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A head-and-shoulders illustrated portrait of Ceri Riley. She is smiling with her mouth closed, has light skin, and long light pink hair.

An Open Letter to MIT Applicants by Ceri Riley '16

Don’t Panic (and know where your towel is)

Today on social media, I was greeted with an article about how one student chose to become part of MIT’s class of 2018. While I have nothing against major news platforms and don’t want to belittle stories that highlight some of the awesome things that MIT students are working on, I can’t imagine how much it would terrify me if I read this sort of thing before applying to MIT. It’s so easy to become overwhelmed by hearing about the ever-so-exciting lives of your friends offline or online, and that only amplifies when all of a sudden you imagine competing with these people for a spot in a university.

There is a ridiculous amount of pressure from both adults and peers to be the “perfect” student or “perfect” applicant to colleges when perfection doesn’t even exist. The problem with articles that hype the extraordinary things about a small subset of people is that they have the power to make you undervalue your (perhaps less-national-news-worthy) achievements.

My goal is not to scare or put down or invalidate anyone who has pursued summer internships in labs at universities, has been working on college application essays since junior year, took SAT/ACT prep classes and practice exams until their hands cramped, extensively researched colleges since junior high, or came from a family of engineers and businesspeople. I just want to reach out to the applicants who read descriptions of seemingly “perfect” students who have all of those qualifications and more, and feel their heart sink because they don’t feel like they’re good enough. Successful applicants really do come in all shapes and sizes and backgrounds, and you can’t discredit yourself solely on a standardized test score number.

Let me tell you how I ended up here.

As a senior in high school, I knew college applications were coming up and that everyone in my high school was expected to apply somewhere. I talked with my dad a little bit and he described his college search process: he picked a couple schools that were affordable and seemed okay academically, wrote a couple essays, applied, was accepted by a few, and went to one. No bells, no whistles, no stress.

So when I met with my school counselor and she expected me to have “a list of no more than 12 schools” ranked by difficulty to get in (‘Reach,’ ‘Comfort,’ and ‘Safety’) with a breakdown of application pieces and statistics for each one, I immediately felt underprepared. I hadn’t thought about which schools to attend; I had never cared about academic reputations or given any really serious thought into what I wanted to study in college, and all of a sudden it was all very REAL.

I chose all my schools (including MIT) on a whim. I picked a variety of in-state and out-of-state schools to give myself the option to leave home if I was feeling brave. I looked into art schools and schools with forensic science programs and Ivy league schools mostly just because I had heard their names before. MIT ended up on my list because I read about the hacks and a couple of admissions blog posts—it seemed like a school with a sense of humor, and I liked that. I probably stumbled across College Confidential at some point and thought the idea of a bunch of competitive people swirling in an eddy of college-induced panic was stupid. I didn’t care about online rankings of “Top 100 Schools in the World” nor debates about Harvard vs. Yale nor application acceptance rates for any school. (Again, I’m not trying to insult you if you do/did participate in the College Confidential community or ravenously devour top school news articles. It just wasn’t my thing, and I really, really want to stress that it’s okay whether it is or isn’t your thing.)

Personally, I was really apathetic towards the college search process. I hoped to get in somewhere, but I really wasn’t concerned where because I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I had always assumed that I would continue exploring my options throughout college, rather than having to decide beforehand before I’ve even begun to learn about what options exist. Whereas some people in my grade were searching for schools with great reputations for a specific major like computer science, I genuinely didn’t know you could study something called computer science (basic HTML was, in my mind, something I Googled and used to customize my Tumblr theme, not a tiny piece of a huge field of study… boy, was I wrong)

But a fire was sparked when my counselor took a look at my list and, with a dismissive tone, said some spiel along the lines of: “Ceri, you’re going to have to revise your college choices. You have too many ‘Reach’ schools… With your math SAT scores you won’t get into a place like MIT, so you should probably just take it off and make room for another ‘Safety’ school.” All of a sudden, this authority figure who I had very little respect for in the first place was telling me what I could or couldn’t do with my life, and that made me really angry in a defiant-teenager sort of way. If these schools didn’t want me, they would have to say so themselves. A stupid school counselor wasn’t going to make me feel inadequate and stop me from even trying to apply. (Hint: This parallels how a stupid article online should not make you feel inadequate and stop you from even trying to apply. #litanalysis)

So I kept my list the way it was, and began my applications. I wasn’t the “perfect” applicant in any way, shape, or form. Sure, on paper my grades were good, and I had some really great teachers to write my letters of reference. But mostly, I had a lot of luck.

I’m lucky that I had people who inspired me to have such diverse interests—humanities teachers who taught me how to organize my ideas and construct compelling narratives, science teachers who brought in tectonic plate models or a bunch of organisms suspended in formaldehyde to emphasize learning by visualizing and actually doing things. I’m lucky that I had a friend who had a car and wanted to cross-enroll with me so we could take calculus at another high school because my school didn’t offer it. I’m lucky my family is financially stable enough for me to volunteer as a summer camp counselor and play games with kids to teach them curiosity and science, rather than working at a grocery store or fast food restaurant like a lot of people my age. I’m lucky I had a friend who was the president of drama club who roped me into designing and building sets, which led me to befriend our janitor and learn how to use power tools and construct structurally-sound furniture pieces in my free time after school. I’m lucky my friends patiently coaxed me out of my socially anxious shell so I would try new experiences, actually join extracurricular activities, and even hold a couple little leadership positions by senior year. I’m lucky I had a friend crazy enough to want to make a documentary with me about Nazi propaganda filmmakers for a history competition, and another that wanted to write and perform a short play about marine chronometers for the same competition. And I’m lucky we did pretty well in that competition and got to travel to Washington DC and meet kids from all around the United States.

I’m lucky that I remembered all these things about myself and didn’t worry about other people’s college applications. I didn’t read example essays or try and force myself into the mold of a student who has overcome immense hardship to succeed academically. I didn’t overwrite my essays and give them to 10 different people to proofread—I handed them to my dad and asked “Does this sound like me?”

In my essays, I tried to avoid being the 1,000th person who said they would want to travel back in time and speak to Gandhi about social change, and instead wrote about how I wanted to be like Kaylee and explore space with a crew that felt like family. When MIT asked me to describe the world I came from, I told them about how media has played such a huge role in shaping who I am today, how fictional characters have taught me innumerable lessons about friendship and self-sacrifice and everything in between. This wasn’t to ignore my family’s role in raising me, to avoid discussing the fact that I’ve grown up with both Asian and Western cultural influences, or to write something solely to make me seem like a special snowflake. It just felt like the most genuine response I could give, and I like writing stories far more than writing a checklist of facts about myself in essay format.

Rather than spending weeks brainstorming and writing these essays, I generally wrote them and turned them in within a 72 hour time span. One application at a time—check, check, check—until they were done, usually (embarrassingly) close to the due date. I can almost hear my high school counselor, and maybe even more across the nation, yelling at me for my apathy, “You should take the college application process very seriously!” Once the apps were in, though, I stopped worrying. It was out of my control. If anything, I was most concerned about getting into the University of Washington because that’s where I thought I would go, starting the college experience surrounded by a lot of people of my high school.

Long story short, I’m positive I didn’t fit any sort of profile for the ideal applicant to a highly technical school like MIT, yet for some reason they gave my application a second glance. So you shouldn’t have to worry either, because there’s nothing more you can do other than be yourself, be honest, and be grateful for the opportunities you’ve had to push yourself and find passions and learn and grow. (Besides maybe quadruple-checking your essays for spelling and grammar stuff. I could totally write a much less sappy ‘how to college essay’ post if people wanted some advice regarding that.)

I know there are other people on campus like me, with minimal technical background but a mighty curiosity and passions for art or science or building or whatever. Those of us that applied to MIT by chance, got in by some MIT admissions officer believing in us, and chose to commit because of the people we met here.  And there are plenty more people completely unlike me, who were lucky or hardworking enough to go to some of the best schools in the nation with rich learning environments and resources, or who put in a lot of time and effort to take college classes or take on intense personal projects and expand their knowledge. But we’re all here now, working and learning and growing both as a community and as individuals.

Promise me you won’t worry about other applicants or what other people say about how impossible your dreams are or application stereotypes. Don’t allow MIT to become an all-consuming dream because people can have just as enriching college experiences elsewhere. Some of my very fondest college memories have been drinking tea and talking with my friend at Brown, believe it or not, since the MIT bubble can become stifling after a while. You will find your community of people, as long as you have the courage to go looking for them.

Life works in crazy ways so, please, don’t panic. ♥