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MIT staff blogger Chris Peterson SM '13

An interview with AoPS by Chris Peterson SM '13

"What Kinds of Students Does MIT Look For?" but ASMR

A few weeks ago I did an interview with the Raising Problem Solvers podcast hosted by our friends at Art of Problem Solving (AoPS). The title/framing of the episode, which was just posted, is “What Kinds Of Students Does MIT Look For?”, but that was really a way to open a conversation into how we think about issues that have been discussed on the blogs for a very long time.

It will be unsurprising to longtime readers, therefore, that my to the question of what we look for is the kind of thing you can read on our “What we look for” page, or that my response to “how can I prepare my kid to get into MIT” was (mostly) “don’t try.”

Many of Raising Problem Solvers listeners are homeschoolers/unschoolers/nontraditionally educated students, so you’ll hear/see some references to that path, but hopefully there will be something in here for all readers of the blogs.

Eric Olsen, the host, agreed to let me reproduce the audio (immediately below) and the transcript (immediately below that) here on the blogs.

Eric Olsen: On today’s episode, Chris Peterson, Director of Special Projects at MIT Admissions and Student Financial Services talks about what MIT looks for when they’re reviewing college applications, how the pandemic has affected their decision process and next steps advice for having an MIT-friendly application. What does MIT look for when you’re reviewing college applications and trying to put together a freshman class?

Chris Peterson: I think we look for a couple of different things. One thing is we’re looking for a baseline of academic preparation. We need to be really confident that you can come in the door and that you’re ready for MIT’s really challenging, fast-paced core curriculum in math and science and in humanities, arts, and social sciences. Because once you get over that bar, there’s a significant amount of autonomy at MIT in order to be able to choose your own educational adventure. But everybody, whether you’re majoring in astronomy or anthropology, is going to have to take physics and cal and bio and chem and intensive communication courses.

That’s the first thing. That’s test scores, that’s curriculum, that’s grades. But it’s also, and this is the second part of the equation, your non-cognitive indicators. It’s your curiosity, it’s your initiative, it’s your resilience, it’s your ability to take feedback, it’s your ability to respond, and when things don’t go according to plan, your adaptability. Your ability to reach out for resources rather than have them be brought to you. And then last thing, and this is the thing that’s the hardest to communicate, and it’s the thing that surprised me the most when I became an admissions officer and saw what it was like from this side of the desk. The rest of it is the class. We’re building a team.

And I know that’s such a cliche and nonspecific thing to say, but anyone who’s ever been a coach or manager or in charge of any group of people trying to succeed at challenging tasks knows you need different skills and different attributes, different ways of thinking, different ways of doing things. And the college admissions decision of any given applicant is overdetermined by everybody else in the pool, everybody who’s already at MIT, and everything else that we’re bringing into the class. And that’s the hardest thing emotionally is that every MIT admissions decision is not entirely about you. It is about you, it’s about your grades and your scores and your essays and your fit for MIT and your everything else. But it is, in some fundamental and unavoidable way, about other people. And that’s not something you can control. And so that part of letting go of the educational trajectory and realizing that there is some quanta that exists outside of your locus of influence is really important to understand, even as it’s really hard to accept.

Eric Olsen: How did the pandemic affect your admission decisions over the past two years? What changed?

Chris Peterson: Well, like many things over the last couple of years, in some respects, nothing changed and in some respects, everything changed. So the things that didn’t change were we looked at every applicant and we said, we have to be absolutely confident that you can do well here and we have to be confident that MIT is the right place for you. And what changed was the kinds of data that we had to make those decisions. We didn’t have test scores for everybody, but there were other things we could look at. Strength of curriculum, the content of that curriculum, tests in other areas, other academic indicators that our research shows can predict preparation for MIT.

We had all sorts of different schooling systems, hybrid, online, offline, virtual. People switching to traditional non-traditional education for a year and then switching back into a traditional school. People exiting traditional education entirely. So it was a lot to make sense of all of that change, but in some respect, we were guided by the shibboleth of: are you prepared for MIT and is the MIT the right place for you? And those things steadied us through all the various eddies and the currents.

Eric Olsen: You teased this a little, but yeah, just this week, MIT announced you will be reinstating the SAT ACT requirement that you removed during the pandemic, because like you mentioned, live testing was very difficult for students, whereas many institutions are permanently dropping that requirement. They’re moving to test optional admissions, because for many of these institutions, they couldn’t find a strong correlation between those test scores and academic preparation for their institution. Many found GPA to be a stronger correlator, but that wasn’t the case at MIT.

Chris Peterson: That’s right. So as we just announced, you can go and read it yourself on We have reinstated our long standing SAT ACT requirement for future admission cycles. And the first thing that I want to say is, as you mentioned, is that this was driven by research specific to MIT. We have an in-house research and analysis team led by someone with a PhD in educational assessment. We look very carefully at all different kinds of outcomes and all different kinds of inputs. What we found is we don’t need SAT and ACT scores for everybody, but we do need SAT and ACT scores for those students who might not have other ways to demonstrate their preparation, typically because their schools offer more limited coursework, or the students are not tracked in such a way, or the courses that may be notionally available at their school, that they’re not able to take them.

And that’s not everybody in our pool. We could admit a class to MIT without requiring the SAT and ACT. But what we found is that it is the students who are sort of most disadvantaged, have the least educational capital, the fewest resources available to them, that tend to need the testing to demonstrate that preparation the most. And so we decided to design from that margin into the center of our system in terms of what we asked all of our applicants submit. Now, I will say a couple of things. One, a listener might reasonably ask, well, why can’t you just make the on ramp to MIT easier or more accessible if you need all this extra information? And the answer is that we do do quite a bit. We have great tutoring programs, we have a summer bridge program.

All of our research here essentially takes those tutoring and bridge and other acclimation programs into account when we look at what we think a student needs. The second thing is that all of our decisions are very individuated. So we have this broad research about broad statistical trends with different things that we can measure, but those are only informing what come down to be deeply individual decisions that involve looking closely at everything else in the file. So it’s just that other additional piece of information that really helps us out. And the last thing I want to say is that we know that some students still won’t be able to take the exams. That could be because they can’t find a way to do so safely with the pandemic that is still going on. It could be because they live in a part of the country or the world that has military conflicts, political unrest.

We’ve always kept the door open for students whose applications were interrupted by disasters and disruptions, and promised them a full and fair review. And we’re going to have a spot on the application as we have had in the past where students can explain anything in their application that’s a requirement where they weren’t able to complete it, why they weren’t and how we should take that into account for our full holistic review. The goal of the requirement is really to communicate that expectation. It is precisely because so many schools are adopting a test optional framework that students see as neutral that we thought we should bring our requirement back, because we do have an opinion.

It is better for our ability to assess your application if you take the standardized tests, and if you take them, to send the scores to us. And so we wanted to frame that expectation as a requirement because that is what people can understand, particularly those again with the least access to educational resources. But we are very fair minded and understanding about other kinds of barriers that may prevent people from being able to sit for the tests, particularly with everything going on in the world right now. And we do commit to a full and fair review for all of those students, keeping in mind the north star of demonstrating preparation for MIT.

Eric Olsen: You mentioned one of the trends you saw these past two years was students who left traditional education for a year came back. Some left, stay leaving and are now applying to college. Do homeschoolers have a harder time getting into MIT? If I’m considering at home or hybrid schooling for my student, do I need to take seriously any impact that choice could have on their college admission chances?

Chris Peterson: I think that every parent and student needs to do what is the right thing for them. And I know that’s just an incredibly generic answer, but for my entire career, I’ve been telling people that if you’re building your educational trajectory around the chance to get into an institution that last year had a 4% admit rate, you’re buying a lottery ticket that you’re probably not going to win. And so, I understand that people want to build around MIT, either because it’s a prestigious institution or because they genuinely think that it’s the best place for their child to be educated or both.

Chris Peterson: But my advice has always been, don’t build you or your child’s educational trajectory around trying to get into MIT or Harvard or Stanford or any other super selective institution. Find the things that they’re passionate about, find the things that they’re curious about. Let them pursue their own unique interests and aptitudes as far as it will take them. That will make them the most distinguished standout college applicant that they can be and it will also not leave them with major regrets about how they might have otherwise spent their time should their desire not come to pass.

Eric Olsen: Maybe not even specific suggestions, but maybe specific examples. If getting into a institution like MIT is a goal for a student, for their family, what could should they focus on during their elementary and secondary years that would help them to be distinguished to stand out?

Chris Peterson: Well, I would focus maybe a little bit on some of the preparation questions and that’s how I would tie these two things together, which is to say, I stand by my claim that students shouldn’t spend their high school, whether it’s traditionally educated or untraditionally educated, in a traditional school or an untraditional school, trying to get them into MIT. However, it is certainly the case that students who we admit have had a really strong foundation in classic math and science, calculus, physics, biology, and chemistry with at least some exposure. But what I would say is that this is also a good test for whether or not somebody might be happy at MIT, because if you’re listening to this right now as a student or as the parent of a student, and you’re your heart sinks a little bit and you say, oh God, I’m not a big fan of physics.

Well then, you should not be applying to MIT. It is a place where every student, no matter the major, has to do or get credit for at least two semesters of physics and then you’re doing a bunch of other quantitative and analytical work. So using the requirements of a school, using their tendencies, their core curriculum, the way that they build an education as trying to have a sense of, as the Ignatians would put it, does this fill you with joy or despair when you contemplate what you would have to do to set yourself up to be prepared for a school, might be a really good signpost as to whether or not it would actually be a good fit for you.

Eric Olsen: You mentioned the 96% rejection rate. All of our hearts dropped. Chris, what if my student who’s been counting, who’s been planning on this life, doesn’t get in? Is life over for them? Are they destined to a life of destitution?

Chris Peterson: Well, right, your tone indicates that you expect me to say they are not and that’s what I’m going to say. And I hope that’s not surprising to any of your listeners. But I do actually want to tell you a quick story and I’ll send you this link, Eric, so you can include it, hopefully in the materials. One thing that I’m really, really, really grateful for and proud of is that every year, when we release our decisions, we open some open threads on our blogs for students who were admitted, students who were wait listed, and students who were denied. And we have a lot of conversations in the open comments threads on those blog posts. And many students are disappointed, most of them, and many of them will comment feeling the way that you just described. And me and our other staff and bloggers will all encourage them and tell them, see how things go, and let us know how they turn out.

And over the years, I’ve been doing this long enough now where over the years, I will just get emails one day from a student who’s just finished up their undergrad at another university, or just got into MIT for grad school, or did whatever it is that they’re doing. And they say, okay, yeah. Five years ago you were right. And sometimes I will take, with their permission, I will take those emails and I will turn them into blog posts. So I’ll send you a link. We have a whole series of blogs called Denied by MIT X Years Later where students write about how their lives turned out on the other side of things being okay. And I think that is probably more persuasive and reassuring than anything I could say.

Eric Olsen: That’s lovely. Chris, finally leave us with some next steps advice for parents and families who are looking to at least put their best foot forward. They want to make sure their student has at least an MIT friendly application package someday. How should they think about that journey?

Chris Peterson: Well, as I said earlier, the biggest thing is making sure that your student or the student yourself, if you’re listening, should have a really strong foundation in math and science and also should be able to handle our communication intensive courses as well. And not only handle both of these things, but actually feel like they are things that they want to do. And other than that, I will always just put out a general plug for parents to nurture the unique interests and aptitudes of their students. For the audience listening to this podcast, I doubt that is a surprise. That’s probably why you’ve chosen some of the path that you’re on. But I borrow that language from the 1949 Committee on Education Survey, the Lewis report that formed the modern MIT education. And that’s what it uses to explain what the purpose is for MIT.

Because right after World War II, you have all of these well funded research universities. You have the GI Bill, you have all these colleges and MIT sat down and wrote a report and said, well, why do we even exist? What is the point of this place? And what the people who wrote that report said is that MIT exists as a place to nurture the unique interest and aptitudes of students who could not otherwise find a place where they could pursue those things to the fullest. And so setting your students up to be in the habit of thinking about those things and pursuing them is, again, going to be the best thing for them and also the thing that will be the best thing for their MIT application.

Eric Olsen: It’s now time for our rapid fire segment called Problem Solved where we ask the guest to solve incredibly complex and difficult education issues in single soundbites. Chris, what’s one thing about K-12 education you wish you could snap your fingers and problem solved, it’s fixed?

Chris Peterson: So I would like every student to have an opportunity to do the thing that I had at my strange progressive public Vermont middle school, which was the ability to wander down to the library without a pass whenever I wanted and read whatever I wanted for however long I wanted and come back, and for no one to think that was delinquency or truancy or otherwise bad behavior. I was extremely privileged to attend that kind of school and to have the kind of teachers that I had. And when I go back to many schools today on the road, and I remember that at most schools, you have to have a pass just to go use the restroom. I’m reminded that most students don’t have that kind of liberty. And so if you can imagine a world where I can snap my fingers and somehow mass hypnotize every administrator in the country to allow that, that’s what I think I would do.

Eric Olsen: That’s a good one. If you could go back and give your kid-self advice on their educational journey, what would it be?

Chris Peterson: I would have told them how creative math can be, because I did end up, one reason I was wandering down the library all the time was because I was, most of my math education in my K-12 years was working through multiplication tables, which just bored me. And it probably wasn’t until I got to MIT, having avoided anything quantitative along the way in my high school and college years, that some of my MIT friends told me about how beautiful and creative math could be. And I think that had I just been lucky enough to stumble across the right book in that library, I might have realized that earlier, but that is the one thing where if I could go back and grab my tiny little 11 year old lapels and shake me, that’s what I would say.

Eric Olsen: I got to go plant some AoPS books in some public libraries across the country. What part of education do you think or hope looks the most different 10 years from now?

Chris Peterson: Over the last 10 years, one of the things that has really caused me to pull out the hair that I no longer have is the schism between online and offline education. We’ve kind of passed the MOOC buzz hype moment, thank God. But it always frustrated me that there weren’t more efforts to take the upsides of online education. The ability to learn things, taught by people all over the world and more subjects than you could count, with the social and educational institutions offered by a residential education, whether that’s at the university level or at the high school or at the K-12 level. I hope that in 10 years we have figured out a way to take that content delivery aspect of what the internet enables and the parasocial online communities that AOPS and lots of other places have cultivated while also embedding that in the local physical community of learners in all sorts of settings.

Eric Olsen: And what’s your best advice for parents looking to raise future problem solvers?

Chris Peterson: I mean, this is kind of my answer about interest and aptitudes, but I would say just figuring out what makes your kid as curious as possible and keeping that curiosity alive. I think there can be a bit of a trend or desire, particularly when people think about accomplishments that they think colleges might be looking for, to just kind of drill and drill and drill and drill and drill and drill. And that is not going to work in terms of keeping some sort of sustained lifelong past the point of your admission to college, if it even lasts that long, focus on problem solving, just from the students that I’ve seen and from people that I’ve known, finding that just authentic curiosity. The thing that when your kid starts talking about, they just won’t shut up. Finding and cultivating that and then helping to direct it in many different areas, I think is the key.

Eric Olsen: I got to figure out how to direct my kid’s Encanto soundtrack obsession now.

Chris Peterson: Well, I was going to say, as soon as I started answering, I was like, I’m breaking the cardinal rule of non-parents, which is never tell parents how to be a parent. So please everybody who’s listening, please accept my heartfelt apologies for breaking that rule and know that Eric has me attached to all sorts of electrodes, forcing me to answer these questions as stated. But if we’re imagining the world that you’ve asked my advice, that is the best that I can provide.

Eric Olsen: I think everyone who’s listening is looking to steal off other parents’ curves. We want to know what other parents have found out, schools have found out and copy it. And listeners, we’d love to hear your answers as well. So email us at [email protected] with your best advice for raising future problem solvers. And we’ll read our favorites on future episodes.

Chris, thanks so much for joining us today.

Chris Peterson: Absolutely, Eric. Happy to be with you all.

Eric Olsen: I know Chris talked about the lottery ticket odds of MIT, but shoot, it kind of made me want my kids to go there even more, didn’t it? But let me take the rest of his advice to heart because there is so much about college admissions decisions that are out of our control. So what is in our control? Encouraging our students to chase their curiosities and empowering their passions, and also reminding them of the great school right down the street so they can live with us forever, am I right? And may you continue your journey alongside us, raising the great problem solvers of the next generation. See you next week.