Like many of you, I stayed up quite late watching the election returns come in. I had many election-watching options to choose from, including the Tremulant concert at TT the Bear’s Place (one of the many, many awesome live music venues within a short walk of MIT), the Kerry goings on in Copley Square, and even a party at my own house. Ultimately, though, I hopped in a Zipcar and went out to the suburbs to a party at the home of my friend Andrew.
Before I chose to come to MIT, I was nervous that it would be a place where my interests in politics and government would languish. That fear turned out to be completely unfounded. Yes, MIT is not an activist campus in the sense of protests and picket signs and riots, but it is a place where students believe in working for change in tangible and pragmatic ways. For example, check out the MIT-Washington DC Summer Internship Program, which has set friends of mine up with real, influential positions at the GAO, the Institute of Medicine, the Department of Energy, the House Science Committee, Senator Kennedy’s Office, the Senate Democratic Caucus…
Four years ago, for the 2000 election, Andrew attended Prof. Charles Stewart‘s usual election party, while I watched the big screen TV in the offices of The Tech, MIT’s student newspaper. At that time, Andrew and I had just finished our terms as Speaker and President, respectively, of the Undergraduate Association, MIT’s undergraduate student government (more on this in future entries). Andrew was also a Political Science minor at MIT, so we were able to have some interesting discussions in between the channel-flipping.
I promised that in this entry, I would try to answer my backlog of questions you’ve left me. Here goes!
Padma asks, “I was wondering if those who plan on majoring in engineering need to know some sort of computer programming before coming to MIT? What other subjects/skills do you think we should try and brush up on before we study engineering?”
You don’t need to have any computer programming skills before coming to MIT, even for computer science majors. For example, the intro computer science course at MIT, 6.001: The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, is taught in a language called Scheme, which is not taught in high schools (with the rare exceptions), so nearly every student coming into the class, even those with previous programming experience, must start from the beginning. Scheme is called a good teaching language, and the course focuses on the logic and problem solving behind programming rather than having you memorize specific commands and calls. In this way, 6.001 is much like MIT as a whole: a problem solving, analytical education.
Yes, for most departments at MIT, technology will be a frequently employed tool. Knowledge of specific technologies will never be assumed, though. Few high school students have access to courses in upper-level computer science and physics, for example, much less access to research labs with sophisticated equipment. So while it is nice when applicants have these things, we know that these accesses are tied to geography and socioeconomic status.
As for subjects and skills for engineering, first and foremost would be a love of discovery and creation. Engineers solve the world’s problems, so a desire to improve society, to make the world a better place, is also something the best engineers possess. More tangibly, I would encourage you to take advanced (AP/IB/college) math & sciences wherever possible. I also encourage you to build and create, whether it’s with the school robot team, at home with a brush and canvas, or in the garage with spare parts and a tool box.
Grommit had 5 questions, for which I have three answers:
1, 2, 4. Can track you track your paper application online? Yes! After
receiving your Part I, we will assign you an MIT ID number and provide
you with instructions on how to track your application on MyMIT. This is also the answer to your second question,
how can you find out if MIT has your test scores, and your fourth
question, where to find out your MIT ID. I hope you like the tracking system; I was on the team that designed that part of our new website.
3. Should you order a “rush” score report? No. The scores will come
to us in bulk from the College Board, and we’re in touch with them to
make sure we have all of the scores we need by the time we make our
decisions. This goes for all of you regular action applicants as well.
5. What information should you put on any extra materials? Well, you
should always put your name, and at least one (if not more) of the
following data: date of birth, social security number, MIT ID #. As I said yesterday, the records office gets a large volume of mail, so you want to make sure that your materials are clearly marked so they get to your folder as soon as possible.
Jiggity asked about the online application shrinking font size for
longer answers. Yes, we designed the application to do just that, and as
imperfect as smaller fonts may be, it’s an issue we’re willing to deal
with to get the quality information we need all on the same sheet.
So, don’t worry about it. You all should definitely preview the various parts of your online application before you submit it.
Arty asked about the “completely optional” question 13, and if he
can write about something he is in the process of creating. The
answer is yes. We want to know about your creativity, whether it’s
something you created a couple years ago or something you’re still
working on. And really, the creation process is always ongoing,
wouldn’t you say?
Andy asked about there being only one line for an SAT I score on the
application, despite the fact that we take the highest scores from
each section, even if they’re on different test dates. This is a
question I get very frequently over email. The answer is that we will
automatically take the best scores from the official College Board (or
ACT) reports, regardless of what you write on those lines in the
application. So don’t worry about the two different testing dates, or
the tests that you still have to take on a future date. We will have the official data in front of us when we make our decisions.
Mike D (from the Beastie Boys?) asked, “How does MIT weigh SAT IIs vs. SAT I?” From a technical perspective, SAT I (and ACT) and SAT IIs are weighed equally. Deeper, though, Mike D says that his real concern is that he knows “that most applications will read: 1500+, 800, 800, 790.” Yes, we get many high test scores. But we also know that after a certain point, differences in test scores mean little. We will not base our decisions on 30 points on a test or even 100. As you may have seen, Michael responded in the comments (in addition to recommending the stuffed cabbage to me, which I’ll try when I head out to Cafe St. Petersburg) with a link to the 25-75 percentile ranges for admitted students in last year’s class. Remember that a quarter of last year’s admitted class (or 416 students) had scores lower than the lower bound on each of these. Yes, scores do tend to correlate with other good things (like good grades, a passion for learning, etc.), but really it will be those other things and not the test scores that will be most important in our admissions process.
Finally, a while back, Simfish asked, “Is it important to consider Nobel laureates at a university when I apply to one?” I was talking about this a bit with another prospective student (hi Rob!) the other day. The short answer to your question is that, for the most part, I don’t think that number of Nobel Prize winners who are alumni or faculty should be an important consideration in choosing a college. At the end of my past ten or so entries I’ve listed some really amazing universities, many of which don’t have any Nobels to their name. The ones that have Nobels are no better and no worse than the ones that don’t, but I assure you that the cultures of these institutions make them the best place for some people and not a good match for others. And really, you’re trying to find the best match, not the “the best school.”
Rob and I did talk about the benefits of being in an environment with a lot of amazing people. I think it is a good thing to have role models who have achieved the pinnacles of their respective fields, and to have classmates who inspire you to do greater things. It was a bit of a revelation to me that these very famous people are no different from you or I, that they’re not superhuman but really just normal people who have achieved amazing goals. I can assure you from my own interactions with them that the following people are good, down to earth folks: Wolfgang Ketterle (my freshman physics teacher, Nobel Prize 2001), Eric Lander (my freshman biology teacher and head of the Human Genome Project), Paul Krugman (my macroeconomics teacher and New York Times columnist), and Chuck Vest (President of MIT). Having these folks as role models showed me that I, too, can achieve with the sky being the limit, and that educational lesson has been priceless for me.
Not the same few colleges: Texas A&M University. I had occasion to spend a week with the folks who run the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets, a week that was so inspirational it made me almost wish I had done ROTC. And the Dixie Chicken is the kind of place that screams Texas so well that you’ll walk out with a greater appreciation of the Lone Star State.