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MIT staff blogger Matt McGann '00

Build awesome by Matt McGann '00

What to do if you like to build stuff.

“I like to build things. What can I do to show my stuff?”

I get this question from time to time. Many students know that math students can do things like the American Mathematics Competitions, and science students can enter the Intel Science Talent Search, but if you really like building stuff, if you’re a budding engineer or inventor, what can you do?

It’s a little-known fact that we in admissions get as excited about cool projects as we do about the big awards.

It’s true. Students who send in supplemental materials describing their interesting, imaginative, from-scratch inventions and creations get our attention in the same way that many of those national honors do.

Why? Look at MIT’s motto, Mens et Manus — Mind and Hand. These hands-on projects tie in directly with MIT’s core principles. And look around MIT for lots of examples of cool projects, like:

So, let’s say you like making things. Maybe you’ve already tried the “intro” material — trebuchets, computers, etc. What’s next? Where to look for inspiration?

Let me introduce you to a few really wonderful resources. I think you’ll like these; I know I do.

  • MAKE: It all starts with MAKE Magazine and MAKE blog. Both the zine and the blog highlight many of the coolest projects out there, and how you can make these projects yourself. You certainly should add MAKEblog to your RSS reader, and MAKE magazine makes a great birthday/holiday gift. Example project: Batometer
  • Instructables: A project of the MIT-alumni company Squid Labs (who “make a lot of stuff, for business, and for pleasure”), Instructables is kind of an open-source DIY site, meaning you can contribute, too. Example project: LED Dot-Matrix Display
  • HowStuffWorks: While (IMHO) not quite as cool as MAKE and Instructables, I have to mention, since it is another favorite. For example: How LCDs Work

These are wonderful inspirational sites that can provide lots of great ideas. I hope that if you’re interested in building things, you’ll check them out. And to the folks behind MAKE and Instructables: thank you!

If you’ve done some projects like these — tell us about them! Use the optional essay (Question 13: “show us and/or tell us about something you have created”) or attach supplemental materials (it’s best as 8.5″x11″ paper attachments with labeled photos) to tell us more. I love seeing photos, schematics, and descriptions of your creations.

7 responses to “Build awesome”

  1. Richard says:

    How does someone become an admissions officer? Was there an opening when you graduate? Did you work in admissions as an UG and then got to know the other officers?

  2. Melis says:

    There is also a Hobby Shop for students, which I just joined, and there’s the Edgerton Shop, too. One of the Mechanical Engineering professors, Prof. Slocum, is trying to get funding for a Do-it-yourself Zone. Basically, it’ll have lab space and machine shops for students to do their own projects. If it’s built, it’s going to be awesome!

  3. Rob says:

    What if a student has an interesting (and meaningful) building project done the summer prior to entering high school (in my case, an Eagle Scout Project)? Would you be interested in seeing photos or hearing about the project? Or, would it be too long in the past to interest the admissions committee?

  4. Sam Jackson says:

    I’m a huge fan of Make; it’s integral to the functioning of the Science Club here at Exeter. The one problem I find is that I am always overwhelmed by the sheer volume of great DIY projects out there and always feel bad when I am unable to try all of them!

    Also fun, if you can find them: Scientific American used to have little projects in a little “invention” type section… they used to be online on and elsewhere until some C&Ds; took them down, I think. I found them in a library database / hard copy myself. Things like “furnace in a thermos” or “build your own cloud chamber” — fun stuff.

  5. Stefan says:

    Wow! I’m an international student, all my life I have constructed various things ,like : rocketry , aero models ,computer programs .I guess i must send the latest projects. Now i’m working on Electrodynamic Suspension Car which is totally different from conventional cars and the most important is ecological.
    Exclusive Info about the project will be in early November under the name EDS-X

  6. Hello,
    sorry for the off-topic question; I wasn’t sure where to ask it. I wrote about a volunteering activity in part 2, section a (“tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it”). However, this activity is also one of my top 5 interests (part 2, section 5). Would it be a good idea for me to mention it there as well, or is it better to place another activity in section 5 instead?

  7. Erich says:


    Wow. I was at the Lincoln, NE info session and talked to you, but failed to mention that I interned for Saul Griffith at Squid Labs this summer. I love to build stuff! I was directly involved in the Howtoons project, but also did some Instructable stuff. I’m user ‘intoon’ on the site. I didn’t even think to mention that to you…

    I also have a photo credit in the new issue of MAKE (volume 07). Check it out.