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Ask Me Anything by Qiaochu Y. '12

no, really

My grades for the semester have finally all appeared on WebSIS, and I've passed all of my classes, so that means I am officially done with my undergraduate education! Phew. 

What does that mean for you? Well, it means I not only have a lot of free time for writing blog posts, but I'm also feeling reflective. I have a lot of wisdom to share with you all, but I'm not really sure where to start, so I figure this isn't a bad way to find a starting point: ask me anything in the comments.

Go ahead. Don't be shy. This is a judgment-free zone.

To give you some ideas, here are some things you could ask me about and expect a reasonably intelligent answer in return:

  • Me (my 3.5 years at MIT, how I feel about them, what I loved, what I'd do differently)
  • Math (my experiences with it, anyway; for actual math questions, you should probably go to

I don't feel terribly qualified to talk about anything else, but if you'd like to ask anyway, I'd be happy to attempt to answer questions about things like:

  • Dealing with the college application process
  • Relationships
  • Feminism
  • Disney movies
  • Your fears about the future

Oh, and I suppose I should tell you about my semester before I go. Briefly: 18.821 ended up being more interesting than I expected, but I didn't get to devote quite as much time to the projects as I wanted because I was busy with other things. 18.03 was exactly what I expected. Concert Choir was fun but scheduled at an unfortunate time (7:00-9:30pm Mondays and Wednesdays); I never really got used to it. I learned a lot in 21M.302; I looked at some sheet music I'd tried to analyze a few years ago, and some of it makes a lot more sense now. 24.244 was an interesting look at how non-mathematicians study a mathematical subject.

And as you already know, I did this. It was fun! Highly recommended. Just wish I'd actually worn a bowtie. 

Edit: okay, one exception: I am not going to answer the question "what are my chances?" Sorry, but there's definitely no way for me to know without seeing your entire application, and even if I did I don't know how admissions actually works. 

100 responses to “Ask Me Anything”

  1. Piper '13 says:

    Bowties are cool.

    (Seriously, no one’s posted this yet?)

  2. Jaspreet Singh says:

    hi Qiaochu

    Sat Shri Akal,

    This is Jaspreet Singh about complete my Masters in Engineering in CS from Thapar University, India. i am looking for research/Phd in Network Security/Cryptogrphy Area…

    Can you help me out regarding the process of the same.

    thanks in Advance grin

    Jaspreet Singh

  3. d1138 says:

    QC!!! I completely forgot to congratulate you on an amazing 3.5 years in MIT!!
    I’ve been reading your blog in its entirety for the past couple days, and have been thoroughly enjoying it :D
    Gonna be an awesome next semester!! FIRED UP

  4. Kyra says:

    Paul, I was admitted EA this year and I got a 3 on the AP Euro exam. I think that a 3, especially in a class that’s not science or math, is fine if you have other 4s and 5s to make up for it.

    Qiaochu, how the heck did you manage the ability to graduate in two and a half years?!? craaaaaazy. ps I’m a prospective Course 18 as well; math-lovers unite!

  5. Abhilasha Kamboj says:

    my first question – how are you?

    second question – what was your favorite pastime at MIT?

    third question – I love mathematics and in my first essay i.e. ‘what activities you do for pleasure?’ , I have added that math is fun for me and I like helping people with math problems. Do you consider it to be an activity for pleasure?

  6. Harry says:

    I love math and I’m interested in becoming a math major… my question is – What does one do after college with a degree in math? What kind of jobs are there?

  7. Tim says:

    What dorm(s) did you live in and can you talk about them? (ea admitted student who is really curious about the dorms raspberry)

  8. Aman Jain says:

    heyy .. i just wanted to ask you how much chances do i have of admission considering i am not an international medal winner and from India as well but m a die heart fan of CS ??? please reply fast !!

  9. @X: the last subject covered in 24.244 (not a math class, but it should be) was quantified modal logic. (“Quantified” means that we allow the modifiers “there exists” and “for all,” and “modal” means that we allow modal operators that can be interpreted as “necessarily” and “possibly.”) I found the notation somewhat confusing, so it took me awhile to understand what was going on here.

    Generally speaking, I don’t have trouble with the concepts presented in my math classes because of the way I prepare for them: one way or another, I learn most of the material ahead of time. This isn’t because I study for specific classes before I take them but because I learn a lot of math in my spare time and it usually ends up being relevant to my classes at some point.

    @Abhishek: I’d have to go with 21M.263 (“Music Since 1960”). It’s a course about art music, a subject I’d never thought about before, and was taught in a fairly relaxed style, which allowed me the freedom not to worry about my grade and focus on learning something. The professor, Evan Ziporyn, was amazing; he talked about all sorts of important figures in the art music world, and had met and collaborated with several of them so it was clear he knew what he was talking about. Very inspiring.

    @Covi: well, there’s a lot of intersection. The intersections I know about are between programming language theory and category theory (for example, the connection between lambda-calculus and Cartesian closed categories) and between complexity theory and all sorts of things. The funny thing about complexity theory is that its proof methods can come from anywhere in mathematics, so a complexity theorist really needs to be comfortable with a lot of math and always be on the search for more.

    @Paul: I don’t know. I know several of my friends have 3s on AP tests, but it really depends on the strength of the rest of your application. But there’s nothing you can do about it now, so there’s no point in worrying about it. Just relax and enjoy senior year.

    @Anonymous: I didn’t really have a first choice, but I did apply to MIT EA. Like I told Paul, don’t worry about it. Where you go to college is much less important than what you do with the opportunity once you get there.

    @Sam: we have a wonderful artist who draws them for us!

    @Kyra: I took about 5 classes a semester on average, didn’t double or minor, and had a decent amount of AP credit to start with. Pure 18 doesn’t take a lot of time to finish. Oh, and I also passed all of my classes and never switched majors.

    @Abhilasha: doing fine, thanks! Life is pretty good right now.

    My favorite pastime was and is probably singing with my friends. I always wanted to join an a cappella group, but I never quite made it.

    I certainly do a lot of math for pleasure. That’s what my math blog is for.

    @Harry: that’s a good question, and to be honest I don’t really know. One answer is “whatever you can get hired for.” Here are some basic options: academia, finance, the government, industrial research. And here’s a link that might be helpful:

    @Tim: I lived in Senior Haus my freshman year and lived at my fraternity sophomore and senior year. (Junior year I was abroad.) You’ll learn more about the dorms later, but for now let me just say that Senior Haus was a lot of fun, but it’s definitely not for everybody. Can you be more specific about what you’d like to know?

  10. JTC says:

    Hey Qiaochu,

    I was really wondering about the ASE tests you can take at the beginning of the year. I’m getting pretty good at self-studying subjects (AP Biology, World History and Human Geography) and was wondering if it would be a worth it to pass as many ASEs as I’m capable of and move on to more challenging subjects (while under Pass/No Record too!) or to just kinda get a feel for the work an MIT student has to do in my first year, and take introductory courses.

    tl;dr: are ASEs worth it?

    and just out of curiosity… how many of them did you take (if any) when you started out?

  11. LY says:

    Hi Qiaochu,
    Congrats on finishing and thanks for taking the time to answer our questions! What are your plans for now? Also, what were some of the craziest events that happened to you on campus?

  12. thermopylae says:

    I’m thinking of minoring in mathematics; would I be missing out a lot if I did that rather than double majoring?

  13. @JTC: if you can pass the ASE in a class, you’d probably be bored taking that class. If you have definite ideas about what you’d like to take afterwards, you should probably ASE. I think this is more true of 18.01/2 and 8.01/2; more freshmen ASE out of those. If you don’t feel like testing out of 8.01/2 or 18.01/2, an option you always have is to take the harder versions (8.012/22 or 18.014/24).

    I only ASE’d out of 8.01, I think. And I don’t believe I know anyone who tested out of bio or chem (it’s very hard!).

  14. Mohammed Amr says:

    Thanks for invite to ask questions, needed something like that. Now I like physics, in fact I love physics. I like to sketch random physics diagrams (they are really doodles). Do you think I should fax in a copy of these diagrams. They include my random thoughts of appliances of certain laws that I sketched in free time.

  15. @thermopylae: don’t bother making that decision now. Wait until after first semester; your academic plans could change substantially. You as a person could change substantially.

  16. @Mohammed: nope. If you want to show your ideas to other people, you should take the time to polish and refine them. If you love physics, find some great textbooks and learn from them. Be humble and assume that their ideas are better than yours until proven otherwise.

  17. Flor Albornoz says:

    Thanks for accepting free-questions! I just sent my MIT app last week but my test scores aren’t as great as I thought they would be. In fact, I think the MIT admissions office will laugh at them and then throw them away (I’m just exaggerating here). I was confident that I could have a chance to get to MIT because of everything I had accomplish, but now I’m afraid. I moved from Peru two years ago so I wasn’t able to do things other applicants have accomplished. In regards to your personal experience, why do you think you were accepted?

  18. Muna says:

    I’ve got a tough one (2?) here.

    -How do you deal with procrastination and what do you do to avoid it?
    -What gets you going (what fires you up and motivates you) to study and work hard?

  19. @LY: thanks! I’m planning on working on some personal projects. Read some textbooks, write some math blog posts, maybe write up some notes. Learn some useful life skills. Next fall I should be headed to graduate school.

    Depending on what you mean by “crazy,” I’m not allowed to talk about that stuff!

  20. @Flor: I did well in some prominent math competitions and (I imagine) had good recommendation letters.

    I know this is hard advice to follow, but don’t worry too much about getting into MIT. If you get in, that’s great. If you don’t, it’s not the end of the world, and it doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. Don’t feel like you have to have accomplished something amazing by the age of 18, and don’t feel like not going to MIT means that college will be a less satisfying experience. College, like most things, is what you make it.

  21. @Muna: great questions! I use a Chrome extension called StayFocusd that lets me block time-wasting sites when I need to get work done. It’s not perfect (I disable it a lot), but it helps me remind myself that I have work to do. I also cultivate a self-image of being someone who gets his work done; I feel like I’m disappointing myself if I don’t.

    In your second question, I have to be honest: I don’t study or work particularly hard. Like I said above, I prepare for my math classes by learning most of the material ahead of time, and my non-math classes usually aren’t bad.

  22. Alan says:

    When can we have enough? I mean, I have been involved in student governments, national math olympics, but deprived myself from maybe too many hours of sleep. My counselor told that I should know when to stop, but I certainly don’t feel that I have a limit, but when do we reach our limits? I don’t know, I believe that limits are self imposed, but many people around me think differently… According to your experience, I would like to know, do we ever have enough?

  23. Shaheer jawad says:


    I’m applying to MIT and i’ll be sending all my applications and stuff to mit in a few days.I have written some theoratical reserach papers that i also wish to send to the institution along with my application.Can you tell me how should i send them?..Im thinking of uploading all those reserach papers on website and then i’ll send mit the URL of the website is this way,the right way to send it.Or instead should i just fax those research papers along with the other parts of my application.

  24. valart says:

    As a parent of a student who will be applying to MIT I would be very interested in how you felt about your 3.5 years at MIT, what you loved and what you would do differently.
    Congratulations on finishing your undergraduate degee and doing so in such a short amount of time!

  25. @Alan: that’s not really a question with a universal answer. Some people can pull that kind of thing off their entire lives. Some people crash and burn halfway through first semester at MIT. I would advise you to get some sleep – it confers so many health benefits – and take a break to enjoy life a little, but that’s just me. If overloading your schedule makes you happy, keep doing your thing. (If it doesn’t, that’s a completely different situation.)

    @Shaheer: uploading sounds fine to me, but I don’t necessarily know what I’m talking about.

  26. @valart: they were great. I’ve learned a lot, met some amazing people, and made some amazing friends. I love the diversity of personalities and interests at MIT, and I love how MIT culture encourages creativity. There are a couple of personal decisions I might have made differently, but other than that I don’t have any regrets. (I don’t think I’m typical in this regard, though. Lots of people I know have made at least one or two unfortunate academic decisions, like not taking a hard class seriously enough.)

    Thanks! I actually could’ve finished in 2.5 years but didn’t want to graduate so early, and that’s one reason I gravitated towards the Cambridge-MIT Exchange.

  27. Rajiv dua says:

    Hi there

    I’m an International from the UK (wooo!)
    I wanted to inquire about music supplements when applying to MIT.
    I’m currently grade 8 piano and grade 8 clarinet. Is that above or below the average standard of musicians submitting supplements as well as joining the MIT orchestra?

  28. Tim says:

    What about senior house makes it not for everyone? I’ve heard that it is weird there but nothing too specific.

  29. KP says:

    Do you watch Doctor Who?

  30. Ghassen says:

    Help please with the transcipts!!!
    Hi, I am tunisian and my transcripts are in Arabic
    So my counselor sent the translated transcripts!
    Thesse 3 transcripts were signed and stamped by an asserted translator!
    But I’ve just heard that we have to send the original (arabic) with the translated!
    What should I do!
    are the translated ones enough ?

  31. X says:

    What math course or concept gave you the most trouble in your time there?

  32. MIT student says:

    Hi everyone,

    Good luck with all the applications! I know this time is stressful, but I hope that you all are able to enjoy the holidays a bit as well

    For those of you who are interested in international development (community service abroad) work, I wanted to point you to an interesting nonprofit that a couple of MIT students, MIT alumni, and Peace Corps Volunteers are working on! We have been selected as finalists in the Intel Innovators competition and if we gather enough votes, we have the chance to win $100K! You can vote on facebook (directions are in the see more part of this event:, and we would truly appreciate your help!

    This project started as an offshoot of the international action projects that we went on through the Global Poverty Initiative and Public Service Center at MIT, so you should definitely check out both groups if you are interested!


  33. Abhishek says:

    Hey there. Congrats on completion! As for questions (hopefully these are somewhat more interesting than the admissions ones) what is the most memorable class you took over the last 3.5 years and what are your plans for the future?

    Thanks in advance, and hope you have a good new year!

  34. Covi says:

    Hi Qiaochu,

    First: CONGRATS!!!

    Question follows: do you have anything to say about, from the perspective of a young mathematician, comp sci and the intersection between it and math?


  35. Paul says:

    Hi!, is getting a 3 on an AP exam(World History) really bad for MIT. I mean, do you think anyone who got into not only MIT but other competitive colleges as well ever got a 3 on an AP exam. Thinking of this one 3 I got is killing me.


  36. Anonymous says:

    As a deferee whose first choice was MIT, I was just wondering if MIT was also your first choice and if you applied EA or RA. And if you have any advice to the deferred who feel like they’re in a hopeless limbo right now.
    Congratulations though! You must feel like you’re on top of the world now smile

  37. dok says:


    getting deferred to MIT is great, you should consider applying to other good colleges as well.

    Also, would you mind just sharing your standardized test scores(Ap exams, SAT 2s , SAT) ?


  38. Sam says:

    I always wondered, how do you bloggers get that nice paint picture:)? lol

  39. I says:

    I’m curious how did you become interested in Math? Was there some event that started it all, or rather you’ve been passionate about it ever since?

  40. @rfong: Princess and the Frog, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Hunchback of Notre Dame, High School Musical.

    (Just kidding. Pocahontas.)

    We can marathon them over IAP! Come to Theta Xi?

  41. Jmsaad says:

    Hi man!
    I’m curious about your plans after the graduation !
    Could you please tell us something about your career ?

    yeah, I have a Q. I’m not Native-Speaker and I have dual nationalities, American and other nationality !
    Thus, in the application should I choose US Citizen or International student ?
    I want to send my TOEFL score instead of the SAT Reasoning. Do you think if I choose American (the chance to get in is much better) I will be required to send the SAT ?

    Thank you in advance smile

  42. LR says:

    I just have a question about the AMC 10/12. I can’t get my scores, so should I just not list them?

  43. M.SB. says:

    ‘Ello Qiaochu!

    I have a bunch of questions, dealing with a bunch of different things. Heeeere we go!

    1>> Do you have a Geek Code? (If so, would you be so kind as to share it?)
    2>> What kind of music do you usually listen to? And your favorite [genre/style/group/composer]?
    3>> Have any advice/tips for a student who really, really wants to learn some math topics on their own, but has trouble keeping focused and motivated on math? (My guess is that you’ve done a lot of self-teaching and have spent time learning topics on your own, and probably know a thing or two about the whole learning-on-your-own thing.)
    4>> What kind of books do you read regularly? How about for fun? (Also, do you like sci-fi? Have you ever read any of the Dune novels?)
    5>> What “special insight” have you gained about life (or handling the various things in life, or living life) during your time at MIT (not exclusively from classes, or even directly — maybe something you’ve grown to understand over time, or something someone said that’s resonated and stuck with you) that you think you would only have been able to know/learn/understand from attending MIT? (Not necessarily one thing here, maybe it’s a list of things, I don’t know.)

    I hope my questions aren’t scattered, redundant, or confusing. I’m just so excited about this Q&A! raspberry

    Oh, congrats on finishing your undergrad and thanks for taking the time to do this Q&A! smile

  44. Muna says:

    Wow Qiaochu Thanks!

    I really like that idea of keeping that self-image. I think it’s a great motivator to do your best in order to NOT disappoint yourself.

    I think I will start using that idea from now on..

  45. @Jmsaad: graduate school in mathematics, and afterwards an academic career.

    I imagine it’ll be easier if you apply as a US citizen, and I’m reasonably certain you’ll need to send in SAT or ACT scores if you do this, but this is really a question for the admissions office, not me.

    @LR: I imagine MIT knows how to verify AMC scores. I would say go ahead and list them if you know what they are.

    @M.SB: I hadn’t heard of the term until now. That’s interesting. I think there are social benefits of communicating the things the Geek Code communciates in a less compact and more traditional format.

    I listen to a lot of music. I’ve been on a Taylor Swift kick lately. Generally speaking, I’m fond of acoustic guitar and piano: John Mayer, Sara Bareilles, that kind of thing.

    It depends on what you mean by “trouble keeping focused and motivated.” Could you elaborate?

    I haven’t read any books regularly in awhile. (MIT keeps you busy!) I read math textbooks and anything else that I think is interesting. I like fantasy and sci-fi, but haven’t read a lot of either. Regrettably, I haven’t read any of the Dune novels.

    I don’t think any insights about life I’ve gained at MIT could only have been gained at MIT. MIT’s special, but it’s not that special!

  46. Kim says:

    You said sometimes in order to combat procrastination, you would use the Chrome app, StayFocused. But were you usually in that situation? You seem to possess a lot of self-motivation, always pushing yourself to learn the material ahead of time because that’s just you. But the self-motivation that you have a lot of stems from genuine enjoyment of learning math. So my burning question is: if someone does not have the self-motivation and drive like yours, does it mean that they don’t enjoy it enough to consider it as a future career?

    This question might be a “yeah duh” question, but sometimes, I feel there’s a point where math becomes so advanced and challenging that it doesn’t speak to me anymore. Yeah maybe algebra back in eighth grade was fun, but delving into pure mathematics I can’t imagine myself doing now, seeing how harder it gets.

    Maybe you’re the wrong person to ask this; maybe, I’m just not making sense. I don’t know…

  47. M.SB. says:

    Thanks for answering! smile

    About focus and motivation… let’s see how to explain this.

    There’s the fascination (of course) that occurs when I can visualize all the things happening in an operation or formula at once. Sort of an “animated mental graph”, if you will. But after some time studying (and some more topics onward), the math seems like hieroglyphics and the explanation feels like it’s written in another language.

    Then, the math kind of feels discouraging or daunting. Although, after some time, when I go back to think about it, it’s really fascinating… maybe I’m approaching the studying or work part of understanding math with the wrong attitude? I’m not sure. (I’m also not sure if there are really any tips you can give me for that, heh.)

    About the last question I asked before: Maybe not about life, then. Hmm. How about learning, working on something (project, idea, whatever), or maybe studying? I’m not sure. I guess I’m just asking because it seems that MIT students “think on a different wavelength”, compared to most other college students. Maybe I’m just “trying to find something that isn’t there”. That could be the case.

    Anyways, thanks again for answering!

  48. @Kim: I don’t think such questions have simple answers. Once you get to college (I assume you’re a prospective) you might find that something besides pure math comes to you more easily and/or is more exciting to you. Of course I encourage people to study pure math, but I recognize that it isn’t for everybody, and it’s easier for everyone for you to figure out where your comparative advantage lies.

  49. Justin says:

    what school did you go to before MIT?
    is it possible to transfer to MIT with good grades from any college? (community college not included)

  50. @M.SB.: in my experience, at least half of the struggle in grasping a new piece of mathematics is not being intimidated by it. One way I’ve dealt with this (not consciously, but looking back) is by learning things gradually and in pieces. First I might read a broad summary of the main ideas, then I might look at a few theorems and proof techniques, then I might look at them again, then a third time. At some point, I get used enough to the ideas that I can comfortably juggle them, and that’s when I can really start understanding what’s going on.

    I think MIT students certainly think differently from most other college students, but I don’t think it’s because MIT makes them that way. They were already that way, and that’s what MIT saw in them and what they saw in MIT, and MIT merely provides an environment where that tendency can flourish.

  51. @Justin: Bellevue High School in Bellevue, Washington. I have no idea how hard transferring is.

  52. Aravind says:

    Hello Qiaochu!

    Since you’re up for grabs, I just wanted to ask you, how was your time at U of Cambridge? I, for one, have always felt it would be quite an amazing experience to go to the other Cambridge (if I got in, of course, but whatever), meet some cool people, and do some great research, because Cambridge is definitely awesome, especially in the engineering and mathematics fields!

    But now I wonder, does it ever feel like you’re diluting both experiences (at MIT and Cambridge)? I mean, perhaps you wouldn’t get to form really great relationships with classmates and/or prof.s at BOTH of them, y’know. Like you’ve spent too little time at any one of them to do anything that feels of worth.

    I’m being very hand-wavy here, but I hope you get what I mean. Also, how was the Cambridge experience in general, as a standalone as well as when compared to MIT? Thanks in advance for your response! smile

  53. @Aravind: Cambridge was great. It was exactly the break I needed from the hectic MIT lifestyle, so in that sense I think the two complemented each other well. (Cambridge undergrads don’t really do research, though; there isn’t an analogue of UROPs.)

    I don’t feel like I spent too little time at either institution. I certainly kept in touch with my MIT friends while I was at Cambridge, so that wasn’t a problem. Forming friendships at Cambridge wasn’t a priority of mine; I had friends, certainly, but I was mostly focused on my studies, and as far as that went I got as much out of Cambridge as I was going to in one year. You actually raise a good question about forming relationships with professors, and this could have been a problem for me, but I got lucky; I have good relationships with some professors at both institutions. Also, most of what I do “of worth” isn’t tied to a particular institution (such as maintaining my math blog), so that wasn’t a problem either.

    I’m not sure I can sensibly rate Cambridge as a standalone experience; I can only say that it fit into my life well and it was a welcome change of pace.

  54. jcy036 says:

    I see the word “anything,” and I feel compelled to ask about race. As an Asian, I wonder if Asians at MIT have especially high representation in certain majors? Does racial diversity at MIT increase peoples’ tolerance and awareness in general?
    Thanks for reading, Qiaochu.

  55. Matt says:

    Hey Qiaochu,

    I’m an international undergraduate applicant this year, and I had some questions about extra curriculars. I’ve always had a passion for music, and throughout high school, I participated in any music related competition I could get my hands on. I didn’t really do much else though. Do I have any chance of being accepted?

  56. Abhilasha Kamboj says:

    Thanks Qiaochu! That really helped as many people around me were quite doubtful that math can be fun when I told so.

    By the way, I love singing too!!

  57. Covi says:

    Hi Qiaochu:

    Question 3 LoL: To your knowledge, how many MIT students are there who really love theoretic science? How does being such student at MIT, a place where “Mind and Hand” are both emphasized, feel?

    Thanks smile

    BTW: If I get in I’ll probably do Course 6-3 + 18.

  58. @Covi: I’m not really sure what kind of answer you’re after. There are plenty of MIT students who love science, but I couldn’t give anything like exact numbers. And I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “feel.”

  59. Edasaur says:

    Hey Qiaochu!

    Congrats on finishing your undergraduate studies!

    For the AIME and AMC part of the application, should I just list the dates of when I *will* be taking them since Feb. 2012 will be the first time I take them?

    Thanks in advance! smile

  60. Aravind says:

    Thanks for that, Qiaochu! It’s great to hear that you enjoyed your time at Cambridge; on the whole, would you recommend the Cambridge-MIT exchange to someone at MIT? Or might it depend on the person and his/her interests, because maybe it isn’t for everyone? :p

    I’m quite interested in math too. So I have a sincere question for you: could you suggest some really good math textbooks, especially for calculus, pitched for fairly advanced high school students? There must’ve been a few that really blew your mind, which you feel helped you a lot, both in high school and in college; those are the ones I’m talking about. Also, what kind of preparation would you suggest to someone who’s quite interested in the mathematics olympiads? You see, I am. :D

  61. Jean says:

    How did you know that math was your passion? And that MIT was the perfect school for you? Do you have any advice for finding what you love and where you’ll be happiest? Thanks!

  62. @Edasaur: thanks! As far as I know, February 2012 AMC/AIME scores aren’t considered as part of your application, so I don’t think it matters.

    @Aravind: it definitely isn’t for everybody. One good reason not to do the exchange is that it is very hard to take classes outside of your major at Cambridge (it’s not something that Cambridge students themselves do), and that’s a deal-breaker for some people.

    I didn’t learn calculus from textbooks, so I don’t know any good ones. If you want to learn analysis, I learned mine from Rudin but there are easier sources, and again I don’t know much about them. You might want to ask your question on (or see if a similar question’s already been asked).

    To prepare for olympiads, it would be a good idea get some good books (I used the AoPS books and Engel) and do a lot of problems. I got a lot out of doing problems on the AoPS forum as a high schooler (several thousand by the time I stopped visiting AoPS).

    @Jean: I attended the Program in Mathematics for Young Scientists the summer after my sophomore year of high school, did very well, and found it both very enjoyable and very inspiring. It inspired me to start the first incarnation of my math blog, and I suppose the rest is history.

    I spent a long time not being convinced that I should go to MIT (I don’t like the word “perfect”). Everyone else in my life seemed to think so, but group consensus is never a reliable way to make decisions, so I wanted to be more careful. I applied to other schools, I visited them, and I went to CPW. At the end of the day, I think what convinced me is that out of all of the people I knew going to top colleges, the most interesting ones were going to MIT, and I wanted to be where interesting people were.

    Finding what you love and what’ll make you happy is very, very hard. It could take much longer than the 4 years of college, and there are no shortcuts. The only general advice I can think of is to keep your options open and be proactive in seeking out new opportunities.

  63. @l: the short answer is that I was good at it, so I kept doing it. Several adults directed me towards some valuable resources that helped me realize my potential, and after awhile it became clear that it was what I wanted to do.

    @jcy036: I don’t have statistics or anything like that. There are lots of Asians at MIT and they’re in a lot of majors. MIT’s a very diverse and tolerant place in every sense.

  64. Covi says:

    Thanks for your reply, Qiaochu!

    Another question: do you suggest us (seniors who finish applying and have a bunch of time) to learn math broadly (learning briefly what all the branches are about), or deeply?


  65. @Rajiv: I have no idea what those grades mean, nor do I know what is average among people who submit supplements. Sorry!

    @Tim: Senior Haus residents have a certain irreverence for certain kinds of social norms that some people might find off-putting. For example, there are lots of murals on the walls, some of which depict content that might be considered offensive. If you really want to get a good idea of what the dorms are about, though, wait until Campus Preview Weekend.

    @KP; no, but I have friends who do. I might start it over IAP.

    @Ghassen: my understanding is that you need the originals, but I’m not sure. You should probably contact the admissions office about this.

    @Covi: both!

  66. rfong'12 says:


    (do you want to marathon them)

  67. Lucy says:

    How was your admissions interview?

  68. g says:

    I’m afraid I’m not doing enough activities outside of school to impress the admissions office.So far I have devoted a lot of time to Waksman club which if you don’t know is a bio-engineering club, Future Problem Solving, and piano. I have earned high recognition in all three, but I’m afraid it’s still not enough. With your experience is this commonly what most MIT applicants might have on their resume, and will it be sufficient?

  69. Anonymous says:

    What GPA are you graduating with, if you don’t mind? Just curious smile
    Oh and what graduate schools did you apply to?

  70. M.SB. says:

    Some other questions from outer space:

    1>> How do you envision the Internet? (As a whole, maybe what it accomplishes or does, I don’t know. I’m just wondering how/what you “see” it as.)
    2>> Do you think the depiction of the future as painted in the book “The Running Man” by Stephen King (or the movie adaptation) is possible? Or, maybe… probable?
    If you haven’t watched the movie (or, well, read the book, as it’s more engaging), maybe that could be a suggestion for something to do over IAP? smile

    Part of the reason I’m asking (2) because I remember something you mentioned once about how humanity might end up hurting (destroying?) itself through some form or another. Can’t remember exactly. The rest of the reason why I’m asking is because I think it’s an interesting question raspberry

    Also, thanks for pointing out the Art of Problem Solving books in your other comments. I’m going to get some of the books (you mean the book series on the AoPS site, right?) and hopefully change the way I deal with or view mathematics.

  71. Ryan says:

    Thanks you for sharing all of your candid experiences, no wonder the MIT website mentions reading blogs.

    I know it would be very foolish to follow what others “did” in high school. Since all of us high school students should apply as who “we” are, not what someone else was.

    That being said, Qiaochu, would you mind sharing all your high school experiences and qualifications(ex. what classes you took, what year, activities, test scores, what subject tests you took, what accolades you won, etc.) PLEASE?

  72. amit3 says:

    This is not exactly a college application question. However, it will help me so much in overcoming this fear of mine. Let me get this out right now. I am an extremely hard worker, and I’m very focused on my future and especially my future college which I sincerely hope is MIT. But, as I said earlier, I have this enormous fear of talking in front of people. And I was wondering if this kind of thing happens a lot in the classes that you have taken considering class presentations and such. Could you possibly give me some tips on overcoming this fear as well? Thanks smile

  73. anonymous says:

    Were you always straight 18 or did you think about double majoring, minoring, etc.?

    Did you place out of/skip a lot of intro level classes?

    Did you get more than 1 or 2 non-A grades?

    Do you consider yourself a good programmer?

    Did you UROP a lot at MIT? Get published?

    What sort of things did you do outside of classes? How much time and energy did you put into them? How important were they to you?

    What are your plans for post-MIT?

    Sorry if these questions have already been answered, and thanks!

  74. N says:

    Hey, Qiaochu!

    What are the girls like at MIT?


  75. Adrian says:

    Hi, I was wondering..I am in Pre-Calculus(junior year) now and am interested in taking the AMC 10 examination, what preparations should i take?

  76. @Anonymous: that’s a mildly impolite question to ask, I think, but I don’t mind: 4.9. I applied to Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley, U Chicago, and Columbia.

    @amit3: I imagine many people come to MIT with a similar fear. Practice makes perfect: put yourself in more situations where you have to talk in front of people.

    @anonymous: always straight 18. I got out of 18.01 using AP credit and placed out of 8.01, but that’s it. That’s a mildly impolite question to ask, but no. I am a very inexperienced programmer. I attempted one UROP my freshman year but was a little in over my head, so I quit after a few weeks. Outside of class I learned math, sang, and hung out with my friends. I put a lot of time and energy into all three and they’re all very important to me. After MIT I’m planning on going to graduate school in mathematics.

    @N: they’re great. So are the guys!

  77. Anonymous says:

    how is it possible to get a 4.9….does MIT have AP style Gpa or somethign?

  78. troll says:

    What extracurriculars did you take in High School?
    Thanks again for taking the time to answer these questions! :D Reading through this post has been quite insightful. smile

  79. Harry says:

    Hey Qiaochu, do you think there are any coincidences in math, things that cannot be explained or proven explicitly?

  80. viku says:

    hey qiaochu
    is it ok if i mention more than one activity in my first MIT essay.Elaborating on just one activity is making the essay a bit monotonous.

    Happy Holidays!!!

  81. Andrew says:

    First off, congrats on your degree!

    Second, how on earth did you get 64,000 rep points on a stackexchange site. I love stackoverflow (I’m a programmer), but I only have 1/64 of your rep. Your one of those guys I love to have answer my questions.

    Also, if there was one part of your app to MIT that you were worried wasn’t good enough, what would that have been?

  82. anonymous says:

    Did you sing in choir or a cappella or something else?

    How many classes did you take per semester?

    What sort of stuff did you do over your IAPs? Summers?

    Sorry about the question about your grades, but to be fair, you did say “anything.” smile

  83. Meshal says:

    What is the difference between MIT and any other institute ?

  84. ea2016 says:

    how do you pronounce your name, also, what’s your favorite thing to do when you get free time? oh, and best hack you’ve witnessed

  85. Abhilasha Kamboj says:

    Happy New Year Everyone!!!! grin

  86. Aminat says:

    I know youre not an admin officer, but im really worried – the sat scores are refusing to send and i have unfortunately not beeen able to send them. ill keep trying through the day – but do you think itll be okay if they arrve alittle late.

  87. @Adrian: do lots of problems. The Art of Problem Solving books (and forum) are good preparation.

    @Anonymous: MIT GPA is out of 5.

    @troll: math club and science club!

    @viku: I don’t really know. It would help if you could tie them together.

    @Andrew: thanks! I’ve written a lot of answers (about 3 a day on average) and my answers are generally upvoted. The potentially weakest part of my application, I suppose, would have been my essays, but I liked my essays.

    @ea2016: Chow-Chew. Hang out with my friends. One time a few people glued an entire living room – complete with chairs, a newspaper, and a cat – upside-down to an arch next to MIT Medical. The people walking by were very confused.

    @Aminat: unfortunately, I have no idea.

  88. Patrick says:

    How would you advise a student to use AoPS.
    I mean, what is the first step that a student needs to take to utilize AoPS the best that they can?

    You’ve spent a lot of time there. Any insights that you would like to share?

  89. @Patrick: there are lots of problems to work on in the forum. The books are pretty good, but they cost money. The classes are also pretty good, but they cost more money. If you don’t feel like spending money, just solve a lot of problems. One big reason to do this on AoPS rather than from a book is that you get feedback from other users on your solutions, which is a good way to improve. You also get to read other users’ solutions, which is another good way to improve.

    @Lucy: pretty good. My interviewer was an industrial psychologist working with groups of engineers at Microsoft to improve their productivity, and we spent most of our time talking about his job. It was a fun conversation.

    @M.SB.: the Internet is a tool for rapid and cheap transmission of information.

    No. It sounds too deliberately violent to me. There are much more subtle and insidious ways for a similar future to play out. Also, when I talked about the possibility of humanity destroying itself, I meant through the abuse of weapons of mass destruction, drastic climate change, some kind of deadly biological agent…

    @Ryan: not that I’m not willing to answer this question, but especially given how you prefaced it, I’m not sure what you’re expecting to gain from my answer. What do you actually want to know?

    @Harry: sure. One mechanism for producing them is known as the “strong law of small numbers”: there aren’t enough small numbers to meet the demands placed upon them. There’s a famous paper you can find on Google that discusses various examples.

    @anonymous: Concert Choir, but also just by myself and with friends informally. About 5 on average. Over IAPs I generally tried to do as little as possible, and over summers I found undergraduate research opportunities or internships. Don’t worry about it!

    @Meshal: well, that question presupposes that there is a difference. There’s a certain type of applicant that seems to think MIT possesses some magic quality that will make all of their dreams come true. I don’t think this is a particularly healthy way to think about anything, including MIT. MIT’s just a university. There are other universities.

    I also think that when people ask this question, they generally expect a difference that makes MIT better than other places, especially from admissions bloggers. So to be contrary, I’ll give a negative difference: as a top research institution, MIT hires its professors for their research abilities, which doesn’t necessarily translate into good teaching. Many of the professors that teach introductory courses are brilliant, but have trouble communicating effectively with their students, who sometimes have a hard time learning because of that.

  90. Ryan says:

    I am just curious what you did in high school. What classes you took(specially what AP classes) , what scores you got on the APs, and SAT, and SAT2s, what kind of gpa you had, what summer programs you did, what activities you participated in, what competitions you took part in and what awards you won.

    Im sorry, i do realize this is a pretty impolite question to ask, but you can just give ranges(ex. SAT 2 math level 2 score: between 730 and 800) or something like that, thanks, your replies are extremely helpful.smileo

  91. @Ryan: well, I’m still not sure I see the point of this, but all right. APs: Calc BC, World, Comp Sci, Physics B, Psych, US, Chem, Lang, Macro, US Gov, Lit, Physics C (Kinematics), Bio (all 5s). 2400 SAT, 800 Math II, 800 Chem, 760 Lit. GPA: something like 3.97 unweighted, and I don’t remember what it was weighted but I was at the top of a class of about 350 people. Summers: PROMYS (2006), RSI (2007). Activities: math club, science club. Competitions: various regional competitions, AMC, AIME, USAMO, ARML. Awards: USAMO Honorable Mention (2006), Siemens-Westinghouse Semifinalist (2007), Intel Science Talent Search Finalist (2008).

  92. anonymous says:

    When you answer stackexchange questions, do you usually answer questions you know/have learned already, or do you also answer questions that you didn’t already know the answer to, but maybe had to look it up or think about it more? In other words, do you learn a lot of new material through answering questions, or do you usually answer stuff you already knew?

  93. anon says:

    Hey Qiaochu,
    Did you win any awards or other recognition while you were in college? What specifically did you do during college that is most important to you? If it’s different, what accomplishment are you most proud of? What do you think will help you most when getting into grad schools? Did you ever think about doing something besides grad school when you graduated, and if so, what? Which class(es) was/were hardest or most stressful for you?

  94. @anonymous: generally speaking, the former, but the divisions are muddy. Frequently I apply standard techniques to problems I hadn’t thought about before (so strictly speaking I didn’t know the answer to the question before I saw it). Sometimes thinking about a question leads to new connections among material I’m familiar with, which is nice (as in this answer). Sometimes I find in the middle of an answer that I need a result that I suspect to be true but don’t know how to prove, and I ask for help and end up learning something (as in this answer). Occasionally I think hard (as in this answer).

    @anon: in 2008 I was a Putnam Honorable Mention, but that’s about it. In terms of academic accomplishments, both “most important” and “most proud” are roughly tied between maintaining my math blog and contributing to MathOverflow and math.SE. My understanding is that recommendations are the most important component of a graduate school application, and I was lucky enough to find some well-respected recommenders who (I hope!) think highly of me for various reasons, such as the two I just mentioned.

    I actually gave serious consideration to doing something besides graduate school when I graduated, which is why I took an internship at StackExchange last summer instead of doing something more mathy. That experience convinced me that, while it might be more lucrative for me to get a job of some kind doing more applied stuff (data mining and the like), my heart wouldn’t be in it, and it also wouldn’t be an optimal use of my skills. I’m now reasonably convinced that academia is where I’d be happiest and most productive.

    My hardest class was probably 18.721, Artin’s experiment in introducing algebraic geometry to undergraduates. Algebraic geometry is widely regarded as a very difficult subject, and most people don’t try to seriously learn it until graduate school. The course moved very quickly, and I kept up for most of it until Artin started talking about sheaf cohomology and I admit I got lost then. I had 4 other math classes to deal with that semester, so I just dropped it.

  95. Bouchra says:

    Hi Qiaochu,

    I have a couple of questions, I hope I’m not bothering you with them.

    I want to know whether there are any ASE past papers available to download or not. Because I would like to try my hand at a couple of them, if available.

    Also, have you got any idea of what are the requirements for a person who would like to become a blogger for MIT (if I ever get in)? Do they ask to look at any existing blogs I write on and such? Also, are there any other commitments besides writing a blog post every now and then?

    Thanks… And I wish you a wonderful year = )

  96. @Bouchra: unfortunately, I have no idea. Cursory Googling didn’t turn anything up. The blogger application for this year can be found here. Besides blogging, the only other commitment I’m aware of is a Meet the Bloggers event during CPW. (If there are others, someone should let me know!)

  97. Anonymous says:

    Hey Qiaochu, do you have a Chinese accent? haha smile

  98. @Anonymous: nope. I moved to Singapore when I was 2 and to the US when I was 6, so my English is indistinguishable from a native speaker’s. East coasters think I sound like I’m from California, but I’m actually from Seattle.

  99. Don says:

    What other colleges did you apply to? Why did you choose MIT over them? Sorry if this was asked before and I overlooked it!

  100. Justin says:

    Thanks for answering all of these, you’re a brave man. Another question, this time about majoring in math:

    18.100X Analysis I is listed as a prerequisite for 18.701 Algebra I. Would taking it concurrently work (in theory)? If so, do you know of anyone who has pulled it off?

    happy new year everyone!