Skip to content ↓
MIT staff blogger Matt McGann '00

Famous people who didn’t go to MIT by Matt McGann '00

Some people are more successful because they turned down admission to MIT.

You don’t need MIT to be a success. Don’t get me wrong — I think MIT is an amazing, world-changing place. But it’s not for everyone.

Recently, two people who turned down MIT after being admitted have become quite successful, and I applaud them for it! Let me tell you a bit about Kevin Gillespie and J.R. Hildebrand.

In 1997-98, a student named Kevin Gillespie applied to MIT from a relatively small public school in Georgia. He was the first applicant from his school to MIT in a long time, perhaps the first ever. He was admitted. But he said no. Here’s the story, from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

One day, about eight years ago, Kevin Gillespie received an envelope from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Not just any envelope, but the fat one, with a letter of admission addressed to the Henry County High School senior.

Once Gillespie got over his shock, he hid the envelope. Hid it from his parents, friends and college placement counselors so he could rethink his ambition to become a nuclear engineer.

Gillespie eventually ‘fessed up and told his parents he didn’t want to go to MIT, despite the nice scholarship thrown in for good measure. He wanted to go to the Art Institute of Atlanta and study cooking. His mother — who may be eligible for sainthood — told him it was good that he knew what he was meant to do early in life.

It looks like she was right. Gillespie is now the chef and a partner at Woodfire Grill, the Cheshire Bridge Road restaurant that became an instant leader in Atlanta’s nascent farm-to-table movement when Michael Touhy opened it in 2002. Gillespie is also a new television star, playing himself on the Bravo TV reality series “Top Chef.”

[read more]

MIT alums have told me of their wonderful meals at Kevin’s Woodfire Grill (I’m jealous). MIT is great, but not right for Kevin. By following his culinary gifts, he has made the world better through food.

In 2005-06, a student named J.R. Hildebrand applied to MIT from a strong public high school in the Bay Area of California. He was a bright young man who enjoyed cars and racing. Like Kevin, he was admitted to MIT. In response to the admission offer, he took MIT’s offer to do a gap year(s) to focus on his racing career, looking to return to MIT if/when his racing career faltered. The (Santa Rosa) Press Democrat has the rest of the story:

For 18 years, Maria and John Hildebrand raised a son, J.R., who was athletic and smart. Very smart.

In fact, J.R. was so intelligent that he graduated from Redwood High School in Larkspur a semester early and was offered a full academic scholarship to the School of Engineering at MIT. Wow, huh?

Maria, a longtime elementary school teacher, was understandably proud. So was John, a CPA in San Francisco. But John, who also has a passion for racing vintage cars, could see something in J.R.’s future that his wife could not.

One day, John told Maria that it was possible J.R. was so brilliant in a race car that he may not attend college. Instead, he might take his 4.12 GPA, his soon-to-be-arriving acceptance letters to MIT, Cal and UCLA, and pursue his dream of becoming a professional race car driver.

Maria, of course, processed this information. And sort of flipped out, “I remember immediately saying ‘There’s no way he’s not going to college.’ I thought ‘You have got to be kidding me.'”

No joke.

Fast forward about four years and J.R. Hildebrand’s dream is a reality. Hildebrand, 22, will make his second career IndyCar Series start Sunday in the Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway, the track where he began developing his skills eight years ago at the Jim Russell Racing School.

Hildebrand, a Sausalito native, has swiftly ascended through racing’s minor leagues since bolting for St. Petersburg, Fla., four years ago. In 2006, he won the Formula Ford 2000 championship, setting a series record with 12 wins in 14 races. Two years later, he finished fifth in the Firestone Indy Lights series. Last year, he won the Indy Lights title, joining past champions such as IndyCar megastars Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan.

[read more]

Now, J.R. is a very successful racecar driver (btw, “racecar” is a nice palindrome). Like Kevin, by following his gifts and turning down MIT, J.R. is achieving his dreams.

Finally, before you ask — the rumor that movie star Will Smith was admitted to MIT is unfortunately not true. He never applied, but if he had, who knows?

30 responses to “Famous people who didn’t go to MIT”

  1. :)) says:

    Matt, Was Peter Bishop admitted to MIT?

  2. SD says:

    Very good post
    and good advice!! listen all! if you have any passion go for it!!!… forget MIT!!!!…
    that will increase our chances to get accepted ! raspberry

  3. Piper says:

    smile I like this post.

    Did Will Smith attend MITERS? That was the rumor I heard that connected him to MIT.

  4. Banerjee says:

    Wow, this is truly INSPIRING. And I can say this even though this is the only university I genuinely (and obsessively) want to go to for what it offers.

    Thank you Matt, for the little burst of reality =)

  5. Piper says:

    “I thought MIT doesn’t give out academic scholarships…”
    They don’t, but other people/groups do :D

  6. Anonymous says:

    I met one of William Gates poorer millionaire classmates a few days ago in NH who said he did a billion dollar mistake by completing his degree in Harvard and not following the footsteps of his friend Bill!

    This anomaly and a few others made me wonder if
    1. One needs a degree at all?
    2. Does it matter where you get your degree from?

    May be not if one is street smart and savvy and knows a secret path to make legal money …

    With a degree from MIT, you definitely will find several new paths to success and in case you do not find one, your extended MIT family will grab you and put you on a known path to a decent living. Could write a whole article on this topic. Will stop for now…

    parent ’14

  7. Anon says:

    Its realy amazing!!!
    so does that mean, i should not be dissapointed if MIT doesnt accept me???
    Cause i am realy heartbroken
    And i also have an ambition to fullfill….

  8. Shalabh says:

    Hey Matt,
    I like your posts…..!!!!

  9. todayiamme says:

    Thank you Matt for telling the truth. I just want to add something to it; there is nothing in life that makes you “successful”. By extension there is nothing at all that makes you a “failure”. The truth is that we don’t have an security at all in life, and we realize that only when things fall apart. We constantly strive towards our definition of it, while being constantly afraid of losing it.

    On the other hand if we embrace our fears then we wake up in a world where anything is indeed possible, and that makes all the difference. It’s only when you realize that there aren’t any fairy tales do you start writing a story of your own.

    I won’t lie and say that it’s a piece of cake, but it’s worth it.

    Thank you for the awesome post.

  10. anon says:

    hey matt please do reply
    i am realy worried and upset…

  11. Ruslan'15? says:

    Oh, very very nice…
    Thanks Matt you are trying to explain us that MIT is not the only way of success, so people like Kevin and J.R. are living proof of that…
    The best way is to do what you really like to do…
    Thanks to you all.
    Good Luck on your path to MIT.

  12. Matt… m so stressed out man!..
    m a student from india, and i applied, that is ent my part 1 on aug 4 right as early as the application came live …

    but i am having a tough tym with my esays! nw i m having the phobia tht if i dun b admitted to mit coz of my essays…so u c its givin me a hard tym!!!

    soo… if i dun get selected, (god plzz dun let this happen), n coz my dreams are siriously engineeric.. sooo…. wat wud u recommend!? shud i open a restaurant wid names of dishes all named aftr physics stuff!!??

    or shud i join racing wid MIT sponsored formula 1 team!!!

    the post was fabb! it really helped cooling down u kno! smile

  13. Derek says:

    what a sweet life story..
    but… every 1 does not get to have their own fairy tale!!! rite..

  14. anon says:

    I thought MIT doesn’t give out academic scholarships…
    Other than that, great post. But I would like to know about people that weren’t admitted to MIT and that became as successful as MIT alums. I know that they are out there haha

  15. Matt, I ALWAYS look forward to your posts!

    This entry is awesome because there are so many people who don’t have a dream but just wanna get into MIT, because it’s cool.

    I’d agree with todayiamme about ‘success’, but there are certain things in life worth chasing.

  16. Engineering says:

    One lives but once in the world.” – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

  17. Zeki says:

    These two stupid children declined MIT and they are now “famous” people who are not known by anyone :D Come on Matt,you really think us fools?They are not successful as a MIT branded engineer… They are just lazy people who couldn’t cope with idea of studying for long nights…

  18. Suryamp '15? says:

    I have to disagree with you on the part where you said: “They are not successful as a MIT branded engineer”. It doesn’t matter whether you graduate from MIT, Caltech, UCLA because you just want to enjoy the challenge of studying at one of the world’s premier institutions. MIT doesn’t mean that you’ll be studying all night. From what I’ve heard, it’s a nice place to mingle with great minds who think radically different and also enjoy cracking problems. I don’t see that as ‘study’. I see that as fun! The guys who were mentioned in the article? Their idea of ‘fun’ might have been racing or cooking. You HAVE to enjoy what you do right? So don’t discourage them for following their idea of fun. Who knows? You might discover your own breed of fun while applying for MIT! Then I doubt anyone here would resist you to follow it smile

    An on another note, I look forward to applying to MIT this year and I hope I get in!

  19. Matt
    please do reply
    i am very much anxious
    n upset too
    please i swear its my dream
    from inner heart
    i feel the every second of my life being dedicated to MIT
    i will do anything and am ready to face anything to get into MIT
    its not my craziness thats speaking, but i seriously like the study environment out there.
    please please do reply

  20. Ernesto says:

    These are great stories Matt, but u know, the interesting point is that they knew what they wanted in life, just like I do. The stories you posted are really inspiring, but just imagine what would had happened if they would have attended MIT.

  21. Anirban says:

    I think MIT does not cover everything some are meant to be done out side….

    for example cooking and racing !!!!!

  22. Anirban'15 says:

    I think MIT does not cover everything some are meant to be done out side….

    for example cooking and racing !!!!!

  23. parthi says:

    hey matt
    realy nice post

  24. Thanks for sharing! i suggest MIT is not for all. Its an advanced training for science. I hope if students are confident enough, then they can apply for it..anyways thanks for sharing!!

  25. To tell the truth, I was sad I didn’t make it into MIT. Who wouldn’t be, who had wanted to go there really bad? But you know what–I am currently sitting in a beautiful dorm in sunny Nashville, TN, experiencing one of the best weeks (if not THE BEST week) of my entire life…and it’s funny how life works. Every day on my way to classes, I break out of a stand of trees and cross a lawn in front of Wyatt Center, a Vanderbilt building that looks hilariously similar to MIT’s Great Dome. smile I’m just waiting for a car to appear on the top one of these mornings…

    To all the 2015 hopefuls: I hope you do get in, but remember that sometimes things work out in ways you don’t expect. Sometimes we end up in places we need to be that we never thought of! And hey–there’s always grad school wink


  26. B. says:

    A chef and a racer, haha!

    Zeki is right… as right at is gets!

  27. Hi Matt,

    I’m considering sending in some supplementary materials, and I just wanted to sound my ideas off of somebody to make sure I’m not way off the mark.

    I’m in the marching band at my school, and although this probably seems kind of odd, it’s generally a very misunderstood and underestimated activity. Marching band is one of my great passions, and to better explain what it is, what we do, and why I love it, I am considering sending in some extra materials–an essay, some photos, and perhaps a video recording of our halftime show. Would these materials be appropriate and helpful to the admissions office, or should I try to squeeze more information about this experience into the rest of my application?

    Thank you,


  28. Anonymous says:

    and so, children, the moral is…
    you don’t have to go to MIT, just be accepted here…

  29. Joseph says:

    Yes!!!!!! there is still hope for me!

  30. As a home school mother of five, I applaud those who knew they could easily go to such a prestigious school as MIT and yet chose the path that was right for them. I recently graduated my fifth child after twenty years of schooling. Only three went to college. They each knew how valuable a college education is but why go to school for four or five years to find out that you want to work with your hands, like an electrician? We all have choices.- Thank God!