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MIT staff blogger Matt McGann '00

On schools & context by Matt McGann '00

A while back, I asked for parent questions and received exactly one, which I haven’t yet answered. It was:

“It would be good if you could talk about private vs. public high schools. Why do some schools send so many more students to MIT than others, even when a student from a nameless public school might have equal stats, more activities, and a much lower chance of having been polished by expensive college counselors? I’ve noticed that the admission process has become much more personality/character oriented, which I agree with, but why do so many of the kids at certain schools happen to have the personality that clicks with MIT?

I’m speaking as a parent of a child who goes to a high school where no one has attended MIT in many, many years. Not many apply, but when they do, even if they be great students and great kids overall, they end up rejected. I’m curious why some high schools seem to click with MIT, sending so many kids, while others simply do not.”

There are a lot of questions in there, but the first thing I need to say is that our process is individual-based. That is, we consider each applicant on their own, within the context of their environment.

What does it mean that we consider context? It means that we recognize that no two applicants are alike. High schools have different offerings. Different regions have different opportunities. Different families have different resources. The primary job of the application reader is to summarize a student’s qualifications within context.

We also must separate the student and their individual accomplishments from the packaging that surrounds them. Each day, I see many applications, some of them very professional and polished, and others very unsophisticated. Some college counselors spend hours crafting a recommendation letter for each student. Other schools are so overburdened and underfunded that counselors don’t even have a chance to meet the hundreds upon hundreds of students in their caseload. So our job is to look deeper — what’s really going on in each case?

Quite often it is the case that the student with fewer extracurricular honors, or the student with the lower scores, or the student who’s not the valedictorian is the better match for MIT. Ultimately, it is not our goal to admit the “best” students (whatever that means), but rather the students who are the best matches for MIT.

“It would be good if you could talk about private vs. public high schools.”

It’s interesting that the question is framed in terms of private versus public schools. At MIT, compared with our “peer institutions,” we have one of the lowest percentages of private school students in our student body, and a great deal of those private school students are from religious schools of various sorts. This isn’t to say that we prefer public school students, or religious school students, or discriminate against private school students. It is to say that, at least from my perspective, it seems like MIT has a pretty broad diversity of high schools attended by its students, and we admit the best matches for MIT wherever they may attend high school.

It’s also worth noting that MIT, again compared with its so-called “peer institutions,” has a high rate of low income students and first generation college students. I’m proud of that, and those statistics are bolstered by our strong emphasis on understanding context.

“… a high school where no one has attended MIT in many, many years. Not many apply, but when they do, even if they be great students and great kids overall, they end up rejected.”

Perhaps the important point here is that admission at highly selective schools is very, very difficult. At MIT, we can only admit one out of every six applicants. And, as I’ve said in the past, the large majority of our applicants are highly qualified. Talk to some of the deferred students who post here, and each time you’ll come away thinking, how could that student be deferred? The reality is, we’re in the middle of the largest ever boom of college-age students, while the number of spaces in incoming classes at these highly selective universities, for the most part, hasn’t changed. And with new communications technologies and speedy & cost-efficient transportation, it’s easier than ever for excellent students to apply to and choose a school across the country or across the world. So the number of applications is way up, and the number of qualified applications is way up, and thus admit rates are smaller than ever.

“I’m curious why some high schools seem to click with MIT, sending so many kids, while others simply do not.”

Many admissions offices primarily do their admissions with a structure by high school or region. At MIT, however, our reading & committee process is not based on high school, or city, or state, but rather is structured on the merits of the individual as evaluated by our application readers. That is to say, we won’t be comparing you during the committee process to other individuals from your school or area, but rather assessing each applicant as an individual within their entire context. We will not impose quotas on the number we’ll admit from one school; we’ll admit the best matches for MIT based on our process, regardless of the school. Sometimes we’ll admit none of the applicants from a school, and sometimes we’ll admit every applicant from a school — it’s not because of the school, but rather because of the quality of the individual applicants who happen to attend that school.

The bottom line is that the students who are the best matches for MIT come from a wide variety of contexts: rich and poor families, public and private high schools, rural and urban areas. It is our job as admissions officers to sift through that context and admit those students who are best matched with MIT.

I hope this helps a little. And now that I’ve answered Parent Question #1, I’d love to get Parent Question #2 (and 3, 4… n).

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