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Application Advice v2.0 by Laura N. '09

How to survive the application process without losing your mind.

So, by a show of hands, how many of you are stressing about college apps?

OK, well I can’t see you if you’re raising your hand, but I bet that’s a lot of you!

Last year around this time I wrote an entry called Application Advice, where I dispensed…application advice. It’s probably worth a read, because I give an in-depth account of how I managed to struggle my way through writing the essay, and I think there are some important points in there.

A common question I get a lot was articulated by Kevin:
Kevin said: what does the admissions office look for in applications?

It’s a pretty standard question, but it’s actually a very good one. Because the truth is that your SAT score, no matter how high it is, is not enough to get you into MIT. Invariably, someone takes that statement and decides that it means I think you should retake the SATs until you get a perfect score. And that’s not what I mean at all. If you’re stressing over 20 points on the SAT, I will guarantee you that there is something cooler you could be doing with your time that will do far more to help your application than to sit in a classroom for 3 hours on a Saturday and pay someone to let you take a test.

Once you hit a certain level of SAT scores, the differences really don’t matter too much. Do you really think that someone is going to look at your application and say, “Oops, well, if only they had gotten one more question right on the SAT that could have proven that they’re capable of being an MIT student!” I mean really. Stop and think about that for a minute. (When you’re done laughing at how ridiculous you now realize your fears were, feel free to continue reading.) The SAT scores are really just a vague way to predict if you’re academically strong enough to succeed at a really hard school like MIT. Plus, admissions counselors know that the SAT is just one test. Your GPA, your course load, the hours upon hours of your life that you spent slaving away in a machine shop building your FIRST team’s robot, the little kids you counseled in your community, the piano recitals you spent weeks preparing for, and the little old ladies that you helped cross the street are what really matters. Those are the things that make you you, your own person different from all of the other applications in the pile, no matter what the numbers are.

Admissions is trying to sort through that pile and find the ones that would make great MIT students. But what makes an MIT student? The qualities that MIT embodies in its mission- things like passion, risk-tasking, a desire to learn and help others. That’s what they’re looking for in your application. Of course, without a good academic record, you could help every little old lady in the world to cross the street to no avail. No one’s saying that MIT students aren’t smart. What we’re saying is that there are other equally important qualities. Matt wrote a great entry on this awhile back, which is basically required reading if you want to understand what we mean when we keep talking about “the match:” Match Game.

Sandimelb: I an interested mother whose son (now 14 in 10), has talked about going to MIT since he was 3. He’s a mathie and a computer-geek (like his mom, he says). He wants to study Areospace Engineering. Anyone have any ideas how to get him noticed beyond the normnal high scores in school. He’s an accomplished hunter/rider Enlish, but I don’t think you have an Equestrian team, so no points there. He’s first melophone, plays piano and trumpet. Any music points?

Yikes. The important thing to know is that there are no “points.” It doesn’t matter that we don’t have an Equestrian team, the admissions counselors will want to know about it so they can say, “Hey, that’s really cool!” and think about how your son’s varied interests and accomplishments show his drive and ambition and how he will fit into the overall community. (I think my friend Becky is one of the coolest people ever in terms of interests. She’s a belly-dancing firefighter. No joke. I guarantee you she put that on her application, even though you’re right in guessing that MIT doesn’t have its own fire company.) This leads me into my next point.

I ended my last application advice entry with the bold declaration that my number one rule for college apps was to just CHILL OUT ALREADY.

Well, that still applies, but this year I’m rewriting my number one rule. Maybe I shouldn’t call it my number one rule, because I can’t really decide between the two, and I’m not suggesting that one is more important than the other. But if I always gave the exact same advice every year, I’d just end up linking to old entries and life would be pretty boring.

So, here we go,

LAURA’S NUMBER ONE RULE FOR THE COLLEGE APPLICATION PROCESS:
BE HONEST!
Don’t think I’m insulting your intelligence. I know that you know not to lie about your GPA. Because let’s face it, that’s just plain stupid, and you’ll get caught, and it’ll really be a mess. So that’s not the kind of honesty I’m talking about.

I’m talking about a much more subtle kind of honesty. The kind of honesty where you will look at the question that says, “What are you thinking of majoring in?” and answer with what you’re thinking of majoring in without going on the Internet and trying to find out what is the least common major at MIT so can give an answer that you think will give you a “hook.”

If anyone asks me what they mean by “Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it,” I’m going to be a little worried about your reading comprehension abilities. “Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it,” DOES NOT MEAN “Tell us something you think we want to hear.”

It is NOT a trick question, and I think it’s pretty sad that they have to spell that out on the application. Is it really so surprising that in trying to select the next class that will become part of the MIT community that they want to know something about you as a person?

On my application, I said that the “something” I do for pleasure is reading. I didn’t say that because reading walks some fine line between a leisurely activity and a way to boost your SAT score, or because I thought that a lot of people would say “reading,” or because I thought only a few people would say it, or because my guidance counselor said that MIT only admits people who like to read. I said that I like to read for fun because…drumroll please…I like to read for fun!

OK, I’m being obnoxious now, I know. But do you see my point?

Just answer the questions! By all means, get some friends or teachers or family members to read over your essays and give you advice (it’s always nice to have an outside point of view to tell you that your brilliant essay doesn’t actually make sense to someone who’s not you) but stop thinking so hard.

This is my one undeniable truth, so read carefully: If you look at any blank space on the application and start thinking “What do they want to hear?” you are DOING IT WRONG.

That approach will not help you get in. These people read a lot of essays each year, they know BS when they see it. There is no “easy way” or “trick way” or “back door” to get into MIT. Your application is not a game, it’s supposed to be a representation of your life. Don’t give it more weight than it deserves, it’s really just a folder of papers. But think about it- its purpose is to convey to someone who’s never met you who you are, why you rock, and why they should accept you to a certain college. It’s a challenge to really evaluate yourself, to think about who you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re going, and to present yourself to the world.

If you’re trying to figure out how to score the most “points,” you’re not just doing it wrong, you’re really missing out.

23 responses to “Application Advice v2.0”

  1. Belle Danzer says:

    So then you are saying that MIT has a belly dancing team and I should tell ’em I belly dance for fun. Right?

  2. Benjamin says:

    Nuts, I was going to put reading. Now I have to go change that because it’s too common…no wait, you put that and you got in–I’m good! No wait…you said not to write things because one thinks that’s what _they_ want to see… Now I’m all confuddled :$

  3. John DeTore says:

    Hey thanks Laura for the great advice. Both years!

    So I think I have a question for the mom of the “14/10” boy. Your son has been wanting to go to MIT since he was 3? Hmm, I guess that is cool. I am sure he is quite smart. But of course I am a little puzzled how mature the decision to apply to MIT is if he decided at three. Should he choose to apply, I hope he thinks freshly about why he wants to come here –I think it will help.

    An interesting topic to explore here is what motivates people to apply, and what motivations tend to make strong applications. Any thoughts out there?

  4. elizabeth says:

    You know, I have to say a huge thank-you to you and the other bloggers for making this whole application thing SO much less stressful. I mean, I know the acceptance rate is going to stay 17(?)% no matter what, and I’m still freaking out a teeny bit because MIT is definitely a reach for me, but the more times you guys say “you just have to be yourself,” the better I feel. And thanks to bloggers I know all about how we’re being evaluated, and having all that information out in the open really helps make it less intimidating. So THANKS!

  5. Just wanted to say, “Thank you Laura for your valuable insight.” I’m sure to go either grey or bald in this application process. Oh boy am i stressing. Though now, I do feel a little more comfortable with the essay. So thank you very much.

  6. Adam says:

    Thanks very much for this post! I’d have to say the hardest part about filling out the application is what to leave out. I ended up adding a few pages of additional information and a CD.. I hope the admissions team doesn’t mind looking at all of it. grin

    One more thing that makes it hard is that I have absolutely no reference point when filling out my application.. The other applicants might be way out of my league, and I’d have no good way of knowing, unfortunately. (Frankly, the test score statistics don’t mean much to me. As you said, test scores are more to filter out some applicants, not to choose the best.) I personally like my essay, but I’ve never heard anyone else’s essay, so I can’t really judge how good/bad mine really is..

    Oh well, I suppose I’ll know if my essay was good enough in 51 DAYS!. Yeah. I’m pretty much counting the days off already. Chances are I’ll get a heart attack when I see the mailman on December 10th, and end up never seeing the decision. grin

    Wow, I’ve rambled way too much.
    Good luck everyone!

    Thanks again for this excellent post,
    -Adam

  7. Ingrid says:

    Thanks a lot for the advice :D now I’m all excited about the essay….just have to actually start it raspberry
    You know, You think you know yourself and then comes the application and you’re struggling with what you like to do on your free time. like we have any…

  8. Sarab says:

    I’m applying to MIT cause i like the way the admisssion webswite talks (metaphorically of course!) and cause I’ve found that reading everyone’s blogs, i really want to be here. When I read someone’s blog saying i did this course in Neuroscience,We sat up all night discussing Plato, or something like that it feels good. As I am not really sure of what I plan on doing; I have to come to college and decide, but harvard ain’t my first choice; possibly ’cause I’ve read ‘The Class’ by Erich Segal.
    Also, MIT seems like a really vibrant place to be, with UROP and all. Nothing else strikes me offhand.

  9. Ruth '07 says:

    For some unsolicited advice – the thing about honesty is true. I’m a bitter, weary senior, and all my bitter weary senior friends at other schools agree – it’s not where you go to college that matters. Colleges have an uncanny ability to figure you out better than you know yourself, and the one that fits you best will take you. Who wants to be someone else for four years? You’ll spend the rest of your life working with people that are all different kinds of cool and wierd, and they all went to easier schools than you, and they’re still fun to hang out with after work.
    Sorry about the Mets, Laura.

  10. elizabeth says:

    Stupid question: I hear that sometimes when you apply online, you have to keep your essays under the word limit because if you go over it’ll just stop printing at the 500th word. Will that happen to mine? If I have a really good 505-word essay should I just submit it on paper?

  11. Jon says:

    ding ding ding! and i think we have a winner! isnt the purpose of a college app is to see if you, and i mean YOU, not the “you” on the app, match the college in question in the categories they see as most important? if you arent meant to go there , thats just it, you arent meant to go there. i just sent in my app last sunday and i wish everyone the same lack of stress about college apps. just explain who you are. theyll do the deciding.

    thanks for the great post, laura, and yes, ruth 07, sorry about the mets :-(

  12. My name is Salsabila Firdausia. I am an Indonesian student. i wanna ask about SAT 2 test, is that okay if i take the test on January 27? because the registration for december has already closed. And how about the interview? i saw from the website that there is no interview in Indonesia. Thank you very much!

  13. Rosa says:

    I’m a mother of a girl who is fifteen years old (at this moment), and she is on her last year at highschool. She wants to study aerospace engineering and, when she tried to register at MIT admissions page, the answer was: “Please, use U.S. English characters….”. She write (idem me) from Spain, and the language is different, but the characters are the same. Please, could you help us?
    Excuse me for language mistakes.
    Thank you.

  14. Carla says:

    Rosa: I also had the same problem with the registration, the thing is you can’t use the √± or accents, because they are not considered English characters, so if your daughter’s name is Mar√≠a for example she will have to write Maria, without the accente at the i, because the computer does not recognize the √≠ as a english character
    and laura thanks for the advice!!!

  15. Avril says:

    elizabeth – The MIT online application does not cut you off after 500 words, or at all as far as I can tell. In your MyMIT account, if you go to Section 8 of Part Two, you can view a PDF preview of what your application will look like on paper.

  16. Drew says:

    Elizabeth – if it’s a few words over and it’s good, then don’t touch it. The essay is there to give the admissions staff an idea of who you are much more than it’s there to prove you can count to 500 (with the aid of a computer).

  17. Shabie says:

    Well that really was a good post Laura but from what I have seen, what really matters to these people is academic record especially in the case of international students. I am also an international student from Pakistan. I know people who got into MIT as international students. They really had “not much” in my opinion as compared to the things selection committee sees but an exceptionally good record of academics. Perhaps they do consider that in a country like Pakistan there isn’t much opportunities for students to excel in different areas. Pakistan is very very different from USA. What do you think?

  18. Deepta says:

    Laura, this is THE best entry on admissions ever written in an MIT blog. Ever. Period.

    Thanks for your advice, and keep writing!

  19. Thuita Maina says:

    Thanks Laura.

    I sat for SAT 1 and I messed up in one section in Critical reading – I left out one question and went ahead filling the answer of the question in the space of the question I had left and I went ahead that way. I realised the mistake last minute and I could not correct. I feel I might not score highly in critical reading as I had anticipated. Is there a way MIT admissions officers can get to know about this so that they don’t think I am an international armed with inadequate English?

  20. Anonymous says:

    Ruth ’07- THANK YOU for saying that except what’s an “easier” school? I would like to assume all those who go to college usually pick one that is challenging, but then again most of the engineers I’ve met just did it for the money so I’m not sure…but I like what you said. I’m a senior now and looking back, I’m glad I ended up where I did. I mean I got more than I bargained for AND it wasn’t my top choice school. It’s all in the attitude.

  21. faizan says:

    I agree with Shabie, what really matters for international applicants is their academic record. The previous headboy of my school is now studying at MIT and he has an excellent academic record.

    Moreover, I have also heard that almost “ALL” of international students at MIT have earned some form of regional, national or international distinction.

    So it seems quite tough for International applicants!

  22. Mona says:

    Hi. You look like a nice, friendly person who wont yell at me. Forgive me for sounding stupid, but what am I supposed to do with the teacher recommendations? I assume I have to print them, get them to my teachers, and mail them in by snail mail once they are done. Right? Why is it not written?!