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MIT student blogger Michael C. '16

So what makes a successful MIT student, anyway? by Michael C. '16

It’s Career Fair season, and that means hundreds of companies are swooping down on campus with brightly-colored t-shirts, cheap plastic goodies, and oddly-formatted emails.  I’ve been reading a lot of job descriptions lately, and I’ve noticed that recruiters regularly provide “success profiles” — lists of traits and behaviors that are associated with job success.

These profiles are often full of buzzwordy corporate fluff.  But when written well (i.e. when written by actual employees and not HR), a success profile can be a valuable framework when you start a job — a compilation of past experience, something that reminds you of best practices.

This got me thinking: what would a success profile for an MIT student look like?

This is a challenging question to answer, because the variety of experiences and perspectives across MIT is staggering.  That’s the whole point of going here.  There are 22+ majors, and if you do a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation my experience as a Course 2 is characteristic of less than 5% of the possible paths you could take.

But during the past three years at MIT I’ve taken a good number of team-based project classes, and learned a lot.  I’ve worked closely with students from many different courses, and a handful from Harvard too.  This year, I’m taking the biggest project class of them all: 2.009, the senior capstone mechanical engineering class.

So while I can’t really provide a success profile for the Ideal MIT Student™, I do have a good sense of what types of people tend to make great teams.  These are the people I get super excited about to work with in 2.009 — the people I know will be big value-adds to the team.

So here goes: my stab at a success profile, heavily informed by my experience in project classes, UPOP, and at companies.  Whether you’re a freshman or not, I hope this is useful.

Have informed imagination.

There are two parts to this: (1) being technically excellent and (2) having the creativity to come up with novel solutions.

The first part isn’t too hard for most MIT students.  Your standard class does a good job of instilling the basic concepts of fluid mechanics, molecular biology, or whatever else you’re working on. I don’t know if GPA is that strong of a correlation for this – I’ve worked with people who did well on tests but not so well at applying knowledge.  Effective use of knowledge means quickly grasping which first principles are involved in a problem, and then diving deeper into the science of what you’re working with in order to better inform your design.

The second part, creativity, is harder to define.  It’s not just blue sky thinking, though that certainly is part of it.  Within the context of science/engineering, I think creativity on a daily basis is mostly about approaching problems flexibly.  Don’t bias yourself towards one solution too early on in the process.  Be open to other people’s ideas, even if you don’t initially understand them.  Consider the limitations of your perspective when approaching a problem.

Fight for excellence…

“Fighting” at first seems like an odd term, but I think it fits — because getting something right is hard.  It’s not enough just to care about excellence.  You need to care deeply about getting something right and also have the work ethic and stamina to actually get there.  This often means putting yourself in uncomfortable situations – asking hard questions, challenging ideas and assumptions, and taking ownership of problems that no one else really wants to deal with.

…down to the details.

This is not the same thing as perfectionism. Perfectionism is often a negative thing – if you get bogged down in the details, you lose sight of what’s actually right, of what actually matters for the project.  Executing the details means owning and really understanding your part, while keeping in mind how your piece impacts the whole system.  It also requires that you convey data and information about your work effectively to the people you’re working with – this is as important as the work itself.

Form trust.

No team can function well without trust. During the course of a project you inevitably will have disagreements; you’ll need to debate and challenge your teammates without damaging the relationship, and that requires trust. Trust starts with doing excellent work, but it extends beyond that. It requires communicating why you designed something the way you did.  It means making sure people understand why something is important when you make a challenging request.  It also means not being egocentric about your capabilities, and not expecting trust simply based on your resume.  Frankly, building trust is one of the hardest parts of forming a team, especially if you’re working with strangers — but it is absolutely essential.