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Ben Jones

Oct 5, 2005

Many Ways To Define “The Best”

Posted in: Prepare for MIT

Some parents wrote to me and asked me to contribute my opinions to a College Confidential thread about the pressure to load up on AP classes. Obviously my response is directed to parents, but I thought it was important enough to post it here as well:

As with most of my posts in the parents' forum, I'll try to respond both as an MIT adcom and also as a parent. This'll be sortof long, sorry.
First, the MIT adcom perspective.
I don't know the exact numbers; I couldn't tell you even if I thought it would be helpful. Numbers mean nothing to us because ~70% of our applicant pool is qualified in those terms.
Based on the thousands of apps I saw last year both in selection committee and as a reader, I can tell you that the average # of AP's for admitted kids was 5 or 6 (that's total for all 4 years of HS - i.e. 1-2 per year if evenly distributed). Many admits (most likely the majority) had no college classes. The most common AP's taken were in math and science (no surprise, it's MIT). The overwhelming majority got 4's and 5's on all tests.
I'll pause here to add that I frequently saw kids with perfect SAT scores and perfect grades and a gazillion AP classes get rejected. Why? Because often these kids knew how to grind, but brought nothing else to the table. And that's not who we're looking for at MIT. We admit kids who show genuine passion. Sure AP's can be one of many passion indicators - but I emphasize one of many.
When I was on the road, kids asked me repeatedly whether or not they should take a given AP class.
"Well," I'd respond, "would you be taking it because you genuinely want to, or simply because you think it will get you into college?"
Sometimes they didn't know the difference, which is a tragedy that deserves its own thread. But I digress.
And this is where you all start saying that adcoms are talking out of both sides of our mouths: we encourage kids to follow their hearts in the choices they make, and then as adcoms we want to see that they've taken "the most challenging courseload."
To which I say: guys, I work for MIT! If a kid doesn't want to be taking a challenging courseload in high school, that kid is certainly not going to be happy here.
Quite simply, the students who are happiest here are those who thrive on challenge. Most of our admits have taken AP math and science because they would have been bored silly in the regular classes. Indeed, they genuinely wanted to take those classes. They don't look at MIT as the prize; they look at MIT as the logical next step. It's an important distinction.
That said, AP's are not the only way to demonstrate that one is passionate and likes challenge. Read Anthony's story for an example.
When faced with the choice, we will always choose "the right match*" over numbers. We're not lying when we say that. You've heard me beat that sentiment to death in other threads, so I won't do so here.
(*Match = mission, collaborative spirit, hands-on, balance, character, and passion, among others.)
But the reality is that when you have 10,500+ applications for ~1000 spots and 70% of the pool has great numbers, your pool is going to have plenty of kids who have the passion and the match and the scores/grades/AP's. So we admit those kids - what other choice do we have?
But then (understandably) you guys say "Look! You need X, Y, and Z to get into MIT!" To clarify, we don't require those things; many of our admits just happen to have them. And, I might add, for the right reasons.
This brings me to the more important part, where we toss my affiliation with MIT out the window and I give you my thoughts as a parent.
There is only one coin. There are many sides to the coin, but there is only one coin. And you can flip it however you like.
So when a parent says to me, "Why does HYPSM (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, etc.) put so much emphasis on AP's?" I reply "Why do you put so much emphasis on HYPSM?" When a parent says "My kid's value as a person/student shouldn't be measured by how many AP's he/she has taken" I say "...and your kid's value as a person/student shouldn't be measured by whether or not he/she goes to HYPSM." I could go on and on.
There are literally hundreds of amazing colleges and universities out there (some of which actually admit kids with no AP's!). Many of them would actually be better matches for your child. Many of them would provide your child with a better education. Most importantly, many of them would ultimately give your child a greater sense of happiness and fulfillment. The right match will do that.
And the match goes both ways. We try to determine if your kid is a good match for MIT. Your kid should be trying to determine which school is the best match for him/her. As a parent, what are you doing to help him/her figure that out?
Here's a hint: if you're spending time obsessing that a lack of AP's is going to keep your kid out of Stanford, you're missing the point.
As I told the kids in my blog, I had a wonderful college experience that I wouldn't trade for anything, at a school that is currently only #23 on the USNWR LAC list (The HORROR!). I got a phenomenal education and can certainly hold my own against any Ivy grad. Bonus: I even got to grow up, get married, have kids, buy a house, land a great job, and enjoy life.
I took one AP class in high school.
Make sure your kids are choosing their schools for the right reasons. Name, status, "brand" - these are not the right reasons. Let your kids be kids. Let them follow their hearts. Encourage them to have a present, not just a future. Don't let them define themselves by which colleges accept them - and don't let them define themselves by doing things only to get into certain colleges.
The machine is fed from all sides. USNWR, the media in general, the GC's, the parents, the colleges and universities, the high-priced independent counselors, the test prep people...
My kids are still many years away from college, and I'm no expert on the parent side of this process. But I do know one thing: I will fight to protect them from all of this, to help them with perspective and clarity. Because if I don't, who will?
Because if we don't, who will?

Just my 2 cents, for what it's worth. More often than not, what society deems "the best" is not actually the best for most.

Comments (Closed after 30 days to reduce spam)

I really appreciate this entry, I have been a bit worried as of recent...(More on this towards the end of the comment)I do what I love to do. No, I did not take AP World History or AP Chinese language and culture I am taking what I love, not what I need to get into college. I am taking APs because there are no challenging non AP Courses or even anything with new material. (At the risk of sounding arrogant the AP courses being challenging is entirely debatable but eh, I certainly enjoy them more than normal courses). Following the same theme I am applying to MIT a year early (Three years really, having skipped two other grades), because I have exhausted my opportunities doing what I love to do and applying to MIT seems like the best thing to do at this point to continue ...doing what I love at the risk of sounding horribly clich

Posted by: Robb Carr on October 6, 2005

Ben - this is a wonderful post, both here and on CC. Thanks for all of the thoughtfulness you put into it.

Posted by: MITmom on October 6, 2005

I am just adding on a bit to my reply here...I am not implying in any way that taking many AP courses is a bad thing at all, I have more aps than normal courses this year. However I am taking those APs because they are enjoyable to me. What I was pointing out / agreeing with is that taking AP courses in subjects one is not intrested in or a course one will not enjoy merely for the sake of adding credential to a college application is counter productive. Just clearing up any possible confusion

Posted by: Robb Carr on October 6, 2005

If you're taking a lot of AP classes because you love it, then you really shouldn't have anything to worry about. Your rec letters should show that. This is especially important for students who have a wide variety of interests. For instance, students who've taken all the science APs and yet have taken multiple languages AP, or something like Art History AP. If you really did it because you love it, it *will* shine through in your application.

Posted by: Timur Sahin on October 7, 2005

Yeah, it's that kind of implicit message of confidence that one sends out when he or she says, "I'm doing all of this simply because I love it." It eliminates one's display of insecurity of being bombarded by the practicalities of life; it shines straight through to everybody, that one lives with passion and strives to improve himself; it makes you radiate with confidence and vigour (thankfully, it doesn't have a half-life =P).



Now that I've just read Anthony's story, I realize what a genius he is. Gee... way to go man!



And Ben, thanks for this post! It's not a *comforting* entry, so to speak; instead, I think it gives credit to the Admissions officers, not only of MIT but of almost every university, that probably would have been plagued with calls from anxious parents hoping for their child to enter a top university.

Posted by: Eric Asava-Aree on October 7, 2005

Anthony

Posted by: Robb Carr on October 7, 2005

Robb, I agree with you on that point. Hmm... maybe it's just the environment I see around me... in Singapore, the emphasis is placed on numbers, numbers, and more numbers. Or perhaps letters, for that matter (grades, yea?). The entire system here functions on numbers - PSLE scores determine which secondary school you can go to; O level grades (and hence numbers) determine which Junior College you enter; A level grades determine which course you enter in a local university; and your scores on your university tests determine whether you get 1st, 2nd or 3rd class honors in your degree.



That's probably why some people would find it *comforting* that MIT looks beyond paper credntials - because they have this insecurity about their academic performance - but I'd beg to differ. It's not that I like to emphasize my own credentials; in perspective, they're not *the* most impressive to look at. I just feel that we all should live by setting our own standards, and that would take a lot of inner soul searching to find out who we really are. For MIT to look at the whole person gives credit to that person and MIT, for in this way, the applicant knows him/herself, and MIT respects the applicant for being him/herself. Like I said, it's about self-confidence, and only that will help your personality to shine through, and that's what I believe in, for I believe that it's more important in life, than testing results.



I believe that it would do good for any applicant to reciprocate the respect given to the college by being him/herself too. After all, since college admissions is about the match, college admission officers wouldn't want to read dolled-up profiles of a poor candidate, right? That would only serve to hinder their perspective of the applicant, and that can only aid in creating a mismatch, rather than finding a true match. Ben is right, coz some people won't be able to survive in a top-notch college, even if they top their graduating class. (Just read Anthony's entry... it's full of insightful views.)



I guess when it comes to the word "comforting", we each had our own interpretations. But I fully agree with your views Robb.

Posted by: Eric Asava-Aree on October 8, 2005

Posted by: Robb Carr on October 8, 2005

Just quickly adding on here...



"I am glad with the fact that MIT is looking for someone with "genuine passion" rather than three research awards at the age of fourteen."



This has of course been stated before...Ben just did a very good job saying it.

Posted by: Robb Carr on October 8, 2005

You all have to realize, however, that three research awards at the age of fourteen is (typically) a very good indication of passion.



Again, it's not the only (or even the best) measure of passion, but it definitely says something.



In the end, if you have passion, it will show through.

Posted by: Timur Sahin on October 8, 2005

great post Ben!



I totally agree with you on the last line,



"More often than not, what society deems "the best" is not actually the best for most"..



P.S. congratulations on the MIT's Professor Robert Schrock's Chem Nobel Prize! Its great for everyone at MIT,

Posted by: Saad Zaheer on October 8, 2005

Hi Ben,

An enlightening post I must say. Frankly I did have some idea about the things you just said. But see I also want you to know one thing.

A child never wants to do what he does not like (being a teenager myself i can speak on this).

But take my scenario:

I am good in computer programming (well pardon any flamboyancy) but I dont like to do Chemistry (I mean I am not bad at it but I am not the straight A's kind of a guy and have one two A- and B's). Now I have enough grades, Achievements in computers to show to MIT and I have an idea that MIT admits people on basis of their passion (I mean thats what MIT says so I believe it). But when I see the list of admits I get that insecurity because its everyone with 800 SATII and high SATI and AP's and olympiads and what not so this is the reason why I'll try to be deliberately good in chemistry also so that I dont "lack" anywhere. And I am not saying that its MIT's fault that the admits have great records coz as you say " Most of our admits have taken AP math and science because they would have been bored silly in the regular classes" so basically even though a boy like me knows that he has done his part by doing well in computers and Maths and other subjects he still feels that insecurity and goes for that extra Chem AP which he does not want to take. So my point is that Human Nature is such that we always have a feeling of insecurity (I mean I know the world does not end if I don't get to MIT..but I also know that I would be well off there than any other college where I can do my computer Engg and then at this point I'll say to myself "why are you letting this one stupid chemistry exam be a possible cause for your rejection")So you see many times the case is that a child is not "taking an AP he does not like" just to get the trophy i.e. MIT but he takes that AP so that he does not lose the place he really wants to go to and where he can develop his talents and be challenged.

Yet, I really appreciate the MIT admission staffs efforts to make the application process simpler and transparent and I really liked that you frankly disclosed that MIT indeed is above numbers(although some rigor is required..and that is righteous) and now I can get on with a serene application process for fall 2006.

I dont know if it'll get to you but still this is my 2 cents, for what it's worth.

Posted by: Shikhar on October 9, 2005

I dont know if it'll(means if you'll come across the message) get to you but still this is my 2 cents

Posted by: 0 on October 9, 2005

Absolutely loved the post and the comments here.



A lot of students come up to me and ask me "what do you think about X AP or Y AP" (our school offers probably 16ish or more and I always tell them, "it's only worth it if you like the class." We seem to have our own "in-school" peer pressure here because there are people who are taking 1 or 2 APs and scoffed at while there are others who will graduate with 14 or 15 APs and looked up to. But in the end, I am still living my own life and only I can deal with the courseload I choose.



Personally, I feel we should get the best out of our high school education. It's free and there are so many opportunities waiting to find a person who takes their own initiative. I feel I got the most out of my high school education without going crazy and I'm proud of it -- i've slipped a few times, perhaps gotten stressed and pulled several all-nighters (god forbid...) but I don't regret what I've done. In the end, that's all that matters. It's not about the college you went to or the classes you took, it's about the person you are. Go where you feel you will be happy and the rest will follow.



[i went off on a bit of a tanget, guess i couldn't help it. this is a topic that i feel strongly about. i would have gone on for a few more pages if i could have]

Posted by: nehalita on October 9, 2005

I just had an idea. Timur is right too, because if a student takes some advanced courses which he or she has absolutely no interest in, it'll probably be reflected in how well he or she does that course. So why bother to take those APs if they don't interest you?

Posted by: Eric Asava-Aree on October 9, 2005

Fantastic post!



"When faced with the choice, we will always choose "the right match*" over numbers. We're not lying when we say that. You've heard me beat that sentiment to death in other threads, so I won't do so here."->



These lines in particular make me feel slightly more comfortable, because then I know that admission officials, like you, are looking at more than scores and yes I have read about this on CC. smile



Phew! Now I don't have to go insane if I don't get a 2400 on the SAT's, due to not having a 4.0 GPA or for overthrowing the Theory of Relativity or for being able to kick a football far or something like that.

Posted by: David B. on October 10, 2005

Hey Ben, love the post. I was at your info session in East Brunswick (which was really great by the way... probably the most realistic one I've seen), and I finally got around to seeing your blog. I couldn't agree with you more. AP Euro and AP Spanish just isn't for me, haha. Well goodbye now. Hopefully I'll see you in a year. I also love Shikhar's post. Right on man! Don't worry about it. My AP US History exam didn't go as well as I would have liked. My main strength lies in Physics, as yours does in computer programming. I'm sure that an imperfection in another class won't break your chances.

Posted by: Dylan on October 15, 2005

I am an engineering professor at the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith. My advisor in graduate school went to MIT and I interacted with several students from MIT. You mentioned that MIT is not the right school for many people and I would definately agree with this statement. My impressions of the school is that (at least in engineering) it is "sink or swim" where students get very little help from professors. Professors at MIT have little time to teach given their massive research demands. Unfortunately this is getting to be the trend at many large research universities.



I believe the best enviroment for undergraduate learning is a place where teaching students is the focus. And I constantly advise students to look at smaller schools where teaching is the focus, instead of large research institutions. From my experience with both worlds I can say that undergrads would be better served in this enviroment.

Posted by: Dr. Michael Reynolds on October 29, 2005

Hi Michael,



Thanks for your comment! I agree with you in general, although I wouldn't lump MIT into the category of schools with little access to profs. My experience at MIT has been quite different - in talking with professors they generally seem to enjoy teaching more than any other part of their job. All of our classes are taught by profs (not grad students) and students are always telling me of the great expeirences they have with their profs outside of class.



Perhaps some of our current students will chime in here...

Posted by: Ben on October 30, 2005

I really like this entry because so many people come up to me and they are like, "Why are you taking only one A.P. class this year?" I'm like, well, I'm still struggling in that ONE A.P. class and if I had any more, I'd likely burn out. I know I'm not Ivy League material or anything, but I've been way over my head for the past 4 years and now, I know what I can and can't handle. To me it shows more responsibility and maturity to acknowledge your weaknesses than to mask your strengths. It doesn't matter what brand name college you go to because if you're unhappy, depressed, or struggling, what's the point?



My $o.o2

Posted by: Alexandra on November 13, 2005

Hi!!! I just need a help.There was a mistake with my application fee because the fee waiver was selected by mistake,I realized that I was not eligible for fee waiver.I didn

Posted by: 0 on December 22, 2005

Hello,

Nice post Ben. Can you tell me from what in the application the adcoms can see my passion? T.T

Probably the essay? but what if my writing isn't eloquent enough to express it...

Posted by: Leo on April 5, 2006

I got linked to here from somewhere else but I just wanted to comment your AP comment.



-----------------------

Based on the thousands of apps I saw last year both in selection committee and as a reader, I can tell you that the average # of AP's for admitted kids was 5 or 6 (that's total for all 4 years of HS - i.e. 1-2 per year if evenly distributed). Many admits (most likely the majority) had no college classes. The most common AP's taken were in math and science (no surprise, it's MIT). The overwhelming majority got 4's and 5's on all tests.

I'll pause here to add that I frequently saw kids with perfect SAT scores and perfect grades and a gazillion AP classes get rejected. Why? Because often these kids knew how to grind, but brought nothing else to the table. And that's not who we're looking for at MIT. We admit kids who show genuine passion. Sure AP's can be one of many passion indicators - but I emphasize one of many.

-----------------------------------



I must say that I disagree with what you said Ben, not because APs are the best thing since sliced bread (heck no), but I would interject that the true tragedy lies in the value and double standards with which colleges place on students. Allow me to clarify since that statement on itself is overly belligerent.





Throughout grade school I have demonstrated strong proficiency's in both math and science. I never have a problem with those classes (and still don

Posted by: thatolchestnut on May 9, 2006

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