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MIT staff blogger Matt McGann '00

Marilee Jones in the news by Matt McGann '00

The Associated Press article about Dean Marilee Jones.

In the news around the country, there’s a story from the Associated Press about our Dean of Admissions, Marilee Jones. According to Google News, the story has been picked up by at least 67 news organizations, from rural Saskatchewan to southern Mississippi. Most prominently, it’s currently on, with a nice picture of Marilee and her daughter (at right). We in admissions are all proud to work for such an inspirational boss. (Plus, what other admissions dean would rock out at Battle of the Bands?)

Taking aim at admissions anxiety

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (AP) — Though just teenagers, the applicants to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are a scarily accomplished lot. They have started businesses and published academic research. One built a working nuclear reactor in his garage. In their high schools, they have led every extracurricular club and mastered the SAT.

But surprisingly few have done what Marilee Jones, the woman who actually decides which one in seven MIT applicants gets in, thinks 18-year-olds ought to be doing.

Not many sleep eight hours a night, or eat three meals a day. Few spend time each day just staring into space.

And Jones is blunt about the consequences.

The quest for perfection “is making our children sick,” the MIT dean of admissions told a recent gathering of college admissions professionals in Boston. She means it literally, snapping off statistics on the increase in ulcers, anxiety disorders and control disorders such as cutting and anorexia.

“Kids aren’t supposed to be finished,” she said. “They’re partial. They’re raw. That’s why we’re in the business.”

“Lowering the flame”

For years, high school teachers and counselors have been complaining about the emotional and physical toll of the competition for slots in selective colleges. SAT prep classes and an arms race of extracurricular resume-building, they say, are draining the fun out of life for their students.

College officials have been slower to see it as a problem — though, finally, that may be changing. A group of presidents from prominent colleges has been talking behind the scenes about possible steps to “lower the flame” — to use the buzz phrase — surrounding colleges admissions. And Harvard made a surprise announcement last Tuesday that it would eliminate its “early action” round of admissions, partly on grounds it contributes to admissions anxiety.

Jones, who sports a shock of red hair, speaks bluntly and loves the Rolling Stones, is neither quiet nor behind-the-scenes by nature. Nine years as dean, and the mother’s-eye view she got of college admissions last year, have persuaded her something is wrong. Now, from the surprising pulpit of a university famous for its overachievers, she has become perhaps the field’s most visible and outspoken champion of revamping admissions — and certainly the sharpest critic of colleges themselves for their complicity in the problem.

“Nothing will change unless we get up, look ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘I’m responsible,”‘ Jones told her admissions colleagues. “We have to look ourselves in the eye and say, ‘Am I an educator, or am I marketer?”‘

The answer may not be as easy as it sounds. A 2005 survey by consulting firm Noel-Levitz found the average four-year private college now spends more than $2,000 to recruit each student it enrolls.

“The profession has been transformed in the last 20 years to become almost internecine — competition, competition, competition,” said Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Education Conservancy, a group also working to lessen anxiety around admissions. “It’s the coach mentality to admissions: Win at any cost.”

The losers are students.

“The thing we see over and over again is how tired (students) feel, the extent to which they don’t enjoy their senior year, which is supposed to be the big payoff of the high school experience,” said Rod Skinner, college counseling director at Milton Academy near Boston, where Jones recently spoke. “Marilee is really getting at how these students feel.”

The issue hasn’t always been at the top of Jones’ agenda. A scientist by training, she was hired by MIT’s admissions office in 1979 to help recruit more women, then just 17 percent of the student body. By the time she was appointed dean in 1997, that figure had grown to 39 percent.

Now, nearly half of MIT’s incoming undergraduates are women, as is its president. But as that issue’s urgency faded, Jones began noticing some other troubling trends in admissions.

The phone calls from parents seemed more frequent, and pushier. And Jones grew increasingly worried about the applications that crossed her desk. The students were remarkably accomplished, but she worried the resume rat race had quashed creativity. Would future MIT graduates make world-changing discoveries, she wondered, or merely execute the discoveries of others?

“You don’t see the kind of wild innovation from individuals you used to see,” Jones said over lunch during a recent interview. “You see a lot of group and team projects overseen by professionals, but you don’t see the kind of rogue, interesting stuff that we used to see at MIT.”

MIT faculty told her many students just weren’t much fun to teach. The issue of perfectionism had been brought painfully to the fore at MIT by a series of student suicides. Students “want to do everything right, they want to know exactly what’s on the test,” faculty told her. “They’re so afraid of failing or stepping out of line, that they’re not really good students.”

First-hand experience

Meanwhile, Jones was starting to see the college admissions process — the mailings, the emphasis on activities, the pressure to apply early-decision — through the eyes of her daughter.

“When she was in sixth or seventh grade, I was every bit as bad as the parents I’m talking about,” Jones says. “Little by little, I started watching her get affected by that pressure, and I realized that that pressure came from me.”

“I was sending her a message: ‘You’ll never get in anywhere,”‘ she said. “That was my fear.”

But two things ultimately transformed Jones’ concerns into a cause. One was a series of conversations about adolescent health with pediatricians, like Kenneth Ginsburg of Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, her co-author on a new book: “Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond.”

“The more time I logged with the doctors, that was what threw me over the edge,” Jones says. “I went from being an advocate for change to really being on fire on this.”

The other was a simple conversation with a high school student after she gave a talk. He asked her if MIT really required 10 extracurricular activities. Jones wondered aloud why he would think that. The student pulled out MIT’s application and showed her: next to “extracurriculars” it listed 10 lines for students to fill in. For the first time, Jones says, she saw MIT’s application as a student sees it. She completely rewrote it.

“That’s when I realized there’s what we say and what they hear, and they’re really different,” Jones says. “We’re raising a generation of kids trained to please adults. Every day kids should have time when they’re doing something where they’re not being judged. That’s the big difference with this generation. They’re being judged and graded and analyzed and assessed at every turn. It’s too much pressure for them.”

Changing the game

Many in the admissions field admire Jones, though with mixed feelings about her prospects for winning this fight.

“When you meet her, she looks you in the eye in a way that none of the other Ivy League deans do,” Thacker said. “It’s just the way she’s put together: There’s a glow to her. She’s got this red hair, and she’s out there and energetic. She lives close to her values and her work.”

But can one person change the admissions game?

“She’s probably a little bit more bullish than I am, a little more optimistic,” said Tom Parker, dean of admissions and financial aid at Amherst College, who has spoken on a number of panels with Jones.

She probably won’t persuade many parents that it really doesn’t matter which colleges accept their children. Nor will it be easy getting other colleges to tone down their recruiting. Many struggle simply to fill classrooms and don’t have MIT’s luxury of limitless talent to pick. And even MIT’s highly selective peers care about rankings; in the marketing arms race, they aren’t likely to unilaterally disarm.

“I think it is very tough for her to do this given the traditional group of colleagues and the kind of unwritten rules and habits and relationships that exist,” Thacker said. “There are conventions, and in many ways, she’s a rebel.”

Jones says she understands the pressures.

“What I’m asking my colleagues to do would get many of them fired,” she said. “I get it.”

But there are encouraging signs. Jones says she was “thrilled” by Harvard’s decision to drop early action. Five years ago, she says, nobody wanted to hear her talk about overscheduling; they just wanted to know how to get into MIT. Now she gets 10-15 speaking requests per week.

After Jones spoke at Milton, Skinner said, parents peppered him with requests of copies of her presentation.

“Every time I do a presentation there’s at least one orthopedic surgeon in the audience who will come up to me and say, ‘You’re not even talking about sports injuries,”‘ Jones says. “Then somebody else will come up and tell me about high school theater and what the theater coaches expect.”

What Jones can control is MIT, and there she has tried, at least, to change the tone.

On MIT’s application, students are still asked about activities, but there are fewer slots to list them, and there is less emphasis on awards and prizes. This year she’s dropping the lines for students to list Advanced Placement exams so as not to signal any expectation.

One essay asks applicants to write about something they do simply for pleasure. Another asks applicants to talk about an experience where they found value in failure or disappointment.

Jones has also rewritten MIT’s guidelines to interviewers, telling them to look for a good match, not robots with resumes. She has told MIT’s admissions marketing company to stop sending material to high school sophomores.

Those things count, says Bradley Edwards, an MIT senior who has worked closely with Jones as a member of MIT’s admissions advisory committee. He recalls being turned off to other schools by their applications when he was looking at colleges.

“It’s the small things that matter, and Marilee pays attention to those small things,” he said.

Jones hopes someday to see MIT make standardized tests like the SAT optional for applicants. A growing number of colleges have stopped requiring standardized tests, though none of MIT’s reputation, and for MIT to do so would send shock waves through the field. (Jones acknowledges that persuading MIT’s faculty to go along is a long shot and is doubtful it will drop early admissions as Harvard did).

None of which is to say Jones is dumbing down MIT. Interesting but indifferent, creative but lazy, still won’t cut it. Intel Science Fair winners and other academic superstars still prowl MIT’s campus, and average SAT scores are still through the roof. Very few applicants outside the top 10 percent of their high school class get in.

But Jones, Edwards says, won’t hesitate to reject an accomplished student if she doesn’t feel the personality and MIT fit each other. She’s also set aside about 10 percent of her precious admissions slots for people with some kind of spark that the system generally does not reward.

“There are 70 students in each class (of about 1,000) who would never have been admitted in the old days,” Jones says. “They don’t have to have a million activities. They don’t have to have cured cancer. They just need to be the right match.”

24 responses to “Marilee Jones in the news”

  1. Abhinav says:

    The article is simply superb. Mrs. Jones should be lauded for the strides that she is making in the field… I am a high school senior and can totally relate to everything she has said.. and furthermore it is something that always plagues my mind as well… I’m a prospective student to MIT and several other top notch institutions and have noticed exactly what Mrs. Jones is saying… the way she focuses more on the individual with the essays rather than extracurricular activities, even my Interviewer explained the same ideas to me.

    Thanks a ton Mrs. Jones for taking the first step in this field, although I’m relatively sure the Ivy League would indeed be very reluctant to follow suit…

  2. Laura says:

    I I <3 MJ.

    And I think I’m one of the 70. wink

  3. JKim says:

    My mom actually just sent me this article.
    Marilee Jones is my hero.

  4. Ajit says:

    hi Matt,
    the same article has been published in The Telegraph(Kolkota edition-India).It was nice to see Marilee and the article is really inspirational and feel-good. thank you Marilee and thank you Matt for the post.It feel grat to apply to MIT for these wonderful & caring peolpe.
    love you MIT

  5. c21 says:

    RE: JKim’s comment
    I agree entirely about Marilee Jones being a hero. I actually sent this article to my mom (and dad).

  6. Steve says:

    Not having standardized test is going too far. It is the fairest way to gauge candidates from different schools. If someone went to a very difficult HS(Thomas Jefferson, IMSA, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, etc.) and did ok, but got excellant scores, the applicant is probably better than one that went to a school with 10 classmates, received 100’s on grades, and got a 1000 on the SAT’s.

    The admission time line is too short to sort out so many applicants in any other way.

  7. Judy says:

    I have been a fan of Merilee Jones and The Education Conservancy since I first heard her speak last year at Linclon-Sudbury High School. I am glad that peeple are finally jumping on the bandwagon and really hering the substance of her message. It isthe same message that David Elkind spoke about many years ago in his book “The Hurried Child” and which a generation of parents ignored. The result of such is obvious in the tremendous stress and burnout we are seeing in today’s kids. Hooray for Merilee!!!

  8. anonymous says:

    Marilee Jones has some great ideas, and, as a prospective applicant, I really appreciate that she feels it is important to reduce seniors’ stress. However, I like the concept of early decision/early action. Rather than creating tension, I feel it is helping me to stay on task with my applications and meet deadlines. Also, for those accepted, it provides a “security blanket”–they know early about being admitted to a particular school and don’t have to worry all year long about where they will get in. Thirdly, if one is accepted early, he/she doesn’t have to perfect/submit other applications, saving time and hundreds of dollars in application fees. It seems that few other people share my view, but I believe that the benefits of the early action/early application program outweigh the problems. Even if an applicant is not accepted early, he/she is still considered for regular admission, so there is little to lose and no apparent cause for extra stress.

  9. Megan says:

    While reducing the weight assigned to the SAT may be a reasonable thing to do, to eliminate it entirely would make it difficult to find … me! I was from the middle of nowhere, valedictorian but in a class of 50. My school was remote and offered physics once every two years. There was no such thing as a science fair. I might not have attracted much attention if I hadn’t blown the doors of the SAT or ACT. My summer job was detasseling corn (like many others); my nerdiness came out when I wired dipole antennaes off the top of our farm house. In other words, you might have an applicant from a tiny school that could easily hold their own with the best of Bronx School of Science graduates, but without some common ground, how would you know? You might take the risk on that person, but you might worry more about it too. Use the SAT as a data point of some marginal weight, and that would be about right.

  10. Paul Ackman says:

    MIT doesn’t need to
    “drop early admissions as Harvard did”
    because there’s nothing coercive about MIT’s early action program. Students who apply early have as much time as everyone else to decide where to go. They don’t have to commit early. They aren’t given preferential treatment, either. It’s good for MIT that applications don’t all arrive at the same time, good for some students who find out early.

  11. Erik Chen says:

    While students may have taken this mindset toward college admissions, remember that our attitudes as a society play a large role in creating this mindset, not simply college admission offices. For what is college, to many students and parents, other than a stepping stone towards future goals, for example, medical school, internship, and then a job as a radiologist? And in each one of these steps, isn’t the process exactly the same? Although college admissions is the first step in this chain of events, and changes in admission criterion may lessen the load somewhat for potential applications, ultimately, we must reexamine our approach to life. Why do students overload themselves with work and subject themselves to sleep deprivation? To achieve some well-paying job? Perhaps society has over-emphasized the work ethic of “study hard, get into a good college, study harder, get into a better medical school, study even harder…” The chain goes on and on with no end in sight. Have we forgotten how to enjoy our own lives in the present?

    I applaud Marilee Jones for her initiative in trying to “lower the flame” of college admissions. It is a step in the right direction. However, it is the stressed student who ultimately must change his or her lifestyle. Any student feeling overwhelmed should carefully consider his or her goals in life. Are they really worth innumerable sleepless nights and constant stress?

  12. Jack says:

    Great Article!

    As an ’84 grad of MIT, I enjoy serving as an educational counselor. I was admitted to MIT on early admission, and instead of increasing pressure on me, the early admittance helped to reduce it. I knew prior to Christmas my senior year that I would be attending MIT, and I chose not to go through the stress and expense of applying to other schools. Instead, I had a relaxing final semester of high school.

    I, like the other folks, would be opposed to removing the standardized tests from the admissions process. Berkeley removed theirs as a way to get around prohibitions on quotas. No one at Berkeley could claim reverse discrimination if there were no standards, so Berkeley removed them and used a “total person” approach that could not be challenged. We at MIT should not lower our standards to that level so as to “politically correct.”

  13. vinay rai says:

    Dear Marilee,
    as a class of ’72 alumni and an educational counsellor, i can say your article is superb and timly. in our times also admissions were difficult but now the pressures on students is far far more and not only from parents but society at large to outperform themselves. i agree we must provide applicants advise on alternate careers and choices.

  14. Scott says:

    I have been an educational counselor for MIT for the past 12 years. I love interviewing prospective MIT students, but I am also very conscious of the pressure that some of them are under – it’s palpable, and we talk about it during the interview. I appreciate Marilee’s leadership on this issue.

  15. David says:

    I agree with Megan above. I attended a very competitive high school with a strong focus on the liberal arts and foreign languages. Measured by overall GPA, I was probably in the bottom half of my class. But, I did extremely well on the standardized tests; good enough to make it into MIT.

    I have no doubt that this was the right choice. I did well at MIT; graduated over twenty years ago; and my entire professional life has been shaped by my MIT years.

  16. I am split on the ideas of Jones given here. Though perhaps her attitude may improve the mental health and increase the ‘fun’ of senior year in high school (in which I currently sit), I doubt it would in any way improve the applicants and acceptees at elite colleges, built and run by elite people. Where some may see a change for the more creative and ‘fit’ for the better of MIT’s spirit, I also see it as a glancing over those who may have the greater potential.

    Indeed, when I entered this senior year, I expected to enjoy it. “To relax,” that’s what everyone from the graduating class of 2006 told me was the point of senior year, yet I can’t remember the last time I worked so hard. College essays, APs, SATII’s in which I need practically phenomenal scores….it’s practically endless. However, though I may be spending more nights writing essays now than attending parties with friends, I do not complain. Not because I don’t enjoy parties, as i heartily do, but because I have been raised to recognize that life isn’t always a party. Some of life is grand, some of life is hell, that’s just how it is, and right now, hell is what it is. I sometimes wish I could sit back and enjoy it, but at the same time, how much am I willing to invest now to gain later?

    If there is no opportunity to go the extra mile, to write that application early, to get those extracurriculars listed, to write in those awards, how can the exceptional be properly recognized from the mediocre? In the same light, however, students without the OPPORTUNITY to make these accomplishments but still containing potential are unfortunately hidden. That, I believe, is what the interview is for, for a person to be his or herself completely and thus complete the application processes view.

    If MIT were to drop its standardized analysis tools by which it judges its applicants, it would, in my mind, be accepting those of lesser expectations than MIT represents. That is why it cannot be let to do as such.

  17. theresa says:

    it would be heinously awesome if SAT’s were optional. I’m a senior right now, and MIT is my long shot and favorite by far. However, a couple of the school’s I’m applying to don’t require SAT’s; instead they want a graded research paper. I realize that SAT’s can serve as a basis for comparison among applicants, but in some cases (ie: mine) academic writing can serve as an equally good basis. Even though there’s a writing section on the SAT, it would be judged as a rough draft, not a final piece. Not to mention a lot of people might not have scored so well on the first SAT, and if they retake it senior year, it’s VERY VERY hard to balance studying with schoolwork, extracurriculars, and applications, whereas a good research paper only has to be done once… But, ah, oh well — time to study! raspberry
    Good luck to all those taking the SAT’s in… 3 and a half weeks!!

  18. Anonymous says:

    Although I am glad Marilee Jones wants college admissions offices to change admissions so the process is less stressful for applicants, I think parents have and have always had the power to decrease stress for their children. Parents can simply say, and less simply believe, that students need to find schools that are right for them rather than schools to which society assigns prestige. Parents need also to give up the ridiculous idea that all smart and successful people attend or have attended prestigious colleges.

    I am the parent of two probably equally intelligent children. One goes to MIT and thrives there because of her personality, interests, intelligence and energy level; she achieved the extraordinary academic and extracurricular achievements necessary to get into MIT because she loved learning,creating and reaching for excellence — not because she wanted to get into a prestigious college.

    I could have pushed and stretched my second child to achieve so that she could have attended a similarly esteemed institution but decided not to despite a barrage of comments such as “She’s so smart, why doesn’t she work harder?” or “Shouldn’t she drop the volunteer work and get some leadership experience for her applications?” She just wasn’t particularly interested in academics and enjoyed spending a lot of time socializing and relaxing. I just wanted her to be happy being herself. I believe this daughter will lead a fuller and better life as she is than as something I twisted her into. Although I think Marilee is right that college applicants face an enormous amount of stress, I believe parents can choose to pull their children out of that rat race.

  19. Pat Kinney says:

    I interviewed the guy who built the nuclear reactor in his garage last year. I figured he was a shoo-in for that, but he was not admitted! The article didn’t mention that – unless of course there have been more than one nuclear reactor among MIT applicants.

  20. Christina says:

    I LOVE MARILEE JONES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I have been debating with myself as to whether I should apply or not–I know that the people that apply are extremely intelligent. I’m not a genius, but I think my passion for science can make up for that! ^.^ I have depression so it is hard for me to find motivation.. but this article just made my heart stop beating for a second there! I am so motivated, I think I’m going to go start on the application right now!! =)

  21. NCMom says:

    I sure hope you don’t see spelling like some of these posters’ on the applications these students send! Or, come to think of it, maybe I do … then my daughter’s application will really stand out.

  22. Chris R. says:

    I am so fortunate to have attended an information addmissions session in Seattle with Marilee speaking!!! She really moved me and gave me the confidence that i really do have a chance without perfect SAT scores (my biggest downfall)!! She is truely a gripping and moving speaker, i hope she reads my application!!! I love this school.

  23. PATHAKJEE says:

    Dean of Admissions should read the Chapter regarding “The New Jews – Asian Anericans “In a recently published book ” The Price of admission” by Daniel Golden- Crown Publishers . It would be interesting to see her response to a quote by her in that Chapter.