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Our 2018-19 Application Essay Questions by Chris Peterson SM '13

July 28, 2018

We’ve gotten some questions about our essay prompts for the forthcoming cycle, so I’m posting them. I want to be clear that there’s no reason to start on them now, but some people like to begin thinking and planning ahead of time, which I respect and value (maybe the most underappreciated thing a good college applicant can do is make sure everything is done on time!).

As you may know, we have our own application, with 5 short-answer essay questions (I’ve blogged about the philosophy behind that here). Sometimes we change the prompts between cycles, but this year, we’ve kept them the same as the last few years, to wit:

  • We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it. (100 words or fewer)
  • Although you may not yet know what you want to major in, which department or program at MIT appeals to you and why? (100 words or fewer)
  • At MIT, we bring people together to better the lives of others. MIT students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world’s biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc. (200-250 words)
  • Describe the world you come from; for example, your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town. How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations? (200-250 words)
  • Tell us about the most significant challenge you’ve faced or something important that didn’t go according to plan. How did you manage the situation? (200-250 words)

I want to quote Mikey from his post announcing these prompts in the past:

People often ask me, “How do I stand out in an essay?” or something to that effect. As MIT admissions officers, our primary goal in reading these essays is to get to know you, the applicant. It’s not to be wowed, or feel like we need to read the most unique piece of writing we’ve ever seen. Over my ten years of working in admissions, I’ve probably read over 100,000 essays; after a certain point, there’s just no such thing as a truly *unique* essay. So worry less about coming up with something we’ve never read before (because we most likely have anyways), and focus more on making sure your essays authentically convey who you are (or some aspect of who you are). If I, the reader, am able to learn something new about you, then you’ve written a great response and the essay has served its purpose.

Lots of bloggers have posted about their own approach to essays (see, e.g., this post by me, this one by Krystal, this one by Chris S, and this hyper-recent one by Nisha D.). But mostly, as Mikey said, I’d advise you to be strategically nonstrategic in your own essays, and not try to get into our (or anyone else’s) headspace for your essays.

Here are a few tips, tricks, and aphorisms I’ve found useful over the years:

  • You are more interesting than anyone you can pretend to be; indeed, you are compelling and interesting enough as you are (you do not need to be more, or different, than what you are).
  • You should learn something new about yourself in every essay you write (otherwise, you’re probably not being introspective enough).
  • When trying to decide what to write about, pretend a friend you hadn’t spoken to in awhile had asked the question, not a college (you’ll get less performance anxiety and write more unselfconsciously).
  • After you draft your essay, give it to a good friend, and ask them if it sounds like you; if it doesnt, rewrite it until it does (because if your friends can’t see you in your words, how can we?).

Good luck, and happy writing!