Like most MIT students, I was aware when I applied that I was a highly competitive applicant. I had taken several AP classes, I had a perfect GPA, my interviewer loved me, I had founded a few clubs, and my test scores were stellar. However, also like most MIT students, I was still very anxious about the application process.
JUST KIDDING! Absolutely everything I just said is a horrible lie. Here’s the truth:
I have never taken an AP test in my life. My GPA wasn’t perfect (still isn’t). I was convinced I failed my interview, I once almost cofounded half of a club, my math SAT was 40 points below MIT’s lower 25th percentile, and I wasn’t very anxious about applying because I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was getting rejected. That’s the truth.
Last September, I was embarrassingly naive about college admissions. I had only a few ideas about colleges and had drafted a handful of generic essays, but really didn’t have a good sense of how competitive of an applicant I was or what sort of schools I should target. I did know that time was running out, and that I needed to get serious about applications very, very soon, so I hopped on the internet and dived into research.
It didn’t take long to come across College Confidential. At first, it seemed like a rare gem – a unique online community of peers sharing the same stresses and anxieties. College Confidential had the answers to all of my questions – about how I should approach applying, about which colleges would be a good fit for me, and about which colleges I had a chance at getting into.
It’s too bad all of those answers were wrong.
What I learned from College Confidential was that admissions was a competition, in which the applicants strove to cast themselves in as positive a light as possible, highlighting their achievements, emphasizing their strengths, and inventing some sort of “hook.” I learned that MIT and Caltech were far too nerdy for me, since the ultra-geek culture did nothing but study and mire in awkwardness. And I learned that a person of my background with my “stats” had literally an absolute zero chance of getting admitted, that these top-tier universities were way out of my league, and that they only admitted students who had been published in Science, won international math Olympiads, and were already independently wealthy from Google’s acquisition of their start-up.
OK, that wasn’t completely true; some students only had two of the three.
But, for some irrational reason that I didn’t really understand at the time, I applied. I told myself that it was “practice” for the “real” applications to “real” colleges that really mattered, but I don’t think I really believed that. Starting in August, I studied prompts and scoured websites. September saw me working on essays full-time, procrastinating on research papers so that I could work on apps in class. By October, I was spending more time on MIT and Caltech than I was on schoolwork – I wrote and rewrote, edited and revised, tooled and retooled until my essays flowed like mercury. And then I did it all over again, because my topics were boring. I worked feverishly right up to the deadline date – and submitted, confident in my preparation for the applications that really mattered.
But something very, very odd had begun to happen. I got attached to MIT. Emotionally. Romantically. Thoughts crept in that I hadn’t considered before – might – might – I actually have a chance? No, of course not. That’s just your ego trying desperately to feel optimistic. I banished the idea from my head, but I couldn’t get it out of my heart. I obsessively devoured the admissions blogs, staying up late into the night chuckling over adventures, catastrophes, and legendary hacks. I procrastinated some more on research papers (I did that a lot), refreshing the admissions site or reading bloggers’ profiles as if they were superheroes (we aren’t). I began to daydream of getting admitted, then to actually dream of getting admitted. Like a cheesy chick flick, I fell accidentally in love with something insanely out of reach that I tried in vain to remain detached from.
It wasn’t that I felt like my “stats” had improved. It wasn’t about numbers at all. It was about culture. I felt like MIT was literally built with me in mind – that every facet of what I had previously assumed to be an irreconcilably diverse personality would fit perfectly into place in an energetic environment of similar minds. The more I read, the clearer this became. I certainly couldn’t allow myself to get my hopes up, or my poor psyche would be irreparably crushed when I was rejected, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that MIT was where I was meant to be. Where I’d thrive. Where I belonged.
December 14th was the day. The Ultimate Day On Which I Learn Of My Rejection. I was scheduled to work that morning. I’m pretty sure I did a horrible job. My mind was about 7,125 kilometers away, as evidenced by the fact that I had calculated that number. I waited. It was excruciating. At precisely 11:14 AM, I slipped away from my hosting duties and ducked into the employee bathroom. I fumbled my phone out of my pocket. I refreshed decisions.mit.edu.
The page stuttered.
And spat out some text.
Wait, what? That’s not what it says. It says something like “It is my pleasure to offer you…”
Oh. OOH. OOOH WOW IT ACTUALLY HAPPENED.
I quickly texted the entire planet, went back to work, and continued to do an even worse job. It slowly sunk in: it wasn’t a joke. Even now I’m not quite used to it: I’ll be walking by Killian and be spontaneously hit by “Holy [cow]. I got into MIT.” But what I think about most is the fact that I almost didn’t apply. This scares me more than I can express – the precarious chain of events that happened to lead me to convincing myself to apply is sobering at best, horrifying at worst.
You see, the admissions officers truly are not lying. We’ve been raised in a world in which ‘institutions’ or governing bodies have a conspiratory stigma about them, in which one must “game the system” to achieve even the ordinary. This isn’t true here. The admissions office is run by real people (I’ve seen them! I have proof!). And when they tell you things like this or this or this, please listen to them. They’re really being sincere. “Being yourself” is not a trap, because it’s yourself who is admitted – not your scores.
And, finally, please please PLEASE don’t pay attention to the chatter on College Confidential. Although (arguably) communities are generally good, application anxiety turns the forums into an Imposter Syndrome Magnifying Glass, healthy for nobody’s psyche. If, as an applicant, you think that MIT is “out of your league” because you looked at a dozen numbers from somebody else’s life, consider this: I posted 4 (four!) Chance threads. Here are some of my responses:
- “MIT: High reach”
- “I think MIT will be a very high reach”
- “I think your best shot would be CMU… I think it’s something a [little] more manageable”
- “The generic super reach for HYPM”
- “EC’s aren’t that good imo, to spread out kind of random imo”
- “MIT: High Reach with a 710 Math score. Aim for a 760-800”
- “For MIT and Brown, try to bump up your SAT to at least 2200.”
- “you aren’t smart enough for any mwahaha”
Pursue your passions. Unfortunately, the raw statistics are daunting – that’s the cruelty of finite facilities – but true passions are never “generic super reaches.” If MIT is one of those passions, not because it sounds cool or looks fancy, but because it’s MIT, then apply as yourself, not as who some random username thinks you need to be. The internet wants to reduce you into a pile of numbers and acronyms so that it can dismiss your entire life with an admission rate.
Don’t let that happen.