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MIT staff blogger Ben Jones

Ben’s Second Semi-Annual Q&A by Ben Jones

More answers to your questions.

Edward wrote: “Are the differences in education systems around the world taken into account when considering international applicants?”

No. We evaluate everything based on the US system. For example, students who score 6’s and 7’s on their A-levels are (respectively) 94 and 93 points behind their american counterparts who score 100.

KIDDING!!! :-) Yes, the folks who read and evaluate international applications are very familiar with the various differences between international school systems. As with domestic applications, each international applicant is evaluated in context.

“In my country (Kenya) students who sat for the national exams are ranked by province with the best 100 candidates in each province being published in the local newspapers. There is no other way of showing you that I made it onto this list so… can I photocopy the page and send it to you?”


“Are admission interviews available in my country?”

I’m not sure. If your interview has been waived (you’ll see this in your MyMIT account) then it is likely that we don’t have an interviewer in your area. You can always write to [email protected] to ask interview-related questions.

“One of the requirements of MIT is that I should have studied a foreign language… the only languages I studied in high school are swahili and english, neither of which is considered foreign in Kenya – so will you consider swahili as being a foreign language?”

We don’t have a foreign language requirement, so you don’t really need to worry about this. In terms of your self-reported coursework, put swahili in the foreign language spot.


Arka wrote: “I attended the Summer Science Program, 2005, USA. And was the only student ever to attend the same from India. Will it be wise to include the SSP thing in the application? And regarding the foreign language requirement – I did learn some Spanish in a local school. But the course will end by July, 2006. So should I ask my college advisor to mention the foreign language education I have earned?”

RE SSP: Definitely! RE the foreign language – this sounds like a good plan.


Christina wrote: “I have two quick questions regarding my application, and perhaps you can answer them. One of the questions on the app. asks, “What do you do for fun?” and gives three lines for a response. I job shadow a Pediatrician on a regular basis and I do it because it is an absolute blast. Without going too much into it, I can tell you I have shadowed for over 400 hours and there is not much I would rather be doing with my time. However, I am afraid admissions officers might think I’m lying or merely giving them an answer they want to hear. Should I consider answering in a more conventional/different way to avoid this? Secondly, I am attaching a three page supplemental resume to my application that cites all of my acitivies and awards and then a few bulleted descriptions of each one. Is this excessive? Should I take out the descriptions and cut it down to one or two pages?”

We use the “fun” question in large part to determine whether or not an applicant prioritizes some real balance in his/her life. Students who respond and say “I change diapers at the nursing home” obviously think it’s a trick question – that we’re looking for applicants to fill every second of every day with “meaningful” things. We’re not – quite the opposite in fact.

So in your case, this becomes not about your answer to the question, but how you answer it. If you just say “I job shadow a pediatrician” the readers may think that you’re just giving them the answer you think they want to hear. If, however, you expand your answer to really cover why this is fun for you – and I’d suggest injecting some humor or anecdotes to really demonstrate this – then you’ll be fine.

Keep in mind that there’s a difference between something being really enjoyable/rewarding and something being truly “fun.” No doubt that you enjoy your time with the pediatrician and find it really rewarding – but that doesn’t make it a good answer to the “fun” question unless it is indeed fun. If it is indeed fun, you just need to show why – and be convincing. Does that make sense?

As for your second question, we have only five spots in our activities section – intentionally. We know that everyone does a million things these days, but we really want to know about the five things that meant the most to an applicant in high school. We find that these five things tell us a lot more about a person than any resume could, and this also saves us the trouble of trying to figure out what the applicant really valued.

I’d say go over your high school career, choose the activities that you’re really proud of and which really define you, and get rid of the rest. For the ones you keep, write great descriptions to give the reader the tools that he/she needs to really share your passion. If you need more room, use question #14 to expand your descriptions. But when in doubt – 5 things with great descriptions will blow away a resume/laundry list any day of the week.


Long wrote: “Is it a plus to complete the “optional” fields? Do admission people take them into consideration when reading one’s application? And is it bad if you complete one “optional” box, but not all?

The whole application is really designed to help you tell your story. The optional sections are there as further vehicles through which to do so. You shouldn’t feel that you need to use them if you don’t need them, however – we have no bias either way.


Matt wrote: “If we figure out the meaning of the numbers in LOST, will that help us get into MIT in the slightest, if of course, we already have a very good application?”



David wrote: “Regarding the essay, do you cut off after 500 or 100 words (for those who apply online that is), or will you still see and read the full of an essay that is, say, less than 10 words over?”

Mootmom helped me out by quoting one of my CC posts:

“50 words over the limit isn’t a big deal, don’t worry about it. People who totally ignore the limit and submit 1000 words, however, are telling us something about their ability to write a concise essay. In other words, it’s not a strict limit, but don’t abuse that policy – the readers won’t appreciate it if you do.”


Tracy wrote: “Is the deadline for supplemental materials (like an extra letter of recommendation) for early action also Nov. 1?”

Yes, but anything received in the first week of November will still likely make it into your folder in time for reading. A good rule of thumb is that things should be in the mail by 11/1.


Merudh wrote: “I have a 790 math IIC – is that considered as equally competitive as an 800? And also, do you think I should retake my physics SAT II (710) or is anything above 700 on an SAT II considered good?”

A seven-hundred-anything is a fine score. Spend the time making your essays better instead of retaking the test. :-)

13 responses to “Ben’s Second Semi-Annual Q&A”

  1. Zack Yang says:

    …I’m hard at work on those numbers for Lost. I’ll be watching the movie “Pi” to refresh my numerology skills.

    On a more serious note, should I have my November scores rushed to MIT?

  2. Sarah Bana says:

    On the same note, should we have October scores rushed to MIT?

    If not, then November scores?

  3. Shikhar says:

    Should I carry any special thing or portfolio with me when I go for MIT interview.

  4. I got really bad scores in my SAT I. A 720 in Math is NOT MIT material. If I do get 750-800 in Math Level IIC and Physics in SAT II, will that over-ride my bad SAT I performance?

  5. Ambreen says:

    What is the rational behind question…

    what department at MIT interests you and why?

  6. Edward says:


    You had me going there-with the joke.

    But thanks for it, it livened up my rather boring afternoon.

    Thank you for answering all of my questions.

    I hope to meet you next year.

    Have a nice day.

    PS: yeah, I know its nice to hear(read)from ME again.

  7. Shikhar, here’s my experience. My interviewere only asked me to bring some records of my activities to her. However, since at the time of the interview, I didn’t have my CCA Cert (that recorded all my activities), I brought my competition certificates and O level cert down instead.

    It depends on what your interviewer wants. Best to ask if you have to bring down any materials.



  8. He-Who-Does-Not-Want-To-Be-Named,

    I quote somewhere in Matt’s Oct Questions Omnibus:

    “It is unlikely that one bad test score will be responsible for not being admitted. Test scores are but one of many aspects considered in the admissions process.”

    I’d just try to get as good as I can for the SAT Subject Tests. In the name of being perfectionist, I’m re-taking the subject tests. =P

  9. Karen says:

    I apologize in advance for my application.

    You see, my college counselor made me send a load of things that were unnecessary (a loooong resume, a background letter, etc); I regret that you read everything I’m sending.

    I think a good piece of advice to people sending in applications is to ask themselves before mailing it – “Would I want to read this?”

    She also made my essay look like it came straight out of “What Colleges Want to Hear.” (If that existed, she would have written it.) In this aspect, I defied her. I wrote another essay because I felt like the first was suffocating – and I didn’t tell her. In fact, I didn’t show it to anyone until after I mailed it (don’t worry, my writing stands on its own). Was this wise?

    I know she wants the best for me, but my instincts and hers do not match.

    So I suppose my question is- should I be as worried and picky as she is? She knows what she’s doing and I don’t, but you all seem to be a group of level-headed people that won’t care about the color of my pen, but more the content of its character. (Sorry – the time induces bad jokes. can you believe she was worried because some of my application was in different colors, though they’re all perfectly legible and easy on the eyes)?

    My second question, if you’re still reading, is about supplementary materials. If I don’t get accepted EA, should I send in anything more to give my app. another push for regular decision, or should I just leave it as is? If I should, what sort of things could I send?

    Third: I sympathize with you. Just reading the same questions over and over is painful, I can’t imagine how excruciating answering them repeatedly must be. Ironically, my questions are probably fairly common–

    Oh well. That’s why you get paid the big bucks, right? To console the weeping masses of MIT applicants shunned by the SAT Gods.

    This was a very long, strange comment. I think I’ll stop now.

  10. Rob says:

    What if an applicant doesn’t have five meaningful activities? I have three activities that I value greatly and into which I put a significant amount of time. How would only three activities look to the admissions committee? I don’t want to put down clubs I belong to that only meet once a week or honor organizations that don’t do anything.

  11. Andrew Lin says:

    I recently got my SAT I results back (760 maths 740 reading and 680! writing). I was wondering if it would help my application if I did the test again (I only studied briefly for SAT I), considering that I am an international student (although I do have a good profile, including an int’l olympiad medal)

  12. Saatvik says:

    I’ll be applying to MIT this year as an international student from India. I had a few questions:

    1. If I stick to the word limit for the essays, a lot of space is left over in the Preview PDF (I’m applying online). Is it ok for me to write more and and fill this space up? I saw your post about how 50 words over the limit is not a big deal. So just checking smile

    2. I know how MIT likes to see Intenational Olympiads and Science Fairs etc. on the extracurricular list for internationals but what if I didn’t know about any of these till the final year of school? It’s not like I’ve been living under a rock or anything, it’s just that my school is not very active in these areas. For example, I only found out about the Informatics Olympiad in 11th grade (I reached the training camp then). Even though my school already had the participation form, they didn’t tell anybody about it! I had to go and request them to send my name after I saw an ad in the local newspaper. Despite all this, I’ve given my best (and gained recognition) to activities and competitions that I did find out about (again, all through my own initiative). How do I get this across? Should I write about it #14?

    3. I’ve been playing guitar for about 1.5 years now and would really like to send a recording to MIT. Unfortunately, there’s no way it can sound professional. The best I can probably do is record it on my computer using a microphone. Is this all right?

    Thanks for your time!