Jul 15, 2005
How to do everything wrong and still get into MIT
Posted in: Freshman Applicants
I solemnly swear that I am about to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. (Woo, who's been watching too much Law and Order this summer?)
In my various unofficial capacities as a knower of MIT-related things, I have been asked many times how, precisely, one goes about getting into MIT. My first response is generally to spout one-liners about passion and hard work. I have been known to mention interviews and essays and extracurricular activities. This doesn't always seem to put the anxiety of prospective students to rest; knowing you're competing against 10,000 other people for spots in a class of 1000 tends to make people unsure of their own merits. But today, I realized that my own high school experience was so far removed from what most people judge to be MIT-worthy that it might be worth sharing.
First, I've always been psyched about brains. When I was in 8th grade, my mom brought home a copy of How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker, who used to be a professor here in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. I've also always been a voracious reader, so I snuck it out of her room and read it. And loved it. On the back cover, it said that Pinker was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I liked the way that sounded. It had a lot of syllables.
That's not why I applied.
Sure, it was part of it -- I knew MIT had a Brain and Cognitive Sciences department, and I knew that's what I wanted to major in, and, hey, if one of the professors in the department wrote awesome, popular books, it sounded like a good place to be.
But more importantly, my freshman year in high school I briefly dated a senior boy whose only ambition was to attend MIT and major in aero/astro. We broke up. He didn't get in. He was devastated.
You may see where this is going. Yes, I applied to MIT just to see if I could get in, and then make sure my ex-boyfriend knew all about it. I am a terrible person, blah blah.
Besides the terrible motivation for applying, I had a lot of other factors going against me. I was dead-set on attending Ohio State University, because I'm from the Columbus, Ohio, area and knew I could probably get a full ride. The best way to get a full ride at OSU is by being a National Merit scholar, so I knew I'd have to do really well on the PSAT. So -- and feel free to admire the logic here -- I took the SAT on October 14 my senior year as practice for the PSAT on October 17. No test prep, no studying vocab words. I didn't even really care what I got on the SAT, since OSU accepted the ACT, and I wasn't serious about applying to any east coast schools anyway. Good news: I aced the PSAT (80V, 74M, 80W) and got National Merit. Bad news: I got a 1430 on the SAT I.
NOTE:I do not personally think that a 1430 SAT I (which I guess would be, say, a 2150 or so now) is a bad score. But there are a lot of people who think that it is a bad score, and there are certainly a lot of people who think you can't get into MIT with a 1430/2150, especially if your math score is sub-700.
The one thing I always had going for me was that I was very involved in the performing arts at my high school. I made all 8 shows in the extremely competitive drama department, and even had lead roles in 6 of the 8. I made the elite show choir as a junior -- the only girl to make it her junior year. I was the captain of the 40-member color guard in a marching band which went to the Fiesta Bowl parade, Orange Bowl parade, and Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. I did other stuff too: counseled 5th graders about drugs, NHS, quiz team, drama club, Latin club, all-Ohio choir, girls' state... you would sort of suspect that I was doing it for my resume, except that I obviously wasn't gunning for the Ivies. I just like(d) being insanely busy.
So during fall of my senior year, between state band competition, show week for the fall play, the Macy's parade trip, and Christmas shows for the show choir, I never got around to scheduling an interview with my EC. I didn't really worry about it. I was going to OSU on a full scholarship.
I should also mention that my school (which was a decent suburban public high school -- not awesome, not terrible) had weighted grades. Band and choir were held during the day, so I got band and choir grades, which were obviously As. I had also taken regular geometry and algebra II, then switched to honors for precalculus and calculus. So even though I had almost straight As, I was ranked 11 in a class of 530 because some other kids had figured out that if they only took honors classes and had 4 or 5 study halls a day, they could get straight As and be at the top of the class. I didn't really worry about it. I was going to OSU on a full scholarship with a stipend! Woo!
My high school offered 8 AP classes, and I took 3 (Government, English, and US History). Although AP Chemistry, AP Biology, and AP Physics were offered, I didn't take them (physics and chemistry because I hated them; biology because there was a conflict with show choir. To my credit, I did cry.) I did take all the honors science courses offered (biology B, genetics, and meteorology/oceanography), except physics. I hate(d) physics.
I have to admit that, looking back on this sorry history, it seems extremely unlikely that I was admitted into the class of 2006. You may also think that it seems extremely unlikely that I attended MIT, since I seemed so set on my scholarship and stipend at OSU... my friend Akhil (who has the distinction of being the smartest person from my high school ever to attend MIT -- there have only ever been two people from my high school ever admitted here!) claims that I never really wanted to go to OSU, I was just telling myself that. Maybe he's right. (He usually is.)
Anyway. I hope this story has been at least somewhat informative... anecdotal evidence has its limitations, but clearly it is possible to get into MIT without being a super-genius, or slave to schoolwork, or world-renowned master of something frighteningly difficult. (Although I suppose that helps.) Real people get into MIT. Real people even go here.