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Denied by MIT, Now A Goldwater Scholar by Chris Peterson SM '13

finding her way four years later

In May 2016, I wrote Denied by MIT, 5 Years Later, where I shared the story of a student we had denied in 2011, and how well he had done elsewhere. For me, this is one of the most important blog posts I’ve ever written, because it demonstrates in fact what, in our decisions day posts, we always say to be true:

Turning away so many kind, generous, super-smart students has been more than difficult: it has been truly painful.

If you are among them, then all I can say is that MIT is just another place. If it is amazing, it is amazing not because of some occult magick embedded in the Great Dome, but because the people here make it so. If you spend the next few years trying to make wherever you are as amazing as you can (as you are), then someday you’ll look back on this Pi Day and realize it all worked out okay.

In 2014, we denied another student, whom I’ll call CT. I had met her at Maker Faire and corresponded before and during her application process. After we denied her, I emailed her to tell her that I was sorry for her disappointment but sure she would be a fantastic student at the university she planned to attend. She thanked me and said she hoped I was right.

A few weeks ago, I got this:

Hi Chris,

I hope this email finds you well, even though it’s a little random.

You emailed me 3+ years ago (12/13/14, actually, which is a cool date) about my MIT decision…

For a while, I really felt like a failure that I didn’t get in, especially when so many of my friends ended up going. A particular quote of yours — “You have grit – the single most important factor to succeed in college and life – and you have it in spades” — really stuck with me, though. I think about it all the time, honestly; it was a really huge comfort at the time, and it’s one of the things that got me to continue applying to things and places I didn’t think I was actually qualified to get into.

I’m emailing today of all days because something a little crazy happened, and I wanted to thank you again. I did end up attending [college], and today we were notified that I won the Goldwater Scholarship [CP note: considered by many the most prestigious undergraduate scholarship given in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics].

That’s not really a thing that happens here…I was told by a lot of people (very reasonably) told me that I wasn’t going to get it, but I tried anyway in large part because of your advice and encouragement, which told me I was worth something and that it was worth trying for anyway.

It’s a really huge, surreal moment for me, and that quote was the first thing to pop into my mind after my jaw recovered from hitting the floor. I think I’m starting to believe you; thank you for that.

I’m so happy, and proud, and utterly unsurprised to hear that CT is doing well. I know there are more students out there like her, too. If you are one of those students — someone we denied years ago, who went elsewhere and made it your own, and who for some reason is still reading this — I would love to hear from you, via email or in a comment below. I am hoping that others, particularly those who were turned away this or future Pi Days, will find comfort and encouragement in these stories of students like these.

edit:

A few days later, I got this email from AW:

I saw your blog post: “Denied by MIT, Now a Goldwater Scholar”, and jumped a bit because that’s me as well!

When I applied back in high school, I didn’t know why I wanted to go to MIT nor what I wanted in life. I just did because my parents told me I had to…

I’ve spent the past four years at [state university] which have been nothing short of transformative. I’ve taken the time to indulge my unbounded geekiness, seek out and pursue cosmic purposes, and also just goof off. My portfolio of activities aren’t necessarily coherent, many don’t help at all with grad school/jobs, and I’ve been advised many times to focus more. Thankfully, I haven’t paid much attention to that last bit of advice.

In terms of metrics of success, I’ve won the Goldwater, the NSF, published a journal article, finalist for Stanford’s Knight Hennessey, done a few internships with NASA yadayada. But I think my most important success has been developing my philosophy of life. These awards are nice, but I’ve found they aren’t all that important to me anymore. I felt so much more happiness when I understood the proof of Christofedes’ Heuristic than when I won the NSF.

I’ll be heading off to MIT this coming fall for grad school in AeroAstro. Looking forward to joining The Institute.

Cheers,