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,
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.