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Q&A by Anna H. '14

Passing along some e-mails, and my responses to them.

Sometimes, I receive e-mails from prospective students. I posted a batch of them here, and I think that the time has come to do so again.

A high school senior asked:

I am applying to some schools in the US for undergraduate studies…I am extremely passionate about Physics myself and am seriously considering it as a career path. However, I don’t know whether I should select Physics or an Engineering course as my major during undergraduate studies. Would engineering provide a broader base from which I can then go into Physics or should I stick with Physics itself?

-and-

My MIT admissions interview has been waived by the admissions office, citing a lack of interviewers in my region. Will this adversely affect my chances of getting admission? Is there a way I can still have the interview?

My response:

When you get there, take classes in both departments and see which suits you better. Personally, I don’t think that engineering provides a “broad base” for physics at all. The approaches in the two fields are very different. It would probably be much easier to start with physics and go into engineering later…but again, you should see what the professionals and professors say once you get there :)

-and-

That will not adversely affect your chance of getting in; don’t worry about it.

A prospective student said:

Hi. Awesome post…Just thought I’d bring a typo to your notice. The 19th or so paragraph reads “Pulitzer Prices.”

and I replied:

Whoops. Thanks for letting me know!

My most loyal, dedicated reader (dad) gave (regularly gives) me:

A list of typos from my most recent blog post.

Thanks Dad! 

A prospective transfer applicant asked:

What kind of research opportunities does MIT provide for its undergraduate Physics students? Why did you choose to major in Physics? Why did you go to MIT? What’s bad about MIT?

I responded, after taking a moment to blink the jetlag out of my eyes and wipe the sweat off my forehead:

I’m sort of in the middle of a bunch of traveling, so my answer won’t be able to be too long, but I’ll do my best-

Research opportunities: all kinds, from beginner stuff (simple coding, electronics, experimental stuff) to more advanced theoretical work for those with the requisite coursework.
Why I chose physics: I liked my classes in physics, and the department here is absolutely fabulous. The professors are very invested in the undergraduates (which is not the norm for high-quality research institutions!) which to me is the most important thing. Also, there are great opportunities for doing research.

I’m actually not 100% sure why I went to MIT – it was kind of a gut thing. I showed up for CPW, loved it. I also had been reading the blogs for many years, and felt comfortable with the place. There are the obvious things like GREAT UNDERGRAD RESEARCH OPPORTUNITIES! and SMART PEOPLE! etc, but in the end I think it was a feeling that I would be happy here – and certainly, I’ve had a good time. That said, there have been very rough patches. The atmosphere isn’t “competitive”, exactly, and people are good about working together, but every individual is incredibly competitive with him or herself. We’re all used to being the best, I guess, so we can be very hard on ourselves. I’d say that student low self-confidence and high self-imposed pressure is the worst thing about this place. It makes for kind of a stressful environment.

A lot of people ask me about:

The TOEFL.

My response is always something like:

I know very little about the TOEFL – much better to ask an admissions officer for this one.

A high school sophomore asked:

(Paraphrased): MIT is my dream school, but people have been telling me that in order to get in you MUST take this one IB exam, and my school doesn’t offer it. My school offers very few subjects. Here’s a list of the classes I *can* take, and here’s a list of all the extracurricular activities that I’m involved with. Do I have any chance of getting in??

I replied:

Thanks for getting in touch. It sounds like you’re involved with lots of awesome activities, which is great!

If a course isn’t offered at your school, MIT will not penalize you for not having the chance to take it. That said, with something like math, you are expected to be at a certain level when you get here – MIT recommends having some Calculus.

Two things:

1) Not being able to take a specific class doesn’t prevent you from learning the material. You could, for example, self-study, or take the class at a local college.

2) MIT DOES have options for people who come in with a more limited math background – there’s a summer program for incoming students to sort of “catch up.” Some people do come in without any calculus; it’s just rare. Presumably they demonstrated, some other way, that they would be able to come in with a different background and still succeed.

The real goal of admissions: determine whether you will succeed here. Sometimes that means having a particularly high level of math experience. If you can prove to admissions that you will be able to succeed, then you have a good chance of getting in :)

Beyond that, I’m afraid I can’t be of much help. If you’re really worried, get in touch with an admissions officer.

Sometimes people ask me about:

Transfer admissions.

I always say:

No idea, I’m sorry. Ask an admissions officer.

A high school senior asked me for:

Advice on the interview.

I replied:

Think of it like any conversation with an interesting person. You want to find out about this person (and MIT!) but also want to communicate interesting things about yourself. Relax, and let it be casual. It helped me to think in advance about the kinds of questions they might ask (what my interests are, what I do for fun, etc) so that I wouldn’t have to sit there thinking for ages.

A high school senior said, as part of a longer e-mail:

I really want to study chemical engineering at MIT and have no intention of choosing any other course or attending any other university.

-and-

I know that there isn’t, and shouldn’t, be a list of ‘things to do to get into MIT.’ Though the admissions office looks at your ‘list’ of achievements and capabilities and your essays and only then do they decide to interview you. So what i’m asking is how do i put my passion down on paper and my capability in a bullet-point list? What kind of events, activities etc should i be participating that i can write down in this ‘list’ where my passion, for what i want to become, will come through?

Very alarmed, I replied:

I’m glad to hear that you’re so enthusiastic about MIT, but it’s always alarming to hear people say things like “I have no intention of attending any other university.” There are a lot of very, very good universities, that are just as good as MIT in lots of ways. Please don’t limit your interests to one school – whether you get into MIT will ultimately come down to luck, so you’re setting yourself up for a lot of unhappiness down the line if you close doors in your mind so early. Be open to, and be excited about, other possibilities!

You’re right – the admissions process is unfortunately not perfect at really getting to know somebody. And you’re right that there isn’t a list of things one ought to do in order to get in. Do note that they don’t “decide” whether to interview you – they interview all candidates that they physically can, as far as I’m aware.

So, yeah – there is no “list of things to do to get in.” No one activity is “better” than another: the best activities are the ones you truly enjoy, and aren’t just doing to “look good to MIT.” If you do things you really enjoy, then are honest on your application (talk about the activities you’ve devoted the most energy/time to, etc) then I think you can trust that that excitement and commitment will come through. The answer to “what kind of events, activities etc should I be participating in?” is “the ones you care about.” It’s really that simple. Obviously, keep it legal and safe =P but other than that – the stuff you’re already doing sounds awesome.

Way too many people* ask:

*people who haven’t read my Q&A blog posts carefully enough

Here’s my GPA, my SAT scores, my list of extracurricular activities. What are my chances of getting in?????

Depending on my mood, I may respond to this explaining that I am in no position to evaluate things like this, that I am not at all involved in the admissions process, that there is so much context that I don’t know about that I REALLY CANNOT ANSWER THIS QUESTION. Or, I might just not answer. PLEASE DON’T ASK ME THIS QUESTION. 

Sometimes, people send me:

Links to fun websites or videos, “since you’re interested in physics and other cool stuff like that” (to quote one HS senior.)

These spontaneous e-mails:

Make me happy that the world has become such a connected place. Thank you!

A high school senior asked:

In my country, high schools are fairly different – there were very few extracurricular activities. From what I see from the blogs, most accepted applicants were very active in clubs or teams during their high school years. Unfortunately, I do not have this option and I fear that it will hurt my chances somehow. Also, there are no advanced classes here, they are standard for all students…advanced classes also sound pretty important…for getting into MIT, and, again, I could not have taken them as my school does not offer them.

I replied:

Admissions evaluates an applicant within his or her context. If your school doesn’t, for example, offer AP classes, you will not be penalized for not taking AP classes. That said, the committee looks for evidence that the applicant tried hard to take classes that were challenging – you shouldn’t let yourself go through school feeling bored! Many students at schools without AP classes will take classes at a local community college, or online, for example.

A high school senior asked:

What sorts of extracurricular things did you put on your application?

I replied:

The sorts of things I had on my application were – all activities that I was heavily involved with in high school. These were activities I got involved with simply because I enjoyed them. That’s all you need to worry about: finding things you care about and enjoy! They won’t be the same as what I did because we are different people. For that reason, I avoid telling applicants what was on my application; I’m worried about instilling some idea that there’s a “right” thing to do.

A prospective student asked:

With the rigors of the physics major at MIT, do you have time left over for extracurricular activities? Does the academic rigor inhibit other opportunities, like research?

I replied:

As with any major at MIT, the work is difficult but it’s a matter of finding the right balance for you. If you pile on as many classes as it’s physically possible to take, you probably won’t have time for other activities. If you prioritize having other activities, then you would choose to only do two or three physics classes, probably. I would say that the academic rigor only inhibits other opportunities as much as you allow it to. Most physics majors I know, do research as well as a couple of other activities – so it’s definitely possible!

A high school junior asked:

I’m a high school junior who has fallen in love with MIT. After reading the admissions blogs, the Tech, and pretty much everything about the school I could find, I’ve found out that the academics and culture and basically everything are amazing and exactly what I’ve wished for in a school. But there’s one thing that’s bothering me.

I’m a writer, and have devoted most of my time into creative writing-related things. I know you’ve said before that it’s very important for scientists to be good writers, and that there’s a lot of writing involved in science, which does make me feel better, but… I’m not that great at science. Check that, I don’t think I’m very good at all. I don’t really struggle in any of my classes except math and science, and I’m having a terrible time in physics right now. I mean, I like science, and I’m okay at math when I understand it, but I’m more right-brained, and stuff that involves logical thinking and, for lack of better term, sciency stuff is difficult for me.

I’m not necessarily worried about being happy at MIT (I really love being around people who are talented in math and science and seeing all the cool stuff they do, I know MIT’s known for its really supportive culture, and I just have this really deep, unexplainable gut feeling that I would be happy there), but I’m worried about the admissions process and being asked about my interests in fields that involve math and science. My lowest grades and test scores are in those areas, and I haven’t participated in that many STEM-related extracurriculars, and I’m not sure that, if I was accepted, I would decide to major in a scientific field as opposed to writing. Do you have any advice?

I replied:

Thanks for your message! I have a few thoughts on your situation.

The first is that there’s a difference between finding science hard, and not liking it. I find science hard. I find math hard. But I like both of them, and that’s why I’m at MIT studying physics. I think that liking it is more important than being “good” at it, because liking will often lead becoming better.

That said, as I’m sure you’re aware after reading everything about MIT ever, everyone at MIT must take a certain amount of math and science. Everyone takes Intro Mechanics (8.01) and Intro Electricity & Magnetism (8.02). Everyone takes math through multivariable calculus. Everyone takes biology. Everyone takes chemistry. Freshman year, for most people, is made up of getting through those introductory classes. The reason is that the vast majority of MIT students will continue in science, and MIT believes in a strong scientific/technical background for everyone. People who really struggle in those classes have a rough freshman year.

The goal of MIT admissions is to identify who will and will not be happy and successful at MIT. My inkling is that if you have been struggling in math and science so far, and haven’t demonstrated a particular interest in math or science, then it will be difficult to get in, because the admissions office might be concerned that you won’t make it through freshman year in one piece.

That said, there’s a reason that wanting to major in a STEM field is not a requirement to attend MIT. MIT tries very hard to admit a diverse student body, and part of that is building a class out of freshmen with a wide array of interests – both inside and outside of STEM. I don’t think that knowing that creative writing is Your Thing would be a disadvantage, and that alone shouldn’t deter you from applying to MIT if you think it’s the right fit for you. MIT actually has a very good writing program, and I’m sure the department would be thrilled to get an undergraduate who wants to join their ranks.

One more thing I should tell you, though. This is something you probably haven’t come across on the blogs…I should probably write a long post about this. The fact is: the vast majority of people at MIT came to MIT because they wanted to pursue a STEM career. I know exactly zero people who showed up at MIT with the intention of majoring in literature, or French, or writing. I know a couple of people who ended up doing that, but only because their original major didn’t work out for them. One of those people was a girl in my Lit class, who was the only French major in her entire 1000-person class. She often said that she was excited to graduate and get away from this place, because she felt like people judged her for not being a STEM major…she said that when people asked her for her major, and she said French, the response was usually something like “why would you come to MIT and major in French?” I don’t know how much of this was her own insecurities and how much of it was true, but she definitely felt very lonely as one of the few pure humanities majors.

Personally, I think the humanities are awesome. I love that you want to become a writer! But you should be aware that you would be one of few others majoring in the humanities; so consider whether that would be an issue.

I guess in summary, my thought is: if you love science enough to be willing to struggle through it (like me), then MIT could be the right place for you. That said, you have to not struggle TOO much, because you don’t want to come here and accumulate Ds and Fs. In the end, the admissions committee makes a judgment on who they think would or would not be a good fit for this place. If you really love the place, I think you should apply, be honest about yourself and your interests and your skills, and let MIT admissions decide. If you don’t get in, you’ll know that maybe it wouldn’t have worked out after all – and if you do, then you’ll be a very unique MIT student :)

I hope that’s helpful – sorry if it was a little disorganized, but I’m at the airport right now and just sort of word-vomiting. Let me know if you have any other questions.

A high school junior asked: 

What do you feel like MIT admissions is looking for? What type of person? I’d like to attend, but I want to be where I will be a good match. I don’t want to go to MIT or Harvard just because they’re the top schools.

I replied:

MIT admissions is looking for someone who will be happy at this school – that means being successful academically, but also taking full advantage of all the resources available. Therefore, they will look for evidence that you really challenged yourself in high school and still succeeded. They will also look for evidence that you are involved in activities that excite you – that you dedicate time and energy to them. They will want to see that you’re the kind of person who would show up on campus and support your friends and do exciting things – not just sit in your room all day, studying. These things are purposefully vague – every admitted applicant is very different!