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17,707 words by Paolo A. '21

writing at night like you're running out of time

This (mostly) isn’t a post about application essay advice. But, if you’re feeling like you need that, scroll below the bullet points for some essay advice from the bloggers of yore and a few words from me.


But now that that’s out of the way, hi hi hi!

Last week, I finished up the first of my grad school app deadlines: an application to the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), which financially supports graduate students in STEM and STEM-adjacent fields. This was a lot of writing for me in a way that I haven’t done since college applications: reflective, personal, and trying to get people to accept me for something through writing alone. To all seniors: wow. I empathize with you a ton. I forgot01 perhaps take this as a good sign that memories of difficult college apps will fade? but if you don't find college apps difficult difficult lemon difficult, i hope you cherish that feeling and give some to me how hard this was until I had to go through it again.

Writing is hard. Yes, I know I’m saying that and here I am blogging to you all. But blogging feels more natural than application essays; I just pretend I’m just telling a friend02 you all are my friends yes? yes. good. what I’m thinking. Considering how much writing I’ve been doing, and to distract you from your own writing, I thought it’d be fun to sum up03 i am not counting psets and rough drafts so this is an undercount how much writing I’ve done in just the past month for classes, applications, and more. Behold: an overview of the bajillion words that I’ve written in the past month.

  • 1017 words: 8.225 (Einstein, Oppenheimer, Feynman: Physics in the 20th Century) Paper 1. Our assignment was simple. Pretend you’re a journal editor in 1905 for Annalen der Physik. You receive a manuscript about the speed of light and kinematics from a relatively unknown scientist who’s already published a few low-key papers in your journal. The author, in fact, is Albert Einstein, and the paper is “On the electrodynamics of moving bodies”, the paper that introduced special relativity to the world. To modern physicists, this is an incredibly important piece of work. But by modern journal standards, would you accept this paper?

    As it turns out, the answer is most probably no. There are many issues with this paper, including the fact that it had no citations, doesn’t mention how physics believed light to work at the time, didn’t explain ideas fully, and much more. This led to a relatively fun creative writing assignment where I wrote the following:

    Dear Mr. Albert Einstein,

    Thank you greatly for your submission to Annalen der Physik. After a careful review of your manuscript, “On the electrodynamics of moving bodies”, we encourage you to revise and resubmit your paper to our journal.

    [thesis, body paragraphs, all the things you’d expect in a normal essay]

    Again, we thank you for your submission to Annalen der Physik. We hope that you do not take these comments as a negative judgment of your scientific abilities; on the contrary, we believe that this paper has incredible scientific merit. However, much can be done to link this manuscript to research today, deliver ideas more clearly, and more directly indicate the contribution that this makes. Should you have any questions about these comments, do not hesitate to contact us for clarification. We wish you the best, and look forward to your resubmission to our journal.

    Getting to “Reviewer 2” Albert Einstein (in a nice way) was the most joy I’ve had while writing in a long time.

  • 2113 words: 8.225 Paper 2. This essay was less fun than the first and was due yesterday. In this paper, I analyzed how general relativity progress was both hindered and facilitated by the global conflicts of the 20th century (WW1, WW2, Cold War). 8.225 is a physics CI-M, meaning that it’s reading- and writing-intensive and satisfies one of two communications requirements for physics majors. (It also explains the two essays relatively close to each other…) CI-Ms must have one assignment that is revised, and that happens to be Paper 2; in a few weeks when I get feedback, I’ll need to revise and resubmit it based on comments from my TA.

    Some of you might also be curious as to why I’m taking a class required for physics majors given that I’m not a physics major. Completely understandable question. I really like physics history — one of my favorite books of all time is Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything which I’ve read at least three times in my life. It’s a pop-science book about how scientists discovered all sorts of stuff. Highly highly recommend. I’m in this class just to learn more things about how our understanding of science came to be and how science has interacted with the world-at-large, and I’m definitely enjoying it a lot.

  • 1556 words: Thesis proposal. I took 14.19 (Market Design) last spring and loved it. It’s a class about finding good ways to pair things with other things, a problem that can be applied to housing assignments, marriage, college applications, military drafts, and more. In a sense, it’s like “inverse game theory”: instead of trying to do your best within some existing system, you’re trying to design a system so that when each person acts in their best interests, you get good outcomes for society.

    As it turns out, there’s an assignment problem near and dear to my heart: the lottery that assigns students to classes for programs like Splash for ESP. We are very vague about how this lottery works, and just tell people to rank classes truthfully. I’d like to analyze a few parts of this lottery, such as the extent to which hiding it makes it strategy-proof, how “good” it is compared to alternatives (on bases like how many hours of classes students get, how equitable these assignments are, etc.), and what impact our programs have on students’ interests. There are a few issues that I need to work out before I start with this thesis, such as whether I’m even allowed to do this research (privacy issues and all), whether my thesis is feasible for an undergrad to do in one semester, and more. But I wrote a proposal, my advisor is looking over it, and hopefully, I’ll be able to make some cool research soon!

  • 1718 words: Science Bowl emails. My outbox is filled with emails send to volunteers and coaches for the MIT Science Bowl Invitational. It’s coming up in two weeks, and we’ve got 40 teams competing and over 70 registered volunteers. A quick run-down of these emails: 324 words to recruit volunteers; 503 words to volunteers confirming their registration, a few logistics, and information about training; 295 words to teams accepted to compete; 137 words to waitlisted teams; and 459 words on required forms. The count of this section would be much higher if I counted duplicated emails to different people with basically the same content, but that feels “cheat-y” to me.

  • 5566 words: blogging04 oh no i've only blogged once this past month dormspam-the-game. Yeah, I guess I’ve been doing some writing on the blogs. Just a little bit. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s still crazy to me that I am here and blogging. Part of it is because I remember reading these blogs back in the day (and still keeping up with them throughout college). A slightly larger part of it that I’ve realized is that I’ve never self-identified as someone who writes because they feel like it. I’ve always been bad at putting my thoughts down onto a page (I much prefer to just talk things out with people). But this summer, given the pandemic and all, I started trying to blog and get better at reflecting through writing. I don’t think I’m great at it yet, but always trying to get better.

  • 2422: this post! Does writing a self-referential blog post make me cool?

  • 1411 words:05 with 2263 words in my rough drafts NSF GRFP Research Proposal. For the GRFP, you need to submit a 2-page research proposal of a specific research idea you’d like to pursue in graduate school. It is completely non-binding, but the idea behind it is that you should be able to articulate an example of what kinds of research you’d like to pursue. I proposed a study to analyze the effects of low-stakes recognition, like an honor roll, to determine how strong of a “judgment” effect students might receive from their peers for being recognized (positive or negative), and which set of peers are most responsible for this judgment. (The technical term in the literature is “peer effects”, and there’s a lot of really cool studies06 email me if you wanna hear more about cool studies! or email me if you want to chat? or have memes to send? or really really good pics of your pet? analyzing all sorts of things, from generosity to achievement gaps to self-worth.)

  • 1894 words:07 with 3708 words in rough drafts NSF GRFP Personal Statement. This 3-page essay is essentially a statement of “Why are you a person that we should want to give money to?” The NSF requires you to have specific sections on Intellectual Merit (why are you a person that is actually going to do good things in graduate school, mostly centered on your research and academic qualifications) and Broader Impacts (how will you be a person that contributes to the world, like by teaching or running educational programs). It’s somewhat weird to me that they’d ask for this explicitly, but I guess it’s one way to make processing thousands of applications easier.

    This was probably the most difficult out of all of the writing that I’ve done in the last month, mostly because of an issue I call storytelling. In application essays like the GRFP, there’s this implicit idea (that some of my professors and writing advisors08 mit has free <a href="https://cmsw.mit.edu/writing-and-communication-center/">writing tutors</a>! they are amazing wow made explicit) that there should be an overarching narrative that ties things together; that somehow, you should be able to connect the dots to show how everything in your life has perfectly aligned for your career goals and your proposed areas of research in graduate school.

    Quoting from something I wrote this summer:

    I’ve had to do my fair share of storytelling in my life — college applications, consulting, even research — all try to paint a certain picture, tell a story of how something came to be. In a sense, it feels insincere to try and tell stories like this. Sure, I can always look back at my actions and make arguments for how different actions and circumstances led me to the person I am today. But I certainly didn’t (and don’t) have the foresight to know exactly how the choices I made would create me.

    […]

    At the same time, I look at other people, their resumes, what they’ve done with their lives. Sometimes, it does seem so pre-packaged and airtight and fully planned out. It’s probably some form of imposter syndrome. It seems pretty likely that no one really does know what they’re doing and are just fumbling around like I am. Or maybe it is the case that some people really do just have it all together.

    We craft narratives in hindsight, but those narratives didn’t exist when we made those decisions in the first place. I am still spinning stories and talking about how everything in my life has come together perfectly for my graduate school applications, still feeling weird about it. Maybe some of you seniors empathize with this feeling as you complete your first applications.

    I don’t want to go full “edgy teen” on you with this idea, though. There are more positive ways to phrase this idea, like “storytelling is just finding a way to tell other people as efficiently as possible how awesome of a person you are”, or “storytelling is not trying to tell the whole story, just a single thread or narrative”. I’m just working out my own thoughts on crafting narratives, and am happy to hear any thoughts you might have.

    For the record, I wrote about how my high school and experiences in college made me want to understand the importance of communities, social networks, and interpersonal connections in a variety of contexts, such as in labor markets, developing economies, and education. And I do think that no matter how my interests change, this is something I’ll always be interested in.

    We’ll see how it turns out in April.


This post about writing words and my own applications is somewhat timely — MIT’s EA deadline is coming up soon. I know how much of a struggle it can be to write essays (see above); I wish I had some advice to give you on how to write, but I am feeling at a loss trying to write up any essay advice of my own. If you’re feeling lost and want some tips, or want to procrastinate on essays by reading advice on the very essays you’re procrastinating on, here’s a large link-dump of blog posts written by the ancients to help guide you (some of which contain their own link-dumps — try not to fall too far down the blog rabbit hole).

If you can’t apply early to MIT, don’t worry! There’s always regular decisions, and it really, really doesn’t matter if you apply to MIT early or not.

Don’t forget to breathe. Take a deep breath in and out. Actually, right now, just inhale for 5 seconds and exhale for 5.

College applications are stressful. I know. I’ve been there. All of us bloggers have been there. And so in this stressful time of applying to college (whether to MIT or to somewhere else), in the long months waiting to hear back from admissions, make sure that you take breaks and the things that make you happy. Listen to music. Play games with friends. Just sit and chat with people. Read a book. Whatever brings your heart joy.10 maybe what you’re writing about for the “something you do simply for the pleasure of it” essay… In this senior year that is a wild rollercoaster of lockdowns and quarantines and elections and much more, it’s perhaps more important than ever to take breaks and take care of yourself.

I don’t know how many words you have left to write in the next few days. Hopefully it’s not 17,707. But whatever number it is (I almost certainly cannot count to it), I do know that you’ve got this. c:

I don’t know how to end this blog post. Instead, have wholesome photos of Jay, a cat that my friend Jenny G. ‘22 recently adopted. JUST LOOK AT THIS BOI.

Let Jay provide the motivation that you need for the next few days :)

  1. perhaps take this as a good sign that memories of difficult college apps will fade? but if you don't find college apps difficult difficult lemon difficult, i hope you cherish that feeling and give some to me back to text
  2. you all are my friends yes? yes. good. back to text
  3. i am not counting psets and rough drafts so this is an undercount back to text
  4. oh no i've only blogged once this past month back to text
  5. with 2263 words in my rough drafts back to text
  6. email me if you wanna hear more about cool studies! or email me if you want to chat? or have memes to send? or really really good pics of your pet? back to text
  7. with 3708 words in rough drafts back to text
  8. mit has free writing tutors! they are amazing wow back to text
  9. yes I did just call all of these current bloggers ancient. i think two(?) of them are younger than me. as cj commented on shuli’s post introducing the new set of bloggers, i am in fact the most baby of all bloggers and thus they all are ancient back to text
  10. maybe what you’re writing about for the “something you do simply for the pleasure of it” essay… back to text