college application. They have never heard of AMC, AIME or, Math Olympiad teams because there is none at their schools. Some do know AMC and AIME exist, but they prefer doing painstaking, longsuffering theoretical thinking in math instead of math competition. Therefore, no beautiful scores can be filled in the boxes in the AMC section of the application. They have never thoroughly finish a math or science project because they don’t have mentors or guidance. All they can do is to show a rigorous transcript loaded with, again, poorly taught AP classes that they have taken at their high school because those are the only classes left to take. AP teachers sometimes are not so sure they are comfortable in teaching the AP classes themselves, yet they can not fend off the decisions the administrators have made to ensure that OUR HIGH SCHOOL HAS THIS MANY AP’s. The kids then try their best to teach themselves for the AP tests from other resource. They finally make a 5 or 4. And now we doubt if they are “CREATIVE” or “INNOVATIVE”. They actually enjoy learning on their own and proving to themselves, if not to their dream school admission officers, that they can take the initiative to span the gaps left between school education and college board tests, AP’s or SAT’s, and maybe successfully get good scores.

When these kids want to have a chance to be educated by the world’s top top STEM institutes like MIT, is it to be taken as an indication that they are not “UNCONVENTIONAL” enough? Are they to be viewed as uncreative kids who do not know how to have fun, just drifting along with a worldly current of worshipping a dream school, unconcerned about bettering mankind? These, maybe, are not students that professors like to teach because they are prepared well enough but yet don’t have the skills to free their thinking to be original in some ways that society, and professors expect them to spontaneously develop.

I do know some kids, devoid of the fancy lab facilities and exciting summer college courses which their parents can not afford, who make time outside of endless schoolwork and standardized tests to dive into the only outdated college textbooks they can find at their local libraries to satisfy their appetite for learning. Yet, no credits are rewarded for such behavior and, realistically speaking, they might not have been able to teach themselves as well or thoroughly as they have hoped. But is this drive, seemingly dry and uncreative, appreciated?

Before the kids, coming from ordinary families without much resource available, are well established through the high standard education provided by schools like MIT, their ability and capability to better mankind is still very limited, and they know this well. That is why they ambitiously desire to be trained and educated at a top college. How their wishes will be granted?

Posted by: W.L. on October 14, 2006

The only problem is... it's still the people with all the AP scores and SAT scores that get in. That's why parents/teachers/administrators put so much emphasis on them; the statistics back them up. I suppose there isn't anyone to blame for this, because it probably came out naturally upon the inception of these tests in the first place.

Posted by: 0 on October 15, 2006

Matt,

From the NY Times article you referenced above:

"Parents did not do any better. Overly aggressive, they monopolized the question-and-answer sessions and shoved their teenagers aside to cram into sample dorm rooms on campus tours."

A few weeks ago my son and I attended an information session about MIT. Indeed, I think every one of the questions was posed by a parent, not a prospective student. That is unfortunate, but it could have easily been avoided. At the end of the formal presentation, the speaker could have asked parents to leave the auditorium and wait for 30 minutes in the hallway/reception area outside, or had the parents meet with one of the 5 or 6 ECs on hand in the reception area while students asked questions in the auditorium, or simply asked parents to stifle themselves and let the students speak. (The last is the least likely to be effective, though, because teenagers--even independent, outspoken ones--are hesitant to speak up when sitting next to mom or dad in such a setting.) In other words, rather than blame parents for trying to find out as much as they can, or students for being understandably shy, alter the way the sessions are held.

As for parents squeezing themselves into dorm rooms, guides should just ask them to let the kids in first. Parents are excited and nervous, some are new to the college experience themselves, and it is easy to get carried away with enthusiasm for checking out junior's future living quarters.

One quick note about letting parents "know their place". MIT does a pretty good job of ensuring that students take the lead, with the MyMIT account and communications from Dean Jones reminding parents that they are not the applicants. Unfortunately, last week a letter from Dean Jones arrived addressed (on the envelope)to my son; within the envelope was a letter addressed to and intended for the parents, telling us to behave ourselves. I have no objection to the content of the letter, but it is pure chance I ever saw it, given that it was addressed to Mr. Independent, who saw no need to pass it on to me. If Dean Jones wants parents to get the message, make sure the envelope is addressed to them.

Posted by: anon on October 15, 2006

"As opposed to what other system?"


No other system.

First, the correlation between standardized test performance on the one hand and intellectual capacity and a love of learning on the other, should not be overplayed. Thus, the weight to be given to them ought to be very carefully considered in the context of a person's demonstrated competence and commitment over time. Given the extent of the vested interests (re both extensive and intensive rewards) that have evolved with the system there are no doubt strong pressure points for seeing the standardized tests as gatekeepers.

Second, it is clear that intellectual endeavours are facilitated by both the abilities to think and to remember/recall effectively. Let's think athletic training for the mind (primarily) here, in lieu of for the body (primarily). The second --- remember/recall ---- is where the standardized test system would make its largest contribution. As a quick example of that of which I speak here, consider finding the distance from a point to a line. It just would not suffice for a first principles approach to be taken, if such a question is placed on a test which requires that, on average, each question be accurately answered in just over a minute. Remember/recall is mandatory for excellent performance. Now, of course, having previously gone through the approach from first principles, should facilitate the remember/recall process. The point is, that proper preparation for both aspects of, shall we call it, mentality agility requires a formal process over time with the necessary consistency and persistence. This is where there is no level playing field. The very variances for which we are attempting to correct with the standardized test system, see to this. Note, of course, that this means that one must have several facts on several different topics at one's fingertips, at a snap to be effective at these tests.


[This can be ignored: Re the example above, when one has concluded that, logically, one must assume that the distance required from the point to the line is the perpendicular distance, one then has the equations of two lines which one can equate to find the point of intersection. One then has the coordinates of the points at the ends of the line which is perpendicular to the given line. Thus one can readily find the length of that line, which is the distance (shortest) from the given point to the given line. Yes, but only after circa two pages of algebra does one have the general formula. No good for a standardized test, no matter that one was readily able to sit down and produce that general formula after reading the question without reference to anyone or anything besides one's own mind. Furthermore one did not know the formula before deriving it.]

Posted by: Anonymous on October 15, 2006

Standardized tests are one, albeit imperfect, way to demonstrate competence. As far as I can tell, most other widely accessible alternatoves are at least as imperfect. School grades track performance over a longer time period, but unless the school (and possibly class and instructor) are well-known to the admissions committtee, the grades can be hard to interpret accurately. Impressive research can be a good sign of ability and commitment, but in many areas it requires some sort of connections to get access to the necessary lab facilities. Interviews can be highly subjective. And so on. So I repeat, to advocate that admissions place less weight on standardized tests, one must specify what one will use in their place.

Posted by: 0 on October 15, 2006

Less weight does not imply the need for something "in their place". The point is precisely HOW much weight to put on them and, indeed, on ANY of the criteria and metrics. And, in fact, this question should not have one answer. Where there is no level playing field, resulting quantitative assessments can, in effect, be just as highly subjective as, say, interviews, particularly when the interviews are themselves just one of several bases for assessment. As was said, the very variances for which we are attempting to correct with the standardized test system see to it that there is no playing field for the standardized tests.

The point is not to put too much weight on them, in each particular context in which they are being used, because their quantitative nature supports the concept of objectivity.

Posted by: Anonymous on October 15, 2006

Heh, I'd like to think that MIT itself "supports the concept of objectivity."

Posted by: 0 on October 15, 2006

The stress of admissions can be considerably improved by eliminating legacy, recruited athletes and VIPs. ( It will improve the number of slots availble for qualified students) It would also help if the admissions officers stop trying to consider race and gender as a additional criteria. Perhaps like common application and National Intern and Resident Program which is used to match medical students to their hospital of choice based and ranking system can be useful among topnotch universities.

Posted by: anonymous on October 15, 2006

I think admissions officers at MIT and at other selective schools already do a surprisingly good job of recognizing the context behind a student's numbers. They realize that the playing field isn't equal and their admissions decisions reflect that. I remember talking to one admissions officer who was particularly proud of "discovering" a student who did not come from a priviledged background. The student had relatively low test scores but an unquantifiable spark and passion for learning.

It seems to me that admissions officers are looking to find dynamic indivduals who fit their school culture well. This seems almost impossible to quantify. (But, in some sense, it's their job.) At the same time, they need some assurance that students they let in can do the work. (This is the reason for requiring some test scores, in my opinion. But their interpretation of the test scores is altered by knowledge of the student's environment.)

In an ideal world, students would choose what they did based on their desires and colleges would be able to pick students who fit their schools the best. Unfortunately, students will always strategize and admissions officers will have to try to "see through" the strategizing. Hopefully the press for this book will convince parents that overstressing their children won't help them get into college, and hopefully, colleges can find ways to convince students (and their parents) that they will have a fair chance of getting in (compared to their strategizing counterparts) if they simply pursue the constructive activities that they enjoy without regard to strategy.

Posted by: Arup on October 16, 2006

I couldn't agree more . The playing field is seriously "not equal". How can you compare a kid with almost all the latest technlogy in the US be compared with a kid in a "third world country" ?
Often times the money for SAT(mere $61) and TOEFL ($140) are too expensive for families) and financial well being comes first than going to a big US college. Then there's this information gap. While a kid in US starts prepping for college from high school, in most of the poorest parts of the world, it's just after the high school that they actually start understanding the admission procedure.
MIT is probably one of the more elusive dreams of students all around the world. Yeah, Its gotta be hard to select "Best and the brightest" students from all around the world. I believe MIT takes this in consideration as well.

Posted by: Prasanna Gautam on October 16, 2006

Hitting the nail on the head:

The article about Marilee Jones really found a place in my heart. As a parent of a hopeful MIT student, I was so pleased to see that someone out there that can make a difference is trying. While I believe that scores, grades, AP courses etc, are important, I also believe that we are sometime failing our kids by force feeding them so much that they have no time to "learn".
We have allowed our son to take a "much less than ordinary" path in his education. Much of what he has learned has been self taught and in no particular order. The results have been amazing! We have no regrets and have faith that having allowed him to learn and sometimes fail will get him to the heights to which he aspires. Three cheers to Dean Jones and MIT for trying to get kids and parents to relax and for trying to lead the way in the creation of a more innovative admissions process.

Posted by: DMC on October 31, 2006

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