Oct 12, 2014
I Wrote an MIT Application Essay on Getting a B in Calculus
Hello Internet! I had a very writing major day, which is to say that I spent this morning sitting in 1369 Coffee on Mass Ave writing new scenes for ThesisNovel before I sent the first fifth of it off to my advisor. Much idyllic, such hipster, wow. To play to stereotype, I even Instagrammed my food.
(In my defense, the latte art deserved preservation.)
The protagonist of ThesisNovel is a high school senior who’s just about to start the college application process, which might be an intensely familiar situation for some of you. But it’s a little further away for me, so in the interest of research—and inspired by a bunch of other bloggers who’ve recently written about their own application experiences—I decided to look for the essays I actually wrote when I applied to MIT.
They were surprisingly hard to locate. They hadn’t survived the transfer to my most recent laptop and could only be found in my old Hotmail, for one thing. For another, I didn’t actually put “MIT” in the subjects or bodies of the emails with my essays attached, which were mostly sent to my dad so I could get a second opinion on what I’d written. The emails were instead titled things like, “Have a present - I am sleeping in ish” or, “Thingumagig” or, “It was proofread and everything!” or simply, “Oh Friend!”
Past me was exuberant, but she is not very helpful to present me.
Past me had also been unintentionally prepping for this process—the college application process in general—for a very, very long time. (A lot of it was unintentional, because I’d ingrained expectations from the cultural climate in which I grew up. All those internalized standards became a huge huge issue for me later on, which is another story altogether.) Ceri and Joel wrote great posts recently about feeling unprepared, or being told they were unprepared, to apply to MIT, which you should definitely check out.
I also felt unprepared to apply to MIT, but not because I’d had it hammered into my head by a counselor or a website that I wouldn’t be able to get in, just because you are never fully prepared to apply to MIT. I knew it was—theoretically—possible that MIT would accept me, but MIT is a reach school for everyone and it’s difficult to anticipate what’ll happen when you apply, for better or for worse. (The story about the applicant who built a fully functional nuclear reactor in his garage is worth a read. Spoilers: he didn’t get in, but a bunch of other applicants, none of whom built a nuclear reactor, did. Just shows you don’t need to go overboard to be accepted here.) I did know what I wanted out of a college experience, and I was also intensely familiar with how to approach college applications. That was something we all took way too seriously in my family.
College Search 2KChel kicked off with a three-day, six-school driving tour of schools of the Northeast, spring break of sophomore year of high school. Yep, that’s right. One school info session/tour in the morning, lunch break, one school info session/tour in the afternoon. Sophomore year. I'm unquestionably grateful that I have parents who cared enough about my education to take me around to schools like that, but here's a note to all you other parents out there: do not do this. Three days of back to back college tours is just too much. Your kids will temporarily hate you, they will barely remember the schools, and they'll still give you a hard time about it six years later.
Take this example: by the time we wound our way down to Wesleyan, I flat out refused to go on the walking tour, although I was eventually persuaded to get out of the car to attend the info session. That's how tired I was.
“I think we passed fields back there,” I said. “Fields with cows in them? I don’t want to go to school in the middle of nowhere.”
“We’re not in the middle of nowhere,” said my mom.
“Cows,” I repeated meaningfully.
My parents went on the walking tour without me. Apparently Wesleyan was very nice. I didn’t apply there.
Spring Break College Trip Extravaganza
I did go visit a few more out-of-state schools—I’m from Maryland, and didn’t want to stay close to home—but we never structured trips like that again. My dad and I would venture out casually on long weekends or during breaks. Some of the schools I saw were more competitive than others. As College Search 2KChel progressed, I developed some criteria for my ideal college, which were that a) the school had to be in or near a city, but not completely integrated in (a la NYU) and b) there had to be an engineering or computer science program. (The school having a prestigious name was not a criterion because I strongly believed then, and believe now, that it’s possible to find collegiate happiness any number of ways, in any number of places.)
Most of the schools I applied to were not engineering-focused; I wanted to do computer science, but I didn’t want to be surrounded only by computer scientists. I also wanted to have options if I decided to switch majors.
MIT was the exception to that rule. Before I first visited the campus (which I did on day one of Spring Break College Trip Extravaganza, so I wasn’t tired yet), I didn’t think I would even apply. I didn’t think I would like it. But the admissions presentation was so engaging, and the tour guide we got so quirky-wacky (when describing the rules for pets on campus, she said, “No dogs, but some dorms allow cats—although I do know someone with a very slobbery ‘cat,’ if you know what I mean”) that I was won over almost immediately, in spite of the grey spring drizzle.
I didn’t dream of applying to MIT my whole life. I only figured out that I might be happy going to college there the summer before my junior year. And then I balked, because if I applied there to study computer science but changed my mind and opted to pursue writing, my other primary interest, would that be possible? Or would it be feasible to double major in those things if I wanted to? (Answer: yes. Oh, past me, you didn’t know what was coming to you.)
Thankfully, Boston isn’t a bad drive from my town and we have family friends in the area who were happy to
put up with us put us up for a few days, so I headed back to campus about a year later to find out the answer. I was able to meet with a couple of professors in the writing and literature departments who assured me that humanities at MIT were very much a thing, and Anne Hunter of course 6 fame, who told me that double majoring was also possible, and often done. One of the lit professors I spoke with remembered me and ended up becoming my freshman advisor a year later, after I was admitted.
Now for a reality check: that wasn't necessary. None of that was necessary! You don't have to talk to professors before you apply. (Can you imagine if you did? Professors would never get any work done.) I didn’t do any of that to help get me into MIT, just like I didn’t take any of the classes I took in high school or participate in any of the extracurriculars I participated in to get me into college. I took those classes and did those activities because they made me happy (maybe I also thought that it was normal to juggle a lot of stuff, since all my friends were doing that too), and I did that re-visit to make sure that MIT would make me happy if I got in and decided to go there. I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to do those things, but I didn’t do them to look good on an application. I did them for me. That's what they call applying sideways, which is explained in more detail in the nuclear reactor blog post I linked above.
Anyway, the short of all that is that I knew what I was getting into by applying to MIT. I knew what I’d do if I got there, or I thought I did, and I also knew getting in would be an uphill climb. Oh, and first I had to go through that whole application part.
I have a close friend who had MIT as a goal school since she was very young. She applied early action and I didn’t, but we were accepted together, and since I took a year off but she stayed to MEng we’re still in school together, as we have been since the fourth grade. I find that unbelievably cool.
At the time we were applying, I compared myself to her and ended up feeling very self-conscious. We were both in our school's International Baccalaureate program, but she took an extra science class as her elective; I took music. I’m fairly sure she took AP Computer Science, and I didn’t because I didn’t have room in my schedule; I wanted to sing in the choir. It was as if anyone was tailor-made for this school, it was her, or so I assumed. (Edit: this comment thread is important! Apparently she was also comparing herself to me.) English classes were never her favorite, and close literary analysis didn’t always click for her, but I thought MIT, as a place that puts a lot more public emphasis on math and sciences, wouldn’t look down on her for that.
Me, though, I had a B in Calculus.
My B in Calculus shouldn’t have been at all embarrassing, and it isn’t looking back on it, but it was at the time because I’d long considered myself a person who was Good at Math and Got A’s in Math and I thought that was the kind of person that MIT would want—a person who Got A’s in Math. Apparently past me was so hung up on this B that she dedicated one of her 250-word responses to it. I discovered that response in my email this weekend.
This was the question I chose to respond to:
12c) Tell us about the most significant challenge you’ve faced or something important that didn’t go according to plan. How did you manage the situation?
Let’s say, for the sake of not being totally embarrassing, that past me chose to focus on the “something important that didn’t go according to plan” part. (Something Important: Operation Calculus. The Plan: A. How It Went: B.) There were more significant challenges in my life up to that point than getting an A in math class, but none of those were resolved in a way that would really shed light on me as a person, or so I believed. I thought my Calculus experience would.
Here is the story behind the B, the one that I wrote about: I got the B in Calculus based on the work I’d done that semester, but managed to get an A on the final exam, taken later. I wrote about how I loved math, and how struggling with concepts that I’d never encountered before really threw me for a loop because I was used to math coming easily to me. But did past me take this sitting down? No! Well… not in the end! Because after half a semester of math not working out, I finally decided to put in some quality time with my teacher and a tutor to figure out what I wasn’t getting. And I did that not because I necessarily needed to get an A—I still closed out the semester with a B, after all—but because I wanted to understand the math. That final exam, even though it didn’t affect what went on my transcript, showed that I did, but more importantly it reflected the effort I put in to reach that ultimate understanding. That was the most valuable thing, the effort.
Even though the grades issue was pretty trivial in the scheme of things, the point of that response was that I didn’t give up when faced with concepts that were new and confusing. That’s something of paramount importance at MIT, where new and confusing things are thrown at you all the time and you’re expected to take them as they come. From what I’ve seen here, that willingness to work at problems until they make sense is more valuable than raw aptitude. That’s something that’ll carry you through your four years here.
I don’t think any single essay or short response or grade or SAT score got me into MIT, but even though I chuckled at past me for worrying so much over a B—I’ve struggled to earn B’s here!—I can’t see how those 250 words would have hurt my chances. Maybe they helped. In the end, MIT let me in.
There are other things about my application process that I'll want to bring up later, but here’s the moral for tonight: that thing, or those things, that you think will hold you back from getting into MIT? Maybe they won’t. Maybe if you squint your eyes and tilt your head, you’ll see that those things say something else about you that matters more. Maybe no AP classes were offered where you're from, so you found other ways to challenge yourself. Maybe you have a few grades that you don’t think are up to snuff, but you worked really hard for them, either because the material was new or because life was difficult then, and you earned them. It happens all the time.
Perseverance is the key. Creativity. Flexibility. Passion. A jumble of other nouns, none of which are perfection.
So get out there and tell your story, warts and all. You might be pleasantly surprised.
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