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MIT staff blogger Ben Jones

Long-Overdue Responses by Ben Jones

Questions answered.

This is a long one. Apologies in advance!

First, a quick response to this

I’d just like to remind folks that blogging is not in my job description, nor is it in Matt’s. It’s something we do in our spare time because we think that keeping in touch with you guys on a personal level makes the whole admissions experience more fulfilling for everyone involved – on both sides of the equation. I apologize to those of you who think these blogs are just a glorified PR trick. I’m not going to waste any time attempting to refute that – my blog is what it is, and the folks who “get it” will get something out of it. Others won’t, no matter what I say here. That makes me sad, but I can live with it, thanks to the rest of you.

Okay, here are a bunch of responses to my blog comments…

NoCreativity – thanks for your post and I am so sorry to hear about the student at your school who was killed. You couldn’t have said it better – people do need to try to keep some perspective when it comes to life and disappointments. Thank you for saying that.

At the end of my junior year of high school one of my friends died in a car accident. I remember how my class came together in the wake of that experience – cliques ceased to exist, people stopped arguing about trivial things, folks started to look for the good in each other instead of the differences. It’s such a shame that it sometimes takes such a loss to wake people up to what’s really important. Thanks for doing your part to keep these threads on the right path.

As you also point out, however, people have every right to be disappointed if they didn’t receive the big envelope. For me, seeing the admitted students happy is no consolation to seeing the deferred students so unhappy, because the former all got what they deserved whereas many of the latter did not. It would be so much easier if the number of qualified applicants matched the number of open spots.

Anyway… if you are comfortable telling me who you are (email address below), I’d be psyched to read your essay. It doesn’t sound familiar, which means I wasn’t one of your readers for Early Action, but I can still read it if I know which file to open. :-) If not, no worries, I definitely respect the folks who wish to remain anonymous here.

(Edit – one thing I should mention, as I’ve already received a few emails about this: unfortunately I can’t offer feedback or advice on an individual case-by-case basis – I wish we could, but it wouldn’t be fair to other applicants who weren’t able to receive the same attention. I apologize for being misleading above. Basically, I meant that I’d really enjoy reading the essays that are discussed here; I just can’t respond to them directly. I’m only allowed to give general advice – written for everyone – via the blog.)

As for what you can do… Marilee has written a letter which will be published this week in your MyMIT account. She says pretty much what I’ve said in earlier entries – there’s unfortunately not much you can do, as you were likely deferred for space reasons, not because your application wasn’t great.

Off the record – and I say that because this is a personal instinct and not one that is in any way officially sanctioned by the MIT admissions office – I’d say if you’re going to send in something additional, address the idea of “the match” in some way. If you feel your application hasn’t done this already, let us know why MIT is the place you really want to be. Talk about the “real you” – what makes you feel truly alive – in the context of MIT. Why is this the best place to continue the pursuit of your dreams?

And feel free to “hijack” my blog any day of the week if you’re going to add such good, thoughtful posts to the conversation. :-)

Sagar asked should I be busting my ass over classes like french, where getting an A is very difficult, or should I spend my time doing the things I love, like bettering my chess engine, or my Neural Network CS projects, or My C interpreter, or my miniature mock particle accelerator?

My two cents: you should do both, but balance them. You should strive to do your very best overall, but recognize that your life will require compromises and sacrifices. In a nutshell, we understand that your best in French may well be a B if your brain and priorities are wired more towards other things – and that’s okay. We know you could sacrifice your true passions to get that A in French, but at what cost? Let’s say it takes an investment of 2 hours a day to raise your french grade from a B to an A, but it feels miserable, like swimming upstream. If you applied those 2 hours instead to something your brain was truly excited about, wouldn’t that be a much better (and productive) use of the time?

Just don’t waste the two hours. Do something magical with them that will stand out from the application to the point that a reader won’t even notice the B in french. People run into problems when they sacrifice one thing for another but then fail to follow through. Make sure that your B in French is balanced by something amazing you did with all the time you saved.

On the other hand, you don’t want to swing too far in the opposite direction. Anything less than a B in french could hurt you, especially in the later high school years. But an application with a solid B in French and vast accomplishments in other areas is likely going to be more competitive than one with a perfect GPA and nothing else.

Does this answer your question somewhat? It’s not totally a black and white issue – you really have to be the one to decide what the best use of your time is. I’d say most importantly, make sure you are true to yourself. Live your life! If you follow your passions and use your time wisely, success will ultimately follow.

Mike D – Feel free to call and ask for me. (When they ask where you’re calling from, say “Brooklyn” and then scream “NO SLEEP ‘TIL!!!!”) Seriously, I am here until 5PM M/T/W of this week (although not always at my desk – sometimes I’m out and about doing MyMIT stuff). Then I’m out until 1/3. Matt is already gone for the holidays… But if we can connect I’d love to chat.

Anonymous – there is a space for the question you described. It’s #14 in Part 2. (Thanks Sean for beating me to it!) You are welcome to send in additional materials, I think Matt was just saying that in most cases they’re not necessary – your application is probably already very strong (see above for further discussion). Another personal opinion of mine – I think it’s always good to check in with a school between getting deferred and Regular Action. It shows the school that you’re still really interested (assuming that you are!). This can be done with supplemental materials or just a simple email or letter. Any of these will be recorded into your file and seen when your application is reviewed again.

Earlier I wrote that “trying to define admissions with a formula is like trying to explain poetry using calculus” to which Marcus replied “I thought calculus was a form of poetry.” Marcus you are absolutely right (although the farthest I ever got was AB Calc, which didn’t seem very poetic – I’m assuming it gets moreso in upper-level Calc?). Regardless, it was a bad analogy, especially in the company of all you math stars.

Let me put it another way… I read a ton of Shakespeare in high school and college and hated most of it until my Dad said “Shakespeare was never meant to be read, it was meant for the stage.” So I went and saw Shakespeare, and it changed everything – it was brilliant. Trying to define admissions with a formula is like reading Shakespeare and thinking that’s the extent of the experience. Accepting admissions for what it really is – a wholly human endeavor – that’s like seeing Shakespeare on a stage, brought to life by the finest actors in the world.

An anonymous poster asked how to email me – it’s benjones at mit dot edu. I trust you can rearrange the anti-spam wording of that. ;-)

And to the person who suggested the RSS feed for my blog – fantastic idea. I’ve been planning that for awhile and just haven’t gotten around to it, but it will be coming soon. Sorry for the delay, I know I’m behind the times!

Thanks to all of you for posting feedback for me. It makes this blog so much more fun. Happy holidays to everyone!


19 responses to “Long-Overdue Responses”

  1. Lulu says:

    Happy holidays to you too smile

  2. NoCreativity says:

    Hi Ben,

    Sure, I’ll send you my essay. The reason you didn’t read my essay yet is because it’s regular action… unless you are one of those extremely anti-procrastination person and got started on it in early Dec or something (that’s when I submitted it). But anyhow, I’ll email you with it. Just tell me if it gave u an idea of me or not. That’s all i want, because all my stuff is submitted anyway and I cannot change it. I also understand it’s not an early expose of my work (yes I put a lot of time into my app so i consider it a piece of work), so it won’t influence you if you happen to be one of the people summarizing my app. It’ll save you the storm of protest that people will give you for offering to read it. I hope you don’t receive one though.

  3. NoCreativity says:

    smile hah, we should keep it on the down low.. just kidding =P…

  4. Sophia says:

    Thank you for keeping us posted on the admissions process and writing back. It definitely is encouraging (keep up the good work smile )! And Happy Holidays everyone (don’t forget to have fun in all the stress *read, go play in the snow if you have snow)!

  5. Kate says:

    I was wondering after reading some other blogs if there is any way I could add to my application. When I filled out the application months ago I knew what I wanted to study and I knew that MIT was the best place I could go for it, however, upon review of other colleges I have found only one other college offering that major ( Brain ad Cognitive Sciences – Course 9). Am I allowed to and/or would you suggest writing a letter to clarify my intent?

    Thank-you for your help.

  6. Ben says:

    Hi Kate – you’re always welcome to send in additional materials. If you feel strongly about Course 9, it certainly couldn’t hurt to write something along those lines. Make sure to talk about what you’ve done in high school that has led you in that direction – it’s always good to have some context for why an applicant has chosen a certain path. Happy holidays!

  7. Thanks for all the hard work that has been put into myMIT, which is the most user-friendly application tracking system (and so much more) by far! The blogs are awesome and allow us to live vicariously through all of you and truly experience MIT. Happy Holidays!

  8. Ben,

    You truly make my day with your posts. Not only are they extremely satisfying in that they restore my faith in the college admissions process and humanity as a whole, but they are also quite uplifting, so thank you for that.

    I’m going to be sending in a CD of three songs (with me singing, obviously) and a rec from my manager/mentor at Morgan Stanley, as well as a letter from myself. Too much? Hrmph.

    Hey, just out of curiosity (you don’t have to answer this, for obvious reasons, and I’d completely understand), were you one of my app’s readers? Just curious.

    Later and thanks a bunch,

  9. Ben says:

    Hey Mike,

    Sorry for the delay! I’ve been on vacation with my family and away from the web. Thanks so much for your message – and I’m looking forward to hearing your songs.

    No, I wasn’t one of your readers, unfortunately. Perhaps your application will find its way onto my desk in 2005!

    Happy new year everyone! I’ll be back in the office on 1/3/05 and will resume my regular check-ins.

  10. Fatima says:

    Hi Ben,

    I am absolutely blown away by you, by this blog, by MIT as a whole. I had always had a stereotypical image of MIT built into my mind of super hard classes, math and science 24/7, and being lost in sea of geeky geniuses. I’m so sorry that it took me so long to visit MIT’s site and contact actual students, and figure out that, really, MIT = mydream school. I hope you realize the massive positive impact your blog must have on thousands of other people besides me.

    I have one quick question, also. The teacher recommendation forms contain several, very specific questions that ask about the student personally. Is it all right it a teacher just attaches an essay instead of answering the questions individually? They might do it if I insist, but I feel bad making them do extra work. And another thing, what if one of the teachers doesn’t really know me too well personally? I never developed a close relationship with a math/science teacher, so a lot of those questions are a little unanswerable. Will that hurt me?

    Thanks, and sorry for the long comment.

  11. Fatima,

    Since Ben is away for the holidays I figured I’d try to answer a couple of your questions. I’m a fellow applicant who was admitted EA.

    I didn’t have a math or science teacher who knew me well, as I’d been out of school for a couple years and some teachers had since moved out-of-state. I had my computer science teacher submit the form instead. He knew me for several years and I kept in touch since graduating. You might just try to find a teacher of some sort of quantitative discipline that knows you well. I’m sure Ben will elaborate more on this point! In the end, however, one recommendation is only a single component of your application. Don’t sweat it too much. If your employer or someone else would be able to give a different (or more thorough) perspective on you, have them send a supplemental recommendation.

    As far as answering the specific questions on the form, one of my recommenders (a humanities teacher) simply wrote a letter and attached it to the first form page with checkboxes. They want the rating checkboxes filled out, but an essay can be submitted in lieu of the free-response questions on page two. The substitute letter would ideally detail the same sort of characteristics the questions ask about… I gave the teacher samples of several forms so he could formulate a response that would work for all schools. (In the end, I decided not to complete my other applications.)

    Hopefully some of this helps. Happy New Year!

  12. Ben says:

    Hi Fatima – thank you so much for your comment, I really appreciate it. I’m glad my blog is useful to folks – it’s really a pleasure for me as well. Interacting with you guys is without a doubt the best part of my job.

    I’m also glad that you’ve discovered “the real” MIT! grin That’s really the intention of our MyMIT site and of these blogs, so thanks for making my day.

    To answer your question, an attached essay is fine. I’d say about half of all recommendations I’ve read thus far have been delivered in that format – it won’t hurt you at all. The most important thing is for the teacher to help us get to know you as a student and a person – we simply provide the questions as guidelines.

    Happy new year!

  13. Ben says:

    Damn, Fabrice beat me to it *and* gave a better answer. wink He’s totally right. RE the second part of your question – didn’t mean to not answer it directly, I guess my point was just that your teacher doesn’t need to stick to the questions if they’re not applicable – writing an essay that better fits the context of your relationship is fine.

  14. Fatima says:

    Wow, you guys are fast! Thank you both for your very helpful and prompt responses, and Happy New Year to both of you!


  15. Hamid says:

    Dear Ben:

    I’ve submitted my application 3 days ago. I am a junior, alright? But not the sort of junior who would say “i am too smart for life, let me apply to MIT now, I hate school and I don’t want to stay here.” Nor do I have a core course missing such as physics and chemistry. grin

    But my dad was transfered to a new city – and my new school isn’t *that* good. In other words, they don’t offer AP or Honor courses. Back in my old school (150 miles away), it was so challenging, and if I stayed there, I wouldn’t even consider applying as a junior.

    The school I now attend costs about US$ 10k. Thus, I thought of the opportunity of applying to my “dream school,” MIT!

    Now that I have described my schooling situation, would being a junior in that case “mark” a disadvantage on my application?

    On the other hand, I have sent a small supplement about a project I’ve been involved on. I am (with some other friends) writing a standardized programming language basedon C. How would these supplements ascribe my willingness to learn to the folks on the adcom?

    And finally, I would like to thank you for your time in posting these messages and motivating us all into applying to MIT.


  16. A Mom says:

    Hi Ben! I’m a mom (duh) of an EA-admitted student, and I’m jealous as all get-out that he has MyMIT to go to as a source for all his MIT-related info. As you might guess, though, he hogs it all to himself: he does not feel like sharing his login with his mother. wink (No surprise, right?) HOWEVER… his mother needs a source for good info about stuff like CPW (Dates/times/arrangements for getting airline flights across country? What parents might do if they also come out then? etc…) — and I am sure as we progress through the year there are other things parents of admitted students might need to know. Given any thought at all to a sub-category of login for a MyMITKid portal for we interested parental units, so we don’t keep bugging our kids annoyingly? Thanks for considering it, and keep up the great work! (Nice smiley on the holiday card, btw…)

  17. Matt says:


    I was admitted to MIT after three years of high school. Now, as an admissions officer, I’m happy to find that our office considers all of the contextual factors in a student’s life, and thus doesn’t “mark a disadvantage” for students like you and I who had depleted all that our schools had to offer. It’s also not an advantage — it just is. We’ll consider your accomplishments as they are, and you’ll be considered just as the other students are.

  18. Ben says:

    Hi folks,

    Sorry for the delayed responses – I’ve been out all week with the flu. I’m the guy who never admits to being sick, so when I actually get sick enough to keep me at home, it’s pretty ugly. I’m on the mend though and hoping to be fever-free and back in the office tomorrow.

    Matt, thanks so much for answering Hamid’s question about applying as a junior. Just to follow up on the last part Hamid, supplements such as the programming language you described are definitely good things to send us – it shows that you’re really pursuing your passions beyond the classroom which is an important distinction.

    A Mom – you are absolutely right and the issue of Parental Unit logins has been a hot topic around here for quite some time. Unfortunately it’s fairly complicated in terms of how such logins would affect the overall back-end database so we were unable to include this functionality in the initial release of MyMIT. It is definitely planned for a future release, but unfortunately won’t be in place for this year’s CPW.

    Parents: if your kids won’t share their CPW info with you, you can always call our office (or email me) and we’ll hook you up. But kids – please be nice to your parents! They’re just trying to help.

  19. Ben says:

    Note: on 1/26/05 I migrated this site to a new publishing system, using Movable Type as the backend CMS. Though the comments were preserved, I had to manually move them over, and there was no way to preserve the dates on which the comments were originally posted. That’s why they’re all logged on 1/26 or 1/27, even though many of them were posted earlier. Sorry for the inconvenience! Comment dates will be correct moving forward.