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MIT staff blogger Chris Peterson SM '13

Denied by MIT, now a PhD student at CSAIL by Chris Peterson SM '13

It’s never easy to turn people down from MIT. But sometimes, I unexpectedly hear from students to whom we did not offer undergraduate admission in the past, who went on to pursue their ambitions elsewhere, and who write me, years later, to tell me how things worked out for them. Sometimes, with the author’s permission, I blog these emails, like I did here, here, and here, as proof of what I usually say on Pi Day:

If you are among the many stellar students to whom we are not offering admissions, then all I can remind you is that success is not always a straight line. That your path isn’t something MIT sets you on, it’s something you make yourself. And if you spend the next few years trying to make wherever you are as amazing as you can (as you already are), then someday you’ll look back on this Pi Day and realize it all worked out okay.

Here is the latest in this series, from Nishanth, who wrote me last night with one of the most successful instances of blog-based manifesting I’ve ever seen:

Hi Chris,

I hope this email finds you well. My name’s Nishanth, and as of very recently, I’m an incoming Ph.D. student at MIT CSAIL where I plan to do research at the intersection of Robotics and AI. You and I have actually met in person before (when that was still a thing that people did). We met at the FIRST World Championships circa 2015 where you encouraged me to apply to MIT and introduced me to the blogs, which promptly got me to fall in love with the idea of being an MIT student. 4 years ago, my bright-eyed, blog-lurking high-school self applied to MIT EA, was deferred, and then eventually rejected, which was rather painful at the time. Regardless, I discovered I’d developed a bit of a blog addiction and so continued to lurk from time to time to get my fix. Some of my favorite posts over the years have been the ones about students who were rejected from MIT, but went on to become themselves and do interesting things at other places (i.e this, this, and this). As someone who has now taken a circuitous path to MIT, I thought I might reach out and share my own story.

When I think back to Pi Day from 4 years ago, I remember the thing that stung most about my MIT rejection was the feeling that I was being denied the chance to become the person I wanted to be. I had become so excited and allured by the idea of being an MIT student that I’d predicated a lot of my dreams for my future self on the premise of getting an undergrad degree from MIT. Being rejected made me feel like those dreams would be forever out of my reach. Fortunately, after seriously researching and considering my other options, I realized that I could pursue my interest in Robotics somewhere else and potentially have similar career and intellectual outcomes. After significant amounts of research and thought, I ended up ignoring most of my research and following a heuristic you suggested by deciding to go to a relatively small liberal-arts school because the students seemed like the kind of people I most wanted to be.

As it turned out, that ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I got to study, and even research, Robotics just as I had hoped, but I also got to learn about philosophy, entrepreneurship, contemplative practice, Buddhism, ‘the shaping of worldviews’, and public speaking. I developed an interest in AI and got to become the first student from my university’s CS/ENGN department to become a Goldwater Scholar, but I also got to meet and befriend people doing everything from reforming the juvenile justice system to starting startups to revolutionize education. I got to fall deeply in love with someone and also experience heartbreak. I got to take technical classes to my heart’s content, but also learned that science and math can’t solve everything. All in all, I had a transformative experience that has not only made me a better engineer and scientist, but also (I like to think) a better, more thoughtful person.

At some point in college, I found out that a long-lost childhood friend of mine was now a student at MIT. I reconnected with her and eventually decided to pay her a visit at MIT’s campus. I spent the day walking around campus, hearing about my friend’s life, and getting the sense that despite being amazing in many ways, MIT really is just another place with many of its own unique problems. As I reflected on what might’ve been had Pi Day turned out differently for me on the train ride back, it struck me that not getting into MIT had perhaps been a bit of a blessing in disguise. My high-school self had been so in love with the idea of being an MIT student, so convinced that MIT was the right community for him, that he never would have given even a sideways glance to this other liberal arts school that would change and mold him in ways he couldn’t imagine. Perhaps the version of me that went to MIT also would have changed and grown in similar ways, and I guess I’ll never know, but I really, really like this version of me and am thankful for the weird, unpredictable (and sometimes painful) set of events that got me here.

Recently, after going down a random late-night internet rabbit hole, I discovered that I left this comment on the MIT blogs right after I was rejected:

a comment nishanth left four years ago vowing to see us in four years

In hindsight, a lot of this was me trying to put on a strong front to avoid feeling the disappointment of the rejection (which annoyingly ended up hitting me later anyway…). At the time, I had exactly 0 clue what grad school was aside from the fact that it would be the next opportunity for me to apply to MIT. I promptly forgot all about writing this. When I eventually did learn more about grad school and what it would entail, I decided that it wasn’t for me and mentally positioned myself squarely against the going-to-grad-school track for the first two and a half years of undergrad. Then a series of random events made me realize I really like research. A series of coincidences drove me to apply to MIT again, and a stroke of luck got me admitted to work with my top-choice advisor. So while the above comment might make it seem like I executed this straight-line multi-year master plan to get into MIT after a crushing rejection, the truth is it was anything but a straight line (and it definitely wasn’t intentional!).

Like pretty much all other MIT applicants, I remember coming across the things you usually say on Pi Day when I checked my decision. Admittedly, at the time I appreciated the sentiment behind these statements but thought they were mostly platitudes. Now that I have the benefit of hindsight though, I realize that you’re really onto something. Getting rejected from MIT didn’t block my eventual path, it was merely an unexpected furrow in the road. The successes I’ve had were not straight lines from my college decision onward, but rather weird, tangled messes of coincidence and persistence. And when I look back on that painful Pi Day from 4 years ago, I do feel like things worked out okay. In fact, I’d even say things worked out rather well; weirdly enough, I’m actually glad I got rejected.

Thanks so much for maintaining and fostering the strange yet insightful corner of the Internet that is the MIT Blogs; these posts have helped me in unexpected, surprising ways through some of the up, down, and even sideways moments of my journey so far. I’m excited to continue lurking around them for the adventure ahead :).

Congratulations to Nishanth for his successful manifesting, and I am so glad he shared this story with me so I could share it (with his permission, of course) with all of you.