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MIT staff blogger Chris Peterson SM '13

California Love by Chris Peterson SM '13

a week in the life of an admissions officer on the road

Every year our office travels all over the country to speak to students about MIT. The goal of these presentations is to demystify the Institute and our admissions process, particularly for those far-flung audiences that might not otherwise be able to visit MIT or speak to an admissions officer in person.

Our destinations fall into roughly three categories:

  • Central Meetings: major events, held at large venues, to which we invite everyone in our prospect database in a ~100 mile radius
  • School Visits: visits to individual high schools
  • Community-Based Organizations (CBOs): visits to CBOs, which may work with students from a region or community who span several different high schools

This year, I traveled to Southern California. I spent a week driving all over the region speaking to as many students as I could. I’m writing notes for my colleagues about my journey, and I thought I’d share some of them with you all to see what it’s like to be an admissions officer on the road.

Tuesday, September 2nd

I woke up at 5:30AM and caught a taxi to Logan Airport for my 7:30AM flight direct to LAX. I spent most of the flight napping and reading back issues of the New Yorker.

I landed in LAX around 11:30AM PT and picked up my rental car. Because I was in California, my first stop was In-N-Out.

I have a confession; actually, it’s more of a declaration: In-N-Out is not that good. Californians constantly tell me that it is, but I have been to a lot of burger places, and it is not. Instead, In-N-Out is to Californians what Dunkin Donuts is to New Englanders: it is so familiar and uniquely regional that it makes you feel like home. And sometimes that’s just as (if not more) important than quality.

After checking in at my hotel and changing into my suit, I drove to the First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica, which had volunteered the use of its auditorium for our event. About 90 people came, including 8 Educational Counselors (ECs), our alumni interviwers. Afterward, I headed back to my hotel near Beverly Hills and went to bed on East Coast time.

Wednesday, September 3nd

The next morning I woke up at 6AM and began a full day of school visits. How we pick which schools to visit on any given trip lies in that strange and uncertain space between arbitrary, convention, and intention. My method is to look where I need to be the next day, map out a rough route within that constraint, and then look for schools more or less along it. I prioritize public schools (~70% of MIT undergraduates attended public schools) with strong math and science programs (so that graduates will be well-prepared for MIT), especially those where, based on NCES statistics, I think there are likely to be a number of high-achieving but low-income students who may not have the means to drive halfway across Southern California to come to a central meeting. And then I call their college counselors and hope we can find a time that works for both of us. Some of these schools will send us many applicants and admits, and some very few. My job isn’t so much to convince students to apply as much as to help them think about whether MIT might be a good match for them and to help them understand what a selective college admissions process looks like ‘from the inside.’

So, on Wednesday, I visited:

  • 8:15AM – University High School, which has a new digital media magnet program open to all students in LAUSD as well as several ‘small schools’ focusing on engineering and environmental sciences, where I spoke to about 20 students.
  • 10:30AM – Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, the oldest magnet school in LAUSD, where I spoke to about 12 students.
  • 12:30PM – Bravo Medical Magnet High School, which offers a magnet program in health sciences to all students in LAUSD. I spoke to about 25 students who came in during their lunch to hear about MIT.
  • 2:15 PM – Clark Magnet High School, which offers a magnet school in advanced technologies and physical sciences for students in the Glendale school district. I spoke to about 25 during the final period of their day.

I then kept driving east toward Pomona where, after grabbing a burger and twice-fried (once in duck fat, and then in vegetable oil) fries at The Back Abbey in Claremont, I stopped at Bright Prospect, a CBO which helps mentor and tutor high-achieving, low-income students from all across the Pomona school district. My friend Jamilla, with whom I used to share a cubicle here at MIT before she left to work at Harvey Mudd, and I partnered to give a joint information session on both of our institutions. I then checked into my hotel in Rancho Cucamonga.

Thursday, September 4th

The next morning I woke up and prepared for my big driving day down to San Diego for the Central Meeting that evening:

  • 8:20AM – Cajon High, a high school with an IB program in the San Bernardino school district, where I spoke to about 30 students.
  • 10:00AM – Middle College High (San Bernardino), a local chapter of a national charter school program which allows students to take many of their upper level courses at a local community college, where I spoke to the entire senior class.
  • 11:30AM – John W. North High, a high school with an IB program in the Riverside school district, where I spoke to about 20 students during lunch.
  • 2:00PM – California Military Institute, a relatively new school in Perris, TX, where all students 5-12 are in a JROTC program and are also required to maintain a high GPA. I was only the second college recruiter ever to visit their school, according to the college counselor, and I spoke to about 20 students right at the end of their school day.

I then kept driving south to San Diego, where I had a Central Meeting at the Qualcomm corporate offices in one of their major auditoriums. About 300 people came from all over the greater San Diego area, as well as about a dozen ECs. After the meeting, I checked in at my hotel near the airport, went for a run along the Liberty Station Esplanade, caught the end of the Packers-Seahawks game, and went to bed.

Friday, September 5th

Woke up in San Diego, drove north, and began working my way back south:

  • 8:30AM – Westview High, a public comprehensive high school in the north San Diego suburbs, where I spoke to about 6 students
  • 10:30AM – Canyon Crest, a relatively new public comprehensive high also in the north San Diego suburbs, where I spoke to about 25 students.
  • 12:52PM – The Preuss School, a charter school for low-income students who will be the first in their family to graduate from college, and which offers advanced curriculum through a partnership with UCSD (on whose campus Preuss is located). Spoke to about 20 students.
  • 2:35PM – High Tech High, a charter school in Liberty Station San Diego which, along with its partner schools (HTH Media Arts and HTH International) offers a project-based curriculum. Their CEO and founder is the former head of Cambridge Rindge and Latin near MIT. Spoke to about 25 students.

After leaving High Tech High, I drove across the parking lot to Slater’s 50/50, where I ordered a half-beef, half-ground-bacon topped by roasted chiles, red onion, sliced avocado, spicy bbq sauce, and a fried egg.



Saturday, September 6th

Weekends on fall travel are less hectic than weekdays but we still have to work. I woke up early and drove to Oceanside, where I met two friends from high school and their rescue pit bull Molly at Breach Break Cafe for brunch around 10 AM. I then got back in my car and continued north past Camp Pendleton and up into Orange County, where I had a Central Meeting scheduled for 2 PM at Sage Hill School in Newport Coast.

I always arrive at least 90 minutes early for a Central Meeting to survey the venue, talk to the tech on hand, and make sure I beat even the most eager prospective students and parents. Even so, some OC folks showed up a good 60 minutes early, beating the beach traffic that hadn’t actually materialized. Luckily, we had a large team of ECs on hand to help entertain the early arrivals before the balance of the ~250 person crowd showed up in the auditorium.

After the CM ended I got back in my car and kept driving north to my hotel in Torrance near Redondo Beach. After checking in, I found a place called Bluesalt Fish Grill on Yelp. Its location (a somewhat seedy strip mall nowhere near the water) made me initially skeptical but I am glad I trusted Yelp because this place was absolutely bonkers. I crushed unlimited fresh chips + guac + salsa, equally fresh and delicious ceviche, and a plate of cajun salmon with grilled corn, garlic bread, and garden salad for about $20 total.




It was around here that I did something I’ve never done before: ditched BurgerMap and decided to spend the rest of my time in LA playing the Mexican food game.

Sunday, September 7th

I really, really wanted to surf while I was in LA, but when I started calling around on Friday and Saturday all the surf shops told me that it would be inadvisable for a novice like me to risk the strong seas churned up by Hurricane Norbert just off the coast. While I still suspect that this was in part a plot to keep newbies like me out of the line so the experts could enjoy the admittedly sick swells, I took the opportunity to take a run along The Strand, a paved bike path along the coast of South Bay. I started down at King Harbor and ran up to around LAX and back for about a 10 mile loop, after which I was ready to house some food and watch the Patriots game, which, in the occult manner of PT football games, began at 10AM.

The hotel receptionist suggested I try King’s Hawaiian, a bakery and restaurant just down the block, and I took the opportuninty to refuel with some amazing muffins and a Portuguese donut-thing that if we’re to be completely honest I am crying a little bit thinking about how good it was right now:


Thankfully, the immediate-onset carb coma allowed me to mostly ignore the Mess in Miami and the next thing I remember I was setting up for my next Central Meeting at Redondo Union High. At this point, I literally could (and quite possibly did, never dared to ask my hotel neighbors) have given my MIT spiel in my sleep. The benefit of knowing a speech cold is that it oddly gives you more room to improvise: because you can talk on absolute autopilot, the rest of your consciousness is observing the room, seeing who’s engaged and who you’ve lost, thinking of how you could tweak your delivery on a joke. I know I’m really in the zone when I can simultaneously talk about MIT and have a completely separate and parallel internal monologue musing about how I can improve the session I’m giving on the fly. Adittedly, it helps when the crowd is composed of laid back SoCal types who greet you with a “dude, nice talk, bro” in the Q&A.

I left Redondo Beach around 4 and decided to take the scenic route to the San Fernando Valley: north up Route 1 through Malibu, over the Santa Monica Mountains, and back east to Sherman Oaks. Really, I just started driving north on the 1 and figured I would search for a surf shop shielded from the worst of the waves. By the time I got to the Malibu Surf Shack, they were already closing, but not before my boy Matt pointed me just up the road to Casa Escobar, which maintained an unbroken streak of awesome food:


Ceviche (mahi-mahi) with fresh guac, salsa, and chips, followed by a carnitas plate with soft tortillas

dat taco doe

I went out onto the Malibu Pier to digest and watch the surfing competition at Surfrider Beach next door while the sunset. I’ll always be a New Englander to my cold, frozen core, but Malibu, I could get used to you.


Monday, September 8th


The next morning I woke up, went for a run, and then began working my way east through the San Fernando valley before turning south back into LA proper:

  • 8:45AM – John Francis Polytechnic High School, a public high school with a math/sci magnet in Sun Valley and home of the “Poly 5” you may have heard about if you’re from the greater LAUSD area. Jeff Hunt, the EC for Poly, and I spoke to about 100 students from all grades in the Poly library.
  • 12:00PM – Van Nuys High, a public high school with both a math/sci and a medical magnet program. I spoke to about 15 students at the college counseling center as well as an entire 11th grade Physics class, and they kindly accommodated me even though a film was being shot on campus the same day.

After these two visits, I drove south into the heart of LA to visit College Track (IACT) in Boyle Heights. IACT is a local chapter of the national College Track CBO run in partnership with’s foundation. IACT, which has been running for three years, accepts 60 students a year from Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights and provides extra mentoring, tutoring, and college advising; next year will be their first graduating class. I spoke to about 20 students here.

After I left IACT, I drove into South Central LA, where I met my friend Rogelio at La Carreta. Rogelio grew up in South Central and graduated from UCLA. We were grad students together at CMS and Civic and he’s now back home doing his PhD at USC under former MIT Professor Henry Jenkins. He’d promised me ‘real’ Mexican food under his guidance; I don’t know what makes Mexican food ‘real’ or ‘fake,’ but now I know mulitas are a thing and that I love them:



Tuesday, September 8th

My last day in LA was also my busiest:

  • 8:30AM – Bell High, a public high with a gifted STEM magnet, where I met without about 80 students, including what I believe were the entire AP Physics and Calculus classes (who were excused to come hear me speak and packed into the college counseling center to do so).
  • 11:00AM – Garfield High, a large public high with an AP program (made famous by the movie Stand and Deliver as the home high school of math teacher Jaime Escalante), where I met with about 25 students, many of whom were involved with the local chapter of Upward Bound.
  • 1:00PM – California Academy of Math and Science, a nonresidential public STEM magnet on the campus of CalState Dominguez Hills, where I spoke to about 20 students.

After CAMS, I drove back north to downtown LA, where I met with students from Iridescent, a CBO which helps students from several high schools in central LA with STEM education and college advising (among other things). A few of their staff are MIT alumni and so the students got to hear several different pespectives on life at the Institute.

Then, I drove north to Koreatown and the LA Makerspace, which meets regularly from 3-7PM at the Pio Pico Library to help students with research and technical creativity. Unfortunately, I was held up in traffic, and when I arrived most of the students were gone. However, I got to speak to their Director of Citizen Science, Ariel Levi Simons, who mentors many of the researchers, about our new Research Portfolio.

One of the things that I love about MIT (which was not true of my life before MIT) is that chances are good you can find alumni friends wherever you go, secretly running everything, like a nerd Illuminati. Of my graduating CMSW S.M. cohort, several are now in LA, in screenwriting programs, working as video game designers, developing social technologies for hotels, and other cool stuff. We grabbed dinner at Birds and caught up on life at/after MIT.


And with that, I drove to LAX, boarded a red-eye at 11:30AM, landed in Boston at 7:30AM, and rolled right into a day of meetings to catch up on everything I’d missed on my trip out west. I’d driven more than a thousand miles all over southern California, talked to more than a thousand prospective students and parents, and eaten all the amazing Mexican food I could (alas, it is never enough). Just a week in the life of an admissions officer during fall travel season!