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Q&A by Anna H. '14

Some questions that I've received from prospectives.

I receive e-mails pretty regularly from prospective students (mostly High Schoolers), and have noticed that many of them have similar themes. So, I thought I’d post a few up here. To spare you the trouble of scrolling and scanning, here’s a table of contents:

1. Calculus and APs aren’t offered at my school. Does that eliminate my chances of being accepted to MIT?

2. What does a day in the life of a physicist look like?

3. I’m worried that by pursuing a science/engineering career, I won’t be helping people or the world, and that I’m not smart enough to pursue what I want to pursue in math/science.

4. I’m worried that I’m never going to find a school as great as MIT…I’m obsessed with it. I’m sad that I probably won’t get in, because I’m not a genius.

5. Can I have some life advice?

6. Will you edit my application essays?

A HS sophomore asked: 

“Basically MIT is 110% my dream school, I have worked so very hard the past year and a half with that goal in mind, but I seem to be at a brick wall with no way around it. From what I have read, you must have taken calculus as a prerequisite for acceptance? This isn’t possible for me, as my school does not offer any calculus classes…I also worry about not being able to take AP classes, as they are not offered at my school. I would love to take them, but it’s just not an option for me and I feel as though I wouldn’t be accepted because I didn’t have the opportunity to take the classes MIT wants me to. I take the most difficult classes it’s possible for me to take at my school (honors, accelerated, etc.) but thats no replacement for the college level classes MIT expects out of
a potential student.”

My response: 

The only *really* strict requirement for coming to MIT is proficiency in English. It sounds like you’ve got that down pat, so I don’t think you have to worry about that. That said, try to understand the goal of the admissions committee: they want to pick 1,000 kids who are going to ENJOY MIT, and that means succeeding here in every dimension: academically, socially, extracurricularly, etc. My impression is that you would have a really rough time here if you arrived without knowing Calculus. Sure, the social atmosphere may be a good fit for you (who doesn’t love nerds?) but if you’re miserable and struggling to keep up with your peers, all of whom have taken Calculus, then it’s not worth it for you. You want to go to college and be happy, even if that doesn’t mean coming to MIT (and, I cannot stress hard enough, it is POSSIBLE TO BE HAPPY WITHOUT GOING TO MIT!)

The MIT admissions site, as you probably know, says that you should try to take the most stimulating courses available to you; you mentioned that you’re taking all the honors, accelerated classes, and that’s great. MIT won’t punish you for not having certain opportunities. However, it may choose to not accept you because it feels that, due to lack of sufficient preparation, you would be unhappy here…I wouldn’t say that not having calculus “eliminates” your chance of acceptance, but I think it would increase your chance of being unhappy here even if you WERE accepted. That said…you should check in with an admissions officer to get a more official opinion!

If you’re interested in learning calculus, I would suggest doing what you can to take classes at a community college or over the summer; the MIT website (as you probably know) suggests that “if your high school doesn’t offer courses that challenge you, you may want to explore other options, such as local college extension or summer programs.”

Another High School student asked: 

In your last blog, you said that you wanted people to learn what people in STEM do in their daily lives (e.g. does a computer scientist glare at lines of code until either their work day ends or they inexplicably develop dyslexia?). In previous blogs, you’ve mentioned that you are majoring in physics and interned over the summer as a research physicist in NRAO. I read your blog “I’m sitting at work right now”, and I now find it difficult to express how epic that blog post was. I completely agree with what you said about telling people about the details of everyday life in STEM careers, and that blog was a perfect example! However, I was wondering, what does the overall schedule look like? (Not trying to be stalkerish, I swear!) You talked about what you do at your desk (immensely entertaining and fascinating stuff, definitely preferable to my summer spent burning through Calculus and Diff Eq), but not what you do when you aren’t at your desk. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that you do not spend eight hours a day sitting at a desk. So what does a day in the life of a physicist look like?

My response:  

A day in the life of an astronomer! I’ll describe mine (from the summer – this is not at all what the school year is like) then describe my supervisor’s.

Mine:
9am – show up at work, turn on computer, drink something with caffeine, read e-mails and things.
9:30-10am – actually start working.
12-12:30ish – break for lunch, which usually involves eating food at my desk while I continue to code (SO HARD TO DRAG MYSELF AWAY)
12:30-3 – more coding.
3-4 – snacktime! go upstairs to the kitchen, where there is food and lots of awesome astronomers. socialize. learn a lot, and make new friends.
4-6 – more work.
*technically* I should have left at 6. I admit I pulled days that lasted until 10 at night, or even past midnight; it was a little ridiculous. I have a habit of cranking away until something is “done” to satisfaction, which probably isn’t healthy and something I will have to deal with by the time I have obligations outside my work.

Distributed throughout the day were routine trips to my supervisor’s office to ask questions. On Fridays, we had about two hours of group meeting, which involved sharing our progress with the other group members (a few grad students, a post-doc, and my supervisor) and discussing new ideas for going forward. And THROUGHOUT the day, I was in an office with other summer students, so there was often chatter and/or throwing things at each other and/or discussing issues with code. Every week, on Tuesdays, there were TUNA talks (Mondays had MUNA talks, the occasional Wednesday had a WUNA talk…) that I always went to. Astronomers would come from all over the country (or even the world! There was one from Germany, another from the Netherlands…) to present their research. The NRAO scientists would ask a lot of questions. I’d ask questions.

My supervisor:
10:30am – show up at work.
6pm – leave work.
His schedule was pretty regular, having a family and all. During the day, he does a lot of coding, a lot of writing (grants, etc – people don’t realize HOW MUCH WRITING is involved in doing science research), a lot of discussing (he had like..eighty telecoms per day) and a lot of mentoring: his post-doc, grad students, me. He takes trips every now and then to Green Bank, the big telescope facility, to bring terabytes of data (in the form of like…gigantic data disks. it was pretty ridiculous) back to work. He also goes on a lot of business trips, to China and Australia and other astronomy centers.

Let me know if you want more details on any of that :) I guess a point I want to stress is that there is a lot of COMMUNICATING involved in science – talking to people about your work, talking to people about THEIR work, writing proposals, chatting casually and making connections, etc. You won’t last long if all you can do is code.

A High School sophomore asked for advice on some dilemmas:

1.) I’ve been told by countless people that I’ll be wasting my writing talent if I pursue a science-related career, and I’m also scared of this myself.
2.) I am also interested in many other science-related fields, and I’m terrified I’m making the wrong choice/will regret wanting to pursue Electrical Engineering/Computer Science and AI.
3.) I’m afraid that by pursuing a science/engineering career, I won’t be helping people or the world.
4.) I’m afraid that I’m not smart enough to pursue what I wan to pursue. I’m a smart kid, but I’m way more English-oriented than Math/Science oriented.

My response:

1) False. Writing is an absolutely essential skill in science. My advisor from the summer spends a huge amount of his time writing: grants, papers, articles, etc. I personally believe that if scientists were better communicators (read: writers) then the gap between science and the public would be much narrower. There’s a big need for effective, articulate communicators in science! In a way, one could argue that you would be wasting your writing talent if you pursued a career that wasn’t aligned with your real interests.
2) The nice thing about EECS is that you can go into a lot of fields from there. Every science nowadays requires programming – the more you know, the easier life is for you. I personally wish I knew more. Once you get to college, you will be able to sample classes in a variety of subjects, and that will help inform your decision. One of my friends, for example, is a computer scientist/computer science major…but he randomly found an interest in biology and is doing bioinformatics.
3) I think that science/engineering is one of the most effective ways to help the world! By studying the brain, we help cure neurological disorders, by studying the body we help cure diseases, by designing machines and robots we make contributions to medicine and technology that can have a very significant influence on peoples’ day-to-day lives. Electricity, computers, x-ray scanners, MRI…I’m not sure whether the people who invented those did so explicitly to help people.
4) I have the same fear. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe it, though…and if you choose not to believe it then I think you’re more likely to work your butt off and achieve things you never imagined you would be able to. These subjects are really hard…I struggle. But I constantly amaze myself at how I manage to pull it off anyway.

A concerned sophomore said:

An especially big fear of mine is that I’m never going to be able to find a school as great as MIT. It’s pretty safe to say that I’m obsessed with MIT. From what I read about it in student blog posts, it sounds like the most amazing place to be in the world! I feel as though no other school will be able to give me as great of a hands-on research experience that MIT has the potential to. It’s incredibly sad that I most likely won’t be getting in. I’m not a prodigy, virtuoso, or certified genius. I’m just a normal girl, and unfortunately, normal doesn’t seem to cut it at MIT.

I said:

You shouldn’t worry about finding a school that is “great”. You should worry about finding a school that is “great for [sophomore’s name].” I would argue that those are distinct – a school that’s great for one person would not necessarily be great for another person. The most important thing is that you go to a school where you will succeed, not that you go to a school that’s, say, in the top 5 on the US News Report rankings.

A school’s ranking has no meaning whatsoever if you go there and struggle. I know people who went to MIT undergrad, didn’t do well, and are now struggling to find a job / get into graduate school. On the other hand, a school with not-a-very-high-ranking can be great if it means you excel; I know plenty of people at small schools who have gotten into awesome grad schools. My impression is that people overestimate the importance of the “prestige” of your school.

Plenty of schools have research opportunities for their undergraduates. At every school, it comes down to whether or not YOU go out of your way to find or make such an experience. That’s something to ask when you visit schools, go on tours, talk to departments, etc. I would suggest making a point to talk to professors within departments before you apply / accept your place at a school; they’ll be impressed that you were so ahead of the game!

You don’t have to be a prodigy or virtuoso or certified genius to get into MIT. I’m not. I’ve never won a math competition, I wasn’t a National Merit finalist, or anything like that. I want to point out, though, that you’re “very interested in how the human brain works, and how we can apply that knowledge in the development of advanced AI systems and robots” – do you think that most people in the world would find that “normal”? :)

The occasional person says:

I would like some life advice from you.

And I always say:

Could you be a little more specific about what kind of advice you would like?

The occasional person asks:

Could you edit my application essays?

And I always say:

The short answer: no.

The long answer: you want somebody who knows you well to read your essays, so that you can ask them questions like “does this essay do justice to me? Does it accurately reflect me? Does it convey everything important there is to know about me and my interests?” Those are questions I can’t answer, so I don’t think I would be helpful.