Oct 13, 2008
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know
Posted in: Freshman Applicants
I've done a couple of posts about life at MIT, so I figure it's time to turn the attention specifically to you, the wide-eyed and apparently confused applicants.
I'm not going to tell you how to get into MIT. That's not a good question at all, and I don't think anyone knows the answer. It depends on too many factors. I could give you my high school resume, but that would be a terrible idea for a couple of reasons. First, it would discourage those who have a “weaker” profile, but still have a decent chance of admission, from applying. This would also give confidence to those with a “stronger” profile, which would make the very possible sting of rejection even harsher. Second, even if I applied this year, with the exact same credentials, I'm not confident I would get in. Admissions vary year to year, and to be perfectly honest, 2013's admit rate could be less than 2012's.
I can tell you how to maximize the strength of your application profile, the little things you can do that can't hurt your chances. Proofread. I'm sure you've heard it all before, but your word processor probably won't point out their/they're/there, who's/whose, aloud/allowed, loose/lose, or choose/chose issues (these are the mistakes I find most often on reddit.com, which you should by no means EVER visit if you are trying to do something important with a deadline, like apply to college). If you're really worried, put your essay into a YouTube comment and take advantage of the new feature they implemented after Randall Munroe lampooned the site's commenters. I'm not saying you guys are morons, but listen to your essay being read aloud, either by a computer or a friend, to make sure that it flows and that the sentences don't sound as awkward as the one you are reading now. I guess these tips fall under the general things you should do before turning in any essay, so they're pretty common sense. It's also important to show, not tell, which may not be so obvious. Don't flat out say X event changed me in Y way. Show how it changed you. Describe the manifestations of the impact, not the impact itself. This is a much less tangible piece of advice, so I think it would be good to refer you to someone a bit more qualified to explain the nuance much mo' better-like. Side note: I googled the advice, thinking there's no way Wikipedia would have an article on it. Well, there you go. It's a really good article, too, and it includes examples.
The interview is an important part of your application, and I urge you to read Kim H's series about it. I got a request for my interview story. There was actually a problem with my EC assignment: I have known the interviewer assigned to my school since I was something like two years old, so he had recuse himself from conducting mine. It was really easy to get a new EC. I just had to make a phone call and the next day the MyMIT page was updated with my new interviewer's name. I met her at her dental practice, and we spoke right in the reception area while one of the other doctors was working on patients. It was really casual; I brought some photography to show her that I couldn't fit into the application. There's really nothing to worry about when you go in for your interview. Maybe the night before come up with a list of your accomplishments or activities, or review the list if you've already made one, just so you have something memorized to talk about if you get stage fright. Try not to repeat things that appear in your application, because the point of the interview is to get a sense of your side that doesn't show through on paper. Most of all, don't be nervous. My MIT interview was the first I did for my college applications, and there were a few awkward silences where it seemed like I couldn't remember who I was. That's a pretty strange feeling. My other interviews went a lot better, though, but I guess it wasn't all that big a deal.
Wrapping it up, I'm going to answer in a hodgpodge some of the straightforward requests I got in the comments on my last post.
There are many musical groups on campus. There are all sorts of a capella groups, most famously the Logs, but also Resonance, the Muses, the Cross Products, and the Chorallaries. I seriously found these links individually before seeing Matt's relevant post. As for groups that actually call themselves a choir, all I (and Google) know of is the MIT Concert Choir. The choir can also be taken as a for-credit class.
Regarding tennis, there are plenty of ways to get involved! Almost every dorm has an intramural (IM) team. Some have multiple teams in the different leagues, which are based on the players' average skill level. It's super easy to get involved in any IM sport in your freshman year. In fact, I'm captaining Next House's IM soccer team, so if you want to play tennis, you will definitely be able to. IM is pretty laid back, no tryouts or anything. There are also men's and women's varsity teams. I know freshmen on both the varsity teams, so it seems like as long as you pass the tryouts you can play. Just a note, if you play varsity in any sport, you are barred from playing that sport, and only that sport, intramurally.
I'm fairly certain that the admissions department doesn't keep track of the average number of hours that admits volunteered for charity. I'm pretty sure these statistics simply don't exist, although I will get confirmation as soon as I can. Your high school transcript is one of the most important pieces of your application, so a million hours of work in a soup kitchen ain't gonna cover four years of F's. All I can say is that surely it won't hurt. Volunteer work is good, especially if you have a leadership role or can speak about how it's changed your life. Raw numbers of hours probably don't speak as much as the hours' effects on you, or your effects on individuals who need help.
As for the optional essay: It will only help if it significantly adds something that you couldn't elaborate on elsewhere in the application. I'll leave it at that, and I'll update the post with statistics if I get them. I realize that applications can seem like a statistics game, but it's my personal opinion that this point of view isn't necessarily the correct one to have. When you get down to it, the application process is about people, about you, not about your numbers. Sure, schools will use your grades and test scores to make sure that you can hold your own academically, but it's so much more than GPAs and SATs. Think of yourself as more than a number or a percentage, and let that show in your application.
MIT does accept select AP test scores for academic credit. These tend to be the humanities and math classes. Most science credit is not accepted, as per this list. To place out of freshman science or math classes, you must take the Advanced Standing Exams which are proctored in the first week of orientation (18.01 is covered by Calc BC, and AB puts you in accelerated 18.01, but 18.02 requires the placement exam). So, I was asked the extremely valid question that goes to the effect of, “If MIT doesn't accept AP credit, what's the point?!” Well, taking AP classes shows that you like to challenge yourself, that you're above average. Admissions officers frequently use the quote “A B in an AP class is better than an A in a normal class.” It shows that you're willing to take that academic risk and not take the path of least resistance. That being said, don't take AP classes just for the extra point on your GPA. My school had this GPA-inflating (they'll call it “adjustment”) system where you'd get a 5.0 instead of a 4.0 for an A in an AP class. At my high school, tied with their lax requirements for getting into the AP classes, this resulted in a lot of people struggling to get by. B's in advanced classes are not a huge deal, but C's and D's could be.
If you do take AP Chemistry, Physics, or Bio, and end up taking their “equivalents” here at MIT, you'll be nicely surprised. It's not boring at all, and it serves as a nice cushion in the adjustment to college life. I'm taking 5.111 and 8.01, freshman chem and physics respectively, and in high school we covered most of the material. I took AP Chem in junior year, so I think it's good that I'm using it as a refresher. I feel like I really should have placed out of 8.01, but it's not that bad. My semester is not mind-numbingly boring. I mean, come on, it's MIT.
You don't need to have done research, or invented something, or won math competitions, or anything like that to get into MIT. I didn't, and I actually have only met one person so far who has. Don't feel inferior because you didn't win the Intel Fair when you were a freshman. Something like that will obviously help boost your application, but the lack of it won't disqualify you from admissions, not in the least. The only science fair I ever respectably participated in was our dinky city competition. Not sure if I even mentioned that on the app, and lo and behold here I am.
See Matt's post here for information regarding supplemental materials like extra recommendations, music/art projects, and other work you may have done. This post, also by Matt, just touches on A Levels. The steps for reporting coursework done at community colleges can be found here. I got lazy at the end there and just posted links, but I hope you find your information in these referrals. Let me know if you need clarification on anything.
So, that was more serious and heavy-handed than I'm used to. In continuation of Bloggers' Show and Tell, here's my main MIT essay, in response to the prompt “Tell us about an experience which, at the time, really felt like 'the end of the world'--but had it not happened, you would not be who you are today. Describe the process through which you discovered value in the negative.” I wrote the essay the weekend before the applications were due, and like Cristen, didn't really revise it (though I didn't cut it as close). Looking back, I hate how preachy I get at the end. It's a lot more touchy-feely than I remember. So it goes. Enjoy (I hope).
One hour to midnight, I answered the phone. My grandfather was at a truck stop in Mississippi, using a kind stranger’s mobile after the call box stole his change. They were detoured west to Mississippi and would have to travel across the north of Louisiana and then south to Houston. At two in the morning, I heard them struggle to open our back door. What should have been a six hour drive became a twelve hour ordeal across three states.
That was merely the road to safety.
It would be another two agonizing weeks before Google uploaded the first satellite images of New Orleans’ battered uptown. The carport roof was underwater. We knew the house was putrefying; the rank fluid still had not receded. My grandparents grew quiet, depressed and spiteful. The engineers failed; the levees failed; government failed; and a city was underwater.
Our family has not found even the start of the road home.
Two years later, and I have been back to the city only four times. Each visit to the first home I ever knew is tortuous and disheartening. The city itself is progressing, but amidst the advancement, our home stands exactly as it did in 2005. Still, in Houston, I long for New Orleans. Without the house and the vibrant city, I realize what they meant to me. I miss the warmth I felt as we drove around the curve of Interstate 10 at night and the city opened before us. I miss the regency of the river, the amity of the Audubon, and the chaos of the quarter; the smell of sweet powdered sugar on hot dough and bitter chicory in steaming coffee, my pediatrician Dr. John and his prescription Gris-Gris for the blues.
With the home and the city past repair, optimism is impossible and naïve. Katrina took a little piece of my heart as she dissipated in the Midwest. In her wake, desperation festers like the mold in the basement. Unable to rebuild, unable to repair a city, I must take solace in my newfound appreciation and yearning for a town I once took for granted. The storm amplified my love of the city and created a desire to see the regeneration of its culture. Though I know efforts to repair New Orleans to its former glory are in vain, volunteering to bring the city out of its slump will establish another connection to the town. On a less personal level, I can acknowledge the storm for what it has done to reform the bureaucracy of our country’s emergency response mechanism. Katrina uncovered the corruption of Michael Brown, but this is hardly a victory. He should never have been promoted; FEMA should have had a review committee; the system should have worked and New Orleans should have been saved. The improvement in FEMA certainly helped save people’s lives during the blizzard of 2007 and the recent California wildfires. Never, though, will I be convinced that this small restructuring justified the destruction of America’s most beautiful city.
Use this as an imperfect example of one application, not a model of a perfect essay, as Paul comments on Cristen's post.