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MIT student blogger Jessie L. '07

Admissions advice from someone who’s been there by Jessie L. '07

I’ve been working on my grad school apps lately, when I’m not busy with other stuff. I bet that a lot of you are working on college applications, including your MIT applications.

Over the summer, when I was living in Switzerland, I didn’t really have a social life outside of work and the Internet. One of the things I was doing to fill the time was posting on the College Confidential forums. Some of you have probably discovered these, for better or for worse, but I’m sure that most have not, which is why I’m going to reprint my first-ever College Confidential post here. The powers that be over there liked this post so much that it’s still one of the featured discussions on the MIT board.

I wrote this both to give advice and out of frustration with prefrosh who posted a bunch of numbers and then demanded to know exactly what their chances of getting in were, or who posted their very high SAT scores and then asked if they should retake to raise them by 30 points. I hope that it gives you both useful advice and some insight into the values of MIT’s academic culture. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: I’m just a student blogger, not an admissions officer. Nothing I say here is official policy. It’s my interpretation of how MIT Admissions works based on hanging around Admissions a lot talking to the people who work there, and my observations of the students who get in vs. the ones who don’t.


As you can see by my post count, I’m new here. One of the things I notice from looking around, and from reading the comments on some of the blogs, is the popularity of the “stats post”. Some eager applicant posts a list of their stats – GPA, class rank, SAT scores, AP scores, maybe extracurriculars or major awards, and asks what their chances are of getting into MIT. Or, around the time when applicants are notified of their acceptances or rejections, furious rejected applicants (or their parents) post a list of their stats, and demand to know how they could possibly have been rejected. Frequently, if they are male, they then assert that they were rejected because of “affirmative action” in favor of less-qualified female applicants.

I can’t speak for other schools, but if you are making a pure stats post, you are approaching MIT Admissions in the wrong way.

When I was a middle-school cross country and road runner, I used to get recruited by high school coaches. I didn’t understand why they all seemed so interested in me. I was a very good young runner, but I wasn’t one of the best, and I had poor form and was clumsy and didn’t pace myself very well. Why were they talking to me instead of the girls who were a little faster and had better form to boot? I think it was my mom who explained it to me. She pointed out that a top middle school runner with perfect form and pacing wasn’t very coachable, but that the coaches figured that with proper coaching, I could become a much better runner.

Admissions is a little like that. MIT wants the people who will benefit from the MIT culture and education the most, and will bring the most benefit to the MIT community. Stats ARE important, but that’s because MIT is a difficult place and they need to make sure that the people they admit are able to do the work. Stats don’t get you acceptance into MIT, they get you consideration. Once you demonstrate, with your application in full, that you probably have enough mathematical capability to handle 18.01 and 18.02, they don’t care whether you got a 740 or an 800 on the math portion of the SAT, or whether your GPA was 4.0 or 3.92.

I saw that there was a thread before asking for MIT “hooks” and that there have been other threads asking “Is it possible for me to get into MIT without foo?” The answers to these questions are “There are no activities or combinations of activities which by definition will get you into MIT” and “Yes”.

MIT doesn’t have a checklist of activities and qualifications against which it runs your application to see if you match up. There are certain traits and values that are at the core of MIT culture, and those are what you should be demonstrating, but there are infinite ways to demonstrate them. Obviously, there’s not some official list of these, but I would say that some of them are:

(Responsible and Informed) Risk-taking: Going to MIT is risky in itself, considering that you could go to a less challenging school and have an easier time earning a good GPA. Academic risk-taking, whether in research or choice of classes, is a basic part of MIT life (and frequently, so is non-academic risk-taking). You can demonstrate risk-taking with a difficult high school class schedule, with research, with various extracurriculars – something where you put yourself on the line and went through with it in spite of the chance of failure.

Creativity: Good scientists and engineers have to be creative. There are a lot of ways to show your creativity in an application. Maybe you did some great research. Maybe you invented something. Maybe you’re an artist or a writer or an actor or a composer or design lighting and sound for high school plays – there are an astounding number of artistically talented people at MIT. Maybe you’re a quarterback who showed great ingenuity in planning or calling plays.

Work ethic: As you might imagine, this is important at MIT. If you played the same varsity sport for four years and won the team “hardest worker” award when you were a junior, that shows work ethic. If you delivered pizzas or worked as a video store clerk for 15 hours a week while maintaining top grades, that shows work ethic, especially if you have a letter from your employer saying what a hardworking person you are, that shows work ethic. You could demonstrate your work ethic through theater, quiz bowl, your job in a research lab at your local university…anything, really, as long as you’re actually showing it and not just assuming admissions staff will get it because you listed the activity.

There are a lot of other qualities I could go into – appreciation of hands-on work and learning, outstanding intellectual aptitude, a desire to use your knowledge in the world…but this post is getting long, and I bet you get my point, which is that it’s not what activities you do (or how many activities you do), but what qualities you show with them, and whether those qualities are a match for MIT, that matters.

There’s a myth that MIT only wants well-rounded people. Well, some MIT students are quite well-rounded, others not so much. The less well-rounded ones just managed to show their appealing qualities with fewer or a narrower range of activities. And believe me, you can be “well-rounded” in the sense that many people mean – have at least one each of sports, service clubs, academic clubs, and “leadership” positions – and come off looking like a boring and superficial resume-padder, not a desirable applicant.

So if you’re going to post your stats, at least tell us something about yourself to go with it.

19 responses to “Admissions advice from someone who’s been there”

  1. Adam says:

    So… I’ve got 17 presidential positions, a 2500 on my SAT, and 42 APs.

    What are my chances?

    Just kidding.

    Thanks for posting this. I remember reading this a while ago, and I’m glad you brought it up again. From what I’ve seen, unfortunately, many people on College Confidential are brilliant, but a bit egotistical.

    Anyway, my personal opinion about admissions now that I’ve finished applying is that nothing is going to change the admissions decision now, so I’m not going to worry about it. Its better to spend time doing productive / interesting / fun things than worrying. With that said, only 111100001100000101010 seconds in base 2 till our decisions are released!

    Good luck everyone, and don’t forget to apply elsewhere! If you apply to lots of colleges that you’d be happy at, you won’t regret anything when you get your decisions! Yes, MIT is an amazing school, and I’ll either be ecstatic or devastated in 22 days, 19 hours, 36 minutes, and 37 seconds, but life will go on. I trust the admissions officers. I’ve sent plenty of information about myself. If they don’t see a good fit in me, then maybe I really would be happier elsewhere. I personally love the atmosphere of MIT, but maybe I’d be happier at the “Other” Institute of Technology, or an engineering school in my state. Who knows? I certainly won’t, until I experience it for myself. The admissions officers really do know best.

    No regrets, worries, etc,

  2. Basant says:

    Hi jessie,

    I had read your post at CC and it was the only sensible thing amid those stupid “Chance me” threads. I wonder where Matt and Ben Jones have disappeared. Perhaps too busy with EA apps. It’s been a long time since they last posted.

  3. Sarab says:

    When I read the College Confidential Posts, I felt rather disgusted. I mean, what they had reduced college in the US to is what it is in India. A bunch of numbers, a score and one try. I mean college is an investment, one which decides my future and to be picked by a college simply because the scores on my exam matched thier cut off.
    I believe that when I am going to college, it is like a relationship, a four year relationship. And no relationship can exist unless both the people in question will benefit from them. (Parasitism and Commensalism not allowed!) And if my first choice college decides that I am not as good a match as some one else, I will rant and rave for a few minutes (cause I don’t have quite that much control on my emotions) and then send in the rest of my apps.
    By the way, Affirmative Action is something I am not that familair with. Anyone care to enlighten me?

  4. Sarab says:

    Also, I ahve heard through numerous sources that education in the US is tougher than in India. What would an incoming freshman to MIT be knowing?
    In Chem, Physics and Bio?

    I Innocent Hope Chinedu,am a Nigerian nationality
    presently studding in I-system collage in Malaysia, i
    do here by wish to know how to enroll into your school
    there in MIT in Finland
    i have gone through your web site on the net and i
    was not fully satisfied with how to make my
    application because am out said Finland
    And could you please notify me, or give to me clear
    information on how to make my application on line. I
    will be waiting to hear from
    you soonest with full assurance that application and
    latter will be highly accepted.
    thanks yours faithfully,

  6. Indonesian says:

    I read your post at CC and lots of other CC posts and I found that it’s one of the best in there. It makes me more confident of myself, amid all the people focusing on stats and numbers. I’m not perfect, but I’m gonna give a shot anyway! Thanks!

  7. I was just wondering, I accidently pushed the “fee waiver” button when sending in my online application, how do i send in the 65$ now, since it has been almost a month since the deadline (oops).

  8. Melissa Hunt says:

    Thanks for this post =) I’ve been sort of stat-focused, worrying that since I’m not the greatest tester I won’t be accepted. Thanks for the post; it’s definitely comforting.

  9. Aamir says:

    Well, I made the decision to apply just a couple of days ago, and truth be told, I was pretty worried that: a) My stats weren’t entirely fantastic and b) I don’t exactly have much of an opportunity to do a lot of extracurric over here.
    But, I just read this, and, it sort of assuaged my anxiety on applying. It seems like a lot more emphasis is put on growth potential and a general desire to learn than I had anticipated earlier. All in all, thanks for posting this. Good on you.

  10. Adam says:

    David Barn-
    Everyone has a chance. Can you justify to the admissions officers why you will be successful at MIT with those marks? Was there a major problem in your life that prevented you from doing the best you could? Are you a terrible standardized test taker?

    If you are incredibly passionate about something and you can prove that you would be successful at MIT, then you’ve got a small shot at being accepted.

    Here’s a statistic that might brighten your hopes a little bit.
    ACT score 21-25, 6% admission rate.
    Therefore, it CAN be done. So I’m not going to dissuade you from applying. If the rest of your application is superb, then you do have a chance.

    Good luck if you choose to apply,

  11. Anonymous says:

    what’s the difference between weighted and unweighted GPA scores?

  12. Thuita Maina says:

    Thanks Jessie for this great blog entry. I would love to hear more.

  13. david barn says:

    well i have a 3.0 unweighted and a 990 on my sat(old one) and a 21 on my act…should i apply

  14. Dan says:

    “what’s the difference between weighted and unweighted GPA scores?”

    At least how it works here and I would assume most other US high schools, “weighted” GPAs add a small amount per term or semester for honors courses, perhaps more for AP/IB, etc (whereas unweighted cannot exceed 4.0).

    However, it’s all reviewed by Admissions in the context of each applicant’s grading system since decimals added will differ drastically among different schools/districts.

  15. Anon says:

    David Barn —

    Also keep in mind that, academically, MIT is a challenging place, and that attending will involve a good amount of effort (or so it seems). Personally, I’m getting to kinda trust the admissions office, and I think that they know what they’re doing, even when sending out rejection letters. I think it would be terrible to get accepted to such a prestigious university and, after going there, get to hate it.

    Good luck.

    (on a side note, it’s true that stats are not all that matter — when I was taking the SATs they felt like a sort of Russian roulette)

  16. Thank you very much.

    Your post is really encouraging.

    I’d like to show your post to all those pretentious people around me.

  17. Sikamikanico says:

    Great post, this changed my opinion about competition in the admission process.

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  19. Tousif says:

    read it,loved it,and in someway,inspired by it.thanks a lot