Please note that, as of August 2018, our process for assigning interviews has changed (though Chris’ other observations remain accurate). A description of the current interview process is posted here.
Here in Cambridge, Autumn is slowly creeping in.
You don’t notice her at first – but there are telltale signs – a hint of gold above the treetops, an orange leaf carelessly strewn along a sidewalk, the squirrels anxiously scuttering about, storing away their last hoards before the winter.
I was pleasantly surprised when I noticed that many trees have started to don a new coat of warm ochre when I was strolling down Memorial Drive. I must say, it was quite a relaxing escape from the frustratingly esoteric 7.012 test this week that no one (okay, I’m generalizing here – perhaps it’s only me) understood. That was my big :( moment of the week, but the trees and the beautiful afternoons along the river cheered me up.
It’s a standing joke in Taiwan that we only have two seasons in a year – “wet and hot” and “wet and not-so-hot.” It’s quite an experience to be in a place where the trees change color according to the seasons.
Saurav from India asks,
My interview is within 3 weeks, so I want to know how you prepared for your interview. What questions did you ask the EC? What aspects of yourself did you share with your EC? What questions stymied you?
I know probably for a lot of RA students, this is one of the most pressing questions on your mind right now, so I kinda wanna address this issue.
First off, I want to direct you (as this has been done many times before), to these two excellent blogs on the subject of interviews. I read both of those blogs when I was applying, and I thought to myself, “meh, it’s just the same-old “words of comfort” that adcoms offer to students,” and proceeds to skim the blogs without really reading them. Now that I have been through the whole application process, I re-read those blogs and was surprised by their sincerity and verisimilitude. Those blogs are really not “words of comfort” – they are advice to help you do well. If I had to pick one really good piece of advice, I would keep this list to heart.
Now that you have heard from the admission folks, I’ll give you my spin on the interviewing process.
Some background: during the application season, I (mistakenly, in hindsight) applied to 15 colleges. Out of the myriad of colleges that I applied to, I received eight interview notices. Thus, I went through eight interviews over the period of a couple of weeks (it was literally a different interview every weekend). Very soon, I gleaned some tips about college interviews, and I’m going to share some of them here. But first off, a general note about the MIT interview:
MIT didn’t design its interview to quiz you and reveal the shortcomings in your character. The interview (and this is still true across many other colleges) is quite often a way to help you know more about the school, for the school to know more about you as a person, and for you to address particular areas that you might not have had the chance to flesh out in greater detail on the application (how can you convey a lifetime passion of mountain hiking in a blank? how can you capture the brilliance of a sunrise at the summit in fifty words?). This being said, the first thing you should know about the interview is that…
0. Do It!
If you’re offered an interview, TAKE IT! You might have heard a lot about the difference in admission rates between those that accepted an interview and those that declined an interview, but that’s not the only reason why you should accept an interview. The interview is a great way for you to add another dimension to your application and also chat with an ex-MIT student about his/her experience there. There’s no way to fail (see point 7), and you don’t lose anything. Why not? Pick up the phone and call!
1. It is Not a Test.
When you finally meet up with your EC, don’t regard him or her as a foe. The MIT interview is a mutually beneficial relationship, as it both provides you with additional information about life at the Institute and it also helps the adcoms to know what you’re like in real life. Come on, you are more than just a conglomerate of standardized test scores and a 500-word essay. I know you are. Therefore, don’t walk into the interview thinking that you’re going to get an oral quiz over what you learned in high school physics – just be natural and be prepared to talk about….well, quite simply, you.
2. Be Prepared.
You shouldn’t be stressed out about the interview, but you should do some preparation work beforehand. Some good topics/questions that will help guide your thinking:
-Be able to introduce yourself and provide a brief biographical sketch (e.g. name, family, school, interests/hobbies) in one minute. (you’ll start the interview off on a good note and feel more confident)
-What activities did you do in high school? Why did you do them? (I tend to limit my response to no more than 3 activities in an interview – you want to hit your main passions, not provide a laundry list of your accomplishments. Remember, depth and quality over sheer quantity).
-What activities do you do outside of school? Why do you do them?
-Why do you want to come to MIT? What is it about MIT that attracts you? (do some general research beforehand. You don’t want to start talking about the Michigan Institute of Technology, for example)
3. Be Inquisitive.
Remember, the interview is not a one-way interrogation – it’s a two-way conversation. Ask your interviewer about what MIT was like when he/she was a student there. Why did he/she choose MIT over all of the other schools that he/she applied to? (I’ve gotten some pretty interesting responses from this) What was his/her favorite thing about MIT? (chances are, he/she will say, “there’s wayyyy too many…”) Hold off on asking your interviewer questions though, until almost the end of your interview – satisfy your interviewer’s curiosity about you first. :)
4. Be Sincere.
When you walk into your interview, don’t think that you have to be a “typical MIT applicant.” Don’t feel like you need to harp on your mathematical, scientific, and technological achievements when your interests really lie in another area. When asked about your favorite classes, you don’t have to say “physics” if it really isn’t! At the same time, if your interests DO lie in the scientific field, don’t exaggerate your passion either. If you did research in high school, don’t feel compelled to provide your EC with a 40-minute lecture on all the finer points of your research (I’ve found that a shorter 3-minute abstract works much better – unless your EC is genuinely interested in the subject.) Be sincere about your desires – remember, your EC is also human, and it’s easy to tell true enthusiasm from feigned interest – couldn’t you?
5. Be Punctual.
Schedule your interview on time (RD: before December 1st!). Show up on time. It sounds easy, but I actually missed the December 1 deadline by two weeks (I thought I wasn’t going to make it into MIT because I’ve missed the interview deadline…) – don’t let that be you. Also, I tend to show up for my interview around 15 minutes early. You can take a seat, scope out the location, and calm your nerves before your interviewer arrives. It all works out (and also saves you some of the grief of trying to locate exactly WHO your interviewer is in a crowded McDonald’s when you’re already running late).
6. Be Polite.
Be nice to your EC. They’re doing this because they love MIT, and want to help a new generation of students to get in. When you email, use proper grammar and etiquette. When you meet your interviewer in person, greet him/her and shake his/her hand firmly (if appropriate). Throughout the interview, speak in a manner that is easy to understand, and bring whatever material is appropriate (in your opinion) to help your EC understand your point (if applicable). For example, I worked on my high school yearbook for 3 years, eventually becoming editor-in-chief during my senior year. I brought a physical copy of my junior yearbook to show my interviewer some the favorite pages I made. After the interview, be sure to follow up. Email/call/write a thank you note to your interviewer – let your EC know that you appreciated their time in coming out and speaking with you. When you receive your decision (regardless of acceptance or denial), let your EC know and thank them again. I actually had dinner with my EC twice after receiving my decision – it can be a two-way relationship if you want.
7. You Can’t Fail!
You might walk out of your interview and say to yourself – “Man, that was a disastrous meeting.” Perhaps you had a bad day, perhaps your EC had a bad day – but don’t let it get to you that you “failed” your interview. There is no way to do that. You are not being graded, and your decision doesn’t hinge on the interview. Out of my eight interviews, I had a truly disastrous interview – none of what I said connected with my interviewer, and (I think) my interviewer thought I was a hopelessly conceited student. However, I still ended up getting into the college in the end (even when I thought all hope was lost). In some occasions, you might just not connect with your interviewer – and if that happens, don’t worry too much about it. Don’t give up on the application or be scared to schedule an interview because of this (see point 0).
Anyhow, some interesting tidbits from my interviews:
2. I had the MIT interview on my birthday.
3. One of the interviews was a phone interview, and I could hardly hear what the other guy was saying for an entire hour.
5. I had three interviews in McDonald’s.
7. For one of my interviews, the interviewer actually said, “If you want to do science, don’t even bother coming here. Go to MIT instead!” and proceeded to market MIT over his own college.
11. For one of my interviews, we didn’t talk about college at all. We discussed the US Foreign Policy to SE Asia instead (you might get a really quirky interviewer and this could happen).
13. The disastrous interview that I told you about on the top? The interviewer told me that I was one of the most mediocre applicants that he has seen and urged me to immediately seek out safety schools.
17. I discovered that one of my interviewers was actually part of my extended family who I’ve never met (this was AFTER the interview, not during).
19. My favorite interview question #1:
Interviewer: “What are your strengths?” (a very common interview question, by the way)
Me: “Blah blah blah…”
[immediately after my response]
Interviewer: “That’s great, but what are your weaknesses?”
23. My favorite interview question #2: “What animal best portrays your personality?”
29. My favorite interview question #3: “What kind of person do the people around you see you as, in your opinion? What kind of person do you try to be?”
31. Most random interview moment:
[at McDonald’s, at the end of the interview]
Interviewer: [points at his French Fries] “Do you know what kind of potatoes these are made from?”
Me: “Uh…Russet Potatoes?” (I’ve read about them on fast food fliers)
Interviewer: “Wow, I’m impressed!”
In short, you never know what’s going to happen. But relax, and you’ll do just fine.
If any of the EA applicants want to chime in with their own interview experiences, it’s most welcome! :)